Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is a challenge and clearly intends to be just that. His films always contain “extraneous” elements that no Hollywood producer would want: shots of protests, MLK orating, violence in the streets, etc.–all in relation to a story based on The Treasure of Sierra Madre but shifted from white guys seeking gold in Mexico to black guys seeking gold in Vietnam. And the remains of their hero/leader, a too good to be true soldier who was killed in an ill-conceived mission. The Bloods return after all these years to a Vietnam that at first looks like an extension of any other tourist destination but quickly becomes the foil needed to bring out the damage these men have suffered for decades: PTSD in a single word. Especially Paul who remains in a jittery rage, ready to attack anyone, including his son, if they cross him and he is easily crossed.

Paul is the central character and not an appealing one. Lee tests us to like a guy so badly messed up. By the military that used black troops as cannon fodder, by buddies who can’t quite connect with each other, by Vietnamese who harbor hatreds of their own. The last point, like much in the film, stretches credibility. By most accounts modern-day Vietnamese have moved beyond the American War of some 45 years ago. Young men then would be in their sixties now. Young men now would not have been born until 20-30 years after the war, so why do two different young Vietnamese men say people like Paul killed their mother and father? Lee wants the rage to burst out everywhere but turns the Vietnamese into stereotypical bad guys, or the one “loyal” good guy, or the women who were whores and now prosper, etc. It’s a Frenchman who is the most conniving although a band of greedy thugs who covet the gold come a close second. At least they don’t promise one thing and then do another.

My comments are a bit of a jumble because the film is too and although I admired its power and the simmering turmoil inside the men, the film just doesn’t gel. It uses another culture, or distorts another culture, to bring out the issues and defects Lee wants to display in these damaged men, which range from wisdom and altruism, despite their sufferings, to the murderous, mad rage of Paul. He also stretches out the ending by some 15 minutes after it is clear how things end up by tacking on scene after scene as if one more scene will really nail the thematic nail on the head. They just add clutter.

I’m glad I saw it but wish we had a film on that war that gave a more balanced, more insightful portrait of what it was like for the America that resisted it, the soldiers who fought it, and the people whose country endured it.

San Francisco on Foot

During the time of the plague–the virus mainly, more than the orange man in that white house–I have been taking long hikes in the city, first in Golden Gate Park, discovering nooks and crannies off the beaten path and now, along the bay side and the shore, south of the new Warrior stadium. Under siege now by the developer caste, and their paint-by-number, utterly hideous box buildings, mostly 2 or 3 story apartment complexes that could be anywhere, are always somewhere in the gray spectrum, and have absolutely nothing to do with the style or tone that distinguished this once unique city, it remains, so far, a largely neglected, semi-industrial zone. The photos catch parts of it, beginning, though with the UCSF medical complex which is a massive hospital/research array of buildings that have almost zero street level identity and  hence feel barren even though some of the buildings are above average in their architectural distinction. South of there the waterfront is still mostly industrial and those two areas are where the photos come from so, if each is worth a 1000 words, it’s time to move to pictures.

balls

4 balls, highly reflective, outside the Chase Center

Pier 70 STeel w fence

See all the unbroken windows

Cemex 2

Not cement

Heron Head ruin

The jetty and the pier

More to come

Road Runner, TV series, and The Odyssey

A character in Money Heist reminded me of Wile. E. Coyote who comes up with ingenious plans to capture the Road Runner, only to see them fail every time. He never learns and the characters never change. They just go through different challenges with the same results, akin to one definition of crazy. But, in this case, funny.
So: Aren’t many TV series, even some of the best like that? The basic qualities of the key characters are established early on and then they face challenge after challenge only to find a way to overcome them. Character development or change is rare since the appeal of the challenges is seeing how their fixed personality gets them through the problem: Saul Goodman’s resourceful efforts in Better Call Saul to work the legal system to benefit less than law-abiding citizens, Marty and Wendy Byrde’s incredible ability in Ozark to use their wits to outsmart gangsters and cartels, scheming locals and crooked politicians no matter how dire the circumstances? Money Heist explores a single robbery attempt over two seasons as challenge after challenge confronts the impressively resourceful robbers, who also have a political axe to grind with late capitalism!
And in others like The Bridge or Shetland or A Place to Call Home, the challenges may impede a murder investigation or test the mettle of an entire family, but the characters alter little while the challenges proliferate like a field of wildflowers.
But doesn’t this idea of fixed characters confronting severe challenges that they typically overcome with skill and wit not go back at least to The Odyssey? Do TV series owe an enormous debt not only to Chuck Jones and his amazing cartoons but also to Homer and his classic tale of an almost interminable quest to achieve a long-desired goal despite nearly insurmountable obstacles? Except in some TV series the hero’s journey doesn’t bring them home so much as the kind of predicament that invites another season. Stay tuned.

TV series: Herrens veje

Among my favorite long form TV series (Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Legacy, A Place to Call Home, Last Tango in Halifax, etc) is Borgen, a Danish show about a female Prime Minister and her struggles over several years and against multiple adversaries.

Now I’d add Herrens Veje, as Netflix bills it, though it also goes by Ride Upon the Storm.
This is also by Adam Price, the creator of Borgen.

It is about a family with Lutheran priests in it for the last 250 years. The current patriarch and his two troubled sons form the crux of the show, with vital peripheral characters thrown in.
When I’ve been asked over the years to name films that deal with religious themes intelligently I find the list petering out after several Bergman titles and some of Scorsese. Now there is this series. Some will find anything that tackles faith, doubt, sin, betrayal, redemption, guilt, spiritual visions, and family drama over the top no matter what. Better to deal with bad guys and fallible cops. But Price tackles these themes with an honesty and detachment that does not invite us to believe in anything beyond our own power to be engaged by complex, soul-wrenching situations. There are no apologies and those who speak for the church, the Danish National Church in this case, are just as flawed as those whose doubts run deep.
It’s all in the particulars and this show has them in spades.

The use of close ups is particularly compelling. These are all faces that seem to suppress as much emotion as they express. The characters are tightly wound with desires, fears, guilts and longings and only a fraction of it gets openly expressed. It gives the scenes an enormous sense of tension and the whole series a great deal of suspense, even though there is no ticking time bomb or a serial killer on the loose or any of the other usual suspects.

I’m finding it a more thought provoking show than just about anything I’ve seen in the last few years. I hope you do too, or, if not, I hope you’ll let me know why not.

Document or Art?

A friend is making an art project by shooting each flight of stairs in a five story building. There is a quiet, haunting quality to the work that struck me as quite impressive. It made me wonder if this casual, random shot I took of a new stairway railing to document its existence might qualify as art?

Does intention matter? Might something done for one reason fulfill another? Did Mr. Campbell think his soup cans would wind up in museums?

Heady questions and perhaps unanswerable, but there’s something worth pondering in all this.  Anyway, here’s the photo I took; what do you think?

stair railing

Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.

Anniversaries

Everyone has a birthday every year but we save anniversaries for yet more special occasions, from long-term survival in marriages and jobs, to the continued existence of vital institutions, documents and countries.
And even Film Departments.
In this case, the Film Department, now, of course, the Film and Media Department, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in the late ’60s by the noted Canadian scholar Peter Harcourt, it was quickly off and running, hosting distinguished faculty, turning out grads who went on to considerable success, and becoming a fixture in the staid landscape of a venerable but quite traditional university.
Now fifty years later, it’s time for an anniversary and I have a chance to attend and make a small contribution. I haven’t been back but once since spending the first thirteen years of my career there and I am looking forward to offering a report on what the intervening time has wrought.
It seems, at the very least, that the Department has managed to age gracefully and to mature into a major player on the national stage.

Wayne Thiebaud: Master of Cupcakes and More

Both SFMOMA, with an expansive show of work curated by Thiebaud and of his own work, and the Oakland Museum of Art, with a single painting among their excellent collection of work by California artists, remind us that Thiebaud did more than paint desserts. [The next post is on Ray and Charles Eames and their work, also written today.]

He also did portraits and landscapes.

The landscapes remind of Diebenkorn, another Bay Area artist who focused on flat depictions of landscape and sometimes people. Neither artist had much use of Renaissance perspective; they preferred to stress the flat surface on which the work appeared as the sum total of its depth, even if hints of a greater depth also appeared. Reminiscent of some of Magritte’s work, where, for example a painting of the cone-shaped turret of a tower mirrors the receding image of a road, except it is on an easel within the painting and the road is “really” outside the artist’s studio in the world. (I can’t recall the title so send a note if you know it!)

 

At SFMOMA this work is in the show:

At the OAM this work appears:

Both works feature black strips of road that seem to rise from top to bottom without receding into the distance, like Magritte’s tower. The same effect plays out with walls and rooftops. Thiebaud, like Diebenkorn, reminds us the true (flat) nature of the painting even as he also teases with hints of a representation of a recognizable landscape. Now you see it (a patchwork of color assigned to a canvas) and now you don’t (an illusory piece of world pasted on a canvas sheet).

These works are just a good reminder of how artists play with the medium and the form to give us the many pleasures we enjoy.

Ray and Charles Eames in Oakland

A Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Museum of Art isn’t quite like going to one of the big tourist destination museums in the Bay Area but it should be.

There is a current exhibition devoted to Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who invented Chairs,designed houses, invented splints and stretchers (in WWII), and made films. They have never left the never left the design landscape given how massive their influence has been.

Is it art or is it a splint for an injured leg?

The object on the left, of shaped plywood, was manufactured in the 1000s for the military during WWII. the object on the right is a spin off, a free form figure by Charles based on the splint.

In a Q&A posted on walls of the exhibit, Eames gives one sentence answers to a series of essay questions. Some take up the question of the splint:

Art and usefulness: more than meets the eye

to fulfill a purpose may be to create art

Isn’t a purpose of art, a form of its usefulness, pleasure?

The Eameses, designers by their own admission, remind us that they, like Picasso or Rembrandt, are useful and purposeful but in a more subtle way than an industrial, use-value oriented culture might appreciate. Art and great design affords pleasure. Pleasure is not only useful but essential. It is one of the two great “principles” described by Freud but we don’t need Sigmund to tell us what life without pleasure would be like. That is a purpose fulfilled by great design and great art alike.  Design may also solve industrial problems, problems of commodity production and consumption, but at best, as here, it does more than that.

Consider the Eames chair:

A pricey item today, and a true classic, but also–is it not?–a source of pleasure. It fulfills the need for pleasure by the grace and beauty of its design even as it supports the human body in a seated position. (I confess: I have one. But only one.)

The exhibit includes several of the Eames’s films as well, including the famous Powers of Ten and  Think. They built their films as ensembles, bits and pieces hanging together by the thread of an idea and the form retains its power and beauty to this day.

The exhibit is on for a few more months.