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.

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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.

 

Factory Fetishism

The de Young museum has its Cult of the Machine show on. Machines: futurists loved them; Constructivists praised them; Precisionists fetishized them, or, at least, some of them did. Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth sure did love ’em. The show gives them their due and they deserve it. Scheeler, in particular, reveres the majesty and mystery of machines, industry, power as an alchemist’s brew of transformation. It even transforms humans right out of the picture.  His and most of these guys pictures are of industrial might, not as menacing but majestic, sublime, beyond our capacity to fully appreciated even if we created it.

But the show has an underbelly. They’re the works that fascinated me for having some sense, as some do now, of what lurks beneath the utopian dreams, the ones heard now of a world of communication, connection and Friends(hips).

They saw things a little differently.

ault

Void of humans but abristle with energy and motion, there is an ambiguity at work. Seen from on high, the New York city waterfront runs like a ribbon through a tissue of industry, but one that sends up signals of smoke and steam whose meaning is unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity is what convinced Georgia O’Keefe to move to New Mexico.

And then there’s this:

o'keefe

In this work by George Ault, factory and ship smoke, white and black, obliterates whatever lies beyond it.  And the far shore is entirely grey with waterfront wharves and buildings that seem to emerge from or plunge into the water. Up close it is as if the water swallows the buildings; man has not fully emerged from his watery beginnings.

o'keefe 2

Here, O’Keefe captures two great, black monoliths and a white one beyond, all dwarfing the silvery moon that sneaks out between them all. Boldly bleak, capturing the canyon like enormity of New York, it also lacks warmth or comfort, a far cry from the desert world of flowers she later turned to.

ault 3

Ault didn’t see the rural American of the ’30 as much better. Black, devoid of any enlivening detail, absent humans, a warped and pointless fence, the shapes and geometry that give the city its dynamism appear here more as a sepluchral loss than a rustic retreat.

IMGnham and Twinkie thibaut_073Cunni0

With a little hint of mischief the show also includes this shot of Imogene Cunningham and the model Twinkie where Cunningham appears as if she might be coming upon Susanna before the elders find her. Her camera seems to be the main link to the other works and the humor of the shot is largely absent elsewhere, save for the inevitable clip of Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears and cogs of an assembly line from Modern Times.

And for a finale,

c carter

Charles Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, faceless and alone before the altar, or machinery (of the church?), with pews that look like aircraft hangars and two gear works on either side that could be totems from another era. Who gets to marry the machine? Who is left behind? Can anyone survive the marriage of heaven and hell, or man and machine–questions we seem to ask in one form or another every day.

Sublime Seas

John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.