Saturday, November 15, 2008

James Bond review: Quantum of Solace (2008)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Daniel Craig is still not James Bond. Uh-oh.

BOND, JAMES BOND: As I’d expected, the filmmakers do show Bond picking up some of the character traits that define him as Bond – they’re sticking with the Bond and How He Got That Way idea. It’s nice to see him obsessing over his newly-discovered favorite drink, for example, and insisting on staying in the nicest hotel in La Paz.

But they’ve elected to present Bond as still something of a work in progress here. No surprise, since this movie picks up right where the last one left off: the character hasn’t had more than about ten minutes to grow. But it means that yet again we’re stuck watching a Bond film about a guy who’s only intermittently Bondian. That could be almost forgiven for one film; two and we begin to suspect the producers simply don’t like James Bond anymore.

Craig hasn’t grown on me. He still makes suits look good, but he still looks too tough-guy for the role. And we begin to suspect, in this film, that the reason this Bond gets so little action is because Craig has so little sexual magnetism. His one sack scene here (see below) is quite forced. Rupert Everett once said he wanted to be the first gay James Bond; I’d be fine with that. But a sexless one?

On the other hand, Craig’s good at the darkness and seriousness this script demands of him. It requires that he play the bereaved lover on a tear of vengeance – recall Sean Connery doing this in the beginning of Diamonds Are Forever. But there it was a five-minute montage meant to transition into the new story, and when it was done Bond regained his old poise, not to mention his libido. Here Craig’s asked to keep up the brooding for the whole film. And it gets a bit old.

The main problem is that Quantum of Solace really wants to be The Bourne Supremacy. Now, I rather enjoyed The Bourne Supremacy, but in a way it was the antithesis of Bond. For the Bond franchise to want to be the Bourne franchise is for the Bond franchise to forget why people fell in love with Bond in the first place. We want Bond to be poised, not clenched; sardonic, not grim. Quantum’s Bond is Jason Bourne with a better wardrobe.

In fact, we’re back in License to Kill territory here. Bond seeks revenge; Bond goes rogue; Bond gets far too serious for anybody’s good.

VILLAIN AND VILLAINY: Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene. He works for a group called Quantum, about which little has yet been revealed, although they essentially seem to be an updating of SPECTRE. A welcome development, but like everything else here they’re pretty colorless. Greene’s plot is basically to corner the market on water in Bolivia. We’re in Syriana territory here, striving for a realistic take on contemporary geo-ecopolitics. Might have even worked, except…it’s in Bolivia.

Amalric is serviceable, although the script doesn’t give him much of a character to play – just another generic Eurotrash villain. A little too handsome and breezy, but no menace. And he doesn’t have any memorable henchmen.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Two Bond girls here. Our Girl in Bolivia, Fields (supposedly her first name is Strawberry, which is cool, except it never happens in the actual film), has antecedents in Tomorrow Never Dies and The Man with the Golden Gun: MI6 agent sent to control Bond, ends up succumbing to his charms. Gemma Atherton is attractive, wicked cute in that flasher coat, and Bond dutifully beds her. Dutifully is the word: clearly he’s seducing her so she’ll go along with his plans. Fair enough: but he doesn't seem to enjoy it.

The other Bond girl here is Olga Kurylenko as Camille. Kurylenko is sexy enough, but she’s underutilized, so to speak. We could have used a bit of Prince’s Camille here, but instead we get a Bond girl who’s just as focused on her revenge as Bond is on his. Result: they’re basically just fellow-travelers. No sparks, no moves put on anybody by anybody – not even after the deeds are all done. Doesn’t have to be that way: Tilly Masterson, anyone? But it is.

Another dismal outing in the Bond babe department.

AND VIOLENCE: The action sequences were the best part of Casino Royale. They’re the worst part of Quantum of Solace. They’re overedited. Too much shaky handheld camera work taking too many tight shots which are sliced up into too many one-second cuts. You simply can’t figure out what the hell’s going on most of the time.

Again, this technique has its place, and that place, recently, has been in the Bourne films. It works there because it serves the theme: that spy work is ugly, chaotic, and dangerous. If we can’t quite follow what’s going on, that’s okay: the characters can’t, either. That’s the kind of world it is.

That’s never been the way of it with Bond. And lest we conclude I’m just too much of a conservative to accept any innovation, let me say that I could go for a Bond that elected to show a realistic view of espionage. But the action sequences in this film, if you watch closely, involve a very Bondian level of design: just as many elaborate jumps and falls and dodges as ever, over just as wide an array of improbable obstacles as ever. If the goal was to give us down-and-dirty fights, nobody let the stunt designers in on it. But if the goal was to give us classic Bond action, the editors destroyed it in the cutting room.

BOYS WITH TOYS: No Q. No gadgets at all. Nifty computers don’t count anymore, now do they?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Austria, yes. Bolivia…


ETC.: How in the holy name of Shirley Bassey did they manage to make Alicia Keys sound unsexy? …The title sequence, however, is once again brilliant, with a stoner seventies Hipgnosis vibe. Like, cool, man. …Who’s idea was it to announce each new location with a different jokey typeface? It’s like me in 1994 playing with fonts in WordPerfect… I’ve been pretty harsh on Quantum, I know, but let me say there are things I like. Chief among them is the whole Austria sequence. This is what Bond should be: it’s stylish and tense, with Bond in control, just the right amount of violence, and it’s all presented in an innovative way, against a performance of Tosca. The camera work here is brilliant, bordering on abstract in places – it transcends the genre, in a good way. …All told, though, I miss Q. I miss Moneypenny. And I miss Bond, dammit.


James Bond review: Casino Royale (2006)

(I'm not going to be posting my Bond reviews in any kind of order.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Daniel Craig is not James Bond. Yet.

BOND, JAMES BOND: After four straight installments in which Bond was, as in the 1960s, the Aston-Martin of action films, the martini of spy flicks, we’re back to the 1970s, when 007 was imitating rather than imitated. This is a nod to Batman Begins, “rebooting” the franchise by telling the character’s origin story, with a younger actor who will hopefully bring in the kids. It’s a nice idea in theory, but it means that Daniel Craig spends most of the film actively not being Bondian—it’s only in the last scene, when he shoots Mr. White in the leg and the Monty Norman theme finally kicks in, that we’re meant to think, that guy’s James Bond!

So we have the odd experience of having to wait through two hours of a Bond film for Bond to finally make his appearance. As I say, it’s not a bad idea in theory—by all means, give us his back story, give us personal details, give us a human Bond—but give us Bond. This movie works (mostly) as a movie, but fails (mostly) as an iteration of the Myth of James Bond. And that’s what you go to see a Bond movie for, isn’t it?

No doubt it’s unfair to complain that Daniel Craig isn’t a very good Bond—he’s not supposed to be. This film is full of nods to the classic Bond persona—the way he discovers how he likes his martinis, for example, or how to dress for dinner—so it’s a cinch that the next film will try to give us more Bond as we know and love him. And that’ll be the appropriate time to judge whether or not Craig stands up. But hell, I’ll complain anyway: he’s not Bond. More to the point, I didn’t see much in this film to convince me that Craig can be Bond. I’ll admit, I was one of those who thought he was miscast from the start. I was rooting for Clive Owen, if they absolutely weren’t going to keep Brosnan. Nevertheless, I tried to go into this with an open mind, and I still came out of it feeling he was miscast. Craig is a fine actor, maybe the best to play Bond, but he’s simply wrong for the part. He’s gritty where Bond should be clean, awkward where Bond should be suave, blonde where Bond should be black-haired. He’s musclebound. As Bond he spends too much time in this film in chinos, not enough in tuxedos. And he plays poker. And he leaves the girl before he’s had her (see below).

He’s just what the producers were looking for, evidently; evidently they don’t understand Bond anymore.

VILLAIN AND VILLAINY: Le Chiffre is the main opponent, but we don’t really find this out until halfway through, and even then, we’re constantly being reminded that he’s just a middleman. It’s only at the end that we start to come into contact with some of the shadowy people who are the real bad guys. This is a big departure for the series, showing Bond engaging in some more or less plausible espionage - garden-variety terrorists, not Napoleonic madmen. This is what I always thought I wanted in a Bond—but now that we have it I’m not so sure that I like it. It’s probably a nod to the Bourne movies, but those work because their spies are supposed to be faceless characters in a faceless world. Real-life espionage is the work of bureaucrats, even the shooting. That aesthetic doesn’t transplant well into the Bond universe. This film doesn't work nearly as hard as the Bournes do to make the spywork believable—we’re still clearly in the realm of spy fantasy—and so maybe we need larger-than-life villains, after all.

All of which is by way of saying that le Chiffre is fun, but he doesn’t cast a particularly long shadow. No memorable evil henchmen, either. As unBondian as Bond is here, he’s still more colorful than le Chiffre, and that throws the myth out of whack. Bond needs a worthy opponent.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Only two Bond girls here, Caterina Murino as Solange and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. Both are extremely forgettable. This has got to be the worst lot of Bond girls yet. Murino spends most of her scenes wrapped in this ludicrous dress, and then Bond leaves her arms to chase a bad guy—before they have sex. Green, meanwhile, has a silly overbite and a strange accent—she’s French but her speech ranges wildly between Irish and Cockney and…is that Russian? Who knows. She’s supposed to be a serious romantic involvement for Bond—if we’re meant to think of any earlier film here it’s OHMSS—but Eva Green looks like a scrawny schoolgirl next to Diana Rigg.

But let’s get back to that bit about Bond interrupting coitus to do his job. What, we are forced to ask, is with that? He does eventually get some, with Vesper—but that’s only after he’s fallen in love with her. Which means that there is no gratuitous sex in this film.

Need I say more?

AND VIOLENCE: Now, the action sequences, on the other hand, really work. Instead of finding new vehicles for Bond to trash, they have him on foot for most of the movie (well, they compromise and put him in a bulldozer for a few seconds). Lots of brilliantly choreographed running and jumping, fantastic stunts on an unfinished skyscraper in Madagascar. A fight on a staircase that’s probably the best fisticuffs the series has seen since the elevator fight in Diamonds Are Forever.


But, worst of both worlds, that doesn’t mean they lose the silly gadgets. Just that they try to be utterly serious about them. They give him a portable defibrillator that—surprise, surprise—turns out to be just what Bond needs. If we’re going to have cheese like that, why can’t we have John Cleese to give it to us?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Decent selection of locations. Madagascar is a first; the Bahamas isn’t. Montenegro is a first; Venice isn’t. The emphasis isn’t really on the scenery, though. Meaning none of the locales, with the exception of Montenegro for the casino sequence, are really used for much effect.

ETC.: Chris Cornell’s title song is pleasant but not very memorable. Not as stylish as it needs to be. And the choice of him as a singer is kind of out-of-touch (“Hey, let’s get somebody really young and cutting-edge for the theme song—I know, how about a grunge singer!”). The title sequence is fantastic, though—one of the best in the series, a very modish animation… I try not to compare the films to the books, but I have to note that they changed the baccarat to poker, which kind of sums up what’s wrong with this version of Bond… Not only did they lose Q, they lost Moneypenny, not to mention a few minor characters that had made recurring appearances in the Brosnan Bonds. On the other hand, they brought back Felix Leiter. On the third hand, that just makes me miss Jack Lord. …While I’m still open to the possibility that the next Bond will redeem this one, on its own terms Casino Royale is hardly a Bond at all. But it was still better than License to Kill.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Jethro Tull Mk. 0 / Mk. 1

The Tanuki was a prog-rock nerd in high school. He's not proud; he's not ashamed. He just is.

Every once in a while he gets in a prog-rock mood again, and tonight it was Jethro Tull.

The thing to understand about Jethro Tull is that they weren't a band. This is true of a lot of the prog acts, but in the case of Tull, it's doubly true. In one sense they were always Ian Anderson's solo project, augmented by the musicians he employed to carry out his vision. In another sense, you could argue that those musicians were at least as important to the end product as Ian was, in which case we realize that Jethro Tull was not a band, but several in succession, all bearing the same name.

Jethro Tull Mark Zero consisted of Ian Anderson on vocals, John Evans on keyboards, Glenn Cornick on bass, Barriemore Barlow on drums, and Neil Smith (Chick Murray) on guitar. They weren't actually called Jethro Tull, but the John Evan Band (or the John Evan Smash). They were a Blackpool-based soul band, with horns. The only thing that's ever been released by this lineup is a song called "Aeroplane," which showed up on the b-side of the first Jethro Tull Mk. 1 single, and was subsequently released on CD on the 1988 box set 20 Years Of Jethro Tull (now out of print, but well worth hunting down).

"Aeroplane" was originally recorded with horns; they were mixed out for the release, since the band the song was credited to did not have horns, but if you listen close you can still hear them in the background. It's a groovy little record: very 1967, with its spacey, post-Sgt. Pepper feel and its harpsichord break. But it's also surprisingly - well, soulful, with a funky piano-based setting for a nice graceful melody. An essential track by this lineup - of course, it's the only track by this lineup.

Jethro Tull Mk. 1 consisted of Anderson, Cornick, Mick Abrahams on guitar, and Clive Bunker on drums. They recorded the a-side of the "Aeroplane" single, "Sunshine Day" (this single was mistakenly credited to Jethro "Toe"); a b-side called "One For John Gee;" another non-album a-side called "Love Story;" and an album, This Was, all in 1968.

At this stage Tull was not prog. There really wasn't any such thing as prog yet. What Tull were was a British r&b/blues band, in the same tradition as John Mayall, Cream, the Stones, and hordes of others. Tull were latecomers to the British blues scene; rather more country-blues oriented, with a healthy admixture of jazz, and a distinctly underground sensibility (dig the old-man cosplay on the cover of This Was: they were almost as much rebels against their generation as were The Band).

There's enough here to start to consider them as a band.

Ian Anderson wasn't yet the be-all and end-all: this really was a band. He was the lead singer, of course, but occasionally his vocals are doubled (probably by Mick Abrahams, although the tone of the second voice is so close to Ian's that it's possible Ian's doubling his own vocals); he also played flute and harmonica. But Mick Abrahams' agile guitar work is at least as much the focus here, and the Cornick/Bunker engine more than holds its own place in the spotlight.

Cornick here is a serviceable bassist; behind songs he holds down the chords adequately, only really shining when he gets a rare solo spot, or when he breaks into the walking figure he likes so much. Bunker's a bit of a basher, untidy in a way that lends the whole proceedings a refreshing looseness. Together, however, they can swing a little more authentically than I've heard any British band of the era pull off. The jazzy aspect of Tull Mk. 1 is showcased on the album in their cover of Roland Kirk's "Serenade To A Cuckoo," but I think is best heard in the b-side "One For John Gee." This concise instrumental really cooks: moves right along through a pleasant Wes Montgomery-ish theme, through solo spots for all, and back into the theme, just like a real jazz group. They're not quite that, but they're close.

The album tracks focus more on the blues aspect, although the best of their blues may be the non-album "Sunshine Day." Entirely fluteless (not a rare thing for Tull in '68), it speeds along at a breakneck pace, with a show-stopping guitar breakdown in the middle.

The whole album's good, but I rate the essential tracks to be: "My Sunday Feeling," more groovy jazz-blues, although with a slightly distracting mix, with Ian's vocals way over in the left channel, with far more echo than the rest of the instruments - you can really hear the room. "Someday The Sun Won't Shine For You," just a double-tracked vocal, a solo fingerpicked electric guitar, and a nifty harmonica part; very effective country blues. "Beggar's Farm," a tightly composed song based on a droning bass / guitar arrangement; this is the Mk. 1 song that sounds most like glory-years Tull. "Move On Alone" is a short soul number with Mick on vocals and somewhat hotel-lounge-sounding horns; it works. "Cat's Squirrel" is essentially Jethro Tull as power trio, taking on Cream and beating them (well, at least their arrangement of this tune is better than Cream's). "Round" is just that, a jazzy melody played as a round for less than a minute, but it's fun.

The non-album a-side, "Love Story," came out after the album, and shows the band moving toward the sound they'd arrive at on their next album - you can hear it in the folk-rock guitar and conga mix of the main hook. Overall, better production values, much less of an improvisational feel, much less blues focus. It's very nice, though, with good spring-loaded guitar sounds; whatever tensions caused Mick to depart before they could record a b-side aren't really apparent in the recording.

I haven't yet mentioned my favorite track from Tull Mk. 1, which is "A Song For Jeffrey." This was the first non-toe single, and it also featured on the album, but the definitive version was recorded for the BBC and released on 20 Years (it's currently available on the remastered version of Aqualung, of all places), complete with plummy BBC announcer voiceover. The sound on this recording is fantastic, much fuller than anything they got in the studio in this period, and the song has a lot more energy than the studio version. The bass here is impossibly fat in its duet sections with the flute, and then when the main groove kicks in, it has so much kick that it always makes me want to get up and pogo around the room (don't imagine that). It's a weird groove, behind a weird, old-before-his-time Anderson vocal. Weirder than I think the band realized at the time; later, they'd self-consciously strive for weird, but it wouldn't be half as truly crazy as this.

Jethro Tull Mk. 1 may well have been the best edition of the band. At the very least, it's the least nerdy. The version I can enjoy even when I'm not in high-school-nostalgic, prog-rock-geek mode.

James Bond review: Dr. No (1962)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Not the best Bond, but it was the first. We bow to that.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The scene in which Connery is introduced is immortal. First the back of his head at the baccarat table, then his hands, then a woman gazing at him flirtatiously; then we hear his voice, and finally, we see his face as he says, “Bond, James Bond.” Connery owns the role from this moment until whatever time he chooses to relinquish it. Hell, he could play Bond today and still make it work… In this first movie, the character has more than a few hints of darkness. Now, pay attention to the scene in which he first returns to his hotel room after the day’s activities. He checks his traps, finds that people have been in the room, starts to pour himself some vodka, realizes that bottle has probably been poisoned, then without batting an eye takes out a spare and pours from that. Then he sits down and drinks - alone. There’s a certain hint of stoic sadness here that would almost completely disappear from the series hereafter. It adds depth; does Bond need depth? We don’t profess to know, but it’s a nice touch here… Check also his utterly dispassionate dispatch of Dent. Killing an unarmed man and not flinching or weeping. Right away we realize what it means to have a license to kill. Heady stuff for 1962.

BAD GUYS: Max Wiseman does a great job at Dr. No, making of him the template for all Bond baddies to come: mysterious evil genius bent on ruling the world, but also educated, sophisticated, a lover of the finer things in life - he comes to feel that perhaps only Bond can understand him. Of course, his plot is never explained very clearly (what in the hell does he expect to gain by “toppling” things anyway?), and nothing in his lab ever matches the weird modernist menace of his interrogation room. He also lacks a henchman—that part of the pattern wouldn’t fall into place until the third movie… Dr. No, you’ll recall, works for SPECTRE - the Special Executive for Counterrevolution, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Most of the Bond villains of the Connery era do - and none thereafter. Does anybody else miss SPECTRE?

GRATUITOUS SEX: There are Bond girls and there are girls who are in Bond films. A true Bond girl sleeps with Bond, or at least has some sort of erotic entanglement. There are also lots of pretty girls that show up in the scenery (here that would include Dr. No’s photographer spy, the hotel receptionist, and Dent’s secretary), but in my world only the ones Bond beds get to be called Bond girls. Here we have three: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, and Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, even though she only appears in the first couple of scenes. Needless to say it’s Andress, rising out of the sea like Venus in that white bikini, who defines what it means to be a Bond girl. Details: it’s the knife belt, as much as anything, that does it. Miss Taro and Sylvia are also quite wonderful in that early-sixties voluptuous manner, but no one can touch Ursula (even if that isn’t really her voice)… We must make special mention here of Moneypenny, who is neither strictly wallpaper nor quite, ever, a Bond girl. Lois Maxwell plays the character perfectly, and it’s quite easy to believe their banter in these early movies…

AND VIOLENCE: The assassinations in this movie are well-staged - the initial one of Strangways, and Bond’s of Dent. The fistfights are nice. But the climactic scene doesn’t feel very climactic forty years later. A couple of explosions, some claxions, and that’s it. Plus, nobody seems to worry that Bond has started a nuclear meltdown there on Crab Key - aren’t those kinda dangerous?

BOYS WITH TOYS: The gadgets are not really an element of this movie. Low-tech is the byword here. However, the business with the Walther is a defining Bond moment: we must know what kind of gun the man uses… On the other hand, the “dragon” is just silly.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Only one Exotic Location in this film, making it feel a bit cheap in retrospect, although I'm sure it didn't feel like that at the time. For anybody like me whose image of Jamaica was formed mostly by The Harder They Come, it’s quite a shock to see it imagined like this…

ETC.: Monty Norman’s theme music is here right from the start, and my is it wonderful. Breathtaking. Pulse-pounding. Yeah, baby. There isn’t a theme song per se, although “Under the Banana Tree” does show up at key moments, and a pleasantly calypsified “Three Blind Mice” eases us out of the opening credits… The Maurice Binder visuals in the title sequence are mesmerizing, if primitive compared with what was to come… Jack Lord was the best Felix Leiter of them all: about this there can be no debate… In the end, though, this movie has always felt a little long to me. The action was undoubtedly eye-opening for the time, but hasn’t aged well. And Dr. No’s Evil Plot is so sketchily drawn that it’s hard to really find any menace in him – charm, yes; menace, no… All told, a promising beginning, but not a perfect one.


James Bond reviews: an introduction

The Tanuki is and always has been an unapologetic James Bond fan. Unapologetic, but not unreflecting: I realize they're silly, misogynist, often reactionary movies that are also, not infrequently, fairly badly made. At the same time, I think they're just plain awesome, dude. I think, at their best, they represent a certain almost mythical ideal of manliness, one that's unattainable, one that I wouldn't really even want to attain in my own life, but one that still, on some level, I find incredibly comforting. I could never be Bond, and wouldn't want to be even if I could, but I still like to know Bond's out there, gettin' it done.

The Bond reviews I'll be posting here are something I've been working on for about a decade, I'm embarrassed to admit. Every few years I go through the series again (usually start to finish, which means I can claim the sad distinction of having watched License to Kill at least four or five times), and when I do I make a few notes on each film. Now, with Quantum of Solace opening today, I figured I might as well start posting these on this here blog. Now that I do I find that about a third of my reviews have somehow disappeared from my hard drive, so I'll have to do them from scratch. Hmm.

A caveat. The idea of rating them on a 001 to 007 scale, as well as the idea of dividing the reviews into subtitled sections, came from a very early version of this fine 007 fansite, called Universal Exports. The comments and opinions are all my own, though (no matter how hackneyed they may be); in fact, I completely lost track of the Universal Exports site until about five minutes ago. Thought it had gone offline; in reality, I'd just forgotten what it was called. (I know, they have these things called bookmarks...) So, tip of the fedora (before it goes out of style) to Universal Exports, but I have to take the blame for what's to follow. I think you'll find I'm concerned with slightly different issues from UnivEx.

A further caveat. These reviews assume you've seen the films. There are spoilers, but more importantly they just won't make any sense unless you're already familiar with the films. And they might not make sense then.

A final caveat. When I began writing these, I hadn't yet read Ian Fleming's Bond books. I finally read them, just before Casino Royale came out, but I've elected not to think about the books in the reviews. In the end I decided Bond on the page and Bond on the screen are best considered separate entities, not to be compared. Maybe someday I'll write about the books.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mitch Mitchell RIP

So Mitch Mitchell is dead. He was the last surviving member of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience (Billy Cox from the second version is still alive).

If you're like me, the first two or three thousand times you listen to Jimi you may not notice that much of anybody's playing with him, you're so riveted to the ideas that came out of the main man's fingers. But if you can tear your ears away from Jimi long enough to dig the rest, it won't take long to realize how important Mitch was to Jimi's music.

Take a listen to this May 1970 performance of "New Rising Sun." I won't even try to claim it's one of Mitch's best performances: but it is typical. Listen to Jimi's freeform beginning, and notice how subtly Mitch helps it ease into a tempo, into a song. No simple timekeeping there: with little rolls and shuffle beats he nudges it along until it settles into a groove. And then for the rest of the song he's right there with Jimi. Jimi raises the tension with a verse or two, Mitch takes it up a notch with tasty cymbal work, snare stutter-steps. Jimi peaks with the chorus, and Mitch plays perfect counterpoint - Jimi holds a note so Mitch can break down the time with his bass rolls. And so on. Between them they're juggling time, while Billy holds down the middle - he's the net they're volleying over, now furiously, now gently.

The dynamic was totally different with Noel Redding on bass, of course, but I've been listening mainly to spring and summer '70 when I get in a Hendrix mood lately.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Josiah McElheny: Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism

Saw this sculpture/installation today at the MFA. The photo on the MFA website doesn't do it justice; there's a better photo of it here.

First of all, it's a beautiful piece. Entrancing is the word I'd choose. What it is is: a bunch of vases made of some highly reflective material lined up along the four sides of a glass-fronted box. The glass you see through is actually a two-way mirror: we can see in but the vases can't see out, so to speak. They get their reflection, and then reflect that back, infinitely. Behind the vases are more mirrors - the center of the box is another box, mirrored on the outside. The effect is of these vases infinitely reflected and infinitely reflecting. The lighting is soft white light, not overpowering - the thing doesn't shine inside so much as glow, and that glow diminishes with every reflection until the vases are just marching away into a sort of ethereal half-light.

The piece itself is just beautiful, in a really unexpected, haunting way. Then you read the card on the wall telling you about it. The artist is Josiah McElheny: you can read a little more about him here. The title of the piece is "Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernisms." A little tendentious, but okay.

But here's the text:

"Deploying the most sophisticated and virtuoso glass-working techniques combined with a conceptual rigor, McElheny creates sculptures and installations that explore crucial moments in the development of modernity, its visual and theoretical undercurrents. Over the past four years, McElheny has produced a series of works based on a conversation between sculptor Isamu Noguchi and designer/architect Buckminster Fuller that took place in 1929 during which they discussed a world of form without shadow; totally reflective forms inhabiting a totally reflective environment that would be totally self-enclosed - the perfect utopian environment. 'Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism' presents the viewer with a seemingly infinite repetition of reflections of modernist design (decanters, vases, boxes, and bottles based on designs from Scandinavia, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, and Austria from c. 1910 -1990) that attempts to depict the capitalist notion that all objects are eternally repeatable, that everything can be remanufactured endlessly without regard to era, geography, or culture. McElheny has stated that he aims to explore how "the act of looking at a reflective object could be connected to the mental act of reflecting on an idea."

Starts out nicely. I was interested to learn that the tendentious title wasn't pulled out of a hat, or an overheated graduate seminar, and finding out that he was inspired by this utopian idea of Noguchi and Fuller's made me see the work in a new light - opened it up for me.

But then we get to the "capitalist notion that all objects are eternally repeatable" business, and suddenly I want to heave (that's a sophisticated art-criticism term, by the way).

First of all, does capitalism really believe that? Maybe; it's arguable, at least.

Regardless of that, though, suddenly the wall text is telling me that I should see this beautiful sculpture as a critique of this or that or the other thing, a satire, a political statement.

I don't mind seeing art as any or all of those things. But if this piece is a critique of capitalism, it fails miserably, because the world inside this mirrored box is beautiful, just as beautiful as Noguchi and Fuller probably imagined it would be. It's a utopia of gracious forms, completely self-contained, completely peaceful. Nothing dystopian about it. (And really, nothing capitalist, either.)

So either the art is lame, because it fails to do what it tries to do, or the wall text is lame. Guess which one I'd side with. And most of all, this part of the wall text is unnecessary. It doesn't open the work up at all: it closes it down, by trying to control how we feel about it. Link