Friday, January 22, 2010

Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water (1962)

A brilliant debut. Two men and a women on a sailboat on a lake for twenty-four hours. One of the men is married to the woman; the other man is a hitchhiker they picked up. The married man brings the hitchhiker out on the boat as part of a game; the hitchhiker knows it, but goes anyway.

The inevitable sexual tension develops as the men's natural animal rivalry drives them further and further into conflict with one another. But two surprising things happen.

First, although the girl is the obvious fulcrum for their rivalry, she's kept in the background for most of the film (which in itself is a neat trick, considering the close quarters this film takes place in: she's always there, never far away, and yet Polanski manages to place his actors and his camera in such a way as to clearly suggest psychological foreground and background at all times). When she does come to the fore, it's a great revelation, not just of her character but of the hitchhiker's.

Second, the tension doesn't erupt into violence, as we expect it to. Something else happens, a trick, a subterfuge, and instead of getting the big dick-swinging showdown the two men clearly want, we get doubt, uncertainty, hollow victories.

The final shot is perfect, with the married man sitting in his car at a crossroads, unsure which way to turn. If he goes in one direction he's claiming victory over the hitchhiker, keeping his manliness, but turning himself into the police for a crime he may not have committed. If he goes in the other direction he gets to keep his freedom, but at the expense of acknowledging that his wife has cuckolded him. Manhood or freedom?

All of this is fine, but made much finer by the excellent photography. It's not a big boat they're on, and Polanski makes this very restricted space work for him. It gives him a lot of simple variables that he uses to make surprisingly complex, evocative shots. The groupings of the characters, the juxtaposition of people in odd contortions (ducking under booms, etc.) with blank expanses of sail or black lakewater. At times it's almost abstract, but then again it can be very physical, the way Polanski's camera captures all the contours of these three people's flesh. (It helps that this is 1961, and these are real human bodies, not subjected to years of unnatural sculpting and training.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Contemporary art at the Phoenix Art Museum

So we went to a lot of museums and artistic things when we were in Arizona for Christmas, but I haven't blogged a one of them yet. I've been meaning to. Here's one.

Everyone told us that the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art is the one to see in Phoenix. We eventually hit it, too, but we needed to check out the Phoenix Art Museum, too: for professional reasons, we have to check out any collection of Asian art within reach, no matter how piddling.

And the Phoenix Art Museum's Asian art collection is pretty piddling. But its collection of contemporary art is surprisingly impressive. It takes up two whole floors, huge galleries, and what's on display is at least equal to what we saw at the ICA. (Looking back at what I wrote about the ICA, I figure I might as well note that the PhAM is a beautiful museum: on the gray day we went, the building's gray walls gave it an air of dignity and set it apart from the sand color of the rest of downtown Phoenix; also goes nicely with the palo verdes in the garden.)

What do they have? I wish I'd taken notes. Here's what I remember:

A huge pair of Morimuras, riffing on the Mona Lisa.

Another Josiah McElheny, complete with fulsome wall text - in fact, the wall text was clearly written by the same person. Which tells me that the curators at the MFA, PhAM, and ICA probably had nothing to do with writing it: it was him or his dealer. Interesting. This one wasn't as captivating conceptually as the other two I've seen, although it benefitted from being next to the Peter Wegner colored-paper installation (click on the link and scroll down). The McElheny reflect the Wegner in very drippy, psychedelic ways. No doubt it's not what McElheny intended, but it's cool.

The Wegner itself is magnificent. It's so bright that it dominates the room its in, and the sheer beauty of its colors makes me wonder why so much serious art shies away from bright colors. Is the pleasure of color suspect, because it's pleasure? Then again, I like psychedelic Fillmore posters, too.

My favorite piece was by Kusama Yayoi. Entitled "You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies" (a Japanese title if there ever was one), it's a big, irregularly-shaped, mirror-lined room, unlit except for hundreds of little lights on black cords hanging down from the ceiling. The lights, no bigger than fireflies, change colors, and sway as you walk through the room. They don't give off much light: once you're in the room you're lost. You don't know where the walls are, or where the exit is. You're forced to walk along with your arms outstretched, brushing aside fireflies and hoping you can find a wall. But all the while you're breathless from the illusion that you're in an infinite space of fireflies. Really amazing. Even now, a month later, I kind of feel like I'm subtly changed for having been there.

Avatar, cont'd, cont'd

Interesting piece by Erik Nelson on Salon about James Cameron. The gist of it is that Cameron is both a brain-dead blockbuster factory and an obsessive, visionary indie director. He's legitimately both, and that just doesn't compute for most people. So he both cleans up and washes out, often with the very same critics. Read the article.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar, cont'd

In response to my last post on Avatar, a commenter wrote:
Avatar was a cliched, predictable remake/re-imagining of every white-man goes native story out there.

Dancing with Wolves, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse back to the story of Pocahontas.

However, I still enjoyed the hell out of it for the simple reason that, in spite of its many flaws, it worked.
This. Is why I have limited use for Saussure or Joseph Campbell. Not no use at all: identifying the story-archetype being utilized in a given case can be a useful starting-point for analysis or appreciation. But too many of us stop there, and assume that if what we're watching or reading follows a template we recognize, it can't be any good. But if we throw away every story that's not new, we'll be left with very few stories - Saussure and Campbell teach us that much.

It's not about coming up with new stories, at least not on a deep level. It's about retelling the old stories in meaningful ways. Not even, necessarily, new ways. Just ways that work.

Identifying the archetype can be a useful short-cut. If, for example, you know you hate white-man-goes-native stories, then identifying Avatar as one of them might help you decide whether or not to sink 12 bucks into seeing it. For me it's the opposite: I'm very interested in this particular theme.

It resonates with me on both a close personal level and a broad cultural level. Personally I've been in that situation: I've been a white boy in a non-white culture, puzzled and entranced and slowly immersed. I've felt the frustration with the limitations of one's own background, the obvious flaws in one's own culture, and the lure of another culture whose limitations and flaws are, if not lesser, then at least different. At different times in my life I've felt more or less eager to abandon my own cultural identity for another; sometimes I want to, sometimes I don't, but at all times it's a theme whose emotional heft I've weighed for myself.

Broadly, I think this pull has fueled a lot of my favorite art. Certainly it's the driving force behind a lot of my favorite music. All those Sun rockabilly artists: white boys entranced by blackness, trying to do it themselves. They couldn't: what came out was something else again, something new. The Stones: trying to be not just black, but American black: a double remove. And like Elvis, it's not that they succeed, it's that in trying to make themselves over they create something new. Something they wouldn't have made if they hadn't had such an overpowering desire to be the Other. If the Stones don't try to sound like South Side Chicago, maybe they end up sounding like the Kinks. (Of course, the Kinks went through their own American fascination, with Muswell Hillbillies.)

Love and theft: it makes great art.

And it's probably worth observing that the desire to go native is hardly exclusive to white people. I mean, that's what Mizuki Shigeru's contemplating in his Rabauru senki. It's the same thing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


1. The 3-D. I saw it in a theater with RealD, and wore the glasses. First 3-D film I've seen since Captain Eo, and while this looked better than that, it felt just as gimmicky. Jim Emerson, who's pretty intemperate about Avatar, has a good rant on the subject of its 3-D. I didn't get the headaches, but I also didn't get the charm.

2. The CGI. Effective, but not epochal. Everybody who's raving about them as being a vast advance in the technology seems to be forgetting Lord of the Rings (and they are): the blue people look great, but are they any more impressive, or expressive, than Gollum?

3. The fantasy world, its visuals. Awesome. Almost completely ripped off from Roger Dean - everything from the floating mountains to the stone arches. But that's okay. I like Roger Dean.

4. The fantasy world, its presence. Fine. Luckily, though, I'm not insecure enough about my sex life to feel the need to reject imaginative fiction or film.

5. The politics. Sure, it's Dances With Wolves or Glory in space. James Horner's score even echoes his Glory theme. But the fact that it's in space makes some difference. David Edelstein writes that
It’s an attempt to rewrite (and reanimate) American history in the form of a barely disguised parable of Native Americans triumphing against white imperialists who would drive them from their ancestral lands — aided by a white imperialist (a Marine) who has Gone Native.
Well, sort of, except for the fact that it's not rewriting American history at all: it's imagining a future in which American history is in danger of repeating itself, and fantasizing that one of the Americans will try to to stop it. Does imagining this in any way change, obfuscate, or obscure American history? Quite the opposite: it depends for its effect on the audience knowing how the US treated native tribes.

That's the point. I'm not claiming that because it's fantasy it's inapplicable to history and politics, contemporary or past. Of course it's connected. David Brooks may even have a point about it being a White Messiah fantasy. Although, as is the conservative's wont, Brooks's idea in pointing this out seems to be to discredit any critique of American history or politics the film may harbor - and in true disingenuous Republican fashion, he's pretending to be outraged on behalf of non-whites to make his point. ...In this case the White Messiah fantasy seems to be fueled by an abject feeling of apology: the fantasy is not so much of a white guy leading non-whites as of an American for once choosing not to destroy the natives, but helping them resist destruction. There's something touching in this, so touching as to border on pathos, but if you laugh instead of cry at this, then we're on different sides.

6. The script. I've noticed before that James Cameron's filmmaking can be mechanical, his scripts uneloquent. The dialogue here is blunt, to say the least. But it's functional, and he's chosen a lead character whose background can excuse a lot of artlessness in the dialogue. Like Titanic, Avatar is made up of stock characters mouthing stock phrases in stock situations.
But here too it works.

7. Will it change film history? Who knows? I enjoyed the hell out of it, though.