Friday, April 27, 2012

My Life, By Benvenuto Cellini

Cellini's Perseus

I have just spent the past week in the remarkable – if exhausting – company of the great Renaissance artist, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).  Though many of the great Renaissance masters were equally famous for writing as well as the fine arts – Leonardo with his notebooks, Michelangelo with his sonnets, Vasari with his biographies – perhaps the great literary achievement of them all was Cellini with the story of his own life.

Cellini was a master goldsmith, creating many beautiful works of jewelry and coins, as well as being quite a formidable draftsman.  But such work was often relegated to the realm of mere craftsmanship, and Cellini wished to create heroic sculptures, much like his mentor and artistic hero, Michelangelo.

Cellini would realize his ambition when he cast the heroic bronze figure Perseus with the Head of Medusa for the Duke Cosimo de Medici (see above), an undertaking that is vividly brought to life in his autobiography.  Other works – including medallions, rings and busts -- have been lost to time, mostly because of their ephemeral nature, and also because the precious metals involved were often melted down and refashioned for other purposes.

But even if Cellini’s artistic works did not survive, he would still be vividly remembered today for his autobiography, arguably one of the most important (and vivid and bawdy and violent) documents to survive that remarkable era.  There are several excellent translations, and perhaps the most poetic and decorous is that of Renaissance scholar and poet John Addington Symonds (1840-1893).  Symonds, translating for a Victorian audience, was often unable to recreate Cellini’s earthy language.  If you want all the “dirt,” I heartily recommend the translation by Peter and Julia Conaway Bondanella, available through Oxford World’s Classics.

Why has a week with Cellini left your correspondent exhausted?  Well, imagine if you would, a Renaissance artist with a taste for swordplay, court intrigue, whoring, young boys, young girls, street brawling, litigation, illegitimate children, attempted homicide, and endless self-aggrandizing.  Think of a murderous Errol Flynn on speed, and you get the idea.  If he were alive today, he’d be the darling of the New York art scene.

Cellini’s story also has a curious circular quality – he will find the protection of an important patron (the Pope, the French King, a Medici), do everything he could to make himself impossible, and then end up once again on the run.  He never seemed to learn from his past mistakes, and always portrayed himself as a victim.  Here is a taste of Cellini, courtesy of the Bondanella translation:

I had no sooner dismounted when one of those fine people who take delight in uncovering evil came to tell me that Pagolo Micceri had taken a house for that little whore of a Caterina [his former girlfriend]and her mother, that he went there continually, and that in speaking about me he always said, with scorn: “Benvenuto set the geese to guard the lettuce, and he thought I wouldn’t eat it; it’s enough that he now goes around acting brave and believing that I’m afraid of him:  I have strapped on this sword and this dagger by my side to give him to understand that my sword cuts too, and that I’m a Florentine just like him, from the Micceri family, a much better family than his Cellinis.”  The scoundrel who brought me this story told it so effectively that I immediately felt a fever coming on – and I mean a real fever, not a figure of speech.  And since I might have died from such a bestial passion, I found a remedy by giving it the outlet such an opportunity had afforded me, just as I wished.  I told my worker from Ferrara, who was called Chioccia, to come with me, and I had my horse brought behind me by the servant, and when I reached the house where this spiteful man was living, I found the door half-closed and went inside.  I saw that he had his sword and dagger by his side, and that he was sitting on a chest with his arm around Caterina’s neck.  I had hardly arrived when I heard him joking with her mother about my affairs.  I pushed in the door, and at the same time I put my hand to my sword and placed its point at his throat, not giving him time even to think about the fact that he had a sword too, and all at once I said: “Vile coward, commend yourself to God, for you are a dead man!”  Paralyzed, he cried out three times: “Oh, Mother, help me!”  I wanted to murder him no matter what, but when I heard his silly cries half of my anger left me.  Meanwhile, I had told my workman Chioccia not to allow either Caterina or her mother to leave, for once I had attended to him, I wanted to do equal harm to these two whores.

No wonder Oscar Wilde found the rough men of the Wild West enamored of Cellini’s exploits.   Cellini inspired a wonderful book by Alexandre Dumas, pere, an opera by Berlioz, movies and plays.  But he also stands as an important reminder that the hand that crafts beautiful things is not always connected to a noble heart, and that the most gifted artist can also be the most loathsome human being. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Grand Hotel at 80

Greta Garbo and John Barrymore
in the divine Grand Hotel

Though your correspondent is an avid film buff (one might say a rabid film buff), I also must acknowledge that cinematic masterpieces are few and far between.  But during the Golden Age of American Cinema (roughly the silent era through about 1947), most of the greatest American movies were made.  The secrets of many arts are sometimes lost (ask any serious painter trying to recreate the now forgotten techniques of the classic Academic manner), and as a result we sometimes look at a work of art and marvel, how did they do that?

These thoughts crossed my mind as I remembered that Grand Hotel, one of the greatest American movies, was released 80 years ago this month.  To my readers who consider Chariots of Fire to be an “old movie,” Grand Hotel must seem positively ancient. However, anyone who seeks out Grand Hotel will be delighted by the deft storytelling, the intricate and adult plot and fabulous performances that are as fresh today as they were 80 years ago.

Based on a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel was the first of a new type of motion picture – a multistory film based on a central location.  The Grand Hotel of Berlin, where the action takes place, is virtually a character in the film, and the detailed and artful photography gives a wonderfully solidity to the Art Deco setting.  (Indeed, there is only one exterior shot in the film, when we watch the corpse of one of the main characters carted away.)

In short, ballet-dancer Gursinskaya (Greta Garbo) has burned out, and entertains thoughts of suicide.  Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) is a penniless aristocrat turned hotel thief with eyes for Gursinskaya’s pearls.  Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a bookkeeper with a terminal illness spending his last few dollars at the Grand Hotel so he could die in high style.  His former boss, General Director Preysing (Wallace Berry) is also staying at the hotel, making a shady business deal.  Joan Crawford, in what is simply the best performance of her career, is Flaemmchen, a stenographer employed by Preysing, who may soon need to be a kept woman in order to make ends meet.

The action is watched by Lewis Stone, as hotel physician Dr. Otternschlag, a man whose face was horribly scarred in the Great War.  Stone is seldom directly involved in any of the action, and his distance keeps him from connecting to the human drama evolving all around him.  In fact, he closes the film with, “Grand Hotel.  Always the same.  People come.  People go.  Nothing ever happens.”

Grand Hotel was directed by Edmund Goulding (1891-1959), and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Amazingly, it is the only Best Picture winner not to be nominated for other major awards (Best Actor, etc), a fact that astonishes me to this day.  Goulding was the megaphone behind The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dark Victory (1939) and Nightmare Alley (1947), great movies all and highly recommended.

The real treat of Grand Hotel is watching some of the finest actors in the history of the movies at the top of their form.  One of the great paradoxes, to my mind, is that the name John Barrymore (1882-1942) is now, to some, shorthand for over-the-top acting.  A look at any of his films (particularly his early sound films, like Dinner at Eight, Svengali and Moby Dick) would give lie to that impression, particularly his stellar performance in Grand Hotel.  Barrymore here is 50 years old, and very soon time and chronic alcoholism will take its toll, transforming this extraordinarily handsome man into an aged relic almost overnight. Barrymore was also one of those great rarities: a deft character actor with the looks and physique of a leading man.  His performance here is one of great charm and pathos, and the chemistry between him and both Garbo and Crawford is simply astonishing. 

Joan Crawford (1905-1977) is often a conundrum to contemporary viewers.  One of the challenges is that her name, visage and reputation have suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Faye Dunaway with the risible Mommie Dearest (1981).  Another challenge is that Crawford’s career was so multiform and diverse that it’s nearly impossible to comfortably encompass her persona.  There are the wonderful, multi-dimensional parts she enjoyed at MGM in the 1930s, her hard-bitten victim pictures in the 1940s at Warner Brothers, her character parts in the 1950s, and her horror films of the 1960s.  What gets lost in all of this is that each iteration of Crawford is wonderful.  In Grand Hotel Crawford has a deeply affecting vulnerability, mixing both sentiment and cynicism.  Her interplay with John Barrymore is genuinely sexy, and her exchanges with Lionel Barrymore filled with sympathy.  It is, to my mind, the finest performance in a career rich with great star turns.

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) lacked both the good looks and glamour of his brother, John.  This ability to inhabit everyman roles have led some to mistakenly believe that he is the superior actor of the two, but a quick look at their films together gives the lie to that impression.  Though Lionel’s Kringelein is not a bad performance, it is filled with all the fussy hamminess that John is frequently accused of.  He also plays the role in such a subservient, mincing key that one sometimes sympathizes with Wallace Beery and we long to take a fist to him.

But perhaps the most mythic performance in the film is that of Greta Garbo (1905-1990).  Garbo’s performance here is pure alchemy.  Though often in repose, she is completely believable as a ballerina, as a figure of movement.  And her glacial beauty and subtly expressive eyes render her both remote and human.  There is something of the goddess about Garbo, but a wounded, introspective goddess.  The role of Grusinskaya played to Garbo’s natural tendency towards melancholy and her despair seems all too palpable.  Her moments with John Barrymore are galvanizing – mostly because each performer gives to the other.  In some marvelous way, the efficacy of their performances relies on the reaction of the other.  Garbo was deeply touched by Barrymore the man, and had hoped to work with him again – sadly it never happened.

Readers interested in Garbo could do no better than finding a copy of the magisterial Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis by film historian and biographer Charles Affron.  It is a wonderful book using frame blow-ups from various films to detail the technique of the three stars.  The section on Garbo is liberally illustrated with frame blow-ups from Grand Hotel, and it’s almost possible to capture the very moments in which she achieves her greatest effects.  This book is highly recommended to any serious cineaste.

Grand Hotel was indeed lightning captured in a bottle, and its magic has never been successfully resurrected.  MGM tried again with a 1945 remake, Week-End at the Waldorf.  But MGM’s salad days were over and Waldorf is surprisingly limp.  It was adapted for the off-Broadway stage as a disco musical in the 1970s (an experience from which your correspondent is still trying to recover), and later, a large-scale Broadway musical in 1989.  The show, though a Tony Award winner, was really a rather sad affair, memorable mostly for the stage business of people pushing chairs around the stage.  Or, as one wag said, “Grand Hotel.  People come.  People go.  People move furniture.”

Grand Hotel is available on DVD and through Netflix.  It is a film not to be missed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The King of Broadway?

Jake La Botz as The Shape

Many theater buffs both in-and-out of New York have little idea of how formidable mounting a large-scale Broadway show can be.  While “straight” plays would seem to be easy, new plays are often rewritten or recast, directors changed, and sometimes, nightmare of nightmares, even sets and costumes can change days (or hours!) before opening night.

Now take those problems and multiply them by a factor of 1000.  That’s how hard it is to mount a large-scale musical.

One show that promises to come to Broadway is Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a new musical with a book by Stephen King and music by John Mellencamp.  It is currently on hand at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and initial reviews are little-short of ecstatic.

As could be expected from the American master of the macabre, Darkland County is Southern Gothic of the most delicious type.  The story shifts between 1967 and 2007, and chronicles the haunting of Joe McCandless (Shuler Hensley).  McCandless witnessed his two brothers die while fighting over a girl 40 years ago -- he now fears that history will repeat itself as his two sons are heading for a similar fate.  Connecting these desperate threads is The Shape (Jake La Botz), who functions as the Devil, the MC and Virgil to Hensley’s Dante.

Darkland has had a long gestation period, with King and Mellencamp working on it for 12 years.  The show missed its originally-planned 2009 debut when Mellencamp had disagreements with the original director, subsequently bringing on Susan V. Booth (who also runs the Alliance).

The show has opened to extremely positive reviews, with La Botz receiving the lion’s share of praise for his slithery turn as The Shape.  This handsome, talented actor and musician has been increasingly cast in featured supporting roles in big-budget films, and The Shape may be his long-deserved breakthrough part.  Darland County continues in Atlanta until May 13th.  If all continues to augur well, Darkland may create a new star in La Botz, and cement a Broadway triumph for both King and Mellencamp.

John Mellencamp (born 1951) is, of course, one of the country’s most famous rock stylists.  Stephen King (born 1947) is the author of 49 novels, many screenplays and countless short stories; it’s possible that King has sold more books in the 20th Century than any other living author.  His most recent novel, 11/22/63, takes as its conceit a time traveler seeking to stop the Kennedy assassination.  It is one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had in some time.

Will Ghost Brothers of Darkland County make it to Broadway?  Certainly the names Mellencamp and King have proven to be golden in the past, and La Botz is rapidly building a devoted fan base.  This is definitely a show to watch.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Schadow Knows…..Part Three

We close our look at Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862) with one of the works that helped cement his reputation.  Schadow was one of the founders of the Nazarenes, a group that hoped to restore art to a greater spiritual and philosophical purity.  It was a case of aesthetics translating (as it often does) into a type of religious devotion.  The Nazarene were given the commission to create frescos in Pincian Hill, home of Consul-General, General Jakob Saloman Bartholdy.  The biblical Joseph was set as the theme, and Schadow painted Joseph’s brothers returning to their father Jacob with the saint’s bloody coat, and the saint in prison. 

One of the fascinating things about the Nazarenes is that their mission so closely resembled that of the better-known Pre-Raphaelites, who followed nearly 40 years later.  Like the Nazarenes, they thought the sometimes stilted virtuosity of the great Academic painters had stunted artistic progress.  The great irony to me, though, is that the Nazarenes, so little remembered today, came so close to the mark, while the Pre-Raphaelites so widely missed the boat.

Though some of the most magnificently beautiful paintings came from the Pre-Raphaelite experiment, none of the pictures ever looked like anything other than what they were: Victorian-era work inspired by ancient themes.  The Nazarenes, on the other hand, often sought to create a closer simulacrum.  Schadow, specifically in his Joseph frescoes, very much hits the mark in capturing the composition, feel and depth of the Quattrocento. 

Let’s look at the Biblical myth of Joseph and his brothers.  Jacob, an elder patriarch, favors his son Joseph over his other sons. These sons burn with jealously and plan to get Joseph out of their way. They first throw him into a pit before selling him as a slave to a passing group of traders on their way to Egypt.

When the brothers return home, they show Jacob the coat of many colors he gave to Joseph, drenched in goat’s blood. Jacob immediately believes their story that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.  Or, as it is written in Genesis 37:

And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;
And they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.
And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.
And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.

The story of Joseph mirrors others found in the Bible (Job and Moses come to mind) – a holy man suffering great privation or tribulations before entering a happier, more graceful state. 

Though a product of the 19th Century, Schadow’s interpretation of Jacob and Joseph’s coat has more in common with the early Renaissance master Masaccio than his near-contemporary Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The figures have a definite musculature, but have not yet become the heroic titans of Michelangelo.  And despite mastery of perspective, the overall composition apes the ‘flatness’ of much early Renaissance work.

Also, Schadow eschews any notion of the ethereal or the sublime, which is surprising considering the overarching mission of the Nazarenes.  Though the figures are posed to capture a supreme dramatic moment, rich in the possibilities of pathos, instead his tableaux strikes a note of melodrama.  Schadow has caught the knack of Quattrocento replication, but also retained all of its drawbacks.

That criticism aside, it is a mighty work.  Jacob, upon hearing the news, already begins to rend his clothing, almost before the blood on Joseph’s coat is dry.  The old man’s grief will be all-consuming, so self-directed is the intensity of his emotion that he neglects the child at his feet.  The flowering tree/vine at Jacob’s back underscores that he is the trunk of this family tree, and that it has flowered considerably.

The women gesticulate wildly but, to my eye, the most successful figures in the picture are the scheming brothers.  The brother with the coat looks on as his father becomes consumed with grief – is that a look of shock at the old man’s wild reaction?  Or, perhaps, a note of self-satisfied irony?  Contrast that expression with the brother on the far left; his expression clearly reads, what have I done?

The landscape behind them, just suggested with a few subtle stokes to indicate hills and fields, does indeed look wild and inhospitable – truly a place of son-eating wild beasts.

With this fresco Schadow achieved the goals of the Nazarenes, but it strikes this viewer as something of a hollow triumph.  Pastiche without internal commentary is too often imitation – a reflection of the real thing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Schadow Knows…..Part Two

We continue our look at the work of Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862) with an exploration of Mignon, painted in 1828.

Mignon is a character in the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749  – 1832), one of the most brilliant men of his (or any other) age.  The hero of the novel dreams of spending his life in the theater.  When an actress breaks his heart, he sets off with a touring company.  While on the road he meets Mignon, an androgynous child, who he rescues from an abusive circus troupe that kidnapped her as a small child.   Mignon travels with Wilhelm, acting as a grateful servant, but essentially becoming like a daughter to him.  She also has the weird ability to mirror Wilhelm’s own emotions, which she expresses in her songs and poems.

Mignon is one of the novel’s supporting characters, but it is she, perhaps, who has fascinated readers and other artists the most, especially composers.  Hundreds of pieces of music (and an opera) have been written in her name; her role as muse, both within and without the novel, is secure. 

Thomas Carlyle translated the book into English in 1824, and praised the creation of Mignon in his introduction.  This mysterious child, at first neglected by the reader, gradually forced on his attention, at length overpowers him with an emotion more deep and thrilling than any poet since the days of Shakespeare has succeeded in producing. The daughter of enthusiasm, rapture, passion and despair, she is of the earth, but not earthly. When she glides before us through the light mazes of her fairy dance, or twangs her cithern to the notes of her homesick verses, or whirls her tambourine and hurries round us like an antique Mænad, we could almost fancy her a spirit; so pure is she, so full of fervour, so disengaged from the clay of this world. And when all the fearful particulars of her story are at length laid together, and we behold in connected order the image of her hapless existence, there is, in those dim recollections, those feelings so simple, so impassioned and unspeakable, consuming the closely-shrouded, woe-struck, yet ethereal spirit of the poor creature, something which searches into the inmost recesses of the soul. It is not tears which her fate calls forth; but a feeling far too deep for tears. The very fire of heaven seems miserably quenched among the obstructions of this earth. Her little heart, so noble and so helpless, perishes before the smallest of its many beauties is unfolded; and all its loves and thoughts and longings do but add another pang to death, and sink to silence utter and eternal.

Various complications ensue throughout the novel (as is often the case in both literature and life): there’s a long digression with a book-within-the-book, and finally we are back to the story of Wilhelm.  He ends up at a mysterious castle where he meets members of the secret Society of the Tower, who have been manipulating events all along.  It turns out that Wilhelm’s life is a scroll in their library – a fine, surrealist ending for a wondrously strange novel.  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is not just a coming-of-age tale, but a novel of ideas, asking us to question the nexus between art and reality, experience and illusion, memory and fact.

Mignon expresses, for Goethe, a yearning for a lost world, for a time long vanished.  Schadow’s portrait created some controversy with critics claiming that it was inappropriate for Schadow to translate the poetic into the visual.  Schadow, however, insisted on the crucial transforming role of art in society and art’s religious mission, providing a nearly Christian reading of Goethe’s character.  In his painting Schadow transforms Goethe’s heroine into an allegory of Romantic art, nudging Goethe’s Enlightenment sensibility into something closer to his own Nazarene convictions. 

One of the most striking things about Schadow’s picture of Mignon is its Renaissance feel.  One could almost imagine the shade of a sympathetic Raphael at his side – the delicate molding of the head, arms, and gentle twist of the body all seem, to my eye, evocative of Raphael.  Both the cithern (much like a modern mandolin) and the angel’s wings clearly mark Mignon as an Angel of Music, both muse and performer.  Her placid cast of beauty is also deeply “spiritual;” Schadow’s Mignon does not live on the same plain as we mere mortals.  That she also seems to inhabit a cave or grotto further removes her from the reality of our brick and mortar world.

Also of interest is the gauzy material enveloping Mignon’s shoulders.  The blue of this gauze is too evocative of the blue often associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  As Mary gave birth to mankind’s transcendence, so too does Mignon give birth to a type of transcendence by inspiring artists, poets and actors. 

It is no surprise that Schadow, one of the most Catholic of Enlightenment-era painters, would transform an artistic muse into a Christian angel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Schadow Knows…..Part One

The term “Impressionism” was originally intended as an insult – as is often the case, the slur becomes the badge of honor, and the original taint of intent is gone.  So it was with the Nazarene Movement, when a group of 19th Century painters decided to aspire to greater spirituality and honesty in art.  The group took to calling themselves the Brotherhood of St. Luke, with some of them moving to Rome and living in the abandoned monastery of San Isidoro

The Nazarenes also thought that the Academic pictures of the time were soulless exercises in virtuosity, and sought to bring art back to a spiritual ideal more in line with the late Middle Ages or the early Renaissance.  The Nazarene movement resulted in a great deal of interesting work, but its philosophical mode of attack was far too stringent for it to last, or for it not to engender long-lasting hostility.

One of the more interesting Nazarenes was Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862), a German Romantic painter born in Berlin and son of the celebrated sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow.

Schadow was a soldier from 1806-1807, and left for Rome in 1810 with the Nazarene painters Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) and Franz Pforr, (1788-1812) among others.  He also joined the Roman Catholic Church, and believed that an artist must believe and live out the truths he hopes to paint. 

Schadow and several Nazarenes were given the commission to create frescos in Pincian Hill,  house of Consul-General, General Jakob Saloman Bartholdy.  The biblical Joseph was set as the theme, with Schadow painting Joseph’s bloody coat and the saint in prison. 

Schadow was appointed professor in the prestigious Berlin Academy of the Arts in 1819.  As the Nazarene Movement ran out of steam, Schadow became a celebrated teacher.  He wrote a wonderful lecture, About the Influence of Christianity on the Visual Arts (1843) and several biographical sketches, The Modern Vasari (1854).  He also painted for churches throughout Germany.

Before looking at some of Schadow’s religious paintings this week, I wanted to first look at this magnificent painting of his step-brother, Felix.  Painted in 1829, this picture is my favorite in the artist’s oeuvre, and simply one of the finest portraits ever painted.

Schadow sought to mimic the styles of the Quattrocento masters, but his coloration is always distinctly Germanic.  His style favors a remarkable realism and a spectacular mastery of drawing.  His surfaces often had an enamel-like quality, along with a simplicity of modeling and composition.

By any critical yardstick, this is a fantastic picture.  Contrast the stark white of the boy’s starched collar against the smooth, peach coloration of his skin.  Also look at how his golden tunic draws attention to the boy’s delicately rendered hair.  Gentle highlights of white are used to underscore the delicacy of his nose and mouth, and the Morocco binding of the book and red highlights of the sky give the figure warmth and vitality.

Scahdow paints his half-brother’s eyes as large and luminescent, while he tapers the boy’s fingers with an almost feminine modeling.  The love inherent in this picture is palpable on the canvas, and it a highpoint of German portraiture.

More Schadow tomorrow.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Looking at the Critics

One of the more interesting things about keeping up with the arts, both fine and popular, is reading what my colleagues across the aisle have to say.  Sometimes my reaction can only be a heavy sigh (close-cousin of hyper-ventilating), or a resigned shrug.

Take, for instance, David Denby in a recent issue of The New Yorker.  In the March 26th issue, Denby undertakes a review of the recent science fiction epic John Carter.  Now, at this point, I must confess that I have not only seen John Carter, but I also enjoyed it immensely.

Before my poetic license is revoked, let me say that John Carter is not art.  However, it never pretends to be art.  Even the most stringent fine arts critic must take a film like John Carter on its own terms.  To expect Summer Hours or The Dreamers (both reviewed in these pages) is fatuity.

Fatuity, however, seems to be Denby’s stock in trade during this review.  His bias is clear in the second sentence:  Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter,” based on an ancient novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (written at about the same time as “Tarzan”), begins with a battle on Mars…..

Hold the phone.  “An ancient novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs??”  One wonders how he would describe a film adaptation of Hamlet.  “Based on the super-duper ancient play by William Shakespeare?”  What did he say about Troy?    “Based on The Iliad, which is so old that we can’t even imagine its age?”

Later on in his review, Denby also adds I wouldn’t trust the sanity of any critic who claimed to understand what goes on in this movie.  Frankly, I would not trust the intelligence of any critic who couldn’t.

Denby is the author of quite an excellent book on bad behavior called Snark.  Sadly, I don’t think he took his own writing to heart.

My problems with Denby’s snark fade away to nothingness when I read an article by Michael Atkinson in a recent issue of LA Weekly.  This esteemed critic was providing an overview on a film retrospective of various versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  This is his opening sentence.

It's such a toxic-potent paradigm it's hard to believe Lewis Carroll came up with it first -- female puberty as a mud-wrestle with the irrational, a maiden's journey into a quasi-adult sphere drunk on its own rules and power but actually f--king nuts. It's an elemental conflict that's as political as it is psychosexual -- which is why Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, despite having little story to speak of, will not fade into a vague memory of 19th-century kid lit.

You correspondent must admit that he had to read the above three times before he almost got some glimmer of the author’s meaning.  But wait, it gets better.

No, the linchpin adaptation is naturally Jan Svankmajer's 1988 Alice (April 6, 7:30 p.m.), which only loosely intersects with the book yet musters an uncomfortable physical world of unpleasant juxtapositions, mucous mixtures, semi-animated impossibilities, revolting taxidermic tension and a pervasive sense of real childhood danger (without, fascinatingly, inciting the merest drop of anxiety from his star, placid blond Kristyna Kohoutova). Self-referential and playfully conscious of pedophiliac threat as only a surrealist's film could be, Svankmajer's Alice does Carroll better than Carroll did Carroll, swapping the smarmy wordplay and faux innocence for the claustrophobia and stress you taste in a real dream.

Mucous mixtures.  Revolting taxidermic tension.  Playfully conscious of pedophiliac threat as only a surrealist’s film could be.

You may be ready for more, but I don’t think my heart can stand it.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Shakespeare in Jail

During a lifetime of hearing fatuous editors say fatuous things, perhaps the single most ridiculous comment came from the Asst. Editor of a now-defunct magazine: “Shakespeare?  Do we need another adaption of a Shakespeare play?  He’s been done to death.  Does he really say anything to us?”


At any rate, it seems that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is too political an artist in some of the world’s hot spots.  As I write these words, the Thai government has banned a new film adaptation of Macbeth because the film “has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation.”

Thailand has some of the most stringent laws in the world banning criticism of the monarchy.  Offenses could carry as much as 15 years in prison.  So it’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s famous tale of regicide might ruffle more than a few royal feathers, and Shakespeare Must Die, as the film is called there, seems to hit too close to home.  The film incorporates images of violence and unrest redolent of Thailand’s recent past.  The country has been the scene of street protests since 2005, and many see Macbeth himself as a cognate for former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  Also in the film is a red-draped figure that censors thought too mindful of the red-shirt demonstrators who filled Bangkok’s streets in 2010, when protests turned violent and nearly 100 demonstrators were killed.

The film’s director, Samanrat Kanjanavanit, has asked The Christian Science Monitor, "Why do they [the censors] find a 400-year-dead poet so threatening?”  She added, “We don't want to look at ourselves, we want to forget about painful events in our history."

Shakespeare is as relevant now as he was 400 years ago.  New productions seek to find a nexus between the text and current events, and often do so with deft insight.  The Orson Welles production of Julius Caesar in 1937 reflected the stark realities of Mussolini and growing fascism in Europe.  The recent film version of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, has disturbing parallels to recent Eastern European history.  And one of the most harrowing theatrical experiences of my life was seeing Titus Andronicus in Central Park, watching the horrific aftermath of the rape of Lavinia, knowing I was a scant few feet away from where Trisha Meili was brutally raped by a gang of Harlem youths.

As Kanjanavanit said, "We made a Shakespearean film because we are living through Shakespearean times. People find the truth in fictional form threatening."

Perhaps it’s best (as is usual) for the Bard to have the final word.  As he writes in Julius Caesar, “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Orange Pulp: The Pulp Magazine and Contemporary Culture

Proving once again that great things often come in small packages, my New York readers could do no better than a visit to the Palitz Gallery at Lubin House, 11 East 61st Street.  In this small space, Syracuse University Library has managed to cram 61 super-rare works from the long-ago world of pulp magazines – treasures much too fun to miss.  I attended last night with arts advocate Clarissa Crabtree, and the show is sure to please anyone with even a passing interest in Americana or classic pop culture.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: the pulp magazine was so-named because of the rough, wood-pulp paper on which they were printed.  As such, pulps were not supposed to last – they were the essence of disposable literature.  But many, many American pop culture icons emerged from the pulps, including such characters as Doc Savage, The Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Sam Spade and Tarzan of the Apes.  Writers who worked in the pulps included Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and even world-class crackpot and religious huckster, L. Ron Hubbard.

The heyday of the pulps was roughly from the start of World War I to the end of the 1940s.  They were largely genre-specific, and to walk into a newsstand in the 1930s was to walk into a paradise catering to every taste.  There were magazines devoted to science fiction or supernatural stories, or detective stories, jungle stories, adventure stories, hero pulps and aviation stories.  There even was a short-lived pulp dedicated to stories about airships! 

One of the greatest things about the pulps was the vibrant cover art, well represented in this exhibit.  Several paintings by Norman Saunders are on hand, and they have to be seen to be believed.  Artists worked at breakneck speed, and most of the work created for the pulps no longer exists.  But it is not scarcity alone that makes this exhibit worthwhile -- the pulps were often lurid, but they were lurid to an almost lyrical degree, and much of the work (both art and prose) attains a status of near-poetry.

Also on hand: rare letters from a young writer named Ray Bradbury, still trying to break into the business; a table devoted to The Shadow (the greatest creation of the pulps), including rare radio scripts, advertising posters, the first issue of the magazine, and an Orson Welles radio show playing on a continuous loop; a payment stub for H.P. Lovecraft for his story At the Mountain of Madness, naming Julie Schwartz (of later comic book fame) as his agent; and a copy of Weird Tales containing the first published fiction of Tennessee Williams.

This exhibit runs through April 12, and gallery hours are Monday to Friday 10 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Admission is free.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer

Few figures throw a mightier shadow over the 20th Century cultural landscape than Groucho Marx (1890-1977), born Julius Henry Marx to assimilating German Jews in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  With three of his four brothers – Chico, Harpo and Zeppo – he created several of Hollywood’s greatest comedies, and, as a single act later on, became a celebrated wit, humorist and game show host.  His eyebrows, mustache and eyeglasses have become shorthand for comedy and his insouciant, insulting delivery is echoed to this day in comedians as diverse as Adam Sandler and Woody Allen.

Sadly, Groucho Marx was like many other great comedians before and since, a deeply sad, melancholy and difficult man.  Groucho is revealed, warts and all, in a stunning biography by Stefan Kanfer called Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.  Kanfer details Groucho’s troubled relationship with his mother, Minnie, who pushed all of her sons into show business and drove them on until they were successful, no matter the cost.  It was Minnie who took the quiet, bookish Groucho out of school and insisted that he go on the road – a move that the would-be doctor Groucho never forgot nor ever forgave.

Kanfer also looks at Groucho’s relations with his brothers.  Chico, the oldest, was a compulsive gambler and womanizer who seemed, oddly enough, beloved by everyone who knew him.  Things came easy to Chico, and Groucho resented that, along with the fact that Minnie loved Chico best.  Harpo, who clearly had some kind of undiagnosed learning disability, was often the subject of Groucho’s most condescending japes.  However Harpo was a genuinely happy man – it could be said Harpo had a talent for happiness – and this was inexplicable to the suspicious, touchy and often abrasive Groucho.  The two younger brothers, Zeppo and Gummo (who never really embraced show business) were never a significant part of Groucho’s life, but he did feel a responsibility for them, and often made arrangements to further their careers and businesses.  (Groucho often behaved as if he were the oldest brother – and was indeed the only brother upon whom a level of maturity rested.  It did nothing to improve his happiness.)

Kanfer shows that Groucho was equally inept in his romantic life.  He married three times, twice to women young enough to be his daughters.  All three marriages ended with Groucho emotionally pushing these women away from him – all three of them finding solace in alcohol.  His relations with his children were also messy – neither of his two daughters nor his son had much to do with the old man in later life, citing countless putdowns, oppressions, disappointments and casual brutalities as the reason.  One frightful illustration of Groucho’s child-rearing capabilities is evident in a bedtime story he told his daughter:

Tommy was a poor little boy.  He got up one morning and his mother said, “There is no food in the house, so you better go out and get some money.”  Tommy went out and he was hungry.  As he was walking along he saw a little girl run across the street just as a car was coming along.  He dashed out on the street and saved the little girl’s life.  The little girl’s nurse said, “Oh, you have saved the little girl’s life.  Her father is rich and he will reward you.”  So they wet to the little girl’s house and the nurse told the father that Tommy had saved the little girl’s life.  And the father said to Tommy, “You have saved my little girl’s life and I will reward you.  Here is $4,000.”  And Tommy said, “Oh, good, now I can buy some food.  I have not eaten anything all day.”  And the father said, “Wait a minute.  Here are some cookies and a glass of milk.”  So Tommy drank the whole glass of milk and ate all the cookies.  He was really hungry.  When he finished, the father said, “You better go home now and here is your money: $3,500.”  He had reconsidered.

Groucho Marx did not love people and always expected the worse.  To him people in general, and women in particular, were parasitic, scheming and untrustworthy.  This makes the tragedy that was the final act of Groucho’s life even more heartbreaking.  In his dotage, after driving his family and many of his friends away, Groucho became entangled with a deranged adventuress named Erin Fleming (1941-2003), who spent the last few years of Groucho’s life alternately abusing him and siphoning off his cash.  The family descended and a series of legal battles began, ending only 11 years after Groucho’s death.  Fleming spent the next two decades in and out of mental hospitals before committing suicide.  This final relationship seemed curiously fated for Groucho … he expected the worst in people, and found it only by seeking out the worst people.

Kanfer’s book is wonderfully written and he has a clean, clear prose style.  Despite this, his book is alternately delightful and depressing – Groucho’s early salad days, when the Marx Brothers were crystalizing and taking Broadway by storm are exhilarating, but the tales of his middle-and-old age were ghastly laundry lists of bad behavior, paranoia, jealousy and emotional self destruction.

However interesting the personal life of Groucho Marx – and serious Marxists are encouraged to seek out Kanfer’s book – what really matters is the body of work he left behind.  Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935) are among the finest movie comedies ever made, and if we must remember what an unhappy man Groucho Marx was in real life, we must temper that sad realization with the generations of happiness he has created.