Friday, November 30, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: Chateau en Espagne

The charming French phrase bâtir des châteaux en Espagne literally means to build castles in Spain, but a closer translation would be to build castles in the sky.  In short, it means to dream something clearly impossible, as is amply demonstrated by Willink’s picture.

This dreamscape illustrates the notions of impossible castles in the sky to moody effect.  As I said earlier with some of Willink’s pictures, while it is not exactly to my taste, the virtuosity on display is without question.

Surely few people of his generation mastered light with such facility.  As with the two earlier pictures, Willink bathes part of his landscape in light, other parts in shadow.  Notice how the parts of the chateau in the background that are illuminated by the sun pop out thanks to the use of shadows along the side.  Willink also uses light to show that the chateau is all façade with no interior – in fact, the crumbled wall facing the viewer could only be part of a ruin. 

Light creeps through the rail columns, leaving shadows at the base of the statue of the Apollo Belvedere.  The base is illuminated, but the statue itself (a great masterpiece now on hand at the Vatican), is shrouded by darkness.

That Willink chooses the Apollo Belvedere is, in itself, of great interest.  It was first discovered circa 1489, and quickly became lionized as a great masterpiece of the Classical world.  The statue’s reputation waxed and waned over the years, and today it is considered one of the great touchstones of classic homoerotic art.  (A judgment that baffles your correspondent, but that’s another story.)  In 1969 the great art critic and historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) wrote: for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world.  It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican.  Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

The landscape seems to play upon one of the great themes in Willink’s work – that of separation.  We noted in two earlier pictures that figures and individuals in Willink’s cluttered world view were often denied the solace of connection.  Here, the chateau and Apollo are divided by a chasm that owes more than a little to Renaissance portraiture.  As with most of these Post Modern games, one gets the impression that Willink is trying to say something, but one is never sure what.

The sky is wonderfully effective and the dramatic import and again fills the viewer with a melodramatic sense of expectation. 

There sure is much to admire in this work – as with most of the Willink corpus – I just wish his vision made a little more sense.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: The Blimp (1933)

Well … wow, what a picture.

First, let’s look at what artist Carel Willink is doing on the lower half of the canvas.  He streaks the ground with both rain puddles and shadows.  These actively work to separate the human figures from the world around them, by accentuating the distances between them and creating shadows that clearly demark distance.  In addition, the houses are largely bathed in shadow; the house on the left seems to stare at the people in the street with a particularly sinister cycloptian eye.

The two (significantly) dead trees point upwards to the sky and the airship.  Clearly the dirigible is the focus of attention, but here Willink again plays his games of mood and atmosphere: the sky, though bright, is still overcast.  The men in the street may be greeting the blimp, but Willink clearly sees this technology as a mixed blessing.

That this is the case is not at all surprising: airships wreaked havoc in Europe during the Great War, creating more effective aerial bombardments than the primitive planes of the time.  For Willink (1900 – 1983), who came to his maturity during the Great War, the 1930s enthusiasm for airships must have been met with mistrust at best and downright hostility at worst.  The brand-new notion of terror from the skies is one that would’ve made its mark.

Let’s look at some other things in the picture – first, notice that the third-floor windows of the house on the left have human-shaped columns.  (Rather artful columns, at that.)  The houses were built to an older, more human scale – part of a recognizable European tradition.  The hulking airship looms over this landscape, its scale larger, its design clearly modern. 

Also interesting – any passers-by in front of one of the homes could tip his hat and be recognized, and see who was within.  There is no such potential human interaction with the airship; it is completely indifferent to the people waving below.

The rain, too, is symbolic of both a passing storm, and of new beginnings. Though ponderous, the airship is moving, while the people below are not.  One cannot help but think that Willink thought that technology was moving forward, regardless of its impact on human beings and the changes it would bring. 

There is about Willink’s pictures a feeling that all of its component parts are made of different paintings.  Look at the buildings, the dirigible, the people – they are all made with very hard lines that separate each component from every other component.  It is this sense of isolation in a crowded world that is, to my eye, the most interesting and individual characteristic of Willink’s work.  At times, it seems as if he presents a world of wonders that is completely incapable of supporting a human connection.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: A View of the Town (1934)

I have only recently become aware of the art of Albert Carel Willink (1900 – 1983), a Dutch artist who worked in a style that he called imaginary realism.  Not all of it is to my taste, to be sure, as it has a decidedly surrealist bent.  However, the imagery is interesting and his technique remarkable.

Willink was born in Amsterdam; his father was an amateur artist who indulged his son’s artistic interests.  The younger Willink at first thought he would make a career in medicine, but in 1918-19 Willink went to the Technische Hogeschool in Delft to study architecture.  He then moved on to Germany, where he tried to get an academic training in a Düsseldorf atelier, but was not admitted.  Later he studied for a short time at the Staatliche Hochschule in Berlin.

It is a tragedy that a painter of Willink’s talent was imprisoned by his particular historical moment.  For artists like Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, it’s irrelevant that they are talentless, as Modernist expectations are naturally low.  But for a man like Willink who could really paint, it’s depressing to watch him waste his talent on such shallow gamesmanship.

Willink initially marked time with expressionist and abstract painting, but by the mid-1920s he created his own style, imaginary realism.  The best way of thinking about Willink is that he was an artist who could really paint intent on making some of the most inventive dreamscapes of the Twentieth Century – Dali, without the nonsense, pretention and bombast.  He also seemed to be obsessed with beautiful, imposing buildings, and how they scaled against the human form.

Willink died in Amsterdam having lived through all of the significant artistic and historical events of the last century.  Some of his canvases almost seem like an attic filled with mid-century triumphs and anxieties.

Today’s painting, View of the Town, painted in 1934, is by any critical yardstick a masterpiece.  It’s not simply that Willink beautifully rendered the details of the building, the cobblestone street and the wall in the distance, but also that he was able to create an entire mood through the skill of his composition and the technique of his lighting.

The broad expanse of street, with its looming shadows, creates a sense of anxiety and unease.  The absence of people adds to the overall menacing aspect, as does the fact that nothing is visible inside of any of these windows.

A sense of expectation is also created by the approaching storm, which he painted not just in the sky, but with his shades of gray upon the landscape itself.  This muted palette, open composition and feeling of dread anticipation all result in a picture that is beautiful, ethereal and disquieting. 


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving at The Jade Sphinx

Today’s Thanksgiving treat is an illustration from William Joyce’s delightful A Day With Wilbur Robinson.

If I may intrude with some autobiography, it has been an interesting year for your correspondent and his loved ones.  We’ve suffered loss within the family, have faced a number of pressures in our businesses, and have watched with dismay as a global situation seemed to get progressively worse.

But, for all of that, we are still happy.  Trite as this sounds (and trust me, I do know it sounds trite), as I get older I really do believe that there is no way to happiness, and that happiness is simply the way.  I am wonderstruck by our mere existence, and wouldn’t have it any other way.  Irony and ennui will never seep into our bones.  Despite the many negatives that life throws at us, we are grateful for our time, for being together, and for the miracle of life. 

My goal during the past year of The Jade Sphinx has been to help, to some degree, to illustrate that miracle, and to help illustrate how that miracle works.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  I think we can now safely say we are on our way to the holiday season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rise of the Guardians Opens Today

It is not often that an animated film is as thematically rich, filled with fully-rounded characters and as frankly moving as Rise of the Guardians, opening today and based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood series.  While many (if not most) animated films at least achieve a level of sentiment through forced or cheaply manipulative means, Rise presents a level of richness and complexity that is seldom found even in today’s adult film fare.  Rise presents issues of love and loss, life and death, the persistence of memory, the power of belief and the measure of identity; for all of its high spirits and freewheeling shenanigans, there is also a surprising vein of melancholy.  It is a film not to be missed, one that can be savored by both children and adults alike, albeit for different reasons.

The Guardians – both the books and film – represent a dramatic change in Joyce’s oeuvre.  Over the past decades the scope of his stories and the emotional weight of his work have increased in heft and urgency.  Joyce’s early work was often pitched in a minor key – problems, when they existed at all, were usually expelled by an afternoon with friends or by dancing the hokey pokey.  However, life and time have left their mark on the artist, and he has become engaged with larger scale questions, such as the nature of sorrow, the pursuit of happiness and their balance in the lives of both children and adults.

If this sounds weighty for a children’s movie, you haven’t been paying attention.  Joyce’s long-term concern has always been the very alchemy of happiness, how it functions and how it survives.  His is a unique contemporary voice in that he is devoid of irony, sweet in his sincerity, delighted by his passions and fueled by its sense of wonder.

Rise of the Guardians is an independent entity from Joyce’s current, ongoing Guardians of Childhood series.  The book chronicles how the great figures of children’s folklore – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Sandman, among others – band together under the guidance of the Man in the Moon to protect the children of the Earth.  Rise takes place several hundreds of years after the book series, with the Guardians already in place and working as a (somewhat argumentative) team.

Rise is told from the point of view of a new character, Jack Frost, the spirit of winter, who is recruited by the Guardians to join their number in a renewed battled against Pitch – also known as the Boogeyman.  It can be regarded as the final origin story for the Guardians, and the starting point for a series of animated adventures.  (One hopes.)  The screenplay, by David Lindsay-Abaire, skillfully mixes comedy and pathos, as well as action scenes and intimate moments that linger in the memory. 

Rise boasts a charming score by Alexandre Desplat, and a closing song performed by soprano Renee Fleming.  Already, the filmmakers win points for creating an animated fantasy that does not include jarring (and ugly) rap and hip hop numbers, fart jokes and puerile pop cultural references.  In an era of animated films that date badly scant months after they are released, Rise will be entertaining children for decades to come.

Rise features a host of spectacular voice performances, starting with Alec Baldwin as Santa Claus.  Baldwin plays the jolly old elf with a heavy Russian accent (as described by Joyce in the books), and seems to be having so much fun, one wonders if he paid Dreamworks in order to do it.  In what is perhaps a nod to his role as announcer for the New York Philharmonic on WNYC, he often uses the names of Russian composers instead of expletives – most wonderfully thundering “Rimsky Korsakov!” when falling down. 

Hugh Jackman is an amusing, brawling Easter Bunny – a significant change of the character from Joyce’s books.  Where Joyce presents the Bunny as something of a furry Mr. Spock, Jackman’s Bunny is a smart-talking Australian tough guy in constant competition against Baldwin’s Santa.  Their backbiting rivalry is one of the chief joys of the film.

Isla Fisher gives voice to the Tooth Fairy, a role written as sweeter and less formidable than her book counterpart.  This works wonderfully well in the context of the film, her warm accessibility balances the more antic vocalizations of Baldwin and Jackman.

However, the two finest performances in the film belong to Chris Pine as Jack Frost and Jude Law as Pitch.   Pine plays Frost with both an edgy insouciance and a wounded melancholy.  Frost is the spirit of winter, but has no memory of his past or sense of purpose.  Worse still, unlike other Guardians, people cannot see him.  Because children do not believe in him with the same fever as Santa or the Bunny, he is incorporeal and invisible.  There is a moment about midway through the film when he can be seen by a child for the first time that had your correspondent blubbering into coat sleeve – it’s a fine performance that is beautifully animated.

Law as Pitch comes very close to stealing the film – it is simply the best vocal performance in an animated film since Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille.  Law shows remarkable vocal range – sinister, seductive, anguished and afraid.  The filmmakers also changed the visual conception of Pitch from that of the novels for the better: he is quite baroque in Joyce’s books, and in the film he is long and sleek in a flowing robe.  Horse-faced with tiny, yet evil looking teeth and a passel of evil stallions (literally night-mares), Pitch is a remarkable creation.

Of course, there are quibbles.  Rise is directed with energy by Peter Ramsey, but one cannot help but think that under the baton of someone like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton or Steven Spielberg, what now glows would actually shimmer. The action is, to an aged viewer like myself, sometimes too frenetic by half, and I wish that the art direction mirrored Joyce’s earlier books (like his masterful Santa Calls), but these are all minor carps.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is the Frost-Pitch duality.  Both suffer the same problem: they are largely invisible because fewer and fewer children believe in them.  While Frost is wounded by this, his natural inclination is to meet the situation with a sense of fun; Pitch to terrify children into belief.  What Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay does so beautifully is realize that the existential pain is nearly the same for both.  In his monologues, Pitch is nearly as sympathetic as he is menacing, and Law manages to milk that emotional current beautifully.

Finally, the film also seems to be an assertion of the fundamental tenant of Joyce’s overarching philosophy: that high spirits, a sense of fun and a touch of panache is enough to keep even the darkest spirits at bay.  Let’s hope he’s right.

Rise of the Guardians is the perfect holiday film and comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Sandman: The Story of Sanderson Mansnoozie

Paging through William Joyce’s new Guardians of the Universe picture book, two words rang through my head like a great bell: luminous and transcendent.

Perhaps the most deceptively simple installment of Joyce’s vast cosmology of new childhood folklore, it would be a mistake to dismiss The Sandman: The Story of Sanderson Mansnoozie, as nothing but a bunch of pretty pictures and sketchy origin story.  What Joyce is really serving up is something akin to an incantation – a spell that redefines while it revives a figure who to many is little more than a name, the Master of Sleep, the Sandman.

Here is how Joyce opens the story:  Of course you know the Guardians of Childhood.  You’ve known them since before you can remember, and you’ll know them till your memories are like twilight.  The very first guardian was the Man in the Moon, and it was he who found the others.

The Man in the Moon watches over the children of Earth.  Like a giant nightlight in the sky, he keeps nightmares away.  But when the moon is les than full and bright, who will keep the children safe at night?

If you will, listen to the cadence of some of that.  You’ve known them since before you can remember, and you’ll know them till your memories are like twilight.  Perhaps, someday, much of the Guardians will be set to music (a Boy’s Own Ring Cycle!) because so much of it aspires to the quality of music.

In many ways, the Sandman is the most beguiling and powerful Guardian of them all.  Though he lacks the “star power” of such legends as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, think upon what the Sandman does – promising sweet repose and sweeter dreams.  The Sandman stands for all that refreshes, enriches and empowers.  The entire world of dreams is his bailiwick, and, as such, his capabilities are not tied to a single holiday event or season.  More so than the Man in the Moon, the Sandman is the Guardian by your side … every night.

In a series of beautiful imagery, the Sandman book may have the most exotic and intoxicating images of all.  Dreams take shape around the Sandman in streams of magical, golden sand, taking the shape of dinosaurs or golden floating bubbles or … well, anything in the imagination of the dreamer.  Because Sandman story takes place solely at night, Joyce is able to contract rich blues with muted yellows and glorious, glowing pale-whites (mostly the moon and its light).  Fittingly, the Sandman is mute – but his baby-like face is extremely expressive and he is, in many ways, the most accessible Guardian of all.

As always, the supporting characters are half the fun.  Sandy has a retinue of mermaids, warrior clams, sea turtles, and a wonderfully realized base-of-operations, Dreamsland, made entirely from the remnants of a fallen star. 

The Sandman: The Story of Sanderson Mansnoozie is highly recommended, not just for children on your holiday list, but for anyone who appreciates beautifully illustrated children’s books.  More important, it is a key component in the Guardians series, which is shaping up to be the first great, American fantasy epic since the Oz books of L. Frank Baum.

Tomorrow, the film Rise of the Guardians.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce

It is William Joyce Week here at The Jade Sphinx, as we celebrate two new books in his Guardians of Childhood series, as well as the release of the film Rise of the Guardians.  We’ll focus on the books today and tomorrow, starting with the prose novel Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies before looking at the picture book The Sandman: The Story of Sanderson Mansnoozie tomorrow.
How is the third novel in the series?  In short, Toothiana is an unqualified delight – and easily the best of Joyce’s prose novels to date.  The book is written with Joyce’s customary insouciance and panache, an almost infectious sense of high spirits, fun and adventure.  Perhaps the best way to describe Joyce’s literary voice is to imagine, if you will, The Three Musketeers written by Soupy Sales and you get something close to the effect.  My only complaint is that once the book is done – I want more and I want it now. 

The book continues to chronicle the evolution of various figures of folklore dear to children and how they came about.  In short, the whole series is an origin story: once the entire 12 book series is complete, readers will know how such beloved icons as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, Mother Goose and Tooth Fairy came about.  In this installment, Joyce outlines the origins of the Tooth Fairy while moving forward the overarching serial-story of the Guardians and their ongoing battle against Pitch, also known as the Boogeyman. 

The story opens with North (Joyce’s Santa), Bunnymund (the Easter Bunny), Nightlight, the wizard Ombric and the girl Katherine (who, I suspect, will evolve into Mother Goose) celebrating victory over Pitch following the battle at the Earth’s Core.  They travel by rabbit tunnel now to the very top of the world, to visit the Tsar Luna, head of the Luna Lamadary, and his followers who worship the great focus of this fantasy universe, the Man in the Moon.  Once there Katherine looses her last baby tooth, which introduces Toothiana and her dramatic backstory. 

This tale is Joyce at his swashbuckling best.  Toothiana comes complete with invading monkey armies, flying elephants, and enchanted jungles as well as daring rescues and hairbreadth escapes.  It also contains some of Joyce’s most haunting imagery, including the notion that every baby tooth holds within it the memory of a child’s happiness.  Imagine, for instance, an entire flying machine made of children’s teeth, each holding within its pearly whiteness nothing but happy memories…. 

Joyce plants grace notes throughout that make for delightful reading.  One of my favorites is Down below, North’s elves ate plate after plate of jam roly-ply, noodle pudding, and sweet potato schnitzel, topping off the meal with elderberry pie and Bunnymund’s newest chocolates – a delectable blend of Aztec Cacao and purple plum – all the while asking North to describe the meals prepared by the Yetis (accomplished chefs all) at the Lunar Lamadary.  It seemed that being turned to stone and back again was a hungry business.  Or this throwaway: While the children were anticipating their first trip to the Himalayas, Ombric and Bunnymund were in a deep debate about which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Ombric believed it was the chicken.  Bunnymund, not surprisingly, believed it was the egg.  But the Pooka had to admit that he could not answer the question definitively.  Joyce also, as usual, has lots of fun with chapter titles, including the delicious: A Journey Most Confounding, with Flying Monkeys Who Smell Very Bad Indeed. 

Perhaps Joyce’s greatest achievement with this book is his conception of the Tooth Fairy.  His story of her past makes for affecting reading, and Joyce imagines the character into something of an emerald warrior, an almost crystalline vision of beauty concealing an indomitable will.  There are also notes of melancholy throughout, as Joyce flirts with ideas of loss, creeping adulthood and the sense that time irrevocably changes everything, and not always for the better.  These dark notes are never enough to overwhelm the willful giddiness of events and situations, but they are there and give the continuing story its heft and resonance.  Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies is a triumph.

William Joyce Week continues tomorrow with The Sandman.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Narrative of Philetas by Rodolfo Amoedo

Today a painting connected with two rather mysterious people – both painter and subject.

Few people remember Rodolfo Amoedo (1857 – 1941), a Brazilian history painter born in Salvador, Bahia.  Today, many of his paintings still hang at the National Museum Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.  He was something of a prodigy, starting in 1873 as a student of Victor Meirelles.  A short five years later he won the first prize at the Brazilian Academy, which allowed him to travel to Paris, where he lived from 1879 to 1887, studying at the École des Beaux Arts.

Amoedo was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel and also worked with Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry. He was a professor and later director of the Brazilian Academy, where he taught Eliseu Visconti, among others.  When the Brazilian monarchy fell in 1889, many of the most traditional masters at the Academy were replaced by the new Republican Government with the last wave of Academic artists, Amoedo among them.  Amoedo continued to teach in the classic Academic style, but changing tastes led to replacing the old guard with masters of a more impressionist bent.  Very soon, the Academic artists were forgotten (as was the case in France and America), short-changed by the Modernist victors of Art History.

Sadly, Amoedo lived to be quite an old man, completely forgotten by the art establishment.  He left behind so little money that his widow had to ask friends to pay for his funeral.

Today’s picture, The Narrative of Philetas, was painted in 1887, a more prosperous time in Amoedo’s life.  It depicts Philetas (or Philitas) of Cos, a poet-scholar who lived during the early Hellenistic period of ancient Greece.  He was associated with Alexandria and was selected to tutor to the heir to the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Philetas was a frail man, bent and wasted by age; he is often portrayed as an academic so consumed by his studies that he literally wasted away.  As a poet and scholar, his fame continued for centuries; sadly, most of his poetry and scholarship (which included a text defining the meaning of rare literary words) has been lost to the mists of time.  He was a “poet and a scholar,” combining great learning with artistic sensibility and poetic vision.  According to legend, he was one of the driving forces behind the great library of Alexandria, where there stood a stature of him.  Neither statue nor library survive.

Your correspondent finds it poignant that a poet whose works are lost to time is here depicted by the painter who reputation has also suffered the same fate. 

One of the loveliest things about this painting is how Amoedo compares youth and old age, life and death.  The colors, from the leaves scattered about the earth to the moss-covered stones and the overall gray tones of the background, are largely somber except for the vibrant pink flesh tones of the principal figures.  Amoedo also contrasts the beautiful and supple figure of the reclining youth against that of the loosely-fleshed and gnarled old man.  (Amoedo also wisely highlights the body of Philetas with dead white, further accenting the differences between old and young.) 

Notice, too, the blossoms under the torso of the youth and the how the vibrant pink-and-white flowers behind the young people seem to lose their coloration the closer they are to Philetas.  Amoedo also poses the youths on a rock opposite from Philetas, creating a literal chasm between them.

Also striking is the face of Philetas, who is depicted with greater care and attention than that of the young couple – though the young woman is clearly drawn with grace and color, her bland and lovely brow is no match for the real “character” of the picture, the old scholar.

There is a great deal I admire in this picture, starting with how delicately Amoedo drew the old man’s hands and the courage he had in showing an old body in all of its compromised flesh.  Though neither supple nor young, Philetas overwhelms the picture with his presence – there is power in his old flesh.  Amoedo also creates a classic triangle between the reclining boy, the old man and the gray tree to trap our eye and maintain our interest as a viewer. 
I find the figure of the woman to be interesting – almost as if it was added as an afterthought.  The figure seems to be too bathed in white, as if Amoedo blocked out a white bit on the finished painting and put her there; also, her feet seem to be added to the stone, rather than obscured by it.  She even skews the triangular frame of boy, man and tree.  I may be wrong – but something to my eye says that she is a latter addition to the composition.

If the picture has a misstep, it would be the brownish tree in the immediate background between Philetas and the woman.  It seems to me a miscalculation on Amoedo’s part – it intrudes on the remote nature of the background, and looks as if he did not trust his own best instincts.  But it is a small flaw in an otherwise beautiful work, not just for the skill of its drawing, but its beautiful and delicate coloration, as well.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

We Go to a Comic Book Store

It is completely without shame that I confess I loved comic books as a boy.  (And have been known to read some of them in my adulthood with satisfaction.)  In the 1970s, I regularly read such comics (or black-and-white comic magazines, which were my preference) as The Shadow, Doc Savage, Planet of the Apes, Tomb of Dracula, House of Mystery, Sherlock Holmes (sadly, never lasting more than an issue or two), and even The Hulk.  And, to this day, I have a deep and abiding affection for Superman.  Even as a boy, I thought Superman was the great American success story.  An immigrant raised in America’s heartland, he took our national myth to heart and made himself into the embodiment of all that is good about us.  (I was also beglamoured by visions of his lost planet Krypton, which was often portrayed as a 1930s art deco-inspired wonderland.  If heaven exists and mirrors our expectations, for me it would resemble Krytpon to no little degree.)

Clearly, the argument that reading comics in one’s youth “ruins” one for adult literature doesn’t seem to be airtight.  I distinctly remember reading the Planet of the Apes comics and Balzac at the same time … in fact, I would heartily endorse anything that encourages young people to read at all.

When I was a boy, comic books were available in every corner newsstand, in drug and convenience stores, and sometimes in five-and-dime stores, such as Woolworth’s.  Comics were ubiquitous – read in school lunchrooms, in the park, and often found crumpled at the bottom of book bags or rolled in back pockets.

Then, something strange and terrible happened to the comics industry.  (WHAM!)  A new form of sales – comics direct marketing – changed the way comic books were bought and sold.  Instead of being available everywhere, comics were now sold primarily through comic book specialty stores.  (And today, it’s nearly impossible to find comics anywhere else.)  Where comics were once the common currency of kids everywhere, they became a specialized commodity of interest to only those in-the-know.

The effect of this decision was two-fold.  First, it saved comics when they probably would have disappeared completely in competition against laptops, video games, and other youthful time drains.  However, what it also meant is that the audience changed primarily from all children to a devoted (fanatical!) band of devotees.  And – more significantly – this audience has aged, taking comics with them.  By and large, comics are not for children anymore.

To my mind, saving comics also killed them.  Whereas comics reading amongst children once numbered in the many millions, it now numbers in the many thousands among adults.  In addition, it has perverted perfectly delightful adolescent fantasies – such as Batman or Superman – in the misguided struggle to make them “adult,” an aesthetic miscalculation and intellectual dead end.  If you treat much of this material in an “adult” manner, it often becomes even more risible.  What are the recent Batman films, really, other than Lethal Weapon in a shroud?

These thoughts came to mind as I stepped, on a whim, into a comic book store while visiting friends in Long Island.  There were very few young people on hand – though, I must confess, most were younger than I.  (Not all that difficult a proposition these days.)

The thing that struck me the most is that many (many, many, many!) things on the shelves were recreations of things I saw or had as a boy.  Aurora monster model kits; Sean Connery/James Bond model kits; hardcover collections of Superman from the 1970s; figures from the movie Mad Monster Party? (1967) at nearly $25 a figurine; action figures of characters from the sitcom The Munsters (1964-1966); bendable toys of Huckleberry Hound (1958); a Flintstones (1960-1966) watch …. I could go on, but you get the idea. No one under 50 would have any point of reference for most of the wares on parade.  And it dawned on me … comic book stores really don’t even sell comic books anymore --- they sell tired Baby Boomers the youth they so desperately miss.

If ever there was a recipe for extinction, it would be this.  While comic books still operate to a degree as the research and development arm for bloated, senseless “event movies,” the idea that they are a thriving and viable medium is, sadly, no longer correct.  It’s often amusing and even instructive to revisit the passions of one’s youth, but it’s an awful plan for building an ongoing artistic legacy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Disney’s The Lion King: God Help Us

Before you doubt that your correspondent suffers so you don’t have to, remember this: I went to see Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.  I am still recovering, and any small votive lit for my complete recuperation is deeply appreciated.

The Lion King makes for a completely wretched evening of theater.  One arrives at the Minskoff Theater on West 45 prior to curtain – only to have all bags and some pockets checked by security thugs right out of central casting.  At $155 for Mezzanine seating, one can only imagine that the Minskoff people are expecting the better class of terrorist. 

Patrons are then herded like cattle by ushers more at home on the Old Chisholm Trail, who hector and insult customers already turning off cell phones a good 15 minutes before curtain.  (Not that the patrons on hand deserved better treatment; dressed as if for a hockey game and behaving much like people waiting on line in Costco, one wonders where they thought they were.)

And please never for a moment believe that the Minskoff is a theater … it is not.  It is an auditorium.  If you are interested in serious theater, you are in the wrong place, physically and aesthetically.  Vast and drafty, with practically no proscenium and, if I recall correctly, no orchestra pit, this is a space better suited for proletarian joys like rock concerts and revival meetings. 

Which, in all honesty, is pretty much what one gets with the now-congealing mess that is The Lion King.  To “bring to life” various jungle animals and rain forest locales, director Julie Taymor had Disney’s bottomless coffers at her disposal.  Sadly, all of Taymor’s directorial decisions were wrong.  First off, this adaptation of the Disney cartoon is completely devoid of actors.  Yes, there are performers onstage, but all wear body microphones since they can project neither speaking voice nor song.  (One wonders why they bother … there would be no difference if the poor saps on stage merely moved their lips to a recording.)  Worse still, the actors are all heavily burdened with pounds of puppetry to simulate animal life – it is impossible to connect with any of them in any human way.  Imagine wanting to be an actor and becoming, instead, a walking special effect.

The internal politics of The Lion King are also of special interest.  The entire enterprise is infused with a faux-African PC chic, as if the doings of jungle fauna represented a great cosmology of the universe.  The sole non-African accent on hand is that of Patrick R. Brown, who plays the villain Scar.  (Naturally.)  Imagine, if you would, a lisping Boris Karloff aping Quentin Crisp and you get the idea.  No doubt oceans of self-loathing Upper West Siders nod in appreciation and abnegation; I merely shrugged in disbelief.

The book, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, jumps (literally) all over the place.  I had a thought for many of the screaming children careening through the aisles, wondering how they would understand anything that was going on.  Then, I realized that was never the intention – the real plan was simply to overwhelm them with noise.

Noise, of course, is probably the best word to describe the score by Elton John and Tim Rice.  I cannot say if the score is consistently wretched throughout, but what I did hear sounded rather like subway drummers pounding on plastic paint cans.  After sitting through such first act numbers as Chow Down, Be Prepared and I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, the audience was treated to the big first act curtain number, Hakuna Matata.  I think Hakuna Matata was probably Ugandan for “please be sure to visit our gift shop,” but I never waited to find out.  As the curtain fell, I fled for the nearest exit.  The second act of The Lion King will forever remain a mystery to your correspondent.

Clearly we were not the only sufferers.  Several ushers congratulated us on our sound judgment as we made for the doors, hurrying away from hoards of singing lions, dancing chimps, wailing children and suffering parents.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Evening With Sir Roger Moore

If you must like James Bond films, then you can do no better than enjoying the Bond films staring Sir Roger Moore (born 1927).  Though the Moore films are nothing like the Bond novels of Ian Fleming (1908-1964), they have qualities that appeal greatly to your correspondent.  Moore’s Bond films are light entertainments, with a leading man who really gets the joke.

Few premises are more ridiculous than a world famous secret agent, and Moore’s Bond travels (often to some of the most exotic or glamorous places on the globe) with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.  More than any other actor to inhabit the role, Moore was the complete Gentleman Hero – he lacked the cruelty of Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, the crudity of Timothy Dalton and the nouveau riche affectations of Pierce Brosnan, but he was always accessible and amusing.  In an era when we must suffer through Batman movies that take themselves “seriously” (perhaps one of the most telling indications of our cultural and intellectual rot), Moore’s trifles are a welcome balm indeed. 

These thoughts flittered through my mind last week when I had the great pleasure of attending a question and answer session with legendary actor last Thursday at New York’s Player’s Club.  The event was presented under the auspices of the Hudson Union Society, with Moore in a discussion about his history as Bond during this, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the James Bond film series.

To those of us who grew up with Moore’s Bond pictures, it comes as something as a shock to realize that Moore is now 85 years old.  Though visibly slowed by age, Moore took the stage with a glass of wine and answered interview questions and queries from the audience for more than an hour before stopping to meet every attendee and sign copies of his new book, Bond on Bond.  Many of us then retired to the bar.

Sipping his wine, Moore said, “I don’t have a drinking problem: I can always find liquor” and the evening was off and running.  When asked which was his favorite Bond film, Moore told the audience it was the current release, Skyfall.  Then, under his breath, he murmured, “they paid me to say that.”

Moore’s self-decrepitating humor never failed him.  Commenting on the extremely muscular turn of Daniel Craig – noted especially for gratuitous shots on the beach and in bathing trunks, the octogenarian hero said, “they wanted me for those scenes, but I was busy that day.”

Moore told wonderful stories of Hervé Villechaize (1943 – 1993), whom he playfully described as a “sex maniac” who slept with over 54 women during the making of The Man With the Golden Gun.  “But,” Moore says, “I told him it doesn’t count if you pay for it.”  He also remembered his years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where, “I learned more about sex than about acting.”

Moore told stories about his turn as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in New York (“John Huston played Moriarty and said he couldn’t remember his lines, so the art department made the most beautiful idiot cards you had ever seen – all done by hand in calligraphy.  And the bugger was letter perfect when he showed up: he never needed them”); about his inability to ski (“my children would tell me to stay home whenever they had field trips – I was an embarrassment to them”); and expressed his disdain for pop has-been Grace Jones (“next question”).  And watching the audience laugh along with him, I thought it was a shame that Moore became such a bankable leading man when his greatest talents were as a light comedian.

Moore stated that his one unfilled dream was to play the villain in a Bond film – they often have the best dialog and work many fewer days.  I believe that ship has sailed, but it would’ve been a wonderful coda to an amusing – and amused – career.

Friday, November 9, 2012

George Paul Leroux, Part III: Leroux in Heaven

After the horrors of the Great War, Leroux returned each year to his haven, Rome.  Amazingly, the horrors of the conflict did not embitter his art forever … as it had for many.  As can be seen here, Leroux returned to, and embraced, life.

This is actually quite an idyllic picture.  The youths bathe in the Tiber, kissed by the glorious Italian sunshine.  Leroux depicts their nude bodies with a wonderful innocence and forming a perfect triangle between the boat’s mast and the diver.

Not surprisingly, the one clothed figure is separated from the rest of the group –and he looks on, perhaps feeling his exclusion.  Perhaps Leroux is saying that happiness is natural … the bathing suit is of a color with the man-made landscape in the background. 

I like to think of Leroux in Italy, making beautiful things, cleansed after putting the carnage of the Great War, with all of its pain and its horror, behind him.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

George Paul Leroux, Part II: Leroux in Hell

Since the vivid horrors that flooded American living rooms during television coverage of the Viet Nam war, we have been shielded from graphic images of war and its victims in-and-out of uniform.  Perhaps if looking at the day-to-day dying during war returned to our sanitized television sets, with its mud and its senseless carnage, there would be fewer armed conflicts.  Certainly American citizens would be less willing to allow our elected leaders to engage in mechanized manslaughter.

First-hand accounts of the Great War started early.  Because of an increased literacy among the rising middle class, more and more books and newspaper accounts were available, bringing the realities of the conflict into stark relief.  Following is an account by Fernand Léger about the siege of Verdun, penned on November 7th 1916:  I climbed up to the top of the gully I am in. Behind me was Fleury, and in front of me Vaux and Douaumont. I could see out over an area of ten square kilometres that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth. The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them. A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded - the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind. They were no bigger than ants down there. The artillery dominates everything. A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency.

Leroux painted Hell (L’Enfer) in 1921, and it can currently be seen in the Imperial War Museum.  The picture represents the experience of serving on the Western Front – where war became industrialized.  The picture was probably inspired by the 1916 battles in defense of Verdun.  The French Army lost nearly half a million men between February and December 1916 repelling repeated German attacks.  Staggering casualties occurred on both sides, but the face of warfare changed from hand to hand combat to high-tech artillery bombardments.

Leroux frames the grotesque image with an arch of brown smoke (created, no doubt, by the background fires).  The landscape is littered with corpses and with blasted trees; there is no life or vegetation on view, and it almost seems as if the earth were coughing up corpses.

A mud hole is filled with dead or dying men, and others trying to escape.  Taken out of its Great War context, and it could easily serve as an illustration of the Biblical Hell.  Leroux consciously draws on centuries artistic depictions of hell to tell his story; the picture quakes with echoes of Dante and Bosch.  The fires, which serve to maximize our attention on foreground figures, also highlight several blasted trees that almost look like ruined crosses.  Here, Leroux says, there is no hope for salvation.

In yesterday’s painting, In Eparges, 1915, Leroux showed us the face of an everyman finding repose in death; here we do not even have the solace of the grave.

Tomorrow – a beautiful picture from Leroux’s long-term love affair with Italy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

George Paul Leroux, Part I

The more I look at pictures, the more I am delighted, moved and intrigued by what I find.  I’m sure that the name Georges Paul Leroux (1877-1957) is one unfamiliar to many, but his work is alternately beautiful and disturbing.  He is something of a forgotten master, and I suspect that this is a result of the historical moment in which he lived, and his stark, bleak representations of The Great War.

Surely a look at the Academic male nude below demonstrates his mastery of form, his coolly controlled drawing and his sensitivity to light and dark.  However, these qualities became less relevant as the Twentieth Century progressed, and the vapid tropes of Modernism came to the fore.  As Leroux grew older, the fundamental artistic language he spoke was lost.

Leroux was born in Paris, son of Gustav Ferdinand Leroux, a printer of art prints.  Leroux and his brother, Auguste, would study art in Trelly, before serving in the 130 Infantry Regiment, completing his military service in Chartres, where he would regularly draw and paint the cathedral.  It was in Chartres that he met painter Paul Jouve (1978-1973), who became his lifelong friend.

Leroux studied at the national School of Decorative Arts and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, later working in the studio of Leon Bonnat (1833-1922).  Leroux painted many slice-of-life pictures of Paris before going to Rome in 1907.  He would grow to love the Italy, and he would return there almost every year to paint the Italian countryside.  On Friday, we will look at his most beautiful Italian picture.

The Great War, however, changed much of his life.  He would marry Mathilde Gabrielle Planquais in Meudon in 1915, and his international travels were curtailed by the War.  It was after the War that Leroux would paint two of his masterful war pictures.

In Eparges, 1915, Leroux depicts the stark horrors of war in a manner less grotesque than Goya, but equally compelling.  The Great War irrevocably changed the notions of warfare in the popular imagination.  The tens of thousands of dead – an entire Lost Generation – erased visions of heroic leaders cleaving through anonymous cannon fodder, the heavens above heralding the victory of God’s chosen.  Rather, greater access to communications, photographs and written first-hand narratives underscored the fact that war involved vast quantities of mud, blood, pain, and dead men.

It is the dead, in fact, that create the focal point of In Eparges, 1915.  Look at the living figures in this fascinating picture.  The living men find the corpse of a comrade, examining his papers to identify him before lowering him into the grave that the others are digging.  But all of these men are anonymous – faces are turned from us, or in shadow.  It is almost as if the living were the ghosts … and the dead man the only animated figure.

The off white the dead man’s shirt and the focus of light on his white head and hands provide the human focal point. His uniform lies crumpled beside him (obviously stripped off by his brother soldiers) – he is no longer a soldier, a figure representing a nation or an ideology, but simply a dead man.  There is no excessive gore or carnage to inspire horror – it is just our stark humanity laid bare.  That, I think, is the root of the picture’s power.

The landscape is dotted with simple, hand-made crosses; the upturned mud littered with burial tools and stones.  The only hint of transcendence, aside from the peaceful look on the dead man’s face, are the faint stars above.  I cannot but help think the dead man looks at the stars, or that the stars look down on him.  Otherwise, the circumstances surrounding the dead man would be too terrible to contemplate.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dystopian Chic

There are few bad movies more influential than 1982’s Blade Runner.  Directed in a flashy, hollow manner by Ridley Scott, the film tried to combine the disparate moods of futuristic science fiction, film noir, and hardboiled detective fiction.  As an example of any of these genres, the film is a failure and one cannot help but feel that the creative team behind it knew that as well:  there have been no fewer than seven different versions of the film, and none of them work.

For those with blissfully short memories, Blade Runner concerned detective Harrison Ford romping around a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, looking to shoot various homicidal robots.  Or something.  At any rate, one of the distinctive things about the film was its art direction: most of the denizens of Los Angeles wear freakish or tattered clothes, and the streets are illuminated by advertising broadcast from building facades.

About the clothes and overall look of unwashed people I will say little, other than a trip in the New York City subway often leaves one wanting to hand out free bars of soap.  It’s particularly gruesome to ride next to New York’s burgeoning population of “hipsters:”  it’s not unusual to see people dressed as if for a Halloween party on their way to work, and to wonder, as well, if sales of shampoo are down or raising head lice were a competitive sport.

But the most dire aspect of Blade Runner has been its inspiration to advertisers, hucksters and media pimps who saw the idea of a moving billboard as a challenge to the health, sanity and aesthetics of normal human beings.  Forgetting completely that the vision of Blade Runner was one of an urban hell, advertisers jumped on the idea of animated billboards, and it is impossible to walk through much of New York without being bombarded by these repulsive and intrusive mechanized menaces.

This is fairly evident to anyone walking down Times Square at night – the light from moving images on the sides of buildings is enough to challenge even the most meager sun, and sensory input would kill even your simplest, most humble thought. 

The photos above were taken at 34th Street – right across from Macy’s, point of fact.  Macy’s was one of the first retailers to jump on this reprehensible practice, erecting a jumbo screen over the entranceway to pander during the Republican convention in 2004.  Do pedestrians really need to see under-washed and underfed youths dress in simulacrums 50 feet tall?

It is nearly impossible to be a contemporary pedestrian without some hint of the affliction’s of Poe’s Roderick Usher.  Sights and sounds assail us.  Smells gag us.  Our senses are rattled, our thoughts disjointed, our very personal boundaries invaded by the ubiquity of trash advertising.

Welcome to the world of dystopian chic.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Forces Cancellation of Waldeck Lecture

Readers interested in attending the today’s lecture on Jean-Frédéric Waldeck at the Dahesh Museum Gift Shop should know that is has been rescheduled for Thursday, November 15.