Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

Robert Boyd

I've had this book for a while in my "to read" pile, but I was a little intimidated by it. But then I picked up a copy of Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein and as I started to read Rubinstein's book of poems, I realized that he had been a friend Ilya Kabakov and an associate of Collective Action, two of the main subjects of The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes.I thought it would be useful to give Rubinstein some context if I knew more about the milieu he arose from. And I was right.

This book analyzes the work and actions of artists from the era under discussion (Moscow, from the beginning of the "Thaw" after Stalin's death (1953) and Khruschev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin in February 1956, until the end of the Soviet Union in 1989. It specifically focuses on "unofficial artists" like Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, the team of Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, and Collective Action, the group lead by Andrei Monastyrsky. But in addition to all of these highly conceptual artists, author Mathew Jesse Jackson looks at the broad swathe of unofficial art activities, including work by Ernst Neizvestiny and Oskar Rabin. In other words, it's not just a book of criticism, but is also a history of the scene that grew up mostly in artists' apartments. Boris Groys blurbed it on the back cover very aptly:
Matthew Jackson combines vast art historical and theoretical erudition with a rare ability to understand specific social milieus and psychological motives that govern individual artistic strategies. His book offers a fascinating--and at the same time precise--description of the Moscow artistic scene during the times of the cold war.
One almost doesn't need to write a review after that blurb. It really describes the book in a nutshell, both in tone and content. (It's weird that the quote comes from Groys--who is one of the subjects of the book!)

Jackson's "vast theoretical erudition" is evident is almost every paragraph--he seems to have read every important work of theory and criticism (in French, English and Russian) and deploys them all. He doesn't just focus on the artists but writes a lot about Soviet society and life in the Brezhnev years. He describes key public events in the history of unofficial art in the Soviet Union (such as the exhibit in 1962 called 30 Years of Moscow Art in which Khruschev angrily encountered Russian abstract art for the first time, and got into a shouting match with sculptor Neizvestiny, who he called a faggot, and the infamous "bulldozer show" in 1974, when a group of unofficial artists arranged an outdoor exhibit that was violently broken up by police and bulldozed.) It was events like this that gave Americans the idea that unofficial artists were dissidents, but for the most part, this wasn't true. They lived double lives--by day productive Soviet citizens, by night unofficial artists in their apartments. In a way, there was a secret society of artists working off the grid. Hence the term "unofficial artists". Official art was produced through artist and writers unions, for official publishing houses and galleries, and with very proscribed subjects matters and styles. (Although not as restrictive as we often imagine--after all, all of Tarkovsky's movies were made in this system. He was an "official" artist.)

Here it's important to mention apartments. During Stalin's rule, people lived in collective apartments, forced to room with strangers. This was mainly due to a lack of housing but also served the state as a kind of panopticon--everyone kept an eye on everyone else. Under Khruschev, a massive building program of cheap apartments was begun. These apartments have come to be called Khrushchyovka. They were utter crap, but they made private lives possible. The double lives mentioned above were greatly facilitated by the Khrushchyovkas. (Good descriptions of Khrushchyovkas and their effect on society can be found in Svetlana Alexievich's powerful oral history of the end of the Soviet Union, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.) For unofficial artists, who had almost no public space for exhibiting art, apartments were of supreme importance. They provided a place for artists to meet, to look at each other's work, and develop ideas. Kabakov's apartment was an important meeting place for all of the unofficial artists of the 1970s. Jackson quotes Groys, "There was no art market, no spectators from outside. This means that these artists made their works for their colleagues--other artists, writers, or intellectuals involved in the unofficial art scene." And Lev Rubinstein remarked, "I am from the underground, and for me the public is a certain aggregate of my friends and acquaintances that serve as a reference group that forms my aesthetic values."

(As an aside, this work did slowly leak out into the West through the efforts of dedicated, oddball collectors like Norton Dodge, an American academic who studied Soviet economic practices and frequently traveled to the USSR. His mission of collecting unofficial art is described in amusing detail in John McPhee's The Ransom of Russian Art. Then during the Gorbachev era, the market in the West for this work was accelerated.)

The thing was, the artists were never sure how tolerant the state was going to be at any given time. For example, Kabakov didn't participate in the bulldozer show, even though he was invited to do so. He knew it was a provocation and he had a lot to lose. Kabakov was an official artist in his day job--a member in good standing of the artists' union, working as an illustrator of children's books. We like to think of unofficial artists in the USSR as heroic dissidents, like Joseph Brodsky or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I think we in the West valorize those dissident artists because we imagine that we would act in a similarly heroic way in the same situation. But I think we would act more like Kabakov and Monastyrsky and Rubenstein--work quietly, leading double lives, constantly negotiating within our hearts what the state will let us get away with.

Collective Action, Slogan--1977, performance documentation

Collective Action was Andrei Monastyrsky's group that did what in the West we would call "performance art." But while "performance art" here is done for generally small audiences in public venues, Collective Action's performances were done for handpicked audiences of friends. The friends would often be participants in the actions, which often took place in open fields or forests on the edge of Moscow. For Slogan--1977, the group went to a field on the edge of some woods, two members raised a banner between two trees (that read, "I am not complaining about anything and I like this, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place"--similarly mysterious lines are found in Lev Rubinstein's poetry). But an even more obscure performance involved Monastyrsky mailing a banner to Georgy Kizevalter with instructions. Kizevalter lived in Siberia and was instructed to raise the banner between two trees by himself, walk a certain number of paces away, and photograph it. It was a performance for one person, who was both the performer and the viewer!

Collective Action, To G. Kizevalter (Sogan--1980), 1980, performance documentation

Jackson's criticism and interpretation is erudite but he sometimes outsmarts himself. Writing about Erik Bulgatov, he writes "His best paintings sidestepped irony, offering unremarkable landscapes interrupted by precise rows of red letters. It is often said that such works "critiqued" Soviet reality, and no doubt they did, but the canvases amount to much more than postmodern political declarations." He then goes into a fascinating and detailed analysis of the painting Danger (1972-73) which is undoubtedly correct, but it seems unreasonable to deny the easy irony of the painting--a realistic scene of bucolic beauty superimposed with the word "Danger" four times. Irony is hardly "sidestepped" here--it is in fact shoved into the viewers face.

Erik Bulatov, Danger, 1972-73, oil on canvas

Ilya Kabakov eventually started doing "albums", which were series of drawings and texts that he would perform for guests in his apartment. Here, Jackson writes, "[Kabakov] had grown interested in narrative, grids, serial images, and frames--devices that seem incompatible, given the grid's presumed hostility to narrative." Presumed by whom? Here Jackson's erudition fails him. I've always thought that Kabakov's albums bore a resemblance to comics (which are, after all, narratives told in grids, with serial images in frames). I kind of dismissed this given the performance aspect of the works. But given the descriptions by Jackson, it seems reasonable to view albums like Ten Characters as a type of comics.

Ilya Kabakov, The Flying Komarov, 1972-75. Page from album 6 of Ten Characters

 And in the albums, we can see how his day job as a children's book illustrator affected his night job as a conceptual artist. His drawing style, combining linework and coloring, is like illustration and indeed very similar to much comics artwork. Indeed, this relationship between Soviet unofficial artists' day jobs and their art is underdeveloped in Jackson's book. (For example, Lev Rubinstein's poems were written with one line on a separate card, not unlike a card from a card catalog. His day job was as a librarian.) I have long wished that someone would publish Ten Characters as a book (dual language, of course), so we could read Kabakov's narratives.

But these are minor complaints. The Experimental Group is an amazing work of art history and illuminates an almost entirely underground scene brilliantly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rough House 3

Robert Boyd

In my ongoing effort to read all the books in my unread "pile" (more like "unread shelves"), I just read Rough House 3 which was published in 2015. I don't know how long I've had it--a good long while, I think. That said, they haven't published one since 2015 so now I'm all caught up.

The idea behind Rough House has been to be an Austin-based anthology, but by volume 3, contributors come from all over--Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Tel Aviv, Croatia, etc. And it's the best volume yet--the drawing is varied and wonderful. I love the drawing of Shawn Eisenach who contributed 4 mysterious silent one-page strips.

Shawn Eisenach

Another artist whose visual style I liked very much was Lea Heinrich. She had what I would call a very "Nobrow" style after the English publisher--a very designy illustrational style that seems extremely well-suited to the risograph. Her highly stylized drawing is layered with brushy blue tones. For her story "5 Finger Discount", she is adapting a poem by Lynn Gentry.

Lea Heinrich

Keren Katz's "The Man on Floor 319" is a little fable of the dangers of separating yourself from real life as well as the very real dangers of embracing life. It is drawn in black and white (not using the spot color capacities of the risograph printing) in a funny, clean cartoony style.

Keren Katz

Sarah Welch's untitled wordless story switches between a sleeping woman (drawn in blue and black) and a truck driving through what appears to be a dry, West Texas landscape, depicted in black and an intense shade of pink.  There's not really a story here--there's nothing obvious to connect the two parts, and nothing much happens. It's really just a sequence of evocative images forming the barest hint of a narrative.

Sarah Welch--for some reason, my scanner didn't scan the hot pink truck, so you'll just have to imagine them

The book is printed on a risograph (with various spot colors) and is really well designed. However, the table of contents just lists the names of the artists and it is slightly confusing to figure out who did what story. Page numbers would have helped!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures

Robert Boyd

Yvan Alagbé published Les Nègres jaunes et autres créatures imaginaires in 2012, collecting stories that were originally published in Le Chéval sans tête, which Yvan Alagbé co-edited in the early 1990s. The longest story is Les Nègres jaune, which was originally published in 1994. It is widely considered a modern classic of French comics. The New York Review of Books has in recent years been publishing comics, many translated from French and belonging to Alagbé's generation and general style--experimental, artistic and somewhat oblique.It's taken more than 20 years for the USA to catch up with this masterpiece, with New York Review Comics publishing Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures in English with a new story as an afterward.These stories of migrants from third world countries seem more urgent than ever, although for Americans the situation is a little different. We didn't have, as France did, a vast African empire. Alagbé was born in Paris in 1971 of Beninese parents, and lived for three years as a child with his family in Benin. His stories are often about undocumented workers from Africa who end up in France. However, the stories don't exist to make a political point, even if such points are inherent in the stories. Alagbé is not a polemicist. His work is too subtle and inflected with modernism to be propaganda.

At first glance, his drawing seems very sketchy. He likes to slather black ink on the page. He has an expressionist style. perhaps related to José Muñoz, an artist whose work he published through Amok, a boutique avant garde comics publisher in France. But he sometimes lays off the heavy blacks and uses fairly delicate line work or even a humorous, cartoony style. It all depends on the needs of the story at a particular place. This willingness to change the art to suit the story recall's Muñoz's teacher, Alberto Breccia. But Alagbé's drawing style is not what sets him apart--it's the structures of his stories.

Yvan Alagbé, page from "Yellow Negroes" featuring the charcters Mario and Martine, 1994-95

"Yellow Negroes" has the most conventional structure. The story of Alain, Claire and Mario--Alain is an undocumented Beninese man, Claire his white French girlfriend, and Mario, a former Algerian policeman who worked for the colonial government repressing the Algerian revolutionaries, making him a persona non grata in Algeria and an embarrassment to the current French police. Mario's awkward place between two worlds, neither of which want him, make him the most interesting character in the story. As an elderly retired policeman, he continually tells Alain and his sister Martine (who works as a housekeeper) that he can use his "connections" to help them get papers. But he is mainly a lonely man, who uses their abject state as a way to insinuate himself into their lives.

Yvan Alagbé, panel from "Postcard From Montreuil", 2012

But a totally different structure is used in "Postcard From Montreuil". Here each panel shows a view of the street in Montreuil where the "Hommage à la Résistance 1939-1945" monument is. This abstract sculpture pops up in some of the panels, which otherwise mostly depict ordinary street scene--buildings, pedestrians, etc. Meanwhile, each panel has a caption below that describes how this was the site of a months long occupation of an employment agency by undocumented Malian workers. This jobs protest goes on for almost a year until the agency is moved without warning. It is not explained if the protest followed or not, nor are the protesters depicted in any way. Except for a few images of job notices pinned to a wall, almost every panel could indeed be a postcard of picturesque Montreuil and its "curious sculpture." Alagbé quotes the base of the monument: "If the echo of their voices weakens, we shall perish." The quote is attributed to Paul Éluard. In a way, the story itself shows that the echo of the voices of the protesters is weakened by the abrupt relocation of the jobs agency, but in a sense Alagbé's story itself becomes an echo, preventing the protest from perishing from memory.

Yvan Alagbé, two pages spread from "The Suitcase", 2012

"The Suitcase" is a good example of how Alagbé changes his drawing style to fit the work. The barely there story is about Jeanne Martine Egbo returning from her "native land" to "France/Hollywood", carrying fish in her suitcase. The style is very abstract and symbolic, except for a few images of Egbo dealing with her suitcase, which are depicted in a completely different, comedic manner.

 Yvan Alagbé, panels from "Sand Niggers", 2017

The new story "Sand Niggers" was drawn in 2017. Alagbé directly addresses the issue of "migrants" fleeing their homes to Europe, comparing their plight to another classic French comic from the 1990s (which I hope The New York Review translates)--Demonic Tales by Aristophane. The text is a meandering first person essay about migrants and refugees and survivors, as well as the dead. The images have an oblique relationship to the text. (Indeed, Donald Trump appears in one in one of his trademark signing ceremony poses.) "Sand Niggers" will perhaps help the American readership to make sense of what they just read.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars

Robert Boyd

Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars (cover art by Charles Dellschau)

Jay Wehnert has been writing about outsider art, specifically Texas outsider art, since 2011 on his blog, Intuitive Eye. And now he has taken his research and put it together in one very handsome volume, Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars. He's not an academic, but the level of research here is impressive. In addition to learning what he could about each artist (and that varies with each one--in some cases, their biographies are well-documented, in others not so much), he bases a lot of what he writes on the ideas of Jean Debuffet and Roger Cardinal. Debuffet created the category with his essay "L'Art Brut préféré aux arts culturels" (1949) and Cardinal's book, Outsider Art (1973) which coined the term now in common use. But writing since 1973 has called the terms Art Brut and Outsider Art into question, although the basic ideas are still valid in my opinion. For me, the go to book on the subject is Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity by Gary Alan Fine, which I wrote about here. Fine was a sociologist so he was not just interested in the work of these artists and the artists themselves but the whole world in which the existed--the artists, but also the people interested in outsider art (collectors, scholars, etc.).

Key to that world is how the work was "discovered"--how the work of an isolated artist not working within a particular folk tradition is found by someone who sees that this work is something that the art world might find interesting. The classic example of this was when photographer Nathan Lerner discovered Henry Darger's art in his apartment shortly after Darger's death. Lerner was sophisticated enough to realize that Darger's work was something special--one shudders to think what would have happened if Darger's landlord had been almost anyone else other than Lerner. Similar stories can be told for any number of great "outsider" artists.

And these discovery stories become part of what Wehnert writes about.  The complicated story of how the notebooks of Charles Dellschau (1830-1923) were discovered and preserved is a miracle of several people coming across his notebooks which were thrown out by his family in 1967. If any of these people hadn't stumbled across them, they might have been lost. But the stories of Ike Morgan, Felix "Fox" Harris and Vanzant Driver are more typical. In each case, one person discovered the art and brought it to the attention of the art world.

Ike Morgan, George Washington, 2004, acrylic on poster board

Ike Morgan was locked away in a state mental hospital when he was 19 in 1977 after murdering is grandmother. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, and like many mental patients turned artist, drawing for him started as a form of therapy. In 1983, Jim Pirtle, a budding young artist, got a job as an orderly at the Austin State Hospital and met Morgan. He befriended Morgan and saw his drawings. After Pirtle moved to Houston and took on his vocation as an artist, he showed Morgan's work to people and began selling the pictures, sending the money back to Morgan. Morgan has developed a small, devoted following. (Long time readers will know that I'm a big fan of Morgan's portraits--I used one of them on the cover of a magazine I published called Exu, which can be ordered here.) He is currently represented by the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. They provide Morgan (who is no longer institutionalized) with high-quality art materials for his work. And Pirtle is now a well-known performance artist in Houston.

Vanzant Driver, Untitled (Church), not dated, broken glass, mirror and wood

Vanzant Driver started building churches out of shattered pieces of glass. (Indeed one of the things one finds with many of the artists described here is a deep, traditional religiosity. They often ascribe their work to a religious impulse.) Once he began making his churches, he brought them to various art institutions in Houston, which showed no interest. But he lucked out at the Contemporary Arts Museum when his work caught the eye of Sheila Rosenstein, director of the museum bookstore. Wehnert doesn't describe the meeting, but it seem reasonable to assume that he went to the bookstore because it was one part of the museum that is always open to the public. It's not like the director or head curators are out and available to any random person who comes in. But not surprisingly, Rosentstein was, and she had connections that  made it possible for Driver's work to be seen by collectors and curators.

Keith Carter, Homestead, Felix Fox Harris, 1983, photograph

Felix "Fox" Harris is one of those artists who takes to decorating his lawn. Like Driver, he was a visionary artist, inspired by God to create his elaborate yard art. This is one example where the "outsider" label seems false. This sculpture garden approach has a long tradition. It's known as a "yard show", and Wehnert points out that some writers suggest the tradition goes back to "Angola-Kongo influence". So while it might not be a folk art in the sense of a traditional craft passed down through practitioners over generations, it is something that continually pops up. In fact, I was surprised that Wehnert left out Cleveland Turner, the "Flower Man" of Houston who decorated his house in a similar fashion. To me, this kind of tradition suggests that "outsider art" might be a bad term, particularly for certain kinds of African-American vernacular art. I prefer the term "self-taught", but that is also inadequate fior the entire range of such art.

In any case, part of the reason we know about Fox Harris is that an excellent Beaumont photographer Keith Carter stumbled across Harris's house and started recording it in photographs. Harris's yard show was acquired by the Art Museum of Southeast Texas after Harris's death in 1985. Without the "discovery" of the work by Carter, it would probably be gone.

Wehnert gets to claim his status as a "discoverer" of an outsider artist. Richard Gordon Kendall was a homeless man who drew obsessively detailed drawings of buildings in Houston that he could see from the streets where he lived. Wehnert found him through a friend who mentioned seeing a homeless man in downtown Houston, where Wehnert subsequently found him in 1995. Unfortunately, in 1998, he "disappeared"--or at least stopped hanging out at his usual haunts in downtown Houston. He was quite old at the time (68), and I doubt if living on the street was doing his health any good. So he may have died. In any case, Wehnert was never able to find out.

The book rather inexplicably leaves out Cleveland Turner and Jeff McKissack, creator of the Orange Show. It may be that Wehnert felt like those artists have been discussed in detail elsewhere, but in any case, they are both prime examples of outsider artists in Texas. However, it does cover the work of eleven artists, with ample information (where it's available) about each and lovely reproductions of their artwork. This is an illuminating book.

Friday, August 3, 2018

I, René Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB

Robert Boyd

Jacques Tardi encouraged his father, René Tardi, to write down his memories of being a POW in a Nazi prison camp during World War II in the early 80s. Some 30 years later, Jacques drew it as a two part graphic novel. I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB part 1 has just been published in English.

Not surprisingly, given the ongoing excellence of Jacques Tardi, it's superb. Tardi draws it as a dialogue between himself and his father--drawing himself as a boy in shorts and his father as a young man. But aside from the narrative structure (a father telling his son about what happened to him during the war), it is drawn as a narrative of the war and the camp, Stalag IIB. So while René Tardi engages in a tank battle or starves in a barracks in Pomerania, Jacques, depicted as a boy, is always standing nearby, as if he were there. This surreal touch made me think of David B, a much younger cartoonist but one who has had a fairly profound effect on French Comics.

The first volume takes us approximately to the end of the war. The next volume covers Rene's trip home and postwar life. (Interestingly, this mirrors the structure of Primo Levi's classic If This Is a Man and The Truce, the first covering his time before and during his internment at Auschwitz, and the second covering his liberation and circuitous trip home). Undoubtedly people will compare this book to Holocaust narratives like Levi's. Especially to Maus by Art Spiegelman, which is likewise a story told by a father to his son and then turned into comics. Tardi must have had Maus in mind as he worked on this book.

In the introduction, it is pointed out that French POWs did not exactly receive a warm welcome when they returned home from their long internment. They were a reminder of the failure of the French to successfully fight the Nazi invaders. They could not be lionized, like Resistance fighters, nor condemned like Vichy collaborators, nor pitied like the small number of Jewish survivors who made it back. But the Stalags were obviously no picnic, as René Tardi's account shows. While the American prisoners had it OK, that was not the case for the French or other prisoners from conquered countries. America had plenty of German POWs, and it was in Germany's interests to treat the Americans well because of it. In fact, different nationalities got different levels of treatment. Those that got it worst were the Russians, who died in appalling numbers in German captivity, as was described in harrowing detail in Timothy Snyder's book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The French traded laborers for POWs, which was how one of Rene's friends got out of the Stalag early. But Rene endured all the way to the end of the war. The Stalags were not a great crime against humanity like the Nazi extermination camps were (unless you were a Russian POW), but their story deserves to be told. We Americans get a bizarre notion of them from seeing such entertainments as The Great Escape. This book is at a corrective for that impression of the Stalags.

René Tardi is an acerbic, cynical person and an unforgettable character. His voice is half the story here (and think a lot of his words are direct transcriptions from the narrative he wrote for his son Jacques Tardi in the early 80s). Without having read the original (I can't read French anyway), I do want to praise the translator Jenna Allen. Previous volumes of Tardi's work from this publisher were translated by the late Kim Thompson, co-publisher and a man fluent in several languages, including French. But of all the Tardi books I've read from Fantagraphics, this is my favorite in terms of the language, and that has to be attributable in large part to Allen's translation.

I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Gorgeous and Delicious Fruits, part 1

Robert Boyd

In 2017, I saw a play by Wallace Shawn called Evening at the Talk House. The program book included an excerpt from an essay written this year by Shawn, "Night Thoughts," a full-throated defense of elitist tastes. (It was an excerpt from a longer essay, which was scathing about just about everybody.) He wrote
Undoubtedly less shocking, but possibly more weird, is the incredible fact that in the contemporary world many even of those who are born lucky are voluntarily forgoing the opportunity to develop their inner resources. Gorgeous and delicious fruits, grown by seductive geniuses, sit on the plates of these lucky people but remain uneaten. A process of decay has infected the lucky in various parts of the world, and very notably in the United States, leading many even of the luckiest to turn vehemently against complex thought in general and the cultivation of the intellect in particular--and even to turn against complex pleasures. And in certain circles, crude thought and ignorance are openly respected and praised, while the concept of basing one's conclusions on evidence (or replicable experiments)--even the principle of rationality itself--are ignored or even mocked.
When I read this, I couldn't help but think of Donald Trump. But I also guiltily thought of myself, a man born lucky, who has always loved sophisticated art and thinking, but who has in recent months been binge-watching pretty dumb stuff on Netflix and Amazon Prime. My justification for this is that "my mind sometimes craves junk food"--this is a quote from "Prisoners of Hate Island," a short comic by Peter Bagge. It's spoken by Bagge's publisher, Kim Thompson, to justify why he liked an obviously terrible sci-fi movie. Whenever I go see a superhero movie, that phrase is what makes it OK. But I have been starting to feel like the "junk food" has kind of taken over my life.

So I decided to enter into a program of not viewing junk. British film magazine Sight & Sound has been publishing a list of the top 50 feature films for decades. They arrive at their list by polling critics. I thought to counteract the deleterious effects of a summer spent binge-watching old TV shows (including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show in which Wallace Shawn had a recurring minor role), I decided I would watch all the movies I hadn't yet seen from the 2012 Sight & Sound list.

Wallace Shawn and Grand Nagus Zek from Deep Space Nine

I had seen #1 and #2 (Vertigo and Citizen Kane), so I started with #3 on the list.

(3) Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro (1953). 
The first two had tons of drama and in the case of Vertigo, suspense. Tokyo Story is a family drama but a very quiet one. Two elderly parents from the small city of Onomichi are visiting their adult children in Tokyo. Their son is a doctor and their daughter runs a beauty salon. They also have a daughter in law, Noriko, who is the widow of a son who died in the war (the film was released in 1953, so the war was a fresh memory). The son and daughter are quite busy with their lives in Tokyo and don't have enough time to properly entertain mom and dad. Only Noriko makes the time. The parents return to their hometown, and the mother (68 years old) becomes ill and dies.

Kōichi, Noriko, Shige, and Kyōko gather at their mother's side when she is ill

All the children return for the funeral. Shige, the eldest daughter, asks for some of her mother's clothing after the funeral, an action that angers Kyōko, the youngest daughter who still lives with her parents in Onomichi. That is the most dramatic moment in the movie. The other drama is exceptionally quiet, but over the course of the film, very present. The feelings of the characters are hidden at first, but become revealed as you get to know them.

This film is in black and white and mostly filmed indoors in people's houses and apartments. The compositions of the shots (which never feature a moving camera) is elegant and filled with complex interweavings of light and dark. Ozu seems to delight in showing you everything. Someone is leaving the house, and we'll see her carefully put on her socks, walk to the font, put on her shoes, and then leave. This kind of deliberateness typifies the "action". Aging parents and their adult children is a universal subject, but what was great for me was seeing this intensely Japanese--and thus very foreign to me--behavior.

The next few on the Sight & Sound list were movies I have seen: 4 is La Règle du Jeu by Jean Renoir, 5 is Sunrise by F.W. Murnau, 6 is 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and 7 is The Searchers by John Ford. But the next one is one I've long heard of but never seen.

8. Man With a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov

This rather short (just over an hour) silent documentary film is portrait of a city over the course of a day. But not one city--it was filmed in Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa. There are no titles (the only subtitles are there to help English-reading audiences read the Russian signs). It starts in a movie theater, as if people are coming in to watch this very movie. Then we see the city coming to life. A woman wakes up and gets dressed, busses and trams issue forth from their barns. People sleeping on the street and on park benches wake up (that struck me as odd--were these people homeless?).  We also see a cameraman, carrying his movie camera and a tripod. It is barely portable, but he lugs it around the city. It's a hand-cranked camera. The cameraman is often the subject of special effects, that make him appear enormous or tiny. In one memorable scene, he emerges from a glass mug of beer.

The dance of the trolleys and pedestrians in Man With a Movie Camera

The film goes through various stages of a day. Work (scenes of factories and machinery, as well as other kinds of work, including some memorable shots within a coal mine with a horse pulling a cart--reminding one of Zola's great novel Germinal). We never linger too long on any given shot--Man With A Movie Camera is typified by quick editing (the editor was Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilov). And in most shots, there is motion; machines, vehicles, people doing things, walking hither and yon, as well as many tracking shots. Vertov mounted his camera on vehicles for some exceptional shots, including even mounting it on a motorcycle (he films his fictional camera man riding on a motorcycle, steering with one hand and cranking the camera with the other).

The workday ends and we see various forms of recreation--people doing track and field events, playing soccer and basketball, racing motorcycles (!), drinking in beerhalls, going to the beach (presumably in Odessa). There are several weird shots of a woman covering herself with a black cream on the beach, perhaps as sunscreen. And we see her black covered breasts, which must have been quite sexy for the time (I assume--I have always heard that Soviet society was quite prudish). 

As a documentary, it is in no way cinema verité--many of the scenes were clearly contrived by Vertov. All of the scenes with the camera man, the scene of the woman waking up, several brief stop-motion animated shots, etc. But it is quite breathtaking. A picture of the Soviet Union in the relatively optimistic period before the forced collectivization of the early 30s. Vertov was an formalist experimenter, but he also was a committed Communist and saw his mission to produce agitprop. So the film is a wholly positive portrayal of Soviet life. And it is a beautiful piece of film, obviously influential. The Sight & Sound list skews towards fiction films, which perhaps shows the short-sightedness of film critics and film viewers, but Vertov is a powerful voice for turning on the camera and filming what is around you.

I've seen (9) Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer), (10) 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini), and (11) Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisentein).

12.  L' Atalante by Jean Vigo (1934)
This seems like a very slight movie to make the list, but it has charm. Jean is a barge captain (L'Atalante is the name of his barge) plying the canals and rivers of France. Juliette is the woman from a small village that he marries at the beginning of the movie. She has never left the village and longs to see Paris. She has a highly romantic idea of love (she claims to have seen Jean's face reflected in water before she ever met him).

But life on board a barge is no picnic. That part I thought was intelligently filmed--I spent a couple of years living aboard small boats and they are every bit as cramped as L'Atalante suggests. Fortunately, none of my shipmates was a packrat like Père Jules. One memorable scene is set in his cabin, which he shares with the cabin boy Le Gosse. Père Jules is an inveterate collector of useless junk from a lifetime spent on ships, as well as a collection of stray cats.

Père Jules shows Juliette his puppet theater in his cramped cabin

Juliette and Jean are constantly arguing when they aren't making love. Père Jules says they are always either squabbling or smooching. It's a tough environment for a new wife.

Père Jules is indirectly the cause of the biggest conflict in L'Atalante. When they get to Paris, Jena promises to take Juliette out on the town. But Père Jules goes out instead and Jean can't leave the barge unattended. Père Jules gets ripsnorting drunk, stays out all night and Juliette's ambition to see Paris for the first time is thwarted. Jean and Juliette argue and at their next stop, Juliette jumps ship to go see Paris.

Jean is angry and sets out immediately for Le Havre. He acts erratically. Père Jules is worried and has to vouch for him to the boss at the shipping company. Père Jules resolves to find Juliette and bring her back. He is successful and Juliette and Jean have a rapturous reunion. This story is so simple it borders on trivial. I honestly have no idea why this rates being the 12th greatest film of all time. But I wasn't bored watching it, which is the least one can ask of a film.

13. Breathless by Jean-Luc Goddard (1960)

 This is one where I've seen the beginning a bunch of times but never saw the whole thing.This is the first of the Sight & Sound list that was pure entertainment. The story is pretty thin--a car thief named Michel Poiccard steals a car that he is to deliver to Marseilles. But as he is driving there, the police chase him and he kills a motorcycle cop. He runs away and returns to Paris. There he meets up with a girlfriend, Patricia Franchini. She is an American (played by Jean Seberg), who is working for the International Herald Tribune as a newspaper vendor and a cub reporter. She is supposed to register for classes at the Sorbonne in order to keep her allowance. You get the impression that she knows Michel is a low-life, but not that he is a professional criminal. (It reminds me of a cartoon by Adrian Tomine. Two beautiful young hipster girls are talking. One says, "Sure he's trouble, but that's just not enough anymore.")

Michel makes an effort to get some money and get out of town, but the police are closing in. He's identified and his picture is published on the front page of the newspaper. Meanwhile, he makes plans to go with Patricia to Italy. She is contacted by the police to whom she confesses that she knows who he is. They give her a number to call. While they are lamming it at the home of an underworld connection, she calls the police. They come and Michel is shot trying to run away.

Michel is a horrible person, but attractive. He's go that bad boy allure. He's not sympathetic, though--practically the first thing you see him do is commit murder. But his and Patricia's story is compelling. Goddard filmed it in a deliberately sloppy way. There are lots of unexplained jump cuts, which to a modern movie watcher are not particularly jarring, but must have seemed very daring in 1961. The movie looks great. (It helps that the stars look so great.)

The murderer and the paper-girl--Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg

This was Goddard's first film. Despite it's shocking, hand-held camera style and editing, Breathless was a huge hit in France and made Goddard's name around the world. Personally, I loved it.

I'll skip (14) Apocalypse Now as I have seen it several times.

15. Late Spring by Ozu Jasujiro (1949)

Made four years before Tokyo Story, Late Spring also stars Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara, who as in the latter film plays a beautiful single woman names Noriko. But the Norikos are distinct characters. In this movie, Noriko is the daughter of Professor Shukichi Somiya (the Chishū Ryū character). He is a professor and a widower and the pair have a strong bond. Noriko was until the time the film started quite infirm. Her malady isn't specified but it caused her to have a low blood count and was said to be a result of forced labor during the war. (The war looms in the background quietly--the original script was censored in small ways by the U.S. Occupation force.) She is considered something of an old maid (although she is young and beautiful) because she couldn't or wouldn't marry while she was ill. This isn't explicitly stated, though. It's my interpretation of what happened.

The pair of Noriko and Somiya are kind of perfect. They seemed to be a "duprass", a perfect holy pair in the religion of Bokononism from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. And Noriko is perfectly happy being her father's substitute wife. For some reason, she considers the idea of widowers remarrying to be "indecent" or even "filthy." But her father wants her to get married because he thinks she need to be with someone who will take care of her and with whom she'll find happiness, as he did with his late wife. There is some scheming to get her engaged, mostly by her aunt. Her best friend is divorced and has a somewhat cynical view of marriage. She seems to like her father's assistant, Hattori, but he is already engaged. So a suitable match is found and arrangements made. (This seems to be just at the cusp of the age of arranged marriages and freely chosen marriages.)

Noriko biking

Her father tells her that he is going to remarry, because he knows if he doesn't, she will never consent to be married. After Noriko's wedding, he is in a bar with a female friend drinking sake and tells her of his scheme. She approves of his deception, and is actually kind of flirtatious with him.

The plot is simple--minimal even. As in Tokyo Story, it is told with a kind of deliberateness. You see every room in Noriko and Somiya's house frequently--usually from the same angles. Ozu frequently shoots from a low angle, so the camera is looking up at the characters. But this is unobtrusive--he's not doing a worms-eye view. In fact, when characters kneel down or sit on cushions, the low angle is no longer a low angle.

Actions are filmed deliberately, as in the end when Somiya, along in his house for the first time, peels an apple. Ozu shows us the whole thing. It gets across the loneliness and sacrifice that the old professor has just made.

This is a beautiful movie. I liked it better than Tokyo Story.

16. Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson (1966)

This film didn't make a huge impression on me. Set in rural France along a border (not sure which border), it starts off with a group of kids playing. Their father buys them a baby donkey whom they name Balthazar. It switches forward a few years and Balthazar is repeatedly sold or given to new masters (who invariably mistreat the donkey). The young girl, Marie, who was given Balthazar at the beginning of the movie is a character whose story is told in parallel with the donkey's. She is played by 18-year-old actress Anne Wiazemsky, who subsequently had a minor film career, married Jean-Luc Goddard, then wrote several novels. As Balthazar is abused, as is Marie. At one distressing moment, she seems to be raped (it's not explicitly depicted) by Gerard, the leader of a local gang of juvenile delinquents. His story is also woven into the story of Balthazar.

Marie and Balthazar

As a portrait of rural French life in the 1960s, it has value. The fact that people still use donkeys as beast of burden then was shocking (although one wonders about the documentary accuracy). Balthazar is almost comically stoic, which reminds us that animals put up with a lot of evil shit from us humans. There is no attempt to humanize Balthazar. In the end, Marie leaves this evil little village (in which Gerard and his gang seem to be able to act with impunity), and Balthazar dies a violent death after being used to smuggle items across the border (Gerard and his gang graduate from juvie crimes like vandalism and burglary to "grown up" crimes like sexual assault and smuggling.)

The grain dealer played by Pierre Klossowski

One of Balthazar's owners is a grain dealer, whose intention with Balthazar is to work him to death and draw every penny's worth out of the poor beast. He was played very well by Pierre Klossowski, who was best known as a writer (especially about the Marquis de Sade) and for being the younger brother of the painter Balthus. Klossowski's character also lusts after Marie.

Bresson's style is called "ascetic", which is accurate enough. I can see that Bresson had an artistic intent, but Au Hasard Balthazar felt like it held back so much the viewer--this viewer, at least--that I can't say it gave me much pleasure. Ozu is another director with a quiet, barely there style, but I found there a lot more to relate to in his films than in Au Hasard Balthazar.

(17) The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is another I've already seen...

I will continue this exploration of Sight & Sounds' greatest films in subsequent posts.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Robert Boyd

The Art League selected Trenton Doyle Hancock as their artist of the year this year. Because the Art League's building was damaged by Hurricane Harvey, Hancock's exhibit was held in the former Rice Gallery.

 Trenton Doyle Hancock, Letting, acrylic on canvas, 9 x 12 inches, 2015

The opening was an big event--the artistic elite of Houston showed up. Hancock was mobbed by fans.

Trenton Doyle Hancock drawing a dédicace in my copy of the catalog for the show

Among the attendees was artist Bill Davenport. He asked me what I thought about the comics influence on Hancock. I said it was fairly obvious and that Hancock had done comics-like pieces, like Epidemic! Presents: Step and Screw which was shown in Hancock's 2014 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

But, I told Bill, I think the main thing that Hancock gets from comics is the idea of characters that he uses over and over again. He has created a mythos inhabited by a group of characters that he draws and paints repeatedly. This is not unlike the mythoi of Marvel and DC comics. Superman and Wonder Woman live in the same "universe", and Spider-Man and the X-Men live in their own separate universe. The people who write and draw these comics must make their stories conform to the rules of those universes and the norms established for those characters. But these characters are quite mutable. A character who is a super-hero can turn bad or change his costume or even change her gender.

So what Hancock and some other contemporary artists do is the same. Hancock has this whole universe of the "Mounds" and the "Vegans", and has his own superhero alter-ego, Torpedo Boy.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, Torpedo Boy toy

For Hancock, the idea of making characters involves the whole universe of modern capitalist trademarked characters. That includes making toys of characters; Hancock is a devoted collector of toys.

As I talked to Davenport, we both realized that for most of art history, artists had a bunch of characters they could use over and over. Biblical characters are obvious choices, and mythological characters, and historical figures. What is different about those characters and modern corporate characters is that no one owned Jesus or Zeus. Disney owns Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man. Warner Brothers owns Batman and the Teen Titans. And artist can use these characters once or twice, but if they try to create involve bodies of work using these characters, they'll get legally shut down. Spider-Man is just too valuable to Disney to let Trenton Doyle Hancock or any other artists to do with it whatever they want.

And Disney and other copyright holders have worked mightily to make sure that no one can make their own Mickey Mouse artworks. Prior to 1976, copyrights lasted 28 years and then could be renewed for another 28 years at which time the work would return to the public domain. In 1976, that 56-year term was extended to 75 years. Then in 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the copyright to 95 years. This law was created after a a decade of intense lobbying by Disney. And we can assume that Mickey Mouse will never enter the public domain--Disney will always lobby Congress to extend copyright.

So today's artists who want to use characters in their art will need either to do what Hancock did--make up their own mythos--or use characters that are in the public domain by virtue of being quite old: the old standbys (biblical characters, mythological characters, historical figures) or characters from literature or art from the 19th century or before.

All of which begs the question of why artists might want to use characters at all? Most artists in the past 100 years have been more than capable of creating their art without repeatedly using characters. I don't have a theory about this--someone should talk to artists who work with characters what their motivation is. In any case, it's a thing and unfortunately artists can't use Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman or Captain America, because of copyright laws that are written for the benefit of large media companies.