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

Characters

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.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Real Estate Art: 1046 Bayou Island

Robert Boyd

It's been a while since I did one of these. This house, at 1046 Bayou Island, is just south of Buffalo Bayou on a little subdivision off of Gessner Drive. A lot of houses off of the bayou near here were flooded when they opened the sluice gate at Addicks Dam upstream to keep the Harvey storm waters from overtopping the dam. Fortunately for the people on Bayou Island, when their houses were built they were elevated a few feet. So they never flooded, despite being right on the bayou.

My brother is a realtor and he knows I'm interested in houses with art in them. So he sent me the following photos.



These are by George Rodrigue, the late New Orleans artist who specialized pictures of a particular blue dog, beloved of suburban art lovers.



More George Rodrigue. His work was the only work I recognized. From here on out, I have no idea. Anyone out there know who is responsible for these paintings? Let me know!














Any art lovers out there recognize these paintings?


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Summer Reading

Robert Boyd

Summer reading is always advertised as light reading, but a better description is "reading for pleasure". For me, all reading is for pleasure--I haven't read a book because I had to since I left grad school. My reading this summer has mostly fallen into various long-time interests of mine. And because I continue to be unemployed, I've had plenty of time to read. (Any job leads would be much appreciated, readers!)

I'm arranging my reading by category below. I always have a group of subjects that interest me at any given time...

  • Soviet history

For most of my life, I thought the Soviet Union was a boring place. How do you have an interesting history or society when every move you make is regulated and controlled by a central state, eager to suppress any personal feelings you might have? I had read some Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in high school, but never delved deeper until much later. I was 29 when the Soviet Union fell, and that seemed to me like a good moment to never think about it again.

But shortly after that, I became interested in the nonconformist Soviet artists who arose mostly in the 1970s. For example,  Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov. In 1994, a really good book, The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee, was published. It was about how economics professor Norton Dodge started buying art by nonconformist artists on his many trips to the USSR (his academic specialty was Soviet economics). His story was exciting. But it left me with a lot of questions. What had happened to Soviet culture that had lead to these artists doing what they did? I started investigating. And culture couldn't be separated from history, and the history turned out to be fascinating. And since perestroika, lots of previously suppressed historical information has become available. My interest in the Soviet Union has kind of snowballed ever since. This summer I read:

Who Killed Kirov?: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery by Amy Knight (2000).  Sergei Kirov was the Communist party boss of Leningrad. He was assassinated in December 1934, an event that precipitated the Great Purge, in which Stalin had thousands of loyal Communists (aka "old Bolsheviks") executed. This book makes the completely circumstantial case that Stalin was behind Kirov's assassination mainly by showing that Kirov had gotten on Stalin's wrong side. This thesis seems plausible but is unproven. The value of the book is in its biography of Kirov--what did it look like to be an important young Bolshevik before and after the rise to power of the Bolsheviks in 1917? And its detailed description of the political intrigue just prior and just after Kirov's death is fascinating. The trajectory towards death of three of the most important old Bolsheviks, Zinoviev, Kamanev and Bukharin, is particularly interesting. Very readable, but expect to be snowed under by lots of Russian names.


Ernst Neizvestnyi, gravestone of Nikita Khrushchev, 1995

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman (2004). There are a lot of good books about Stalin, but this is the only one I know about his successor, Khrushchev. I was particularly interested in Khrushchev because he undid so much of what Stalin did--the so-called Khrushchev Thaw. He denounced Stalin in the "secret speech" in 1956 and emptied out the gulags. Under Khrushchev, there was a general liberalization of the arts. Khrushchev personally permitted  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to be published--it was the first literary account of life in Stalin's Gulag published in the USSR. But Khrushchev also suppressed Doctor Zhivago. The fact was that he wasn't a particularly cultured person and allowed himself to be influenced by the "experts", some of whom were progressive and some of whom were reactionary Stalinist holdovers. But of course, this is only a small part of his life and political career. More interesting is how a member of Stalin's inner circle became a reformer who ran the USSR for 10 years before being replaced in a coup by neostalinists lead by Leonid Brezhnev, who had been a protege of Khrushchev. The neostalinists would rule the Soviet Union from 1964 until 1985. (Interestingly, Kirov and Khrushchev were both avid hunters.)

The image above is an example of the ironies of Khrushchev's reign. The sculptor, Ernst Neizvestnyi, had been in a verbal altercation with Khrushchev in an exhibit in 1962. Khrushchev was tricked into attending an exhibit of modernist artworks and had no clue what to make of them. Neizvestnyi was in attendance, and Khrushchev called Neizvestnyi a "faggot." The two men argued vociferously. But Khrushchev was no Stalin and there were no repercussions for Neizvestnyi. After he died, the Khrushchev family commissioned Neizvestnyi to design Khrushchev's headstone, which places a naturalistic bust within an abstract, modernist design. Fitting that an artist who stood his ground before the leader of the Soviet Union should be given this commission.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (2013). Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015, but she is what most readers would call a journalist. She is best known for creating astonishing oral histories. This book consists of people talking about their lives during the period just before and just after the end of the Soviet Union--the 80s and 90s mostly. We read accounts of life under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and the resentment that so many had over the economic depression caused by acting Prime Minister Gaider's "shock treatment" approach to market liberalization. Particularly older Russions who worked their entire lives in a shitty factory and suddenly found their pensions worth nothing. But the text is complex, and public opinion as revealed by Alexievich's interviews is full of contradictions. One of the interview subjects points out that half the impoverished pensioners were former NKVD  informers, camp guards, etc. They had been willing participants in a system that ground up and tortured millions. But many of the interviews are with people who survived that system just barely.

Khrushchev makes an appearance in a surprising way--in the "Khrushchyoykas," cheap apartment blocks that Khrushchev started building in the 50s which by the 90s were badly deteriorated. They may have been crappy, but had the benefit of giving many people their own private apartments for the first time. We think of the dissident movement of the 60s and 70s as having grown out of the Khrushchev Thaw, but perhaps just as much it grew out of the Khrushchyovkas, where people could gather in the kitchens to discuss subversive ideas. It seemed that everyone read samizdat and illegally imported books (like Dr. Zhivago) and discussed these ideas in their kitchens. But with the fall of the USSR, ideas were exchanged for stuff. All those kitchen intellectuals became irrelevant after 1989. Russia had no Vaclav Havel.

The hardest account to read was one by "Anna M.", whose mother was pregnant when she was arrested. Anna was born in a camp in Khazakstan and from the age of 5 to 16, lived in an orphanage. Her descriptions of her young life are devastating--I had to put the book down and walk away. She was 59 years old when she was interviewed by Alexievich. There are also shattering first-person accounts of the wars that broke out in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union--for example, the war between Georgia and the separatist Abkhazians, or between Azeris and Armenians. This book is almost encyclopedic. People who hated Gorbachev, who loved him, who loved Yeltsin, who were nostalgic for Stalinism, etc. A truly great work of journalism, and a great example why journalistic and non-fiction works should be considered for literary prizes.

  • Comics

I have loved comics since I was a kid reading B.C. and Peanuts in the paper, and that love has had its lulls but has never died. All of the comics below are relatively new graphic novels.


Emil Ferris, 2-page spread from My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris. A powerful new graphic novel by a cartoonist who seemingly came out of nowhere. A swirling, colorful work, drawn in ballpoint pens and flair markers, it details the life of a 10-year-old girl, Karen. living in a rough part of Chicago in the 1960s. There is a murder in her building, and Karen is determined to solve it. This makes it sound like a Nancy Drew mystery, but it is much stranger and more personal. Karen's brother, Deeze, is an artist and takes Karen to the Art Institute where she loves the weirder paintings, and many of the visuals in the story quote the paintings. The art is unlike anything I've ever seen in a comic book, and I've seen a lot. The art and story are obsessive and beautiful and sad. This is maybe the best book I read all summer--definitely the best comic. (I think Secondhand Time wins the "prize" for best book.)

The Customer is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond. This is a sequel to her quasi-autobiographical graphic novel Over Easy. The main character is an art school drop-out working at a hip restaurant in Oakland in the late 70s. This is pre-AIDS and pre-Reagan, so there is a lot of sex and drugs (specifically copious cocaine use). It's a very entertaining and sometimes moving vie de bohème.

Demon volume 3 by Jason Shiga. This is the third volume of four volume series. Shiga is well-known for creating works that incorporate puzzle-like structures, and the Demon series is no different. The main character is a man who can't die--whenever he dies, he wakes up in another person's body, the person who happened to be closest to him at the time of his death. A series of incredibly violent adventures ensue. Not particularly deep but totally entertaining.


Seth, p. 29 of the last chapter of Clyde Fans

Palookaville 23 by Seth. Seth has been publishing his solo comic book Palookaville since 1991. It started out as a black-and-white comic book, then in 2010 turned into a hardback which was published approximately once every two years. This volume has the final chapter of Clyde Fans, a graphic novel that Seth started it in 1997, along with a longish autobiographical story and a selection of paintings. The end of Clyde Fans is kind of an epochal event in Seth's career as a cartoonist--the ending is very contemplative and somewhat melancholy. But the other story, "Nothing Lasts," is really good, too. A great work by one of comics' greatest artists.


Ron Regé, Jr., What Parsifal Saw p. 73, from the story "Diana"

What Parsifal Saw by Ron Regé, Jr. Regé has been one of my favorite cartoonists since I lived in Massachusetts 20-odd years ago and he was self-publishing comics in Boston. Since then, he has moved to L.A. and become a serious new ager, heavily invested in the study of alchemy. A major portion of this book is composed of illustrated texts from Madame Blavatsky, the founder of a "religion" known as theosophy. I find theosophy and new age beliefs to be utterly ridiculous, like believing in astrology. But these beliefs are seriously inspirational for Regé, and Blavatsky's writing has provoked him to produce a lot of very cool, cosmic drawings. This book also includes his retelling of the origin of Wonder Woman, which Regé describes as a "parody" of the original comics by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. But it's not really a parody; I think Regé was just covering his ass by calling it that. Instead, it reads like a straight-up retelling, lovingly re-drawn in his own style.

Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell. I've written about Bell before--she's an artist I've enjoyed for years. A lot of her stories are somewhat cynical takes on urban life, but this one is quite autobiographical and seems deeply felt. It's about how her eccentric mother's cabin burned down and how Gabrielle helped her get back on her feet with the help of people in her Mom's rural Northern California community. I miss the urban cynic somewhat, but it seems like habitual cynicism is something Bell has grown out of as an artist.

Fante Bukowski Two by Noah Van Sciver. This is a sequel to a small book published in 2015 about an writer-manqué whose ridiculous pen name is Fante Bukowski. The first book was a small comic gem. 80 pages was the perfect length for Fante Bukowski. The second volume is substantially longer and the additional pages don't help. Van Sciver tries to make is a satire of the publishing world and is only somewhat successful. But he's great at depicting lowlife. The disgusting hotel that Fante Bukowski lives in is a comic masterpiece of total degradation, as is the recurring hooker character. And Van Sciver has a gift for funny lines. My favorite (in my current unemployed state) was when Bukowski gets cut off by his Mom. "Okay, think, Fante, think! You can't get a job! Jobs are for quitters!"  Van Sciver's art is perfect for the content--grungy, lively cartooning.

  • Art
I am always interested in art, especially art that happens here, as readers of this blog will certainly know. Three of the books below touch on art here in Houston, but I have a general interest in the subject. I enjoy reading about art, especially art history.

Houston Reflections: Art in the City, 1950s, 60s, and 70s by Sarah Reynolds (2007). I've never seen an actual printed version of this book, but the entire book is available for free online. It consists of transcribed oral histories of early Houston artists, most of whom are still alive today but quite old. I had read bits and pieces of it in the past, but decided to read the whole thing finally. It's a key text in the art history of Houston--how did artists do their thing in a city that for the most part couldn't care less? Especially, how did African American artists make a place for themselves in a segregated Houston?

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Expanded Edition by Lawrence Weschler (1982/2008). I first read this excellent biography of Robert Irwin in the early 90s (the first edition was published in 1982). This expanded edition was published in 2008. The new edition has 87 extra pages and disusses his big retrospective at MOCA in LA, his design of the garden at the Getty Museum, and his big installations at Dia. Irwin was born in 1928, which makes me wonder if there will be more expanded editions in the future. But since the publication of this edition, Irwin completed a major work in Marfa, Texas. It opened in 2016, so there is at least one more chapter to write. It is said to be Irwin's largest work to date--and if it's larger than the garden at the Getty, it must be enormous indeed. It is interesting to think that a biography of an artist would need to be continually updated due to the continuing fecundity of its subject. But that seems to be the case with Irwin.


Earl Staley, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1992, acrylic on canvas, reproduced in Contemporary Art in Texas.

Contemporary Art in Texas by Patricia Covo Johnson (1995). Johnson was an art critic for the Houston Chronicle (which like most daily papers, no longer has a full-time art critic). This book is a survey of the scene in Texas at 1995, artist by artist. There is a little overlap with Houston Reflections, but not as much as you would think. By 1995, the art scene in Texas was quite different from what it had been in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Johnson was looking at art from all over the state, but if she seems to focus on Houston art, one can hardly blame her. Houston's art scene was very dynamic at the time--it dominated the state. (I wouldn't make that claim now.) Plus, she was located here and had access to all the artists in Houston. She was married to to a well-known Houston artist, Lucas Johnson (1940-2002). The texts for each artist is fairly slight--it's not a heavily critical book--and most of the illustrations are black and white, unfortunately. Despite this, it's a useful document of the times. The introduction is by Walter Hopps (see The Dream Colony below).

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World by Roger White (2017). The description of this sounded right up my alley--a journalistic exploration of the art world as it currently exists. I was thinking it might be like Sarah Thornton's excellent books. It was OK and highly readable, but not particularly memorable. White found several interesting subjects to write about, including a mostly forgotten conceptual artist, Stephen Kaltenbach, but the book as a whole never coheres into a worldview. It feels like a series of somewhat related magazine articles.


Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959

The Dream Colony: A Life in Art by Walter Hopps, Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran. This is sort of an autobiography of Walter Hopps, except that Hopps didn't write it. It's based on a series of edited interviews with Hopps. The interviews were conducted by Anne Doran, and the plan had been for Triesman and Hopps to work together to form it into a narrative. But Hopps died in 2005 and the project died for a while. The problem with it as a memoir is that it doesn't really cover his last few years in much detail, which is a bit of a disappointment to those of us here in Houston (Hopps was the first director of the Menil Museum). It also has the problem of reading like an interview instead of a written memoir. I prefer my prose to read like prose. But still, the richness of Hopps' life is amazing.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy by Scott Bishop, Robert Ekelund, Danielle Mohr Funderburk, Dennis Harper, J. Andrew Henley, Jessica Hughes, Marilyn Laufer, Paul Manoguerra, Daniel Scott Neil, Heather Read, Sunny Stalter-Pace and Mark White (2012). After World War II, the State Department started compiling a collection of modern American art with the specific intent of showing it abroad. The idea was to show what free American artists could produce, unlike art from the Soviet Union, which was backward looking socialist realism enforced heavily by the government. The collection was successfully exhibited in Eastern Europe and Latin America but scuppered by reactionary forces in the U.S. The collection was sold off as war surplus in 1948. This book details the work in the collection and talks about the political situation that ended this experiment. Subsequently, the CIA (working with MOMA) secretly funded exhibitions of avant garde American art in Europe and South America. The essays in this catalog are very repetitious, and the collection is not first rate (the buyer for the State Department had middling tastes), but many of the pieces are great and the story is incredible and full of irony.


Hans Namuth,  Julian Schnabel, 1981

Hans Namuth Portraits by Carolyn Kinder Carr (1999). Namuth (1915-1990) is mostly famous for one thing--photographing Jackson Pollack at work. And they are great photos--they really give one an idea of what Pollack was doing. But he made a career out of photographing accomplished, creative people, including most of the other abstract expressionists and various New York School personalities in all arts: composers, architects, writers, etc. One hilarious photo of Julian Schnabel mimics his famous Pollack photos, but Schnabel is wearing a spotless designer shirt. It really typifies that era. Namuth wasn't a great photographer, but he was a good one, and the personalities he captured here make it worth it.

  • Science Fiction
I used to be a devoted reader of science fiction, and I still read it from time to time. I only read one science fiction book this summer, though.

Earth by David Brin (1990). Brin is a writer of sprawling science fiction epics with tons of characters. He is most famous for The Postman, which got made into an infamous flop starring Kevin Costner. But the book was really good. Earth is about Earth on the verge of total environmental collapse and the many people who are trying to prevent it. There is some science fictional stuff about black holes, and millions of characters (which is typical in a Brin novel). And lots of stuff about the culture of the world that humanity finds itself in. In a lot of ways, the book is remarkably prescient. But I found it kind of boring--eventually I lost interest in whether or not the world got saved.