Sunday, January 11, 2009

Happy New World Order

28 December 2008 – 11 January 2009

Happy New Year. I want to say ‘Happy New York’ – even though I’m here in L.A. There’s no snow on the ground here – but the weather has been uncharacteristically chilly (as low as freezing); and a glance to the east or northeast shows plenty of snow in the mountains. The ski resorts are busy.

No – I haven’t died – though obviously many have – in addition to my late pal, Gregory. It could justly be said that I was in mourning for a while – but not quite this long, notwithstanding the recent deaths of Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt – whom I truly mourn – Pinter’s death only a few months after his near-peer, Simon Gray (Butley, Otherwise Engaged) whom I truly loved. Kitt’s death took me by surprise – she was so alive, so indefatigable, even battling cancer. Only a year ago, she was shaking the rafters of the Café Carlyle with her performance.

As I said, I may have been a bit sad, a bit down (and more than a little overworked until the last month or so), but it’s not like I haven’t been out and about. I have – most recently at the movies. (What – you were thinking, uh, a gallery? The opera? A recital (almost – I’ve missed a couple recently)?) Yeah yeah yeah – saw the Dumas (Measuring Your Own Grave – since closed), Kippenberger, Index (a truly excellent show of conceptual work – almost all of it culled from MOCA’s fine permanent collection), Louise Bourgeois – and I might as well add the museum-quality Raymond Pettibon show of recent work that was up at Regen Projects II. Yes, of course they’re all worth seeing. But so what? Allow me to first recommend, almost without qualification, The Wrestler, the new Darren Aronofsky film (from a script by former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel), with a searing, absolutely fearless, peerless, balls-out, no-holds-barred performance by Mickey (where has he been???) Rourke, that in and of itself takes the film to that ‘next’ (do we call it masterpiece?) level, a performance that all but screams bloody for an Academy Award nomination, if not the Oscar itself. The supporting performances are equally strong, even, to some extent by non-professionals that (as I understand it) Aronofsky used to fill in this very realistic human landscape. The sensibility – even the way it’s shot – very cinéma-verité – a lot of tracking shots and close-in work with what looks like a good deal of hand-held work – in a very grainy-color that looks almost as if it were deliberately shot in hi-def video and transferred to film (though I’m sure there are other ways the effect might have been obtained) is almost Burroughs-ian – though, dare I say it, with lots of heart. It’s all of us there scrutinized under that deli counter glass, as Randy the Ram serves us up a heaping platter of our own flesh and blood. The direction and performances wring pathos from every scene, every shot. It is at a pitch that, given different material or context, might risk being called pandering, but nothing panders in this film. It is the stuff of life pushed right up into the lens: the negotiation between life and individual identity; the construction (and deconstruction) of an individual identity and its integration or disintegration – or even cannibalization – into the fabric of life as it’s collectively, continuously negotiated, constructed, and reconstructed. Every moment counts, everything is at risk.

The supporting performances are equally strong. Marisa Tomei is simply over-the-top magnificent – a multi-layered performance no less down-to-the-ground, down-to-the-bone than Rourke’s. (And why not? They both play performers and parents. And Tomei’s body, I might add, is as perfect as ever.) Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as Randy’s estranged daughter. She wears the face of tragedy that all but stands in for what goes to black-out at the film’s end. Okay – you get the point – I liked the movie. (What I think I’m really a bit awestruck by is the script: how do you go from the Onion to this? Where did someone like Siegel get this stuff?)

Speaking of the everything at risk, every moment counting (and everything turning to shit) style of film-making, you could say that style merges with subject in the pyrotechnic hands of Danny Boyle, with his coruscating, scarifying, and yes, shit-drenched, roller-coaster of a movie, Slumdog Millionaire – the picaresque fairy-tale of a chai-wallah’s unlikely ascendance to fortune and fame in that super-rich, ultra high-tech island that is affluent India floating over the sea of mostly human shit that is also India and that threatens to inundate its dazzling centers (one potent political aspect of which was driven home vividly with the terrorist pillaging of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Intercontinental Hotels at Mumbai’s center). I was complaining at some point last year about the relative poverty, the paltriness of certain ‘theme-ride’ mechanical movies (and even the latest Bond movie disappointed). Boyle has somehow managed to breathe life into this genre. How? By going back to the simplest kind of theme and story, the simplest kind of structure – and using every tool in the director’s and cinematographer’s toolbox to wring suspense, drama and comic irony from every cliff-hanging moment. Apart from its particular kaleidoscopic dazzle, what is most original about the movie is the way Boyle exploits that tension of the palace or temple of gold and alabaster floating on an ocean of shit. Salvation here is predicated on the immolation that rages all around the haloed hero and heroine – the ‘princess’ rescued twice, as it happens, from the ‘mud’ (the redeemed idealism; also evoked by Jamal’s rejection of the craven host’s attempted trick (or trap) multiple choice answer). Immolation (or inundation) is the common destiny – rendering the notion of salvation absurd or at best transitory. I have no idea if the screenwriters (Simon Beaufoy is credited with the script – which is based on a novel by Vikas Swarup) were consciously exploiting the particularly vile art direction of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? – which is astonishingly faithful to the American original – but the filmmakers make the most of this crucible – that fascist architecture of light and steel, the focused lanterns and super-trouper beams constantly raised and lowered and all but pinning the contestant like the hapless insect he is. The fairy tale payoff of faith and love triumphant is simply the shimmering curtain Boyle brings down on his own magician’s bag of tricks – an infectious homage to Bollywood song-and-dance that made me resolve to ditch European designers in favor of the frothiest Indian sari style for the new year. (Okay, maybe not.)

Okay – so much for movies (Jeeeeeezus – whatever you do don’t see Good; it’s soooooooo BAD!). Back to ‘stills’ (but are they ever really?). Believe it or not, I found the Yoshitomo Nara show at Blum and Poe very intriguing. Seductive – and I don’t mean the slightly Keane-esque aspect he’s given some of his urchins’ eyes. If the uncanny subversion of these nascent-apache Zazies is what draws us in (and I confess I’m still a sucker for it), it’s the painting that holds our gaze – that moves our eyes up and down the figure – the end result of painstaking glazing, scraping, re-glazing and re-scraping that produces that particular mottled yet immaculate ‘skin’-surface of the painting. There’s something uncannily pure and meditative about it – which puts another spin altogether on these smug (or simply quizzical) little mugs. An ‘environment’ (like a mini-studio or office in a wagon) lets the viewer in on the very impure genesis of this not-quite-alien species of art (and street – or at least school) life.

[MORE (much) TO COME]

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