Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou
I wrote this poem in February 2019. I couldn’t have imagined how the word “quarantine” would sound today.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a classic tourist destination in New York, overflowing with a sweeping collection of art that traverses time periods and cultures. Among the classics, which include the Greco-Roman sculpture hall, or a collection of European paintings from Rembrandt to Gauguin, is a more modern draw: the Costume Center.
Founded in 1946 with the help of funds from the fashion industry, and reopened in 2014 as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, it focuses on the intersection between fashion and art in both the present day and the past. The Center consists of a range of works throughout the museum, from nineteenth century dresses and trousers to the museum’s comprehensive collection of medieval armor. More well-known efforts of the Center include dedicated gallery spaces for thematic exhibits such as Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty in 2011, and an exploration of the punk movement in PUNK: Chaos to Couture in 2013. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who cut the ceremonial ribbon at the 2014 reopening, describes the Costume Center as a place “…for anyone who cares about fashion and how it impacts our culture and history.”
Along the lines of the former First Lady’s words, the work of Rei Kawakubo, the designer behind the clothing label Comme des Garçon, is currently on display in a thematic exhibit at the Costume Center. Among works of art that are defined by the very notion of convention, Kawakubo’s Art of the In Between is presented as an exhibit that pushes against the conventions of classic art, of culture, and of fashion itself.
Kawakubo’s commentary on, and pushback against, the norms of fashion has long been a hallmark of her company’s work, and it is exemplified in both the layout and garments on display in Art of the In Between. The architecture of the gallery, which was designed by Kawakubo herself, isn’t simply dress forms on display behind panes of glass; the exhibit has museum-goers weave through a maze of snow white architectural anomalies—domes, pods, hollowed cylinders with small methodically placed cutouts—to catch a glimpse of the garments inside.
The bright white architecture provides a stark contrast to the vibrantly colored and uniquely shaped garments, which undoubtedly fulfill the goal of the Costume Center by turning a commentary on culture and fashion into art. The exhibit is divided into ten parts, all of which present two sides of a defined binary within which the garments exist: Clothes/Not Clothes, Design/Not Design—and, perhaps most notably, Fashion/Anti-fashion—to name a few. The titles of individual exhibit sections help to align the viewer with the question posed by Kawakubo and how her garments seek to answer it.
Kawakubo isn’t afraid to tackle big issues, and in the exhibit, she explores class, time, age, gender, and even the human form. High/Low, for example, juxtaposes the styles of bikers and prima ballerinas: the dress forms donned in skewed black tutus under meticulously cut leather jackets. This section questions class, placing the garments in the intersection between the high, or elite, and the low. In another section, titled Object/Subject, Kawakubo’s “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” collection from the 1970s is on display. Kawakubo wraps ginghams and pastel pinks and blues around dress forms augmented with intentional but unnatural masses distributed throughout their forms, producing pseudo-dresses. These lumps and bumps, as the collection has been deemed by critics, are reminiscent of those formed by a child stuffing a pillow in their shirt to grow a pretend belly. The garments encapsulate the heart of the exhibit, creating a completely new human form and challenging viewers to reorient their view of what a standard, conventionally fashionable garment can and should do. In an interview with Vogue at the time of the collection’s release, Kawakubo said, “It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”
True to her word nearly fifty years later, Kawakubo has continued to take risks. The garments in Art of the In Between are not particularly beautiful, at least not by conventional standards, but it is clear that beauty is not Kawakubo’s goal. She rips fabric, forms “lumps and bumps,” and even mixes plaids (a fashion no-no). But there is a new kind of beauty within her garments, and within Art of the In Between as a cohesive unit. They play with norms in a way that is both mischievous and thought-provoking, and—most importantly—refreshingly accessible to those casually interested in fashion, in art, or both. Art of the In Between will be on display at the Met through September 4.
No matter how you spin it, 2016 was not a kind year for women who remain trapped on the other side of a cracked glass ceiling. So it is with great pleasure that I begin this first in a four-part series focused on the leading ladies of the Best Actress race. Last year’s race saw the defeat of #OscarsSoWhite with people of color represented in all of the major categories, and of course, Best Picture, in a turn as dramatic as the films themselves, going to Moonlight following an envelope mix-up backstage. (Can someone please explain why that guy hasn’t been fired yet?) As we look to Oscar nominations in January 2018, we do so under the shadow of a man who is hidden behind a veil of secrecy. It will be interesting to see how the Academy is affected by the state of the union. Will they choose to support performances from films of heavy subject matter, or go the opposite direction and support those from films of lighter fare? If the historic win of Moonlight this year is anything to go by, the shiny happy sheen of a film, such as La La Land and those who dream, was not what the Academy wanted, to make a bold statement. Last Oscar season, the race came down to two very deserving actresses in roles that were the polar opposite of one another: the eventual winner, Emma Stone, as the fictitious young ingénue in La La Land and Natalie Portman as the titular Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. What story has yet to be told this year? The film screenings to take place over the next couple of months will weave that narrative. For now, let’s examine last year’s Best Actress nomination results.
Of the eleven roles that were discussed here, only two went on to join Stone and Portman and secure Best Actress nominations: Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins and Ruth Negga for Loving. Viola Davis ended up being nominated in a supporting role and winning for her searing performance in Fences. Jessica Chastain and Rosamund Pike’s films, The Zookeeper’s Wife and A United Kingdom, respectively, were pushed to this year, thereby falling out of contention. Finally, Allied, Passengers, and The Light Between Oceans were seen as genre fare, promptly taking Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Lawrence, and Alicia Vikander, respectively, out of the running and leaving behind Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) and the aforementioned Adams who had two chances for a nomination: Nocturnal Animals and Arrival. I would argue that when all was said and done, the only real snub was Adams who all but literally carried Arrival on her back to earn eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The last nominee was Isabelle Huppert (Elle).
THE QUEEN BEE: Meryl Streep – The Papers (director: Stephen Spielberg):
FYC: This historical drama, inspired by true events, involves a cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents and drove the country’s first female newspaper publisher of The Washington Post, Kay Graham (Streep) and its hard-driving editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to join an unprecedented battle between journalists and the government in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Streep is discussed every year in this column. The actress has racked up 17 Oscar nominations and three Oscar wins—two in lead (Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and The Iron Lady in 2011), and one in supporting (Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980). Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, you know that the film is highly relevant following constant attacks on the press by, and several ongoing investigations of, the man who currently occupies the White House.
THE LESBIAN: Emma Stone – Battle of the Sexes (directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris):
FYC: The comedy-drama film is loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Stone) and ex-champ/serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Stone is on fire at the moment having won the Oscar for Best Actress just this year. She was previously nominated for her supporting role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015. What’s more, the last film directed by Dayton and Feris, Little Miss Sunshine, was nominated for two Oscars and won two others, including Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin.
THE WILDCARD: Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (director: Martin McDonagh):
FYC: A dark comedic drama that depicts the plight of a mother (McDormand) who takes a stand against a revered chief of police (Woody Harrelson) using three billboards leading into her town after several months have passed without a culprit for her daughter’s murder. McDormand was first nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1989 for Mississippi Burning. She won Best Actress in 1997 for Fargo, and earned two more Best Supporting Actress nominations for Almost Famous and North Country in 2000 and 2006, respectively. Although McDormand has largely remained outside of the Oscar conversation since her last nomination, the trailer for the film shows a lot of range from the actress, who appears to be relishing in the role. Sight unseen, I have her as the one to beat this year.
THE DAME: Dame Judi Dench – Victoria and Abdul (director: Stephen Frears):
FYC: This British-American biographical drama film based on Shrabani Basu’s book of same name depicts the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Dench) and young Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). It’s hard to believe that Dench who has been nominated of Best Actress five times (most recently for Philomena in 2014) and Best Supporting Actress two others (Mrs Brown in 1997, Chocolat in 2001) has only won a single Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. Further, like McDormand, if the range depicted in the trailer is anything to go by, we will be seeing an awful lot of Dench this awards season.
THE PERENNIAL: Jennifer Lawrence – Mother! (director: Darren Aronofsky):
FYC: Although very little is known about this thriller-horror that centers on a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive, disrupting their tranquil existence, Aronofsky’s Black Swan did quite well with the Academy (despite naysayers saying that the film wasn’t within their wheelhouse), earning four nominations, including Best Picture, and winning the Best Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. Black Swan is also described as a thriller; could lightning strike twice? Lawrence earned her first Best Actress nomination in 2011 for Winter’s Bone and she won the Oscar in 2012 for Silver Linings Playbook. She went on to net a Best Supporting Actress nomination for American Hustle (2014) and her third Best Actress nomination for Joy last year. Even though all of her performances do not catch fire in the awards race, Lawrence remains one of the most bankable actresses to date, and in our capitalist society, bankability often translates to awards heat.
THE REDHEAD: Kate Winslet – Wonder Wheel (director: Woody Allen):
FYC: The plot is unknown for this period drama set in a late 1950s amusement park at Coney Island, Brooklyn New York, but Allen’s films often find themselves in the thick of the Oscar conversation. Winslet’s career has yielded two Best Supporting Actress nominations (Sense and Sensibility in 1996 and Iris in 2002) and three Best Actress nominations (Titanic in 1998, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005 and Little Children in 2007). In 2008, she infamously won the Oscar for Best Actress for her would-be supporting role in The Reader over Streep’s wonderful turn in Doubt. Winslet last brushed shoulders with Oscar when she was nominated for her supporting role last year for Steve Jobs. Early images from the film show Winslet with red hair engaged in a passionate argument with co-star Justin Timberlake. Given that she excels in relationship dramas, and the film has a December 1st release date, she’s a pretty safe bet.
THE CLASS ACT: Emma Thompson – The Children Act (director: Richard Eyre):
FYC: This drama based on Ian McEwan‘s novel of the same name concerns British High Court judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) who is asked to rule in the case of a minor refusing treatment because of his family’s religious beliefs. Thompson won the Best Actress Oscar in 1993 for Howard’s End and went on to be nominated the following year for The Remains of the Day. 1996 brought her not one, but two Oscars: Best Actress and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published for Sense and Sensibility. Thompson was most recently in the Oscar conversation in 2013 for Saving Mr. Banks, but she was snubbed by the Academy for her role as P.L. Travers—the author behind the Mary Poppins books. It’s important to note that the last film to be adapted from one of McEwan’s novels, Atonement, garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Actress and Best Picture. It seems a safe bet to throw Thompson’s hat in the ring at this early stage.
THE GAMBLER: Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game (director: Aaron Sorkin):
FYC: This drama marks the directorial debut of Sorkin and is based on Molly Bloom’s memoir Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. Bloom was a former Olympic hopeful-come-successful entrepreneur who became the subject of an FBI investigation after she established a high-stakes, international poker game. Chastain, perhaps the actress most overdue for a win discussed here,
was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Help in 2012 and Best Actress the following year for Zero Dark Thirty. As per usual, she has a few other films in contention this year: The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Woman Walks Ahead. But having more films, doesn’t necessarily equate to more chances to win—especially with an actress as talented as Chastain who consistently delivers—because the Academy often splits the vote without a consensus. For now, I’m putting my money on this one having the highest profile of the bunch, and that late November release date sure doesn’t hurt.
As always, the women discussed here are some of those with the pedigree to earn a nomination. Others include Saoirse Ronan in another McEwan adaptation On Chesil Beach—a drama set in the early 1960s centered on a young couple on their honeymoon. The actress also stars with Annette Bening in The Seagull, who also has a shot with Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Then there’s Helen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker who stars as one-half of a runaway couple on an unforgettable journey in the faithful old RV called “The Leisure Seeker.” Sally Hawkins also has two films to consider: The Shape of Water from visionary director Guillermo del Toro and Maudie—a role for which she is already winning rave reviews. As if that weren’t enough, Halle Berry has her shot in Kings from Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven in a drama that follows a foster family in South Central LA just before the city erupts in violence following the verdict of the Rodney King trial in 1992.
The Oscar race will really get its start with the Venice International Film Festival August 30 – September 9, 2017 and the Telluride Film Festival August 30 – September 4, 2017. These festivals often set the stage for the season to come as frontrunners emerge. Stay tuned in September when I take a look at the leading men of the Best Actor race.
Art review: “The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.”; Princeton Art Museum, March 4 – June 11, 2017
There are certain types of art exhibits that are more difficult to take in than others. I have always found, for example, that illuminated manuscript displays require a very tiring amount of concentration, though the effort is well worth the wonder evoked. Exhibitions of sculpture, unless of ancient pieces, and drawings (excluding those from the Renaissance) require a great deal of disciplined looking to garner the rewards of understanding.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I would often visit exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and explore the permanent collection at length. At times, I’d be the only person lost in The Met’s side rooms displaying a huge inventory of ancient Greek vases, drinking cups, oil vessels, etc. There were cases and cases of them, many works graced by explanations written on typewriters indicating years of neglect and lack of attention. A few years ago, that all changed. The prize vases are now on glorious and ordered display, dozens of smaller, “lesser” works are upstairs from the main floor of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court in a large, new repository and massive “study” space of ancient treasures that draw only a few curious, and, at times, quite knowledgeable viewers.
“The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.” at the Princeton Art Museum (March 4 – June 11, 2017) is a rare kind of exhibition. I can’t recall a major museum show featuring ancient Greek vases, let alone one centering around the works of an individual artist from this obscure period when attributions are hard to come by. I had no idea what I’d find when I drove out to Princeton on a March morning, but I had high hopes that the illustrious Ivy League institution would do the subject justice.
The magnificent exhibit is the fruit of decades of study on individual hands that can be catalogued from the time around 500 B.C. and later. Sir John D. Beazley (1885 – 1970) is noted by the curators as the first scholar who began cataloging vases to individual painters and The Berlin Painter is one of those who left no signature, but surely a recognizable and signature style. When one is dealing with the subject of actual artists from the Golden Age of Greek art and beyond, those of us who love art history are in awe of the mere mention of a sculptor, such as Praxiteles (4th century BC), or Apelles, a painter also of the Hellenistic Period. There are no remains of either of their outputs, but many “copies” and much speculation about what they produced and just what their works may have looked like. Apelles was legendary even in the days of Julius Caesar and inspired the Renaissance artist Botticelli to attempt to recreate one of the artist’s most famous works from antiquity (“The Calumny of Apelles”).
At the Princeton show, one easily finds a name, a style, and the hand of an exemplary artist. The various figures depicted on the vases in “red figure” style are elegant, smooth, and represent everything from mythical beings, to gods, athletes, fantastic beasts, wrestlers in repose, and so on, all adorned in smooth, simple, flowing chitons and draperies. There are swords and war, there are mystic offerings, there is Herakles undertaking his many tests, trials and tribulations, and there is the life and leisure of the ancients. One’s eyes widen in wonder at what is in the display cases.
The exhibit’s explanations are concise and very much on point, giving everything from historical context to notes on how one creates these pieces of pottery. The placards for each vase were also spot on, and I never found myself reading and drifting off to mutter “that’s a lot of words” which I often do. There was one very beautiful wine vessel that the museum noted was found completely intact. Most vases are pieced together from fragments, and in this exhibition, the viewer is blessed that most of the vessels displayed were not broken up too badly when they were found in either The Berlin Painter’s home area of Athens or in Etruscan Italy, an export destination. I can’t recall ever previously viewing a major Attic Red-figure vase that was found entirely in one piece, as if it was fresh from production and presented for use that very day in New Jersey.
When I was done visiting the galleries of the exhibition, I took in sections of the museum’s permanent collection and out of nowhere, I raced back to view The Berlin Painter with fresh eyes. I now knew how to approach it, and how to see it. On this second go-around, spending time with only the top pieces, they truly came to life and felt more vital and immediate to me. Cicero has a book called “On the Nature of the Gods” and the stamnos depicting Chiron, Nereus and Nereids (see photo) truly reflected The Berlin Painter’s notion of the cosmography by which he was bound by in space and historical time. By believing one could, for a moment, see the graceful mythic beings through his eyes, the cosmic dance commences, and it really is quite a show.
“Truth” in Painting
Getting to a ‘core essence’ in a mystic or revelatory sense can be as elusive as tracing the path of an electron or photon, famously described as both particle and wave. The arts can be utilized as a conduit to higher states of consciousness. In music, the drone of an Indian sitar or a choral work by Mozart can carry the mind of the listener to abstract and blissful states. In the 19th century, Walter Pater redefined the approach to the study of art in history and art history itself in his book of essays, The Renaissance. When writing about the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, he noted “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and later asserts that the mind’s impressions are “in continual flux.” Pater states that a passion for the arts has “the greatest potential for staving off the sense of transience, because in the arts the perceptions of highly sensitive minds are already ordered.”Bernard Berenson presents his theory of how and why painting grabs hold of the viewer, in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a compiled series of essays written from 1894 to 1907, and reissued in 1952. Berenson’s famous ideas on the ‘tactile’ process of how paintings bring the viewer to a heightened state starts with his observation of what form does in paintings: “It lends a higher coefficient of reality to the object represented, with the consequent of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.” He observes this as a retinal sensation and that the tactile sense stems from childhood revelations and joy in the discovery of the physical aspect of the sense of touch.
Alison Brown describes in her essay Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence the evolution of Berenson’s theory, noting that Berenson saw his ideas more akin to psychology rather than philosophy, and that he had been heavily influenced at Harvard by his professor, William James, and his writings on psychological aesthetics.
What I took from reading Berenson’s book over two decades ago, was the idea of the shortcut offered by paintings to heightened states of the sublime, which leaves the door open to many kinds of revelation, including, yet far beyond, the psychological. In the mid-1990s, I purchased a book of collected essays by Meyer Schapiro, who at the time was Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University. I’d read Schapiro’s book of selected papers on late Antiquity, early Christian and Medieval art that had impressed me in its scientific, sleuthing, and exhaustive examination of art, much along the lines of the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking approach of Princeton’s Erwin Panofsky. The 1990s collection includes the essay, Mr. Berenson’s Values from 1961, boasting cutting gems of prose such as his analysis of Berenson’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.Schapiro notes that Berenson failed to grow as a theorist and critic and chose to be a connoisseur rather than an art historian or philosopher of art, which indeed Berenson did regret. Schapiro describes the theory of ‘tactile values’ in painting as a “strange appeal to physiology” and that Berenson used these ideas “with no deepening sense, as personal clichés imposed on any sort of problem.”
Around the time I read Schapiro’s book, I was trying to incorporate the study of art history in cultural context using the methodical approach of Professors Schapiro and Panofsky, and others combined with the bullet train to higher states I’d created in my mind around Berenson’s ideas.
About ten years ago, I chanced to read The Truth in Painting by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s writings are uncommonly difficult and convoluted, and he is both praised and derided as the main force behind the philosophical school of Deconstruction. When reading Derrida, I’m always struck by his underlying humor, and when I really believe I’m catching the gist of his purposively obtuse arguments, it’s a source of sublime understanding.Derrida’s approach is akin to a circling war party, each on his own horse surrounding one solitary covered wagon, where all riders have their own notion of what may be hidden in that wagon, and whatever it is may have an ‘ultimate’ end to it. But as we circle, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that there is absolutely nothing inside the wagon (or perhaps Schrödinger’s cat!) and also that we’re never truly going to get a clear look at it. But by moving closer and closer and sharing all angles of viewing, we’ll perhaps find the ghost or essence of the core.
One of the essays in Truth in Painting is Derrida’s work Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]. Gianluca Spinato in his essay, Philosophy of Art: Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, argues that “Jacques Derrida’s well-known discussion of the conflict between the faculties in question locates Heidegger on the side of the ‘truth’ of art and finds Schapiro on the side of historical and dialectical, even materialist accuracy. The resulting ‘haul’, as Derrida names it at the end of his own evaluation of Schapiro’s original assessment, ‘is a meagre one for the picture police, for this discourse of order and propriety/property in painting’.”
Derrida examines, in his playfully maddening manner, approaches to understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Old Shoes with Laces, as well as other paintings by the artist of peasant boots. Two significant quotes begin the exposition, the first by Cezanne that “I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it you” and Van Gogh’s own words, “But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”
After a long discourse on shoes, peppered with doubts of whether they can even be called “a pair” and other unsubstantiated “givens” in discussing Van Gogh, Restitution continues on to jab at Professor Schapiro and his approach to studying art, including the questioning of one of his most famous essays in his book on late Antiquity and early Christian art. Restitution included an unexpected view of Schapiro that both Heidegger and Derrida bring down on him, seemingly implying that their philosophical query into the underlying truths in Van Gogh and in painting, are something akin to abstract notions defined by the ancient Greeks, and ignored and beyond the comprehension of an art historian. Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger is made to look like an attempt at grabbing back the paintings to his field of study and away from the other school. Derrida writes of “A symbolic correspondence, an accord, a harmonic. In this communication between two illustrious professors who have both of them a communication to make on ‘a famous picture by Van Gogh’—one of the two is a specialist. Painting, and even Van Gogh, is, so to speak, his thing, he wants to keep it, he wants it returned…They owe the truth in painting, the truth of painting and even painting as truth, or even as the truth of truth.”
In complete contradiction to my circling wagon deconstructive metaphor, Derrida describes examining the problem from a stationary standpoint. It reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago by then-Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. He discussed that to get the full power of a painting, one has to look at it for a very long time. He punctuated this point with a funny anecdote of how, while visiting the Frick Collection, he stared so long at a painting that the security staff grew concerned and a guard approached him demanding to know what he was doing. It reminds me to keep looking, keep looking long and hard.
When I was twenty-eight I had a third-life crisis. Well, let’s be honest, my whole twenties were a series of quarter to third-life crises, but for whatever reason, this one stuck. I’ve always been prone to obsessions. Some on the fairly bizarre end of the spectrum—collecting pipes and cigars when I was nine years old; some more pragmatic—lifting weights or riding motorcycles. But it’s always the same story, my life becomes transformed, consumed with an intense singular focus, dedicated to achieving some lofty goal. During the early stages of a new hobby, nothing else matters. The problem is, they never last. My friend calls them my ‘kicks’. In the midst of a kick I can convince myself that I’ve a puncher’s chance of attaining Ryan Reynolds-like abs, or hauling a bike around a race track quicker than Valentino Rossi. Then, after the euphoric excitement subsides, I realize that I’m destined to be just another puny guy getting buried under a 175lb barbell; or that the legends of Moto GP that I idolize started racing bikes when they were three years old, and possess a near psychopathic lack of fear, whereas I’m afraid to walk past groups of teenagers on the street. Then a depression/hopelessness follows, then onto a new hobby! Rinse and repeat. It’s a timeless formula that’s served me well on my path to becoming a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Music has been a recurring theme with these kicks. When I was fourteen I saw the movie Desperado. A mid-nineties hit starring Antonio Banderas as the ultra-slick, mysterious Mariachi man making his way through the violent drug towns of the Mexican desert to avenge the murder of his lover, and the maiming of his fretting hand by a local cartel leader, aided by a guitar case laden with firearms. I’m not exactly sure what triggered my obsession, perhaps the scene in which El Mariachi uses his guitar headstock to render a man holding a woman up at knifepoint unconscious (mid performance), but I became utterly hooked, watching it over and over again, isolating the exquisite Spanish guitar licks amongst scenes of gun-slinging bloodbaths. I, of course, immediately purchased a classical guitar, insisting that it come with a hard case should I ever need to carry a small arsenal to wage war on the drug dealers of Sheffield, England. I would later find out that one of my current guitar heroes, John Mayer, was inspired to play after seeing Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future. I may lack his fame or virtuosic skills, but I feel my inspiration was slightly cooler.
In the coming weeks I would play several hours a day, diligently teaching myself, listening to my dad’s John Williams records in awe, dreaming of lightning fast fingers and an eventual mastery of the instrument. Not soon after, on my fifteenth birthday, I got an electric guitar, which I covered in electrical tape in an attempt to emulate my new hero, Eddie Van Halen. I still maintained focus over the next couple of years, eventually fronting a band, but despite my guitar teacher cutting me loose following his declaration that he’d taught me all I needed to know, I never felt like I truly understood the instrument. I took up the saxophone, which became my new primary focus (amongst other things), and while I never stopped playing guitar, as you might have guessed the obsession became a distant memory in the years to come.
Cut to twenty-eight, I finally said enough is enough. That late-twenties malaise, in which the impending doom of your thirties encourages you to take life by the scruff of the neck, had gotten a hold of me good. Figuring I’d safely made it past twenty-seven, the age that had tragically consumed several of my musical heroes, including Jimi Hendrix himself, it was time to become the next sensation. I started teaching myself guitar theory, diatonic intervals, the five patterns, dyads, triads, extensions, alterations: all that jazz (pun intended). I’ll spare the boring details, but after a few months of this utterly painstaking, slow and laborious process, it all started to click. This coincided with my coming home for Christmas, dusting off my gorgeous made in America Fender Stratocaster, criminally neglected under my bed for several years. I forgot how fun it was to just noodle around on an electric guitar (I had been teaching myself on an acoustic, fingerpicking style, slightly trickier/duller), sliding through my newly learnt scale and arpeggio patterns, bending strings; I remembered what I used to love about playing, and felt like all the good stuff was still to come.
When I returned to a desolate New York January, I purchased a worn-brown American made Gibson Les Paul. In case you’re not familiar, in conveniently simplistic terms guitarists often tend to think in terms of Les Paul or Stratocaster, and being a life-long Strat guy it was time for a new beginning. Switching to electric and armed with my newly acquired theory, playing no longer became a chore. I went from an hour a day to between three and four. On weekends I would spend entire days transcribing Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I felt like I had learnt a new language, since I was able to understand exactly what these gods were doing, and exactly why it worked, rather than just learning by rote memorization as I’d done in the past. The guitar is a funny old instrument, due to the numbering of the strings and frets, you can learn music from tablature (a six line notation system where each line represents a string and notes are represented by fret numbers) and thus never really understand what you’re playing.
During the next few months I applied a renewed focus to becoming fully proficient at playing the blues, rock and jazz on electric, and fingerpicking style folk, pop and blues on acoustic. This leads me to another intriguing aspect of the guitar, its extremely multifaceted nature. There are several ways to skin a cat, and even more ways to play a guitar. Fingerpicking Spanish guitar requires a very, very different skillset from hair-metal style shredding; as does playing bottleneck slide blues; as does improvising over fast chord changes on a jazz chart. But to progress from that intermediate stage where so many of us tend to reside, to that elusive advanced stage, you’re kind of expected to know how to do it all. You also want to do it all. I find the majority of music I hear on guitar as fascinating as it is pleasing to the ear, and setting your sights on new genres can be as satisfying as juggling them is frustrating, one of my many love/hate relationships with the instrument.
Nothing seems to draw me to the guitar like the blues. Clapton put it best with “If you hand me a guitar, I’ll play the blues. That’s the place I automatically go.” There’s just something so deeply satisfying about sliding and bending through the same old blues licks that were born out of all that pain and suffering on the Mississippi Delta. Pondering how extreme adversity engendered such soul-stirring music. With that in mind, I set my first major goal of playing in Big Ed’s Blues Jam at The Red Lion on Bleecker Street, a stage that’s frequented by exceptionally talented professional musicians including the resident grouchy blues master himself, Ed Sullivan (and coincidentally shares the same name as the Sheffield pub where I used to hone my jazz-sax chops at jam sessions as a teen). Leaving my guitar at home, I set out for a little primer one Monday night in April, surveying the talent and thinking about how I’d shape up, having only been playing chord-based blues improvisation for a couple of months at this point. Obviously I was hoping to see a bunch of mediocre musicians fumbling their way around a few tunes, my people. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and I was instead awe-struck at the level of talent on display. Basically the best blues I had ever seen live, and I was somehow supposed to rock up to the stage and hold my own. Seemed like a tall task. I went back home and spent the next few weeks practicing like hell in a seemingly futile attempt to play without making a fool of myself by the end of May.
Eventually I ponied up the courage to walk on stage, guitar in hand. A lot of people I speak with are amazed that these jam sessions work at all. After all, you have a group of musicians that have never seen each other before in their lives, getting on stage to play a number together perfectly in sync and in tune, with about fifteen seconds to confer. It’s not quite as difficult as it sounds; thankfully the blues is fairly simple and generally revolves around one well-known chord-progression, with the chords being referred to by numbers relative to the root of the key you’re playing in. But still having not set foot on a stage since I was eighteen, only having a vague idea of what I was expected to play definitely added to the nausea sweeping through my body. Once the song started and I dropped in with some rhythm chords, I realized just how different performance is to bedroom rock starring. My hands were shaking to the point that I could barely fret chords. When it came time for my guitar solo (customarily everyone on a lead instrument gets a solo, indicated with a nod from the bandleader) it was genuinely like that classic scene in the movie Old School, where Will Ferrell reels off a long-winded answer to a complex question in a debate competition then asks, “What happened? I blacked out.” As I was walking to the subway, complaining about how badly I choked, my girlfriend started playing a clip on her phone of a guitar solo, to which I said ‘that sounds alright, who was that?’, then grabbing the phone I see my miserable looking mug, sternly concentrating on hitting notes I had no recollection of playing. Not that I was Muddy Waters of course, but I think I just about held my own.
Over the next few weeks I attended a few more times, getting slightly more comfortable on stage and eventually doing a few tunes as the band leader, singing and playing. However, becoming dissatisfied with sitting around for several hours on a Monday night to play two songs (it’s like they don’t even appreciate that some of us have bedtimes), I started a new chapter: writing my own music to perform as a soloist. I gravitated towards singer/songwriter style acoustic music (I just have a lot of feelings!). I let fly with my hands every Sunday afternoon, and managed to pen down a few semi-interesting progressions and riffs, scribbling down accompanying lyrics and forming a few rough songs to work with.
This has probably been the most challenging and interesting aspect of my musical journey. You don’t really think about it until you do it, but coming up with a completely original sound from scratch, when the sole creative burden lies on you, is actually pretty darn difficult. There are all sorts of decisions you have to contend with, and none of them came easy to me. Even something seemingly simple like singing in your natural voice is really an open-ended question. A lot of Englishmen like myself emulate American accents when we sing; others honor their native tongue (proudly representing my hometown, Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys is pretty far on this end of the spectrum). Lyrics are another particularly tricky subject to contend with. Some choose the direct literal approach; others favor a more abstract poetic tone. Both can be exceptionally effective at delivering a poignant message; both can be exceptionally effective at making a vocalist look lame as hell, where the line is drawn is completely in the eye of the beholder, adding to the complexity of the task at hand. It’s also very, very unnerving sharing your deepest darkest feelings with anyone that happens to be listening. I still struggle with this, and choose to essentially code my lyrics, steeping in metaphor to the point where the subject matter is semi-unrecognizable. Perhaps an unwise choice, but the alternative truly offends my closed-off English sensibilities. As one of my favorite artists Banks says, “sharing music is like giving away your children.” Lastly the music itself, again probably hard to appreciate until you try, but there’s such an incredibly fine line between one sound and another that you can find yourself switching between reggae and emo while you’re trying to write jazz. You’re striving for an original sound while building off of your influences; trying to keep it simple while delving into the complex; toeing the line between standing out in the crowd or being that guy. Essentially, it’s a minefield.
I set forth one steamy August night to perform my songs at a local open mic night, at The Graham Bar in East Williamsburg. It was a nervy walk, intensified by the constant appearance of ginormous rats scurrying from hot stinking piles of trash. My roommate and I coined it ‘rat city’, where stars are born. The venue itself was equally inauspicious, a hot shabby back room in a fairly deserted bar. But just like my earlier forays into the blues, I was once again amazed at the level of talent on display. I performed my allotted three songs as best as I could, attained a pretty good reception from the audience, and made some unquestionably hilarious wisecracks (honestly). All in all, a success.
I’ve played several times since that night, but I’ve never quite matched the sense of satisfaction I felt walking home that evening. In relative terms I’m of course still a newbie, but it seems to me like it never gets easy. When I hear the nasality of my voice on the mic or recording; hit a bum note on guitar; or follow a vocalist with pipes like a steam train; that sense of imposter syndrome really forces you to constantly question what you’re doing there. I suspect it’s an issue that plagues the creative community in general, especially here in the naked city, where inescapable talent surrounds us. Music is a particularly curious character, there’s no obvious formula for success. Some have talent coming out the wazoo, only to be scoffed at as ostentatious bores; some possess little in the sense of objective skill or creativity, but seem to strike a chord with their listeners that can’t be argued with. I find myself constantly analyzing anything that falls on my ears, picking apart composition, melody, harmony, rhythm—and while I’ve got a pretty good handle on how the music’s made, there’s always a faint whiff of pixie dust that makes it truly work, hooking us in time and time again, toying with our emotions like only music can.
And what of my obsession now? When I think back to last year, the flames have unquestionably died down, but the embers still glow. I no longer harbor hopes of becoming the next Jeff Buckley, Gary Clark Jr., or John Mayer; moving to Nashville to find work as a session guitarist; or attending Julliard as a precocious thirty-year-old man. I’m painfully aware of the fact that there are countless people out there, far, far more talented than I could ever hope to be, and far hungrier for a taste of the limelight. But I persevere. I still play every day—jazz, blues and rock before work in the morning; original acoustic material, repertoire and transcription after work, until ten, every night. My social life suffers, but it’s a sacrifice I feel inclined to make—though thankfully I only have one or two friends at the best of times. When it all comes together I feel like I’m channelling Jimi; but mostly, I feel like Ross Geller. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress about some aspect of my playing or my music. I experience bouts of elation on the odd occasions when I’m satisfied, but they’re increasingly fleeting, without fail extinguished either through the joylessness of repetition or the despair of inadequacy relative to the legends I so worship. Some days my guitar feels like a burden that I’ll forever carry, some days it feels like a blessing that can deliver a state of joy like no other. But whatever it brings me, I’m still along for the ride.
Do you remember the Greek myth of Narcissus? It’s the story of an attractive and arrogant man that fell deeply in love with his own face reflected on the water, to the point of losing all interest in life when the reflection was not visible. He died looking at the pond, with no other desire than gazing at his own image.
We have all probably encountered someone like this in our lives. Whether it is that popular guy at high school, the wife that spends two hours in front of the mirror, the husband, the impulsive boss, the public celebrity, the writer, the actor or even politicians, anybody can show some signs of narcissism. The problem begins when it becomes pathologic.
At first glance, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) seem extremely confident, fearless, shameless, and self-sufficient. However, researchers and clinicians investigating these behaviors have found that they are actually a mask to cover low self-esteem, fear, shame, and lack of empathy. People with NPD have the need to be admired, valued over others, and expect to be treated as superiors.
More frequent in men than women, NPD is rarely treated by itself since it is often accompanied by more severe conditions such as depression, substance abuse, paranoia, eating or bipolar disorders. The causes of this personality disorder are not completely clear, but it has strong hereditary and social components. It’s often incubated during childhood, and blooms in adolescence and early adulthood. The major problem with NPD is not what happens with the individual itself, it’s what happens to others. It is common that people surrounding narcissists get humiliated, discredited, disregarded and disrespected by them. It is also common that in order to surpass the fear of falling short, narcissists develop a need for achievement, self-enhancement, perfectionism, and snobbery. However, society rewards these kinds of behaviors, especially in public personalities like artists and politicians. In a culture where success is overvalued and measured in comparison to others, NPD can drive individuals into privileged positions at the expense of others. The famous phrase by Machiavelli “the end justifies the means” is a magnificent example of the approach that these individuals can take in order to achieve their goals. But one can imagine that this is a double-edged sword, since the same attributes that brought them to success could end up dispelling their beloved ones away. In the end, patients with NPD are not aware of their condition and do not seek treatment by themselves. It is often a harmed third party that requests mental healthcare for an individual with NPD.
Do you know any politicians exhibiting any of these symptoms?
Winter has come!
Winter is probably the best time of the year to take black and white pictures, especially when the sky is cloudy. Frost on a window in the utility room, frozen leaves in the garden or on the path of the north-facing slopes, and foggy fields are just a few examples of winter’s beauty. Enjoy it, until spring springs!
Blood Diamond and the Epic Death of Danny Archer
Caution: spoilers ahead!
In the fabulous comedy Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth boldly sets a wager to her obsequious courtiers: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” I’ve been wondering about a similar notion: Can a contemporary film show us the essence of human tragedy in the epic sense of the word?
Sometimes in the evening, I roll through the cable stations on television and particular films grab my attention again and again. There are movies I’ve seen at least a dozen times and a great number I’ve viewed portions of 20 or 30 times. Recently, I’ve found myself transfixed with several films starring Leonardo DiCaprio, including The Aviator, The Departed, and Inception. DiCaprio also won an Oscar this year for The Revenant, a movie that in itself is a remarkable, stunning achievement.
But it is DiCaprio’s performance as Danny Archer in the 2006 film Blood Diamond that I find most fascinating. Blood Diamond is like no other movie I’ve ever seen and Archer is a unique, stand out character, with his strong Rhodesian accent, mannerisms, and mindset. Blood Diamond takes place in 1999 during the horrific unrest in Sierra Leone, and the title refers to the mined conflict diamonds illegally financing the combatants while enriching foreign companies that go on to sell the goods around the world. Jennifer Connelly portrays Maddy Bowen, a journalist set on exposing the trade in hopes of stemming it, and it is her efforts that show the modern audience how complicit we could be in the crime if anyone who innocently buys diamonds for a necklace, earrings, or engagement ring turns away blindly from knowing the terrible, often murderous source of the stones.
The movie’s plot centers on a poor fisherman, Solomon Vandy (played by Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou) whose young son is captured by the crazed Revolutionary United Front and forced to be a child soldier for their rampaging cause. Solomon is coerced to mine diamonds by the group and secretly, far out in a stream in the wilds, comes across an enormous, priceless stone which he conceals. In the meantime, Archer is a diamond smuggler working secretly with a large South African mining company and is a gunrunner for the fighting factions as well. He was formerly trained as a soldier by the Afrikaner Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) and works with the Colonel’s smuggling efforts to get stones to Liberia and then, through a complex series of transactions, on to the European and American markets. Archer learns that Solomon, now freed from slavery, has hidden the diamond deep in the country’s interior, and they team together (and for a danger-filled time, with the journalist, Maddy Bowen) to retrieve both Solomon’s son and the stone.
Archer has witnessed a lifetime of the terrors of war and violence, including the brutal murder of his parents as a child. He and Colonel Coetzee are as hard and tough as any man can be, their emotional dictionaries long shut after participating in years of battles, but bent now only on making their personal profit and, for the Colonel, managing wars in Africa for power and gain. When the lives of Bowen and Archer intersect, she is able to slowly bring him to a state of empathy for the long trail of innocent victims of war and to fully comprehend the horrors in Sierra Leone. Archer especially learns to feel for what Solomon is seeking in regaining his son and how willing Solomon is to risk death in the slim hope of reuniting his family.
Colonel Coetzee, when meeting Archer on the Colonel’s massive South African property, tells Archer that he must find the huge diamond and hand it over to compensate him for a deal gone bad. Archer notes that he wants to take Solomon’s stone to make his way out of Africa, as his ticket “off of this God-forsaken continent.” In a moment of intense drama, the Colonel has Archer crouch down on his farmland and as he runs a reddish soil through his hands, explains to him that its crimson tint is said to come from the area’s long history of bloodshed. He tells Archer to face that he’ll never leave Africa. Archer squints in resignation, and feigns acquiescence, saying, “If you say so, Colonel, if you say so.”
After much soul-searching and bloodshed, Danny and Solomon locate the diamond amid the rebel stronghold and retrieve Solomon’s son. The Colonel, who with his mercenaries, attempted to take the stone by murdering Archer and Solomon, is killed when shot by Archer, but not before firing a bullet into Archer’s abdomen. This is where we begin to find the essence of a modern tragedy.
The many camera shots of Africa shown in Blood Diamond are stunning, leading one to wonder how such a place so different from America could exist on the same planet, just a plane ride away. As Solomon, his son and Archer flee the retaliating soldiers of the late Colonel in this lush landscape, Danny’s wound begins to incapacitate him. As they climb a steep plateau towards an airstrip atop which Archer’s partner in stealing the diamond will soon be landing a small aircraft, Solomon is tasked with carrying Archer on his back towards the summit.
At one point during their desperate ascent, Archer demands that Solomon put him down and explains that he’ll fend off the approaching soldiers as Solomon and his son race to the plane and to safety. The final exchange between Archer and the African tribesman, Solomon, is one that can move the viewer to tears, and includes a laugh between them on how they both knew that Archer might just as well have stolen the huge diamond. Solomon and his son make it to safety and Archer is left leaning against a large rock, bleeding out. He takes a moment to use his army communications phone to call Maddy Bowen, now in Europe, and charge her with writing the exposé of the blood diamond in Solomon’s possession, and to see to the release of the rest of Solomon’s family being held in a massive internment camp.
The love that had been growing between Danny and Maddy hits its peak as she realizes that he is doomed. Her final words to him: “I wish I could be with you,” to which he replies gazing out at the beautiful sight of Africa, “it’s alright, I’m exactly where I should be.”
Archer grabs some soil, the blood running off his hand to mix with the dirt, fulfilling the Colonel’s prophecy that Danny would never leave Africa and that very ground of the continent is mixed with the blood spilled over its riches, in the name of colonialism, and through tribal hatred. We last see Archer leaning against the rock, head tilted to the right, as the camera pulls away to expose the beautiful land with its one tragic son. Danny has come to know the love between a father and son, and the love of a woman who, although American, is very much akin to him. His heroic death is not in the vein of ancient tragedy, where a strong-headed king gets his comeuppance while the chorus weeps and wails, tearing their garments. Danny dies in the bright light of the lush African wild content from having learnt more about life and love than he could ever have believed was within himself and that his compatriots on the dangerous journey, are righteous, good, and set to change the world for the better.
Television Series Review: Mr. Robot and Gomorrah
Caution: spoilers ahead!
There is a widely-held notion that television is presently in the midst of a golden age and that the quality and diversity in programming has never been better for the medium. One might generally associate the phrase “golden age” with eras of creativity in cultural history, such as the glory days of Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, while thinking of television more in terms of crassness and the lowest possible taste (think the Kardashians or the Housewives reality series). Yet I can’t deny that TV is offering many more stimulating choices these days than big Hollywood studio films. The best current television shows are filmed cinematically to big budget movie standards and the writing and scripts of these series offer superlative plot devices and new, untested ideas without falling into the trap of typical clichés that plague so much of our visual entertainment.
Two series in particular have hooked me into becoming a loyal viewer. USA Network’s Mr. Robot revolves around the exploits of a young, brilliant, socially-challenged hacker. The other, the Sundance Channel’s Gomorrah, is an import from Italy based around the inner workings of the criminal mob in the city and surrounding region of present day Naples.
By Jim Keller
As we begin our fifth year of uncovering and examining the content that will eventually form the enigma that is the Academy Awards race, I thought it would be interesting to switch things up and break down my films of interest list by release date, festival appearance and production status. After all, outside of the pedigree attached to each film, these are the only available parameters to measure the Oscarability of each film, sight unseen. The early part of the Oscar race (from January until the Telluride Film Festival in August) is a moving target. The awards stops along the way, such as the Sundance, South by Southwest, and Cannes film festivals, can be equated to the change of seasons: their arrival is inevitable, but their impact is uncertain. This makes spit balling what may come down the slippery slope of the Oscar pike a dicey proposition. For one, a lot of the films lack distribution or have soft release dates, making it easy for studios to push their release to the following year. Second, the films discussed here haven’t been screened, so it’s impossible to know the genre they fit into. All we have to go on is the log line, the talent attached, and a little intuition. In this sense, one could say this parallels how we size up politicians, but I digress.
Last year, FYC’s Crystal Ball Edition covered only two out of eight 2016 Best Picture nominees. With that, I give you films of interest, set to debut this year, which could wind up in this year’s Oscar conversation.
Films to Compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival: May 11-22
The Neon Demon (director: Nicolas Winding Refn, status: Completed, release date: June 2016):
Why you might like it: It’s a horror/thriller about an aspiring model (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles, only to have her youth and vitality devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will stop at nothing to get what she has.
Why I’ve got my eye on it: It’s the third film from the director whose first film Drive competed for the Palme in 2011 and won him the Best Director prize. While his last film Only God Forgives was a critical flop, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t learn from past mistakes. Fanning has become a prolific actress and seems well-suited for a young ingénue role.
Loving (director: Jeff Nichols, status: Post-production, release date: November 2016):
Why you might like it: The drama tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married.
Why I’ve got my eye on it: After the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, there are several films cropping up this year featuring prominent roles for minorities (and even a second one about an interracial marriage, see below). This second 2016 offering from Nichols, is one such film. Given Nichols’ track record to date and the prime release date, this could be an awards player for Best Picture, Director, actor and actress.
The Last Face (director: Sean Penn, status: Completed, release date: 2016):
Why you might like it: A director of an international aid agency in Africa (Charlize Theron) meets a relief aid doctor (Javier Bardem) amidst a political/social revolution, together they face tough choices surrounding humanitarianism and life through civil unrest.
Why I’ve got my eye on it: Penn’s last film, 2007’s Into the Wild, earned high critical acclaim and went on to land a Supporting Actor nomination for Hal Holbrook. Theron and Bardem are always ones to watch: Theron won Best Actress in 2004 for Monster and was nominated again in 2006 for North Country, and Bardem was nominated for Best Actor in 2001 for Before Night Falls, he won Best Supporting Actor in 2008 for No Country for Old Men, and was last nominated for Best Actor for 2010’s Biutiful. While the two are a formidable duo, its French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos who I’m most excited to see after her remarkable turn in 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. As of now, the film lacks distribution and may be one of those pushed to 2017.
Films Likely to Appear at the Telluride Film Festival: September 2-5
The Birth of a Nation (director: Nate Parker, status: Completed, release date: October 2016):
Why you might like it: Nat Turner (Parker), a former slave in America, leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African-Americans in Virginia, which results in a violent retaliation from whites.
Why I’ve got my eye on it: This is one of my most anticipated films of the year and the second of those featuring prominent roles for minorities. It is also directed by the African-American Parker, who stars in the film. It premiered this year at Sundance; where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal, the largest deal to be made at the fest to date. Look for this one as a Best Picture contender.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (director: Ang Lee, status: Post-production, release date: November 2016):
Why you might like it: Based on the novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, this drama concerns infantryman Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who recounts a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys halftime show that he and his squad members made an appearance during in the final hours before the soldiers returned to Iraq.
Why I’ve got my eye on it: Lee was nominated for Best Director in 2001 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he won in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, and in 2013 for Life of Pi, a film with a staggering visual achievement. He has confirmed that Billy Lynn will be shot 120 frames per second, the highest frame rate for a film to date. The film also features Kristen Stewart, who has been flirting with Academy recognition with stellar supporting turns in 2014’s Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria.
Film and the Tyranny of the Repeating Day: Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day
By Bernie Langs
“Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day” is the banal, clichéd rallying war cry that commencement speakers send off the graduating classes of universities into the world. Yet once in the rhythm of the work day, we very quickly learn that it is the day that seizes us, with its unvarying and very precise routines. In truth, college too is broadly scheduled, and I’m reminded of a school pal who would meet me in the cafeteria and while dressing his lunch would glumly announce “12:16, time to put the ketchup on my hamburger” for weeks on end. I now marvel that as I leave work, I turn a street corner and see local construction workers descending a ladder each day, and within four minutes, the same two women will pass me by on the street. It’s like clockwork.
Civilization’s intellect and spirituality can be said to have been based on relentless repetition and what that meant in the past for everything from growing of crops to preparing for bitter cold or sweltering heat. Early religions responded with homage to these cycles and Nature for its seasonal brutalities which they would try to appease by offerings of sacrifices and wine, the fluid of life.
As inevitable as the characteristics of the four seasons, our daily routines can be unvarying for years and years. In the brilliant film “Groundhog Day”, directed by Harold Ramis and starring the comically sublime Bill Murray, an acerbic, sarcastic, basically miserable weatherman becomes subject to living February 2nd over and over again. Each day he wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the quaint local Groundhog Day ceremony with its famous ritual of pulling a groundhog from a cage to determine the length of the remaining winter. The movie is often hilarious, but many deeper meanings and philosophical undertones slowly reveal a struggle by its protagonist that can resonate with all of us.
At first, Bill Murry will go to any lengths to escape waking up again to the sound of his clock radio playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” accompanied by the inane banter of local disc jockeys, as the viewer ponders his own morning routines. Murray even goes to the extreme of a multitude of ludicrously planned suicides to escape his woe. There is an eventual epiphany, beautifully beginning with Bill Murray reading a book in the local diner and just looking up to marvel at his surroundings.
In contrast, Tom Cruise, in the science fiction adventure “Edge of Tomorrow” directed by Doug Liman, faces a repeating day of violent death in a battle with an army of machine or insect-like aliens on a beach resembling the D-Day scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Cruise’s character is trying from the get-go to escape his death and is taught that if he does win out, it will mean a victory for the armies of Earth against the aliens and the redemption of the whole world.
When “Edge of Tomorrow” was released in 2014, I laughed off any thought of seeing the movie, since in the promotions Cruise and his co-star the fabulous Emily Blunt bandy about in large, super-hero armor as they fight this computer-generated enemy. The film is currently available on cable movie channels and I’ve now watched it three times. Cruise’s mission to escape his repeating day sails far above any comic book notions. He and Blunt’s rugged determination to win this war is a tale of ferocious pursuit in the name of “The Good.”
There’s a reason why I always conclude this three-part series by covering the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races: with the exception of the frontrunners, they are very unpredictable. Hence, I am going to shake things up a bit this year and change the discussion format. Instead of laying out each actor’s accomplishments and why I would, or would not, bet on them for a nomination, I have broken down below the different circumstances these actors find themselves in and how that narrative may or may not grow to influence Oscar voters. In a few short weeks, groups such as The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), the National Board of Review (NBR), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) will announce their respective winners, thereby revealing a consensus of nominees, as we march forward to Oscar nominations on January 14th. These announcements, along with those of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes), signal the start of the Oscar race’s second leg.
Here is how the actors discussed last year fared:
Best Supporting Actor:
-J.K. Simmons — Whiplash: Nominated and won
-Edward Norton — Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Nominated
-Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher: Nominated
-Ethan Hawke — Boyhood: Nominated
-Josh Brolin — Inherent Vice: Not nominated
Last year’s fifth nominee was Robert Duvall for The Judge.
Before we begin, please note the following regarding the supporting actor and actress races:
Everyone loves a two-fer: Often the same film will have multiple supporting nominees. The precedent was set back in both supporting categories in 1939 when Hattie McDaniel competed against Olivia de Havilland for Gone with the Wind and Harry Carey and Claud Rains were nominated for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For the ladies, this has occurred twenty-nine times, whereas it has only happened sixteen times for the men in the eighty-seven years the Academy Awards has existed. Further, the phenomenon last occurred in Supporting Actor for 1991’s Bugsy, which saw nominations for Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley. Conversely, it last occurred in Supporting Actress for 2011’s The Help, which yielded a win for Octavia Spencer and a nod for Jessica Chastain. One might attribute this difference to the lack of female roles in Hollywood, i.e., there weren’t enough supporting roles for women in Hollywood films to nominate the performance in a fifth film in those years.
Ride Along: A Best Picture nomination can often yield supporting nominations for the film’s actors (e.g., Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver in American Hustle).
Category fraud is alive and well: In a year where the best actor and actress categories are an embarrassment of riches, look for voters to vote lead performances as supporting and vice versa just to get the actor(s) a nomination.
Beware the newcomer: Oscar voters love to swirl around newcomers and anoint them the prom king/queen (e.g., Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave).
A Tale of Two Reporters
Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton (Spotlight):
Thomas McCarthy’s drama is based on the true story of how the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team uncovered the massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. It is one of the year’s best reviewed films, it has a 93 Metacritic score, and is, therefore, a serious Best Picture contender. It has already won the Gotham Jury Award for Ensemble Performance at this year’s Gotham Awards and shows no signs of slowing down as the Oscar season accelerates. At its core are the supporting players: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Liev Schreiber, who play the members of the Spotlight team. Ruffalo once again imbues the film with tenderness and has the best scene. It would be his third nomination in this category after having been nominated for 2010’s The Kids Are All Right and last year’s Foxcatcher. On paper, it seems that should be the story, but there is a groundswell opinion, among Oscar pundits, that the Academy will nominate Keaton since he lost Best Actor last year to Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything). As ridiculous as this sounds, it could very well be. Look for one of them to get in alongside these other contenders:
The “It” Factor
Robert De Niro (Joy): He won Best Supporting Actor in 1975 for The Godfather Part II and Best Actor in 1981 for Raging Bull. He has been nominated four times for Best Actor: Taxi Driver (1977), The Deer Hunter (1979), Awakenings (1991), and Cape Fear (1992), and most recently, for Supporting Actor for Silver Linings Playbook (2013).
Bradley Cooper (Joy): He earned his first Best Actor nomination alongside De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook (2013) and has been nominated each subsequent year: American Hustle (Supporting, 2014 and American Sniper (Lead, 2015).
Joy is directed by David O. Russell, whose last three films have been nominated for Best Picture and have yielded three supporting actor nominations combined.
Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies): He was nominated this year for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie for Wolf Hall and won the Best Actor British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) TV Award for The Government Inspector in 2006. He is also widely known for his stage work, having won three Tony awards.
Tom Hardy (The Revenant): He won the Best Actor LAFCA last year for Locke and was nominated for the Best Actor BAFTA TV Award in 2008 for Stuart: A Life Backwards. His film is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, last year’s Best Director winner for
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation): He won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television in 2012 for Luther, a role that netted him two other nominations in 2011 and 2014. In those same years he was nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Primetime Emmy. Last year he was also nominated for Best Actor by the same body for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Regardless of nominations, Beasts will go down in history as the first feature-length, original film from Netflix. The idea of a content streaming titan churning out films frightens the big studios and challenges the idea that the Academy does in fact award the best films. It is one of the best films of the year and it is likely that Hollywood will snub the film, but will throw it a bone in the form of a supporting actor nomination for Elba.
By Paul Jeng
The first exhibit I attended at the Park Avenue Armory was in the spring of 2012, Tom Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, an expansive, irreverent rendition of an imaginary expedition to Mars. From the beginning it was clear that the exhibit was designed with active audience engagement in mind. Visitors at the entrance were directed by a hand scripted sign to view a series of short, PBS-style video lessons on the rules of the Mars enterprise before entering the main floor to observe reproductions of a Mars Rover, mission control station, Lunar lander, and others. The large installation pieces–crafted by sculptor Tom Sachs from modest materials such as plywood, duct tape, foam tubes, and exposed bolts–were deliberate in their oxymoronic simplicity, as if the blueprints to impossibly complicated technologies were stolen from the belly of a NASA engineering laboratory and fed to a local Home Depot instead.
At face value, the concept behind crudely reproducing sophisticated machines seemed only to offer trivial amusement, yet I found the painstaking craftsmanship and earnest appreciation for space exploration underpinning the exhibit to be very affecting. However, to me the success of the show was rooted in its contextualization within the exhibit space itself, a 55,000 square-foot former drill hall with a soaring, barrel-vaulted roof girdled by arched iron supports. The massive hall, one of the largest unobstructed spaces of its kind in New York City, was only dimly lit above the ground level, creating the sensation of actually hovering within the abyss of space. The whole experience felt good-naturedly absurd, encouraging the viewer to delight in the cognitive dissonance of challenging an infinite void with flimsy wooden ships. As a relatively new consumer of installation art at the time, I was amazed by the power that a venue could exert over the visitor’s relationship with its art. In SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, Tom Sachs wanted to explore contrasts–exotic machines made from household materials, bright colors under dark skies, feelings of simultaneous awe and amusement–and the Armory itself was central to the impact of his message.
The Park Avenue Armory was originally constructed in 1880 to serve as the headquarters for the 7th New York Militia Regiment. The building, a national historic landmark since 1986, occupies the entire Park Avenue block between 67th and 68th streets, intersecting the otherwise homogeneous rows of gray apartment buildings with its distinctive red brick and Gothic revival-style towers. As stewards of the building since 2006, the non-profit Park Avenue Armory Conservancy has sought to showcase “unconventional work that cannot be mounted in traditional performance halls and museums.” In that respect it has been remarkably successful, playing host to an extensive variety of shows during the tenures of artistic directors Kristy Edmunds (2009-2013) and Alex Poots (2012-2015), including lecture-series, Shakespeare, and immersive audio/visual musical performances.
Since 2012 I’ve attended several more of these uniquely curated programs at the armory, all of which felt as if they naturally gestated within and sprouted out of the walls themselves. In Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows, a room full of speakers projected an auditory installation which utilized the echoing cavern of the armory to create haunting, shifting soundscapes. Anne Hamilton’s The Event of a Thread saw an enormous, silk white sheet hung on the rafters of the Armory’s halls, billowing at the will of audience members who controlled its movements with large wooden swings. Even the relatively guileless annual Art Show by the Art Dealers Association of America, a modular exposition of art hung in cubicle-like booths, felt infused with an air of grandeur under the brooding Armory ceiling.
J. M. W. Turner on film and Jan van Eyck in The Smithsonian Institution
By Bernie Langs
Lord Kenneth Clark, the eminent late art historian who often graces the pages of “Culture Corner”, felt that life’s meaning can best be found through the study of paintings, which later bled into his world historical view of “civilization” that encompassed architecture, sculpture and even the theories of how economics shape cultures and move the masses. In the past, I have read as much of Clark’s works as I could and I now recall his discussion of how certain artists cannot be easily categorized, so unique are their works. He boiled it down to cases of an almost divinely-touched sense of an individual physical vision. Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner was one such painter discussed by Clark. Turner’s ability to “see” and then paint with accuracy or imagination (or both) the sea, its foam and waves, the detailed bubbling of turbulent waters hitting hard wooden ships, the shapes and phantoms rising from terrific storms, remains unequaled to this day.
In the film “Mr. Turner”, written and directed by Mike Leigh, the life of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is presented with all the harshness of his times along with a contrasting and almost Dutch-like pristineness. Details, for example, of particular drawing rooms with their cinematographically well-lit furniture, basins or candlesticks, and striking or muted colors make “Mr. Turner” a wonder of a movie. Timothy Spall plays Turner in a marvelously strange and complex manner, often difficult to watch, as he grunts and barks with a near-Cockney biting, graveled voice. By contrast, Spall played a conniving Rosencrantz to Kenneth Branagh’s vengeful Hamlet smoothly, and his take on Turner seems to combine his roles as the rat-like villain Peter Pettigrew (“Wormtail”) in the Harry Potter films with his amusing characterization of Winston Churchill in “The King’s Speech.”
The roughshod Mr. Turner makes his sketches as often as he can, but it only seems obsessive at the end of the film, when he is compelled to leap from his deathbed to run outside in his bedclothes to draw “from life” a woman’s dead body washed up on the shore near his seaside home. I kept trying to reconcile the idea of Clark’s notion of a visionary with the hard-as-nails reality that Mr. Leigh bludgeons us with throughout this movie. But don’t misunderstand me, the movie is fantastic and the genius of Turner’s inner world is there for the taking if you look for it. The key scene, where Lord Clark’s Turner is on display, is when during a stormy sea voyage, Turner insists on being tied high on the ship’s mast, like a latter day Ulysses, in order to see the raging waters about him to gain a first-hand knowledge and vision of nature’s mighty torrent. The nitty-gritty Turner meets the soulful artist in that moment and Spall plays it masterfully.
By Natalia Ketaren
September 7 sees the end of two wonderful exhibitions in NYC. The first exhibition I saw and will speak of, was the highly publicized China: Through the Looking Glass housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). The second, equally enchanting and moving, was that of Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). An exhibition curating the artist’s work during her early years (1960-1971), years that defines her as the artist and figure we see today.
China: Through the Looking Glass (May 7 – September 7)
I had known about the exhibition first from social media sites and fashion magazines. Many designers were previewing Chinese style influences in their Spring/Summer 2015 collections. Needless to say, I was excited to view the exhibition after seeing all the beautiful dresses and accessories from this year’s Met Gala.
The exhibition is focused on China’s influence on Western art, fashion and design over the decades. As I entered the exhibit, I was welcomed into a dimly-lit space and, in the background, the soft sound of music. Imposing mannequins stood singularly or in small groups, each dressed in an elaborate gown, rich in detailing, ranging from delicate hand embroidery and cascading figure-hugging silk, to boldly woven silk brocade, structured into ornate shapes that sculpted the body into a work of art. One particular Yves Saint Laurent gown, with images of a dragon against a backdrop of bright red sequins, had me stop in admiration, not only at its beauty, but, in appreciation of the time, effort, and patience it must have taken to create such a beautiful object. Each gown, coat, trouser, and suit I saw, aside from the historical communist uniforms, were brightly colored in the colors I most associate with China: red, emerald, canary yellow, and, of course, iconic blue and white. Even black garments shimmered with fine beading or sequins, or were bordered with the brightest shades of contrasting color.
Alongside the gowns are accessories so finely crafted you can’t help but pause. I couldn’t step away easily from the delicate craftsmanship of the shawls, embroidered with scenes of lavish gardens and busy towns, strewn with peonies and colorful animals. Each shawl must have taken months if not longer to perfect, the product so meticulously constructed, so luxuriously designed, would leave Persian artisans in awe.
As I traveled through each room, every painting, every object, every film reel was captivating. It is a truly mammoth exhibition, spanning numerous rooms within the Met, over three floors. It wasn’t surprising that the run was extended past its August end date. There is so much more here than just beautiful objects, there is a true appreciation of a culture so enchanting, that it inspired so many people to create such amazing works. I highly suggest, before September 7, you take a walk around the beautifully curated exhibition, which is China: Through the Looking Glass.
By Susan Russo
Based on a personal story from his granddaughter and the website www.luisada.com
Avigdor Renzo Luisada was born in Florence, Italy, in 1905, third son of a secular Jewish family. His father was a prominent doctor and his older brother became a cardiologist in the United States. Luisada’s grandfather was an Italian painter, musician, and photographer, who told seven-year-old Avigdor, “Don’t be a painter! This is a hard life…” After high school, Avigdor served in the Alpinist unit of the army. On his discharge, at the insistence of his father, he studied engineering at university, but soon left for the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence.
In 1929, Luisada moved to Rome, continuing art studies at the Academia di San Luca, where he received a drawing award in 1931. Returning to Florence, he supported himself by illustrating children’s books, but continued his painting. He met his future wife, Paula Malvano, in Florence. After their marriage in 1933, the couple moved to Milan, where Luisada’s paintings were soon exhibited throughout Italy. In 1936 he was first invited to present his work at the Venice Biennale.
During the ominous rise of Hitler in Germany, members of the Northern Italian Jewish community formed an illegal organization, the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants, for the difficult move to Israel. Avigdor Luisada was elected as the organization’s secretary, and later became president of the Milan chapter. During this time his daughters Daphna and Dina were born.
In September of 1939, Luisada and his family left for Israel on the last boat out of Trieste. In Israel, the Luisada family joined with other Italians to form a communal village (called a “moshav”), in the Sharon region, naming it Tel-Dan (after a respected Italian Zionist, Dante Lattes.) As farming was a struggle, Avigdor started teaching painting in regional elementary schools, continued illustrating children’s books, and drew images for magic lanterns.
After the war, Luisada and his family visited Italy to see relatives who had stayed there, and to meet with their artist friends. In 1947, they moved to Tel Aviv, where Luisada taught painting and art history at the Art Teachers Seminar and lectured at museums throughout Israel. His first solo exhibition was at the Katz Gallery in Tel Aviv. In 1948, with the assistance of Yossef Zaritsky, Luisada and his fellow artists mounted an Israeli group exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Members of this group created the beginning of a modern art movement called Ofakim Hadashim (“New Horizons”).
In 1955, to be closer to relatives and other friends who had moved from Italy, the family moved to Ramat-Gan. Luisada continued painting and drawing in a studio near their new home. Then, in 1972, Luisada and his wife spent a year in Paris, where he had a solo exhibit in the Espace Gallery.
In 1970, the Italian government awarded Avigdor Renzo Luisada the Chivalry Medal, and the Ministry of Culture and Education in Israel presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1982, he was awarded the Dizengoff Prize for Painting and Sculpture from the Municipality of Tel Aviv.
Avigdor Luisada’s paintings and drawings have been on display in museums and institutions throughout Israel, in the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Torino, Italy, and in exhibits in Montreal, New York, San Paola, Brazil, and Frankfurt, Germany.
In 1972, Luisada suffered a heart attack, which left him partially paralyzed, but he continued to work in his studio. Avigdor Renzo Luisada passed away at the age of 82, leaving a memorable legacy for his family, friends and his life in art.
Theater Review: “LOVE” performed by Cirque du Soleil at the Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, February 16, 2015
By Bernie Langs
A Hofner bass guitar signed by all four Beatles displayed outside the “LOVE” theater at the Mirage Hotel (photo: B.L.)
When I told a musician friend of mine that I would be in Las Vegas for a few days in February, he insisted that while there I check out the Cirque du Soleil troupe’s interpretation of the Beatles’ music entitled “LOVE” that he had found to be an astounding theatrical tour de force. I knew some of the music from the show from the soundtrack released some years back produced by George Martin and his son, Giles. I’d even chanced upon a cable television airing of the film documentary chronicling the making of the show, but had quickly turned it off after witnessing the late John Lennon’s wife making strong suggestions to the show’s director during early rehearsals. Yoko Ono had already made far too many suggestions for Beatles’ affairs, in my opinion. Yet, I knew the music for “LOVE” to be a brilliantly conceived mash-up of Beatles’ tunes, taking a snippet from one song and tagging it to another or several others. In the case of the late George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” they added a lovely string arrangement to his melancholy demo of the song.
But Cirque du Soleil? Wasn’t it just high wire, trapeze tricks by pantomiming performers? I told my friend, whom I’ve known since the time when the Beatles were an active band, that I’d pass on going to the show. Knowing how highly I regarded the Beatles, he replied, “You will love it. If you do not go, I will find you and I will hurt you. You have to go.”
Thus so gently persuaded to attend, I am glad to say I have escaped that threat of bodily harm and even happier to report that “LOVE” as performed by Cirque du Soleil is a beautiful, exciting, musically profound, and dare I say, loving phenomenon. It is more than a show, it truly is an experience to behold in many ways. George and Giles Martin were instrumental in designing the sound system for the Beatles’ amalgamated music and I’ve read that there are over 100 speakers placed around the theater, including three in each of the individual, cushioned, high-back seats. I would sometimes shift in my seat to play the sound in my chair to the best effect. Beyond any studio album recorded by the group, beyond their television performances, or even the ballpark house speakers at their Shea Stadium show in 1965, this is the way Beatles’ music should be heard. The volume was loud, but not too loud. It surrounded one and became all encompassing, but not uncomfortably overwhelming, and for any Beatles’ fan, it could only lead to a state of bliss. It was like receiving wave after wave of pure joy.
How wrong I was about the mechanics of a live show by Cirque de Soleil. The performers are modern dancers, often undertaking straight out dance moves in various styles or doing their tasteful acrobatic feats in incredibly difficult fashions, including the use of high wires and trampolines. They are in complete tune not only to the beats and rhythms of the Beatles, but to their essence and soul, and very much on target with their original spirit. I was seven years old when the Beatles hit US radio and television, and thirteen when they split up. I was witness to their living spirit, which can never be completely captured again by anything produced since 1970. “LOVE” is as close to a witness of their time and unique manner as I have ever experienced.
By Jim Keller
I maintain that the Oscar race can be likened to a horserace where each studio bets on its thoroughbreds and hopes that they can at least place at the end. The studio is the owner, the public relations department is the jockey, and the horse is the actor or film in the analogy. Here we thrust those roles I’ve discussed in the three-part Ones to Watch edition under a microscope to separate the nominees from the contenders and to identify the power players for each studio. I’ve also included my rankings as they stood on Oscar nominations eve—the number in parentheses indicates my placement following nominations. I chose the maximum ten nominees for Best Picture and all categories reflect five nominees. The top five in the table were my nominee picks, those that fall outside of that were outside chances that I had listed.
In the September issue, I examined the Best Actor race. Here are the roles I discussed and where the candidates ended up five months later…
By Susan Russo
Ava DuVernay has made a movie, based on the true events depicting the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that still resonates today. With a cast led by David Oyelowo, a young British actor, playing the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this movie is a testament not only to King’s determination, but his brilliance as a leader, his
sacrifices, his family, his disparate but loyal followers, and his belief that non-violence was the only way to accomplish the major goal of voting rights for African-Americans throughout America. King met with leaders of many factions, such as Malcolm X, a radical leader, whom he convinced (in the movie) not to appear at the march, and members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), persevering in his belief that only non-violence would prove to be the most effective way to make his and his followers’ dreams a reality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had recently passed, outlawing segregation, a great victory for human rights, but King believed that true equality for all Americans would never be achieved without the right to vote. Selma was chosen as a rallying place to begin the marches to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. (Selma was a town in which more than 50% of the population was African-American, but fewer than 1% of that population had been allowed to register to vote, due to the all-white registrars’ arbitrary requirements). In one memorable scene in the movie, Annie Cooper, a non-violent activist (played by Oprah Winfrey), when demanded to by the registrar, recited the entire Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, gave the correct number of circuit court justices in the county (67), but was rejected because she could not give all their names (!) This movie highlights many of the people who planned the marches with King – Ralph Abernathy, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), leaders of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and Andrew Young, Jr., who, still living at 82, helped to draft the Voting Rights Act, was a leading activist, and later became an American ambassador. Another march planner was John Lewis, who today is a Congressman (prominently seen in attendance at President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20, this year.) Other notables depicted in the movie were President Lyndon Johnson (played by British actor Tom Wilkinson), whom Dr. King met, spoke, and negotiated with a number of times about the marches and voting rights. Other major characters in the movie were Coretta Scott King, his wife and mother of his four children (played by a British actress, Carmen Ejogo) and Alabama Governor George Wallace (played by another Brit, Tim Roth.) Some notable American actors in smaller parts were Cuba Gooding, Jr., playing a lawyer, Martin Sheen, playing a judge, and Giovanni Ribisi, playing a presidential advisor.
It is a movie filled with moving scenes of real people in moments of confusion, fear, tension, wrangling, human frailty, humor, hope, and triumph. The determination of all the marchers is ennobling. The long marches, with men, women, students, and children dressed for church (as in the 1950’s), but carrying suitcases, bedrolls, and food packages, is a testament to courage, resilience and determination. The images of armed police and state troopers with gas masks and night sticks, horses and whips are frightening, and the assaults on the unarmed people are almost unwatchable, as are the depictions of people on the sidelines cheering the fray. The director also utilized actual newsreel footage of the attacks, which is devastating. The violence of the first march was shown on black-and-white TV, and the outrage felt by many Americans led to white people joining the second and third marches. The U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The original script of the movie was written by English writer Paul Webb in 2007, with additional revisions of the final script by the director, Ava DuVernay. Among the producers of the film were Pathe U.K., Brad Pitt, and Harpo Films (founded by Oprah Winfrey). The production cost $20 million, which, in Hollywood, is considered a modest amount for a major movie.