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Archive for May, 2013

Bomb Girls Cancelled

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Bomb Girls profiled the stories of four women working in a Canadian munitions factory during World War II, beginning in 1941.

Bomb Girls was an ambitious Canadian television series shot on a break neck schedule and minimal budget in Toronto with a converted furniture factory in Etobicoke standing for the fictitious Victory Munitions Factory, which dealt realistically and sympathetically with the vicissitudes of life in wartime Canada, as women struggled to contribute to the war effort, and also to gain equal rights, as well as equal pay for their efforts. The series ran for two seasons.

As the series’ production website notes, “Bomb Girls tells the remarkable stories of the women who risked their lives in a munitions factory building bombs for the Allied forces fighting on the European front. The series delves into the lives of these exceptional women from all walks of life – peers, friends and rivals – who find themselves thrust into new worlds and changed profoundly as they are liberated from their home and social restrictions.”

Season 1 was filmed from September 12 to November 16, 2011, a very tight production schedule from any point of view; Season 2 was shot with equal speed and efficiency. With standout performances from Meg Tilly, Jodi Balfour, Charlotte Hegele, Ali Liebert, Anastasia Phillips, Antonio Cupo, Sebastian Pigott, Peter Outerbridge and others, the show was a refreshing change from the endless series of cop shows, detective procedurals, dreary reality series and serial killer dramas — the same thing year after year.

Bomb Girls was something fresh and original, and you could see that everyone in the series was working as hard as they could to get the most out of every production dollar. In addition, several excellent directors were attached to series, including Anne Wheeler, whose film Bye Bye Blues (1989) was an equally interesting and compelling World War II drama told from a feminist perspective.

However, despite critical acclaim and a growing fan base on April 22, 2013 Global TV and Shaw Media announced that Bomb Girls would not return for a third season. They did however suggest that a two hour TV movie serving as a series finale could air sometime in early 2014. Disappointed viewers have launched a campaign via savebombgirls.com in an effort to get this decision reversed.

As Kate Taylor wrote in The Globe and Mail, “when it launched as a six-part miniseries on Global in January, 2012, Bomb Girls got mixed reviews, but it quickly caught the attention of viewers and critics for its content. Depicting the lives of female munitions workers played by Meg Tilly and a group of younger actors, it has covered such issues as sexual harassment, infidelity, abortion and lesbianism.

This year, Bomb Girls won the best-drama category at the Gracie Awards, the prizes for women’s television in the U.S., where the show runs on the digital cable channel Reelz. It also airs on more than 40 countries in Latin America and Europe. At home, industry insiders gave points to Global, a network with a feeble track record of producing successful Canadian content, for illuminating an unusual chapter in Canadian history.

In part, the show owes its success to the way it fits into two increasingly popular genres: the period drama, represented by Mad Men and Downton Abbey; and female-centric shows such as Girls. Its social-media presence reveals a strong following among young women charmed and intrigued by the story of how their grandmothers fought to get jobs and respect. Initial ratings in Canada were very strong for a Canadian series: The first episodes drew well over a million viewers to Global.

The second season, which concludes Monday, also started well: 1.1 million watched the premiere. Bomb Girls’ producers add that the show reached another 200,000 to 300,000 viewers who recorded it to watch later. Ratings remained in the 800,000-to-900,000 range, they said, until the show got bumped off the schedule in February. ‘We lost 25 per cent of our audience between February and March,’ says executive producer Michael Prupas. Even in the 600,000-to-700,000, range, the show would be competitive with many dramas in CBC’s predominantly Canadian lineup.

Getting the right spot on a crowded schedule is a tricky proposition for any show in any market, but Canadian series are at a significant disadvantage. The reason: Canadian broadcasters maximize ad revenues by accommodating popular U.S. programming first. (Under Canadian regulations, a broadcaster can require the cable and satellite operators to drop Canadian ads into a competing U.S. signal when the broadcaster airs a show at exactly the same time as the U.S. network.)

Simulcasting means that commercial Canadian TV schedules are largely determined in Los Angeles, and Bomb Girls was the unusual Canadian show that won a weeknight, wintertime spot. Global airs its other prime-time Canadian drama, the cop show Rookie Blue, in the summer, when U.S. dramas are on hiatus.

Ironically, when Bomb Girls returned to a new Monday-night spot in late March it was up against not only the U.S. shows The Following and Two Broke Girls but also the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. The competition between two rather similar Canadian shows might not have been the wisest use of tax dollars: It is not only the CBC that uses public money to make Canadian TV. Typical of Canadian dramas, Bomb Girls depends on the Canadian Media Fund for 25 per cent of its budget, while another 30 per cent is covered by government tax credits.

Seeing how successful Murdoch has been since it moved from CITY-TV to the CBC in January, some observers have speculated that the public broadcaster could rescue Bomb Girls. They have received, however, scant encouragement. ‘Our schedule for next season is set and … there’s no room to pick anything else up,’ says Kirstine Stewart, head of English-language services at the CBC. ‘Fans of Bomb Girls should talk to Global.’

But Global says it backed Bomb Girls to the hilt, and had always intended to program it in six-week arcs, like a miniseries. ‘We put massive support behind the show,’ says Barb Williams, senior vice-president for content at Shaw Media. ‘When it returned from hiatus, Bomb Girls was scheduled between heavy hitters like Bones and Hawaii Five-O and we put more marketing and publicity support behind it than any other Global show – in the hopes that the audience would grow over these successive story arcs.’

The broadcaster is now talking to the producers about creating a two-hour special next winter to wrap up the storylines. The producers want to proceed with that project – which Global unveiled this week in a press release that disguised the cancellation as an announcement of the special – but point out it has to be done in a way that leaves the door open.

“What we are trying to do, going ahead with this movie, is to ensconce Bomb Girls as an iconic show, so hopefully we can come back to the characters at some later stage,” Prupas says, pointing to British shows like Prime Suspect that have been revived after a long break. ‘Keeping the title alive is important to us. We hope it will have a future.’”

It isn’t likely the series will come back, and that’s a shame; it was one of the best things on television.

Behind the Candelabra

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas on the set of Behind the Candelabra.

Much has been made of Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from filmmaking, but I’m beginning to suspect that the whole thing is just a ploy to make it more of a “coup” when someone snags him for a new project. Yes, Behind the Candelabra wrapped before Soderbergh announced he was stepping down, but now he’s in talks to do a new series for Cinemax entitled The Knick starring Clive Owen — which sounds like a very interesting project indeed, and I look forward to it — but it seems to me that his self-imposed exile just makes him all the more attractive to selective, high profile projects.

Which brings me to Behind the Candelabra — does it work? In a word, no. I was rather disappointed, because at his best, as in Magic Mike (which was on HBO right before Candelabra, and thus offered an immediate and welcome contrast to the the film), he’s a really accomplished filmmaker, both in directing the actors, and staging the entire production — but here he seems content to set it up and shoot it, for as usual, Soderbergh does his own cinematography under the alias of Peter Andrews, and then cuts it together — here, in a really routine fashion — again using an alias, as Mary Ann Bernard.

The resulting film is flat, predictable, and uninvolving, and though Douglas attacks the role of Liberace with gusto, he doesn’t really have the “larger than life” punch that the character requires. The rest of the cast tackle their roles with varying degrees of success: Rob Lowe is a standout, perfectly creepy as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon; Debbie Reynolds is all but unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother, and really doesn’t make an impression; Matt Damon is appropriately wide-eyed as Scott Thorson, and Dan Ackroyd is matter-of-fact as Liberace’s business manager.

I was surprised to see former sitcom star Paul Reiser in a very small role as Thorson’s attorney near the end of the film, and the film is certainly well mounted, with no skimping on production values. But in the end, it feels exploitational and hammered out, as most TV movies are. Magic Mike reminded me just how good Soderbergh can be when he really clicks with a project, but Behind the Candelabra too often descends into clichés and has a really syrupy finish — by the end of the film, I really didn’t care about anyone; the whole thing seemed like an animated waxworks, and little more.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Behind the Candelabra.

3-D Festival at the Egyptian Theatre, Los Angeles

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

The largest festival of 3-D films in the world is coming to Los Angeles; click here, or on the image above, for more information.

As the press release for the event notes, “the World 3-D Film Expo will return to the Egyptian Theatre, September 6-15, 2013. The ten-day festival will pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of what many film historians regard as the ‘Golden Age’ of 3-D, and will include screenings of the John Wayne western Hondo, the Vincent Price horror film House of Wax, Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me Kate, the sci-fi thriller It Came From Outer Space, and later 3-D films, such as 1983’s Jaws 3-D. Lesser-known titles, such as The French Line with Jane Russell and Second Chance with Robert Mitchum, will also be included.

The Expo is partnering with digital 3-D projection sponsor RealD to present a number of screenings in RealD 3-D including Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Jack Arnold’s sci-fi/horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Stefan Droessler, 3-D historian and head of the Munich Film Museum, will present an in-depth overview of ‘European 3-D Filmmaking 1935-1953,’ including long-lost footage from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The festival will also be home to several premieres including the Los Angeles Premiere of the 1946 Russian 3-D adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. September 14th will mark the World Premiere of the stereoscopic version of the 1954 Korean War drama, Dragonfly Squadron. The film was only released in a flat version during its initial release, and has never been seen by audiences in 3-D. Newly-restored 35 mm prints of shorts ‘Rocky Marciano, Champion vs. Jersey Joe Walcott, Challenger’ and ‘College Capers’ will be screened in 3-D for the first time in 60 years. Most programs being presented at the festival will be shown in archival double-system 35 mm. prints, many of them the last known copies.”

The 3-D footage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a real find; if you’re going to be in Los Angeles, go!

Alan Cumming as Macbeth

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Alan Cumming as Macbeth is a revelation.

There are, as of this writing, just 52 performances left of this amazing theatrical experience; astoundingly, Cumming’s Macbeth — in which he plays all the major characters, with the assistance of only two other players, neatly telescoped into one hour and forty minutes of non-stop wizardry — was snubbed by the Tony Awards, when it should have at least been nominated in any number of categories, most obviously for Best Actor. One might think that the entire idea is a gimmick — that one person couldn’t possibly play all of the roles in Macbeth without the entire production degenerating into a mere stunt — but Cumming commands the stage for every instant of the play, never leaves any doubt in the audience’s mind as to whom he’s playing at any given moment, and does a remarkable job of shifting characters at express train speed without even the slightest trace of hesitancy.

Consider that he’s got to memorize all the rolesthe entire play from beginning to end — and perform on a stage, which is designed to look like a stark, institutional mental hospital, with absolutely no way of receiving prompts on the text, and you’ll begin to get some idea of the Herculean feat that Cumming undertakes, and brilliantly executes. As the play’s website notes, “directed by Tony winner John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg, this ’stirring turn by Alan Cumming packing theatrical thunder and lightning’ (Daily News) is set in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit.

Cumming is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television camera watch the patient’s every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life . . .” — and the most harrowing thing about the play is one gets the distinct feeling that Cumming, as Macbeth, will be forced to relive the experiences of the play night after night, endlessly looping out on the tragedy that he’s been sucked into, over and over again until the madness and horror of the scenario is well-nigh unbearable. This is a piece that will only work as live theater; you have to witness it directly. Anything else would get in the way.

As a reviewer in The Huffington Post wrote,Macbeth with Alan Cumming: another dazzling and brilliant one-person show. Yes, Macbeth as a one-man show. I am so jealous; they did it so right. Johnson said that Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature; well, yes, if we say that the mirror is reflecting the essence of nature but not a realistic view of nature. Here is a way to do Shakespeare as realism; you have a single madman in a hospital reciting all the parts. In that way the Elizabethan dialogue is no longer high Shakespearian; it is the expression of a mad character. His portrayals of the familiar Scottish murderers can’t be over the top because the characters are being played by an insane character. Macbeth is not Macbeth; it is a portrayal of Macbeth by a man losing his mind in an institution. Cumming is superb.”

Click here to see more about the Tony furor, and listen to Cumming’s own take on the affair.

Phillips Gallery – Contemporary Art Auction

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

The recent Phillips Gallery show of contemporary art was one of the best values in Manhattan.

I went to shows at The Museum of Modern Art, The Frick Gallery, The Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere, and all of them were exceptional, but this exhibition of contemporary art at the Phillips Gallery on 57th Street was a real surprise. Everything on the three floors was for sale, and is going up for auction as I type this tomorrow evening, but what surprised me the most was that if one were a billionaire, or even a well-heeled millionaire, one could pick up an entire “instant museum” in one evening, since practically every major 20th and 21set century artist was represented, and all at what I’d consider reasonable estimates.

Nevertheless, one must bear in the mind the the auction estimates will probably be exceeded — that’s what an auction is for, in any case — and some of the signature pieces, such as the Warhol Marilyn, actually four panels set together as a group, and displayed in a room all their own, said simply “estimates available upon request.” With Warhols rocketing off the shelf at record prices, who knows what they’ll go for?

But there were superb pieces from a wide variety of artists on display, many of them quite attractively priced, and though I certainly can’t afford to attend the auction, much less buy any of the work on display, it’s a nice gesture that one is able to walk through the gallery at one’s leisure, free of cost, and enjoy all the masterworks on display — for free. With nearly every other museum in Manhattan now charging as much as $25 at the door, this alone was a breath of fresh air, and the works themselves were iconic — authentic talismans of the evolution of modern art.

UPDATE: The Warhol quadruple Marilyn sold for $38.2 million; the total collection sold for $78.6 million.

What Maisie Knew

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

What Maisie Knew is a sharp, smart, effective little film, well worth your time.

As the film’s press kit notes, “directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan and Joanna Vanderham, introducing Onata Aprile as Maisie, the film is a contemporary reimagining of Henry James’ novel, What Maisie Knew tells the story of a little girl’s struggle for grace in the midst of her parents’ bitter custody battle. Told through the eyes of the title’s heroine, Maisie navigates this ever-widening turmoil with a six-year-old’s innocence, charm and generosity of spirit.

An aging rock star (Moore) and a contemporary art dealer (Coogan)—Susanna and Beale are too self-involved even to notice their neglect and inadequacy as parents; their fight for Maisie is just another battle in an epic war of personalities. As they raise the stakes by taking on inappropriate new partners, the ex-nanny Margo and the much younger bartender Lincoln (Vanderham and Skarsgård), the shuffling of Maisie from household to household becomes more and more callous, the consequences more and more troubling.

Always watchful, however, Maisie begins to understand that the path through this morass of adult childishness and selfish blindness will have to be of her own making.” What could easily have been treacly and sentimental here is rendered in bold, aggressive strokes, and while all the performances are standouts, Onata Aprile is the real center of the film, and she holds both the screen, and the audience’s attention, effortlessly.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Charles Ives: Total Immersion

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event; all four Charles Ives symphonies in a single night.

On the last night of a very hectic New York research trip, I was lucky enough to attend the Charles Ives “Total Immersion” concert, featuring Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, in a marathon evening which tackled nothing less than the performance of all four of Charles Ives’ symphonies, a taxing assignment for any orchestral group, but particular in the case of the justly famous Fourth Symphony, which is so complex that it requires two conductors, a huge orchestra, and a complete choral group to bring the work to life.

As you can see in the video above, the Fourth combines so many musical themes and such a wide array of instrumentation that any presentation of the work is daunting; it also comes with the considerable difficulty of containing, in several of its movements, two time signatures running simultaneously at two different tempos, which is why the second conductor is so necessary. I was staying in a hotel right around the corner from Carnegie Hall, and noticed a poster for the evening when I first arrived, at the astounding price of only $25 a ticket for any seat in the house.

Obtaining two tickets in the dress circle early Monday morning the week of the concert, I wondered all week long whether or not I would have the stamina to last through the entire evening, which started at 7:30 and didn’t conclude until nearly 11PM, especially since I had to get up the next morning at 5AM to catch a flight home. At the last minute, I decided that whatever the hardship in lack of sleep, this was an evening not to be missed, and I am deeply, deeply happy that I made that decision.

Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony were in top form, and the packed house knew it from the first downbeat; here was an ensemble that brought Ives’ often difficult music to life, and an amazing opportunity to track Ives’ development as a composer from the rather traditional First Symphony — which nevertheless boasts a spectacular First Movement (breaking concert hall protocol, the audience interrupted the orchestra after the movement was complete for a lengthy round of enthusiastic applause, rather than waiting for the entire piece to conclude). The Second was darker and more experimental, while the Third — which astoundingly won the Pulitzer Prize — was the briefest and least impressive, and then came, as one of my seatmates put it, “the main event.”

The Ives Fourth has been one of my favorite pieces of music since I can remember — indeed, I scored an entire film of mine, The DC 5 Memorial Film (1969) to the Fourth Movement in its entirety — and Skatkin’s interpretation of this intense, difficult, and ultimately transcendent piece of music was absolutely faultless. I was very pleased when I read James R. Oestreich’s review in The New York Times to find that he, too, was impressed by the evening; as he wrote, “the high point came on Friday evening with Detroit’s audacious presentation of an ‘Ives Immersion’: all four of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies in chronological order.

Obvious in retrospect (though not likely to be repeated often, given its strenuous demands on performers and listeners alike), the program made for an extraordinary journey, from the relatively conventional sensibility of a prodigious student composer in the First Symphony to the unfettered one of an indomitable master in the Fourth . . .

Taken together, the four symphonies could almost be read as individual movements of a gigantic whole, so natural and compelling was the flow. After that First Symphony — first movement, as it were — the Second came as a sort of scherzo, gamboling through old folk and hymn tunes, with ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’ as anchor. The Third Symphony, relatively restrained and more focused in its borrowing, seemed a calming slow movement before the all-out radicalization of the Fourth.

Mr. Slatkin preceded his performance of the Fourth Symphony with a brief, brilliant demonstration of the work’s complexities. He had the orchestra play a four-measure mashup of tunes and rhythms from the second movement, then had the various sections play individual layers. And what should appear but ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in the violins, scarcely to be heard behind the blaring trumpets and under the accumulated weight of other instruments when everything was put back together. In similar fashion, Mr. Slatkin showed why a second conductor (Teddy Abrams) was needed in parts of the second and fourth movements, dismantling, then remantling the conflicting meters.”

All in all, a brilliant evening, and another, much needed reminder of how essential the arts are in today’s society.

Gutai Art Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

I recently saw a stunning show of Gutai Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

As Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York wrote of the exhibition, “Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an ‘international common ground’ of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.

The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name Gutai literally means ‘concreteness’ and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.

The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).

Moving from what Yoshihara decried as ‘fraudulent . . . appearances’ to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.

Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the ’scream of matter itself.’ In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.

As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called ‘a splendid playground’ and what Yoshihara sought as a ‘free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.’”

I was lucky enough to see the show — which ran from February 15–May 8, 2013 — on its last day of exhibition; I was unaware at the time that the show would soon be dismantled, but I was stunned by the originality, lack of commercialism, and genuine sense of wonder that the show displayed, which was also documented in numerous short films and videos projected throughout the museum. The Gutai movement was clearly very much ahead of the curve in terms of art in the United States, and in the happenings and performance pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s done in the US, you can more than a little of Gutai’s influence.

However, due to the fact the international boundaries were more defined during the pre-web era than they are now, very little of Gutai’s output made it to the United States, except for those artists who visited Japan during the period when the group was active, and obviously took home notes. The other aspect of the Gutai movement that’s fascinating is that they knew when they had accomplished ewhat they wanted to do, and having worked continuously on creating boundary-breaking art since 1954, called a halt to the group’s activities in 1972, rather than just continuing on as a commercial entity. This is art at it’s purest, most genuine, and most affecting.

Click here, or on the image above, for a video on this exceptional show.

Taylor Mead 1924 – 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Taylor Mead, center in the photograph above from the 1960s, and one of the authentic stars of the American underground film, has died at the age of 88.

As Elaine Woo wrote, in a sharply observed and deeply sympathetic obituary in The Los Angeles Times on May 11, 2013, “Taylor Mead, an underground cinema legend whose comic charm and sense of the surreal inspired Andy Warhol and other seminal figures in the alternative film world, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 88. A fixture of bohemian New York who was also a poet and artist, Mead was visiting family in Colorado when he had a stroke, said his niece, Priscilla Mead.

Called ‘the Charlie Chaplin of the 1960s underground,’ Mead was an elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes who appeared, by his count, in 130 films, starting with the 1960 art house classic The Flower Thief. In a review for the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman pronounced him ‘the first underground movie star.’

He later became one of Warhol’s first superstars, appearing in films such as Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of and Lonesome Cowboys. He also was known for his work in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man and Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mead in a moving vignette that closed his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, considered Mead one of his heroes.

A dropout from a life of privilege, Mead allied himself with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other early leaders of the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s before settling in New York to eke out a living as a member of its thriving arts underground. He was a familiar face on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he wandered the streets with a notebook, read his poetry in coffeehouses – often against a background of a Charles Mingus recording – and fed feral cats in the predawn hours.

‘Taylor was a spark who inspired filmmakers, poets and artists on both coasts,’ said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which sponsored a Mead retrospective last fall. ‘He saw his life as his art and his art as his life and didn’t separate them the way we do today.’ He was the subject of Excavating Taylor Mead, a 2005 documentary by William Kirkley that knits the actor’s personal history with later struggles to hold on to his decrepit New York apartment and maintain his free-spirited life.

Born on the last day of 1924 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Mead was the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife who divorced before he was born. He floated through boarding schools and a number of colleges before his father found him a job in a brokerage house, which was not to his liking.

Openly gay since he was about 12, he left the East Coast in the mid-1950s, hitchhiked to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by Pull My Daisy, a short 1959 film based on the Kerouac play Beat Generation, he collaborated with Rice on The Flower Thief, a somewhat haphazardly structured film shot with a handheld camera that features Mead wandering through San Francisco coffeehouses and dives carrying a flower, an American flag and a teddy bear. ‘There was no plot, no planning,’ he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. ‘It was … extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway.’ Village Voice critic J. Hoberman praised it as ‘the beatnik film par excellence,’ with Mead playing ‘a kind of Zen village idiot.’

In 1964, before Warhol was a pop-art mega-celebrity, he invited Mead on a road trip to California for the opening of a gallery show. They wound up making Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of, a spoof of Hollywood adventure movies that was Warhol’s first partially scripted feature. It starred Mead as a Hollywood Tarzan cavorting with a naked Jane in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, exercising on Venice Beach and having a bicep-flexing contest with Dennis Hopper as a rival Tarzan. Mead would appear in about 10 Warhol films over the next decade.

Calling himself ‘a drifter in the arts,’ Mead also acted on stage, winning an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in the Frank O’Hara play The General Returns From One Place to Another. He published poetry and three volumes of his journals, displayed his art in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and read his poems weekly at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. ‘His whole campaign was, stay creative, active, busy. And he did,’ said filmmaker and friend Clayton Patterson.

He made his biggest splash in decades in 2003 in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a loosely connected series of vignettes with a wide-ranging cast including Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Critics were moved by Mead’s performance as a janitor on a coffee break who doesn’t want to go back to work. The film ends with Mead closing his eyes to the strains of a favorite Mahler song, which resonated with his colorful past:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!”

Taylor Mead, one of the authentic figures of the American avant-garde.

Post Tenebras Lux (Light After Darkness)

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

I just got back from a research trip in New York City, where I saw a brilliant film.

I saw Post Tenebras Lux at Film Forum, and was absolutely mesmerized by the film. As Film Forum’s official notes for the film explain, “Post Tenebras Lux (‘light after darkness’) is a new autobiographical feature from acclaimed director Carlos Reygadas, winner of the Best Director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly the story of an upscale, urban family whose move to the Mexican countryside results in domestic crises and class friction, it’s a stunningly photographed, impressionistic psychological portrait of a family and their place within the sublime, unforgiving natural world.

Reygadas conjures a host of unforgettable, ominous images: a haunting sequence at dusk as Reygadas’s real-life daughter wanders a muddy field as farm animals loudly circle and thunder and lightning threaten; a glowing-red demon gliding through the rooms of a home; a husband and wife visiting a swingers’ bathhouse with rooms named after famous philosophers. By turns entrancing and mystifying, Post Tenebras Lux palpably explores the primal conflicts of the human condition.”

When the film was screened at Cannes, there was a near riot, and many of the audience members walked out in protest, but for the life of me, I can’t figure why. The film’s narrative is at once straightforward and filled with magical realism, as in the scene, pictured above, in which a glowing red demon silently enters a middle class house, toolbox in hand, intent on wreaking havoc in his wake. Indeed, I’ve seldom seen a film that was more accessible, and at the same time more mysterious, lingering in the memory long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Click here to read an interview with the director, Carlos Reygadas.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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