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Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category

Harrison Ford on Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Harrison Ford had some interesting thoughts in this past Sunday’s New York Times on Hollywood today.

Speaking with Adam Sternbergh, Ford, just back from an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his new film Ender’s Game, Ford noted that if the Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series, were released today in the intensely fan-driven environment created by the convention, and others like it, “everyone would be ahead of it, and everybody would know what it was, and it would be no fun at all. But people still went to movies in those days. People went to movie theaters. It was a community experience, and that was part of the fun. Now people see a movie on their iPad, alone, with interruptions for snacks [. . .] I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities — I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers — that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies or Transformers or whatever is going on [. . .] I think the smaller-scale movies, which I like very much, would be harder to conceive another iteration of.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I wouldn’t “necessarily call them filmmakers” either.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Betty White

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.

As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.

White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.

But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’

Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.

After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.

Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”

This is fascinating, deeply incisive work, with excellent research and detail. Read all about it here!

Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Criterion’s Eclipse series of unjustly overlooked masterpieces has just put out a superb set of films by the great Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, who is almost unknown in the West.

As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.

The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.

The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”

This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.

It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.

This is a box set that any serious film aficionado should get immediately.

Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962)

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

I have an article in the new Senses of Cinema 67 on Roger Corman’s film The Intruder.

As I note at the beginning of my essay, “in the early 1960s, director Roger Corman was on fire. Coming off a wave of ultra-exploitational titles for the fledgling film production/distribution company American International Pictures (AIP), which arguably defined late 1950s teen cinema, with such titles to his credit as Premature Burial, Pit and the Pendulum, Creature from the Haunted Sea (all 1961), Last Woman on Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors, House of Usher (all 1960), The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood (both 1959), as well as She Gods of Shark Reef, Teenage Cave Man, Machine-Gun Kelly, War of the Satellites, I Mobster (all 1958), and Sorority Girl, Teenage Doll, Rock All Night, The Undead, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth (all 1957), Corman had mastered genre filmmaking, and was looking around for a new challenge.

The range of Corman’s work during this period is astounding; Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher were the first two Gothic horror films in Corman’s long-running and highly influential series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe; A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors were two of the first truly ’sick’ comedies, both shot in a matter of days; Machine-Gun Kelly introduced a young Charles Bronson to audiences, in a period piece designed as a nod to the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s; Teenage Doll and Sorority Girl were pure teen exploitation; and Attack of the Crab Monsters, War of the Satellites and Not of This Earth were clear-cut science fiction.

Most of Corman’s films during this formative period were shot in a week, on budgets of $100,000 or less – The Little Shop of Horrors was famously shot in two days and a night, for roughly $40,000 – although the Poe films represented a real step up for the young director, at least in terms of physical production values. With 15-day schedules, budgets in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, Panavision and Pathécolor, Corman could relax a little, and take some more time with the material.

But even on these films, he often finished ahead of schedule, and he seemed driven to make one film after another, all of them incorporating thematic concerns outside the realm of conventional genre cinema; teen crime, peer pressure, consumerist materialism, even humanist parables, as in Teenage Cave Man, in which the ‘Stone Age’ the protagonists are living in is revealed in the film’s final moments as actually being a post-apocalyptic world after the Third World War has destroyed most of the planet.

While Corman could dabble in social commentary in these films in a rather light and tangential fashion, as a lifelong liberal filmmaker he longed to do something utterly uncompromising. Bolstered by the continuing commercial success of all of his previous films, he decided to direct a film on the racial tensions of the 1960s, shot on location in the American South. And so, right in the middle of his run of commercially successful films for AIP, Corman went off on his own and, with his own money and no studio support, made The Intruder (1962) for a mere $80,000, creating one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.”

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image of William Shatner above.

Book: Hopper by Tom Folsom

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Tom Folsom’s new book on the life and work of Dennis Hopper is a knockout.

Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.

Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.

Until then, The Last Movie is yet another “lost” film that needs a DVD release; in the meantime, read Tom Folsom’s book.

Roger Corman’s You Tube Channel

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Legendary producer/director Roger Corman is launching a pay YouTube channel on June 13th; click here, or on the image above, to listen to Corman introduce the new venture.

Always a few steps ahead of the game when it comes to distribution and exploitation of his product, Roger Corman has cut a deal with YouTube to stream his library of more than 400 films on his own YouTube channel, films that he either produced or directed, with the initial emphasis on the more “mainstream” fare, but who knows what will happen as the channel evolves?

Let’s not forget that when no one else would strike a deal with Ingmar Bergman for the American rights to his masterpiece Cries and Whispers, Corman stepped in with a telephone offer to distribute the film in the US based solely on two conditions; one, that it be a “representative Bergman film,” and two, that it was shot in color. This was no problem for Bergman, who readily agreed, and the film went on to become Bergman’s biggest American hit, which Corman booked in not only legitimate theaters, so to speak, but also in drive-ins.

Roger Corman has inspired dozens of filmmakers, actors, writers, and marches very much to his own drum; he was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Academy Award© for his lifetime contribution to the cinema. Corman has directed and produced, or served as the co-producer or distributor, for a lot of excellent films, and he’s constantly, even in his 80s, reinventing himself to keep up with the times.

Streaming is the way to go these days, and Roger is one of the first to jump on the bandwagon with a pay channel in this area; judging by the enthusiastic comments from his many fans, the channel should be a solid hit, and hopefully he’ll run some of the more interesting arthouse films he championed in the 1970s and 80s along with the solidly commercial work; this could be a very interesting undertaking.

Click here for a more detailed article on Corman’s Drive In Theater.

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.

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.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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