Archive for the ‘ Art ’ Category

The Beauty of Skyrim

I think I’ve always loved RPGs. It was just that 20 years went by without playing one.

It started with King’s Quest. I remember booting it up from DOS. Amazing a world could emerge from all that darkness and solitary blinking.

kings-quest

With the help of my teenage stepbrother, I was able to understand how games are played “these days,” and I downloaded Steam. He recommended Skyrim, and around 1am one night, I finally purchased it. I remember starting the game, and, after the initial scene, realizing that I could go wherever I wanted to. I was completely blown away. Things had come so far in 20 years. During this initial period I actually woke up in the morning excited for the day because of the game.

I’ve now played Skyrim for 65 hours, and along the way I’ve been collecting screenshots. I don’t have the best gaming laptop, nor can I even run the game with anti-aliasing, but I still admire the beauty of Skyrim.

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Book Covers: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

Working for a company that provides a particular product/service will often make that product/service less enjoyable. This was the case for me with the exterior of books. My first job out of college was in publishing, and my main task was to write the ‘descriptive copy’ for the back of books. This was enjoyable work in many ways, but it also made back-cover copy appear all the more garish, with its ability to say very little and its abundance of em dashes. Of course, maybe that’s just how I was writing at the time. Maybe that’s how I still write (winky face).  Also, during this period I sat in far too many ‘sales conferences,’ listening to debates on often trivial aspects of cover designs.

Now I no longer work in publishing, so I can appreciate a good book cover without all of that insecure self-reflection and work association. Today I found an old worn copy of Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar in a coffee shop. A previous owner had underlined, annotated, and outlined its labyrinthian plot. They had also written some poems in the back; one in particular talked about excitement for what the night might bring alongside fear that it will be boring and lonely. There were grease stains on pages, and overall it was a platonic well-worn book. Sadly,  it had the odd job of an ornament for what looked like overpriced men’s toiletry bags.

The cover is what prompted me to pick it up and to go out and purchase a copy. I didn’t end up asking if the book was on sale at the coffee shop given its liminal adornment status. However, when I found the book at a book store, it had a different cover. I don’t really like the new cover.

old cover:

old hopscotch cover

 

new cover:

new hopscotch cover

Mulholland Drive: The Personal and the Post-9/11 World

glow of street light in suburban area at night

Ironically, this photo was taken in the Inland Empire.

I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a freshman at U.C. Berkeley. It was screened at Wheeler Hall in the auditorium where I would later listen to Professor Leon Litwack, whose lectures on antebellum America, with their dramatic deliveries fit for the History Channel, would inspire me to study history. I have a lot of memories of lectures at Wheeler—Todd Solondz’s intriguing awkwardness, David Byrne rambling about PowerPoint, falling asleep in Pychology 101—but two memories stick out the most. One is Litwack recounting President Nixon “giving bombing directives while drunk” and the other is watching Mulholland Drive. Somewhere in there lies a connection.

After watching the film at Wheeler, I walked back to my dorm puzzled, talking with other students about the bizarre plot and possible interpretations. Later that night, when I was alone (or at least retired to the bottom bunk of my three-person room), I was gripped by anxiety over some of the images and symbols in the film, particularly the man behind the dumpster and Diane Selwyn’s corpse. I was frightened by the irrational belief that these images would never leave my mind.

The exact timing of the screening at Wheeler is hazy to me. I recall it being one of the first non-welcome events I attended as a freshman, which makes sense temporally since the film was released in May of 2001, and it would have taken some months for it to pass through theaters and to a college screening. This would have placed the event around 9/11, either right before or right afterwards.

As I moved through my early-to-mid 20s, Lynch stuck in the back of my mind as the director of that unique and unnerving film from freshman year, a name I would mutter in group settings to prove I understood something about film, but still with a bit of nervousness since I knew relatively little about Lynch’s other work. I think there was one subsequent viewing of Mulholland Drive during that period, but the themes present in the film had not yet “clicked” with me.

In my late twenties I experienced my sister’s suicide, and shortly thereafter, the death of my grandmother and the loss of my childhood home in Orange County where she helped raise me. My family and childhood had imploded in a matter of a few years. I began to watch particularly dark films, mostly psychological thrillers, with regularity. I would look forward to the late hours of the night when, my girlfriend asleep in the bedroom, I would sit on the couch immersed in the soft glow of the flat screen, cocooned in the “gaze” of film. The psychological reasons for this are many and probably better topics for the therapist’s office than this piece.

During this time, I became a more serious ‘student’ of Lynch, examining his films and shows in greater detail. I had several revelations about his style and themes, all of which seemed interconnected.

The Uncanny

In his films, ordinary objects, spaces, and sounds are made strange and therefore frightening. An isolated phone, a dark hallway, or the ambient whine of machinery all become menacing. Things that should remain hidden are revealed, such as the monster behind the dumpster (in some perspectives representing American homelessness) in Mulholland Drive, or the personal/domestic life of a couple secretly recorded and re-played in Lost Highway. Lynch borrows so heavily from the uncanny that, in my opinion, the easiest way to understand the ambiguous concept first detailed by Freud is to watch his films.

As an aside, I’ve come to believe that Lynch’s personal interest in meditation helps create works of art that are steeped in the uncanny. Meditation seems to remove the veil, so to speak, and ordinary sights and sounds become novel and strange. I remember searching for interviews and lectures by Lynch and becoming annoyed at how much he talked about meditation, but now I do believe that it is a key to understanding his work.

Dreams and Intuition

In my opinion, no other artist conveys the world of dreams better than Lynch. His labyrinth-like plots and various cinematic techniques (lighting, colors, out-focus shots) make his films almost indistinguishable from dreams. This aesthetic is summarized well by a line from the famous “Winkie’s” scene in Mulholland Drive:

I had a dream about this place. Well, it’s the second one I’ve had, but they’re both the same. They start out that I’m in here, but it’s not day or night. It’s kind of half-night, you know? But it looks just like this, except for the light. And I’m scared like I can’t tell you.

All of Lynch’s films seem to pull heavily from intuition as opposed to rationality. An obvious nod to this fact is Dale Cooper’s intuitive techniques and experiments as an FBI agent in Twin Peaks. One could say that Mulholland Drive itself was born of intuition, or random chance. It started out as a serial TV show for ABC, but it was subsequently dropped. Lynch then rewrote the script into a feature film. In this way, the “real-life” story of the film mirrors its content: a Hollywood dream is broken, and morphs into something more frightening. It seems that some of the most powerful films are created with this mirroring effect, such as Herzog’s real-life (and larger than life) trials and tribulations making Fitzcarraldo.

The American Nightmare

Almost all of Lynch’s films and shows deal with an evil force or nightmare lurking below apple-pie America. His films are riddled with often campy Americana: diners, classic Hollywood “stars,” the “jitterbug,” James Dean types and motorcycle rides to make-out spots, to name just a few. He then embeds this imagery in uncanny imagery and non-linear plots. There is thus always something lurking behind the white-picket fence; one just has to focus their gaze (or meditate on it) to see the devil in the details.

Circling back to the unconventional development of Mulholland Drive, this juxtaposition appears almost accidentally. The initial serialized segments and characters were embedded into a very non-linear plot, following the fiasco with ABC. The result is that viewer is made to anticipate the pacing and character development of a TV series, which never comes true, as certain narratives loop back or disappear entirely. (For more on this topic, check out this academic article.)

It’s worth nothing that even the films title connects with this dream/nightmare dichotomy. William Mulholland’s monomanical pursuit of the dream of Los Angeles created nightmares like the St. Francis Dam disaster and the apocalyptic landscape of the Salton Sea.

The Film Watching Back

What arguably makes Lynch’s film most unique is that they are open to infinite interpretation, while retaining meta-narratives and themes. This allows for a two-way viewing experience, through which certain meta-themes are imparted on the viewer, for instance, the “American Nightmare” narrative from above, while the viewer also injects his/her own personal meanings and emotions into the film. I wish I was better versed in post-modern philosophy and theory, as I am sure that there are connections here with ideas proposed by the likes of Deleuze and Lacan.  I suppose any great work of art carries this experience, but my gut tells me that the medium of film combined with Lynch’s style make the experience one-of-a-kind.

It is this last point that inspired me to start this piece on a personal note. Analyzing my connection with Mulholland Drive, I can’t help but to draw connections between the film, the decade in which it came into my life, and the themes described above. One could say that all of this is a result of the “film watching back.”

Personally, the 2000s were bookended with tragedy and with the turbulent revelation of a nightmare below the American Dream. The first part was the collective experience of 9/11, which occurred within the first month of becoming independent and starting college as an adult. I think this had psychological effects that separate my contemporaries (those graduating high school in 2001) from both those before (Generation X) and those after (Millenials). Not only did 2001 mark the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, is also marked the monumental paradigm shift from the pre to post-9/11 world. One could say that other events (for instance, Vietnam) had already pulled back the curtain from behind the American Dream, but 9/11 was particularly focused and resonant, with the dream literally “shattered.” When the towers dropped, what remained hidden had been revealed, in this case, the seething resentment of America harbored by Islamic terrorists and other groups around the world.

The second part was the personal experience of death and loss within my family at the end of the 2000s. My sister’s suicide revealed the problems in our family, in particular a family legacy of suicide, which remained hidden underneath a Southern Californian shimmering of beaches and fancy cars. The fact that it took place in our house, which was subsequently repossessed by the bank, a direct result if the predatory loan practices of the late-2000s financial crisis, formed a connection between the personal and the collective.

Dreams and symbolic imagery abounded during this period. Growing up, I often had dreams of my childhood house that was somehow “familiar, yet different” and contained rooms that terrified me. Years later, after our home had been foreclosed upon and purchased by new owners,  I returned to my childhood house (at night, for some reason) to see it still “looking the same, but different.” I also recalled at some point after the tragedy a poster that I had in my room during high school, a painting by Gottfried Helnwein called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which shows James Dean walking alone under a grey sky and though flooded street in New York City, where I moved shortly after my sister’s death.

Taking this decade into account, it is no mystery why I felt such a strong connection with both Lynch’s cinematic style and Mulholland Drive. I agree with Time Out New York’s summary of the film:

Can there be another movie that speaks as resonantly — if unwittingly — to the awful moment that marked our decade? […] Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it’s the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare.

The anxiety I felt as a freshman was the collective-personal unfolding of the “dream turned into nightmare.” The film truly “gets” Los Angeles and by extension Southern California. Blazing sunlight, such as that which surrounds Betty as she steps off the plane and the Hollywood apartment complex, creates spaces of shadows, such as the area behind the dumpster, the neighborhood of Club Silencio, and the terrifying interior of Diane Selwin’s condo. With Hollywood being America’s myth-making machine, this dichotomy is broadcasted out past the hills to America at large. In this sense, to watch Mulholland Drive is to gaze at our lives in post-9/11 America.

NYC Cultural Notes 10.28.12

Film Forum on Houston is playing a movie that can be briefly described as the Australian version of Deliverance. It’s called Wake in Fright, and it’s a doozy. I took a few friends who are well versed in film to see it, and they walked out muttering ‘that was weird,’ and then we all promptly went our separate ways.

Wake in Fright was directed by Ted Kotcheff in 1971. It was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, and then somehow the best print sat in Pittsburgh for years and was almost tossed. Luckily it was found by the director and restored.

The film’s protagonist John Grant is a buttoned-down teacher and humanities major, trying to travel from the outback to Sydney to see his girlfriend for the holidays. His trip involves a one night stay in the ‘Yabba,’ a rough-and-tumble mining town in the outback. One night quickly turns into more as Grant devolves into a giant bender complete with moronic gambling, fighting, kangaroo murder, and a unsettling homoerotic encounter.

Grant thinks he escapes the Yabba after walking through the desert and finally convincing a truck driver to let him hitch a ride to Sydney, but the driver misunderstands his plea and ends him dropping him off back in Yabba. Any attempt to escape is futile, even suicide, a scenario which appears as a joke in the beginning of the film but becomes a dark reality by the end. The film seems to be pointing at the fact that the base and violent nature of human beings is inescapable, always returning.

The New Museum has three-floor exhibition on Rosemarie Trockel, a German artist who works in a ridiculously wide range of mediums. I happened to pass by the museum Thursday night, and asked if there was discount. “How about a 100% discount,” the girl behind the counter said–sounds good to me! So yes, Thursday nights are free.

I saw a giant lobster, giant Rothkoesque pieces made of stretched yarn, and a giant couch. However, I was most impressed by the photography. This one photo titled “Bibliothek Babylon” caught me eye. I remember reading somewhere that the missing and subtle elements make something erotic. Something like that is at play here. Also, I could be totally off, but I think that there is a modern Queen of the Night theme in this image. I also just kind of like this just because it reminds me of the similarly titled story by Borges.

There is a large eye next to the Williamsburg Bridge is Brooklyn, which looks especially cool at night.

If you’re like me, and you have troubling finishing novels, I suggest you check out Melville House Books’ series The Art of the NovellaI recently picked up The Alienist by Machado de Assis at Word in Greenpoint. At 86 pages, it was brief enough to get through in a few nights of casual reading and small enough to take to a bar or restaurant. Sometimes it is just too much to cart around the hardback of The Pale King.

The Alienist is an odd little book, centered very clearly and deliberately on the question of madness, and what truly defines it. It’s also funny. The design for this series is great, and each edition comes with additional digital material that you can download easily from the Melville site.

Eno & Hassell & Fractals

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Jon Hassell, who I discovered when I was trying to search for a coworker with the same name. I’m also a huge Brian Eno fan, so it made sense to look into the Eno/Hassell collaboration, Fourth World Vol. 1. Here is a particularly hypnotic track from that album.

Another, more recent album by Hassell that is pretty amazing is Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street. Also, if you’re interested in the covert art from Fourth World above, you should check out the USGS Earth as Art gallery. There are some really incredible images in the collection. Of particular interest to me are the ones that show fractal patterns, like this shot of the Lena River Delta.

Bowery Mural Continued

The mural at Bowery & Houston is in the midst of another transformation. Gone is the impressive Twist piece that replaced the abused Shepard Fairey installment. Kenny Scharf in next in line–the beginnings of his work were up by nightfall just before Thanksgiving. I had not heard of Scharf before, but his website shows many decades of interesting work. Catch it if you can!

Kenny Scharf Mural 1

Kenny Scharf Mural 2

The Frick Collection

  

Despite the famous Old Master paintings and the extravagance of the building itself, the Frick Collection appeared rather dull at first glance. It is, after all, just a rich man’s mansion filled with art, sculpture, and fine furniture. Yet the Frick offers something rare in the world of art museums–a chance to look into the mind of a colossal figure, a genuine robber baron, Henry Clay Frick.

If you’re heading to the Frick and willing to spend some time there, I would suggest checking out the introductory video. The roughly 15-minute-long piece gives a historical overview of the collection, focusing primarily on Frick himself. There are times when the melodrama and earnestness of the art historians make the film ripe for a sketch comedy show. They recount the life of the great benefactor, building an American Dream narrative in which a sickly young Frick develops a tenacious work ethic, eventually building a multi-million dollar coke empire (not the Escobar kind) and forging alliances with the likes of Carnegie and Mellon.

A crucial, yet brief, part of the film touches on the Homestread strike, the infamous battle between steel workers and the Carnegie Steel Company. The latter, with the help of Frick, eventually employed Pinkerton detectives to help quell the strike. Armed with rifles, the Pinkerton detectives surrounded the steel plant and striking workers. A firefight ensued, resulting in the deaths of many steel workers and kicking off a monumental riot that would eventually require the intervention of the state militia. Frick’s rutheless tactics during the Homestead strike earned him the title of “the most hated man in America.”

Despite its definitive role in the collection’s film, the Homestead Strike wasn’t the only blackspot in Frick’s life. He and his fellow Pennsylvania industrialists also constructed a dam above Johnstown and, perhaps convienently, ignored the structure until it broke under heavy rains. This resulted in the Johnstown Flood, which killed over 2,000 people and also drowned (literally) Carnegie’s main competitor: the Cambria Iron and Steel Company.

After skipping the Johnstown flood entirely, the film went with its original purpose, ending with the quant picture of Frick walking the halls of his grand Upper East Side estate shortly before his death, marveling at the paintings he had amassed. Now I understand that it would be strange for the staff to create a film the depicts Frick as a amoral robber baron, but I still expected it be less of a eulogy and a little more interrogation of a controversial historical figure. After all, I believe what makes Frick Collection fascinating is the opportunity to connect history to personal psychololgy to the actual collection itself.

Moving through the collection, you begin to recognize how many of the pieces involve strange juxtapositions. Frick loved stately portraits of dainty Eighteenth Century women, soft depictions of young lovers, and other mild pieces. Yet under one such portrait I noticed a scultpture of a lion attacking a horse. Next to a naive-looking youth was a powerful, barrel-chested, stern-looking older man. Across from two tall pink and flesh-colored portraits of young women were two dark, haunting pieces. One in particular showed a gaunt, ghostly characted with an unsteady form. It’s worth mentioning that Frick’s entire collection was European, aside from the these haunting portraits and a few other pieces.

These striking contrasts and the impression of immense effort put forth in creating a wholly European, “civilized” world within the confines of the Upper East Side estate point to a man who was haunted by the events of his past. It seems as though Frick wanted to escape into European high culture, yet still acknoledged his grim past through the contrasts, the subtle hints at violence, and other nods. In a revealing twist, Frick chose a piece by Goya–The Forge–to represent the conditions on which his entire fortune rested. I’m not an art historian, so maybe there’s a circumstancial answer to this choice. Yet one can’t deny the conflicts within the man–wanting to pay reverence to back-breaking industrial work, yet hiding it behind a European curtain.

America offers the unique opportunity to start over, but the cold hard fact is that you can never really escape your past (for more on this theme, see my previous post on Mad Men). Frick eventually escaped the strikes, riots, and dam breaks of Pennsylvania for cosmopolitan New York City, surrounding himself with fine European art. Yet as Frick walked through his home at night, floating through a world of youthful innocence and European aristocracy, the images that really weighed on his psyche may have been the lion devouring the horse, the haunting spectors in the hall, and the strained faces of the foreign, yet frightenly familiar, forge workers.