Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Words and Pictures: A Fitting Return

I'm baaack! I've returned from Europe filled with some fabulous ideas about Italian cinema and Baroque art that's sure to creep into this blog every now and then. I'm sorry for the silence over the last six months. Between school, travel, and my own travel blog that I was upkeeping in Rome, I didn't have much time to focus on the art of film, though I certainly had plenty of time to focus in on art. Like I just wrote, don't be surprised when my blog takes a distinctive turn towards the Baroque. I'm now an avowed Bernini and Caravaggio enthusiast. Which is perhaps fitting since the art that usually appears in movies (and even artfully done movies) employ their then-original techniques of bold lighting, simplicity, and darkness to create an atmosphere of bold drama. (Sounds like film noir, no?)

But I also engaged in the contemporary art scene of Rome which kind of led me to this film that came out a few years ago, "Words and Pictures." I'm a huge NPR listener and I remember hearing adds for this movie about two years ago and never seeing it, so I've corrected that fault. I originally decided to watch it because I saw that the film was about an English teacher and an art teacher and, as a future member of the profession, I was just interested to see the take of the English teacher (played by Clive Owen) and the art teacher (played by Juliette Binoche). I was not disappointed.
The film is essentially a romance between a charismatic but troubled English teacher, Mr. Jack Marcus and the equally troubled Miss Desanto. But most of the film isn't focused on their romance. It's focused on the struggle of the teachers to engage their gifted students (I can definitely relate to that struggle) and the "battle" that Jack and Desanto rage against each other about which is a more powerful medium: words or pictures (hence the title). What a great concept for a film which is, in its essence movie pictures with words).And isn't that one of the most classic debates among film lovers: which is more powerful: the words crafted by the screenwriter or the the images created by the director.

One of the final scenes in the movie features the apex of the "battle" both romantically and philosophy between the two great teachers. They have a debate focusing on which of the two arts is more powerful. Desanto shows a series of paintings and speaks of the emotional power of images (more of these paintings in a bit) and Jack gets up and ultimately cedes that any artistic expression which can make us greater than ourselves and serves a higher purpose. In my own mind I was freaking out because recently my new Rome-inspired definition of  beauty is that very same thing: anything that lifts us up out of normality into something greater. It's what attracts me to art, music, literature, and film. And, without realizing it, it probably inspired me to write this blog.

But, this is a real Art of Film post, not merely some ramblings about art and beauty or a screenshot of a picture as some of my "latest" posts have been about. Because, this film obviously pays a lot of attention to both pictures and words. And pictures in this film are obviously created by Desanto, the tortured artist. In actuality, Desanto's pain is real, she is suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis that makes even the simplest tasks difficult and cause her major challenges in creating her art. Some of the most beautiful scenes are those in which she is trying to paint again-- not just the process but the emotional energy of painting in which she creates her art. You really see the emotional investment of her painting-- the pain and frustrations she feels but also her sense of discovery. Some of those scenes even reminded me of documentary footage of Jackson Pollock and how much his art was about the emotional process of creating it. There's an actual joy you feel when she finds the medium for creating her art in her studio with her "broom paintings." They're beautiful and raw and wonderfully convey the emotion.

Of course, all these scenes of creating art and all the art in the studio where this process occurs made me ask that classic question "who created this art?" And for once, it was very easy to answer. Because, the art imitated life. Because Juliette Binoche, besides being a wonderful artist, is an incredible painter as well and the art that appears in the film was painted by her. That includes, of course, the paintings we see her paint but also the ones we see in the studio. I just thought that was incredible and probably explained why Binoche was really able to convey those artistic frustrations of the wonderful Desanto because she actually experienced them herself.

In Words and Pictures, I found a film that not only expressed the emotional context of the art of film, but also exhibited beautiful, powerful contemporary art with a known, even well-known artist. I'm back, baby!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My new blogging escapade

Hello readers!
I'm sorry I've been quiet so long, but as I've mentioned in earlier posts, this semester, I'm studying abroad at the American University of Rome in ITALY!! It's been one of my life dreams to live in Rome and its being realized at this very moment as I sit in my new apartment off the Via Trastavere.
I can't really promise any posts in the next few months... at least, not on this blog. That's because I've started a new travelogue of my time in bella Roma... creatively titled... "when in... Rome." I've included the link below in the rare chance that you love my prosaic posts and have always wanted them to have a bit more international flair.
I've also included my friend's new blog. She is studying in Cape Town, South Africa and I'm sure (knowing Nicole), that she'll have some amazing stories to share. I've included the link to "South African Escapades" below as well for your reading pleasure.

So, beloved readers and followers, if you could please follow our travel-blogs, we would appreciate it so much! I promise (at least mine) won't disappoint!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Art in Film to look forward to in 2015!

Happy New Year readers!
I'm really looking forward to 2015, though I'm not exactly sure how much I will be blogging. In two weeks, I'm off to bella Roma to start my own Roman holiday! But 2015 is looking like a great year for the art of film. That is, I'm finding a lot of films that are centered around artists and works of art. Some, I'll be writing about, but I just wanted to do a brief overview of the films to get you interested.

Mr Turner (released December 19, 2014)
Starring Timothy Spall and Marion Bailey

This biopic looks mildly promising. My feelings on Mr. J.M.W. Turner have certainly risen since the time I began writing this blog. If you'll remember, when I first wrote about Turner's famous The Fighting Temeraire in the Bond flick Skyfall, I was rather lukewarm about Turner's work. But, since that time, I've actually written two more piece's about Turner. Turner's Reichenbach Falls was central in the BBC's Sherlock and the good old Temeraire appeared in the background of a Seinfeld episode.
Turner's bold, expressive canvases are now some of my favorite. To paraphrase the sentiment of one of the characters in the trailer, Turner's paintings capture the chaos and movement of actual moments. His work was innovative and impressive and it seems about time that his life and work was chronicled. While the trailer doesn't exactly promise the most exciting film, it certainly looks like a beautiful period film, which can always be a delight itself.

Big Eyes (released December 25, 2014)
Starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz
I wrote about the work of Margaret Keane in a recent post about one of Joan Crawford's favorite portraits of herself. But the Big Eyes story looks absolutely fascinating. And Director Tim Burton certainly looks like he captured his love for Keane's iconic kitsch pieces in the film. And the talent: my word. I'm a huge Waltz fan, but my admiration for Herr Christoph doesn't come close to my adoration of Amy Adams. Keane looks like a role she can certainly sink her teeth into and will certainly be one of the year's top biopics.

Effie Gray (released 2014)
Starring Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, and David Suchet
I found this film quite by chance and I can't wait to get a glimpse of it. It's a biopic about the titular Effie Gray who was married to two incredible artists: John Ruskin and John Everett Millais. Ruskin and Gray parted ways after he didn't consummate the marriage and she turned to his protege, the legendary Pre-Raphelite  Millais.
The film looks beautiful and very quickly moving, if not a little... artsy. Emma Thompson's performance looks incredibly strong as does Fanning's. In addition, I never knew anything about this incredible woman who was a muse to two absolutely fabulous artists.

Mortdecai (January 23, 2015)
Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Olivia Munn

Out of the four films I've featured here, Mortdecai is certainly the most exuberant and most out of place. The Johnny Depp vehicle looks like a perfectly delightful romp and a throwback to the fun heist films of the 60s. Based on a series of novels, Mortdecai is focused on the titular British nobleman's attempt to retrieve a precious Goya painting with a Nazi history.

Woman in Gold (release date: April 3, 2015)
Starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds
I'll have to wait longest for Woman in Gold which is also, my most anticipated film of 2015. Starring Dame Helen and Ryan Reynolds, the film captures the story of a Holocaust survivor's attempt to regain ownership of a precious Gustav Klimt painting that belonged in her family prior to the war.
Last year, there was another story about a trove of Nazi art discovered in some derelict apartment. In the trailer, Helen Mirren looks completely at ease in role of a survivor attempting to gain back a beautiful painting of her beloved aunt. Of course, the titular woman in gold in the famous Portrait of Adele Bauer-Bloch I, one of the most famous portraits of all time, not to mention the most famous of all Klimt's work. This portrait is one of the most notable pieces in art history- it's almost as iconic as Starry Night or Mona Lisa. It's troubled history is one which deserves a film and the topic is one which people ought to know more about.

Pardon the brevity of the post, dear readers, but I just wanted to get these recommendations out there in case anyone was interested. As I said, all the films look very promising, so expect to hear more about them in the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The Night Gallery" Joan Crawford portrait

I hate to be on a Joan Crawford run, but I just can't help but writing about this fantastic painting I saw in an old rerun of the Night Gallery. Actually, I only saw the pilot episode. I wasn't in love with the series and it certainly wasn't as good as The Twilight Zone. But there was something about it that still attracted me. While it might not have been the best show ever, there was still that wonderful Rod Sterling touch, that beautiful eeriness, and most importantly... art!
If you don't know anything about the Night Gallery, it ran from 1970 to 1973. They all featured eerie horror stories hosted by Rod Sterling. The way the show worked was that Rod would introduce a painting and then the actual "story" part would be the explanation of why that painting was so secretly horrific. Like I said, after but one episode, I'm no expert about the show, but apparently episodes were less sci-fi (in the light of the Twilight Zone) and more supernatural. I'll just take Wikipedia's word for it.
I saw the entire pilot which was comprised of three paintings and therefore different stories. The first and the third, I could take or leave. But, I loved one episode, "Eyes." And if you look at the details, it's easy to see why. It was directed by Stephen Spielberg, in one of his earliest directorial positions, and it starred none other than the queen of melodrama herself, Miss Joan Crawford.
The story opens with an eerie portrait of Joan Crawford looking directly out at the canvas (another engaging Crawford portrait). In "Eyes," she plays a mean-spirited, wealthy blind woman who buys the eyes of a hapless, ignorant gambler for a risky surgery. She blackmails everyone to get the illegal surgery to happen but, as it so happens, karma is a real bitch. I won't ruin the ending, but it's a worthwhile watch. The whole episode (all three stories) will leave you a little unsettled.
A show completely based around art is such an appealing concept. The premise of the show is really the premise of the blog: art holds deep secrets and much meaning. We might not see it initially, but once we understand, the understanding helps grow our appreciation of the piece and of the power of art in general.

The Joan Crawford painting, titled "Eyes," is dated from 1969 and was painted by one of my favorite TV/movie artists, Jerry Gebr, the legendary Universal artist. Gebr did a lot of work for the Night Gallery and his talents were certainly very much in demand for an art-based show. I don't know the details of the painting, but I assume due to time constraints, that Gebr did the painting off a photo instead of off of Crawford herself. He still did a magnificent job, capturing Crawford in all her elegance. At the same time, the almost expressionist styling really lends to the feelings of the ominous and the horrofic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The "Big Eyes" Joan Crawford Painting

A recent movie trailer actually helped answer an artist question that I've had for a while. A few days ago, I saw the trailer for the new Amy Adams film "Big Eyes," a Tim Burton biopic about Margaret Keane, the legendary kitsch artist who painted the famous "big eye" paintings of animals, mothers, kids, anything. Keane's story is so interesting because her husband actually took credit for her work for years until she later sued and divorced him. I haven't read any reviews of the film yet, but (as you well know) any movies about art or artist always interest me.
In the trailer, you get a very brief glimpse of one of Keane's more famous paintings: a portrait of legendary actress Joan Crawford. It turns out, in the height of Keane's fame, both Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood commissioned Keane portraits. In the 60s, both Wood and Crawford were real stars. So if that doesn't speak to Keane's popularity, nothing should.
The Crawford portrait is rather stunning and really does justice to the cinema dominatrix. I actually recognized the painting because Joan posed in front of it in the picture of herself that graces her memoir. I have to admit that I find it ironic that Joan, with her famed rivalry with Bette Davis (herself famed for her "Bette Davis eyes"), should want to emulate a feature so closely connected with her enemy. But that's just me being a peevish gossip.
What I think is really incredible is that Keane obviously had real talent. Joan's eyes are a little larger than real life, but certainly not as large as the most iconic of the "big eyes" paintings. It's realism tinged with caricature. Because the features are so clear, even exaggerated, you can clearly tell that its Joan Crawford in all her chilly elegance. The portrait is stunningly dramatic, with the sharp curve of the cape, and the direct engaging stare. And then you remember, the painting is engaging because of the stare, because of Keane's signature motif, the eyes. Perhaps, they really are windows to the soul. They certainly are in this painting.
In real life, Keane began painting her famous big eyed paintings in the 1960s where they became hugely popular. Later, after her divorce, she moved to Hawaii and her work took on a much brighter and more colorful look. Tim Burton, the director of "Big Eyes" is a huge Keane collector; hence, he made the movie.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Moving Pictures: Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson Statue

I came across this some time ago and I just think its a wonderfully fun piece, though certainly not an overly historic or thematically deep piece. I love my campus, but I can't help but wish that we had something this fun.

A few years ago, the University of Maryland unveiled a statue of legendary Muppets-creator Jim Henson on their campus. Henson was an alum of the University of Maryland, so it makes sense that he's on their campus.
When the Henson family decided they wanted a memorial to their father on the campus, outside the student union, they opened up a contest. The winner was Jay Hall Carpenter, a talented young sculptor. The finished version of the sculpture shows Henson talking to Kermit, his most famous Muppet friend, on a gorgeous granite bench.
The statue was sculpted first in clay before being cast in bronze. The whole sculpture- statue and bench- were put together in College Park in 2003. It still sits in its original location outside the Union, providing students with some joy and aspirations every time they pass. If I went to Maryland, I certainly be able to help from taking tons of pictures with Kermit, but I think that is just me.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fred Astaire portraits in Daddy Long Legs

You know just as well as I do that I don't like to write about films that I haven't seen. I feel like it is a sacrifice of my artistic and critical credibility. But, you probably also I love breaking my own rules in very special instances. And I found one such instance when reading about Fred Astaire. I found some really incredible artistic homages in his great film with Leslie Caron, Daddy Long Legs (1955).
In all honesty, I have actually seen parts of Daddy Long Legs but unfortunately (for me now that I want to write about it), I didn't finish the film. It's a fairly standard 50's musical- fairly cliche plot, a lush score, and indisputably incredible talent. As I've written before, one of my favorite musicals from the period is the wonderful Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire reunion vehicle, The Barkleys of Broadway (you can read about my analysis of it here). But Daddy Long Legs has a lot going for it. In my eyes, Fred Astaire can do no wrong especially when he has a beautifully talented costar (in the form of Caron), a gorgeous soundtrack, and some Technicolor action. Also, not going to lie, any film with Thelma Ritter in a supporting role can't be all that bad.
Thanks to the marvels of the internet, it's easy for me to catch myself (and you) about the plot. Fred Astaire plays the titular Daddy Long Legs, who stumbles across a lively young French girl, played by Caron. Entranced by her optimism, Fred decides to anonymously pay for her college education in the US. Several years later, he visits the school (and her) and (lo and behold), despite their sizable age difference, they fall in love. If that's not a classic musical, I don't know when else true love would be borne out of unknown tuition payments. Actually, now that I think of it...maybe its not so crazy....
So, why do I bring up Daddy Long Legs. Certainly its not for an original or artistic plot (though the dance sequences that I have seen exhibit the classic 50s art vibe. But, the reason I found the film in the first place was because there are some of the most wonderful and fun art homages I've ever seen in the movies.
Like I said, Fred Astaire plays a suave American gentleman from a wealthy, established New York family. The film sets this in place visually by showing a number of portraits to establish that the family is well... established. A series of three portraits are shown: apparently of his grandfather, father, and himself. Each represent not only a dominant historical artistic genre, but dominant artists as well. I'll work out all three with you because they are just so much fun.

The first portrait is supposed to be the "grandfather" portrait. Not only is it painted in the style of James Abbott McNeill Whistler; but it is a direct allusion to his famous painting, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother" (1871). (For you art historians, the painting is officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, but that's only for sticklers).
The second portrait (the "father" portrait) is painted in the style of one of my favorite artists, the famous turn of the century portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. You may remember, I did a serious look at Sargent's influence on the style and look of both art and period pieces of that time period in film. The Sargent portrait is, if nothing else, an excellently rendered realistic portrait of Astaire.
The final portrait is an attempt at Picasso cubism. The attempt at modernism is quite impressive and we all clearly get what the artist is going for. It is really wonderful how it is obviously cubism, but at the same time it is still clearly Astaire. Sure, he might be abstracted, but you could tell that face anywhere. And of course, Fred would never be underdressed, not even in a Cubist portrait.
Not surprisingly, Astaire served as the subject for all these portraits. They are fairly clearly pictures of him. Interestingly, though, the artist was director Jean Negulesco (according to TCM sources). Negulesco had artistic training and was involved in the artistic scene of the day. In addition, he contributed to the artistic dance scenes in the film and borrowed real Braques and Picassos for the set to make Astaire's character seem like a very legitimate establishment figure.

The art of the film befits the gorgeous look that was provided to the film. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that real modern art pieces had been used instead of studio imitations. Better yet, I was glad to see that real effort had been put into what is honestly an interesting, but minor, stylistic detail. If anyone defined class and sophistication, it was Fred Astaire and the fact that his films mirrored this dominant personal quality is both pleasant and refreshing.
Not too much analysis can be given to Leslie's chalk drawing
of her "Daddy Long Legs." 

TCM Source From 

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