Thursday, September 14, 2017

John Ashbery on Film

Two episodes into season Two of Jane Campion's series Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel) and I'm persuaded this is one of the finest series on television. Campion has an original vision and poetic sensibilities. I know she reads widely when preparing a script, and I wonder if the poet John Ashbery has any influence on the second season. Campion's storytelling in this new season is delightfully disjunctive; scenes paced like traditional police procedurals slam up against hilariously funny flashbacks or utterly tragic ones; there are pedantic asides that go on and on, growing stranger by the minute. The guiding hand over all of this is a craftsperson's hand, skillful and intelligent. 

It could very well be that my reaction to Ashbery's death (September 3rd) has me locating his influence  everywhere, even investing it into projects that probably never had the poet in mind. Nevertheless, Campion and Ashbery have similar sensibilities, specifically in regards to humor -- the unfamiliar becoming familiar in a surprising flash. Reading an Ashbery poem before watching an episode of Top of the Lake season Two can carry you to strange and wonderful mental ground. 

My Campion-Ashbery connection is speculative. But the connection between Ashbery and avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin is factual and glorious. 

Ashbery contributed dialogue and text to Maddin's Seances series, which began in 2012. You can find the trailer here: Seances

In 2015, Ashburry teamed up with Maddin for a show of collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. You can see some of the images here: Collages

Also in 2015, Maddin released his dreamy masterpiece The Forbidden Room. Ashbery wrote the dialogue for the "How to Take a Bath" sequence. Watch the trailer for this film and, unless I miss my guess, you'll do all that's possible to find a copy of it and also recover that Ashbery collection on your books shelf, the one you hadn't thought about in a long time, and let that strange, confident voice take you places. For my part, I'm rediscovering Your Name Here with pleasure and admiration.

Trailer for The Forbidden Room:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Twin Peaks: Some Theories

What follows is an appreciation for a great work of art and possible spoilers: 

It seems to me that, just as it is in Christianity, where God submits himself to suffer and die as a human being so that humans may recognize the presence of God, an orb of light submits itself to suffer and die in the person of Laura Palmer so that grace may be found even in the most terrible circumstances. 

The good, like Dale Cooper, are not deterred by suffering: Laura's troubles with drugs and prostitution are not sour revelations, but rather these details strengthen his impulse to aid and understand, also to shepherd the hearts of others who judge Laura's situation past those troubles to the light that gave her. 

There are many versions of this story; many iterations of Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer; each is like a palimpsest, in that older versions sometimes shine through the newer ones. And like any story meant to describe a cosmology -- Gospel or otherwise -- there are type scenes and characterizations, situations and people that are not real in a historical sense but essential components for the moods and messages of the larger tale. I think Audrey Horne wakes up to discover her part in this: In a flash of white light she realizes she's an idea, not an identity -- a supporting idea in an elaborate myth about "the little girl who lived down the lane."

That little girl (Laura) is the figure of innocence in a normal-seeming place, who is on a collision course with horrible trouble. This impact reveals images and messages from a world that watches this world, which can be glimpsed by those who possess a hospitable imagination for such things: characters like Deputy Hawk and Log Lady. And one of those messages is this: there are only a few degrees of separation between a good person and a bad one. Fortunately, the myth has a hero we can measure ourselves by: Dale Cooper.

No matter how many Dale Cooper identities there are -- the perky one, the near catatonic one, the quietly determined one at the end of the series, an aspect they share is utter compassion for Laura in whatever identity she resides -- whether a murdered teenager or middle-aged woman named Carrie in Odessa (still very much present to trouble). The connecting theme in any Cooper is hospitality for the cosmic beauty Laura Palmer represents. These two, Cooper and Laura, are the twin peaks: permanent souls like those permanent features in the landscape. They outlast aberration after aberration -- all the tricks of evil Bob -- and reveal good in unlikely places, like the hearts of the gangster Mitchum brothers. 

The one thing all these different stories about Cooper and Laura have in common is the image of the lost highway: the message that navigating a moral life is like navigating a dark highway in the wilderness; it is a long stretch of unseen circumstances where anything might happen -- stay alert!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Blonde Bombshell of Cosmic Fright

Gunvor Nelson's 1972 film TAKE OFF is an entertaining  and unsettling avant-garde vision. Burlesque performer Ellion Ness dances a full routine to the music of Pat Gleeson. She's lit with what is probably an arc lamp and glows beautifully against a black background. Nelson employs overlapping techniques in the editing so that Ness often appears ethereally doubled.

For about eight minutes it seems the purpose of the film is to celebrate the beauty of Ness and the gestures of her craft. Perhaps, too, there is some early deconstruction work going on regarding the male gaze (that term doesn't actually get introduced into feminist theory until 1975). 

The final minute of the film is utterly strange cinema. The exaltation of natural beauty gives way to something disturbing and profound. It becomes a strobing nightmare, in which Ness disassembles herself into a torso that goes spinning into outer space.

David Lynch fans will admire this precursor to his peculiar female type: a beautiful blonde woman who signals cosmic unsettledness; the strobing combat between inscrutable forces of light and dark. 

The movie sharing service Fandor allows you to stream TAKE OFF in HD. I rate Fandor an excellent site for the discovery of avant-garde films. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Willie Nelson and the 4th of July

Seeing Willie Nelson on 4th of July weekend is at once a glorious and provocative way to celebrate the Birthday of the U.S.A. Willie sings about wanderers, contrarians, two-timers, and lonely drinkers as though their stories are the stories of the world. Born restless, he quickly eschewed any sense of "normal American life," and what he became -- a batch of honky-tonk and hippie sensibilities in the shape of a prankish, rough-looking gypsy king -- is a revered aspect of the American character. Tax evasion and pot busts will never mar him. To love Willie is to love America -- the hybridity we cherish, and the untamedness. 

Reviews of recent shows prior to the one I saw at Starplex in Dallas lament decline; there was much worry that age had finally caught up to Willie. But he was excellent for several thousand fans at Starplex; his voice was strong and his playing beautiful. Each of the critics that found previous shows messy and odd were also quick to mention Willie's special hospitality toward his audience -- the reaching out of his music to engage our care where he cares. A Willie Nelson show has never been about mathematical accuracy or exegencies of stage craft. Willie's mode is stand, deliver, and smile. What he often delivers is a spiritual experience. His way of truth-seeking through song describes the perseverance, openness, and grace intrinsic in the created being. He carries a message and speaks for all of us. 

Photo: Willie Nelson at Starplex, July 4th weekend, 2017.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Silent Light

Carlos Reygadas' film Silent Light made the New York Times list of "The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far." The list has prompted many fun and aggravating debates. But Silent Light deserves the recognition, and I'm thrilled it made the list. The opening sequence is one of the greatest in cinema.  In my book, it is preceded only by the opening of Orson Welles' Othello.

I wore an article about Reygadas' film for the Texas arts journal Glasstire. Here is an excerpt:

"Carlos Reygadas is a high-minded wild thing out of Mexico City. He’s made four feature films, and all have screened at Cannes, where they were simultaneously harangued and cheered by critics. He employs a vintage camera and lenses and a small crew. The pictures are marvelous and totally out of sync with Hollywood norms. Reygadas is like a Romantic poet of the cinema; his films suggest that a love of humankind comes through Nature. They describe a cosmogenic imagination, in that each film is like an origin story and a meditation on the infinite. The images are, by turns: beautiful, hallucinogenic, brutal, erotic, and subversively funny."

You can find the full article here: Glasstire

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Video Art with the Canon 5D

Tropic Pictures is proud to shoot Colette Copeland's video art pieces. Her latest, titled Bearding, is shot with Canon 5D Mark iii. The location is beneath a DART rail trestle, somewhere along the White Rock Creek Trail, Dallas. In this scene, Copeland's character, The Victorian Woman, traps and shaves her frequent spoil, The Man, played by Adam George. (Lens: Canon 85mm 1.8)

Find out more about Tropic Pictures:

Monday, June 5, 2017

Joan Mitchell

My enthusiasm for color is so strong it can take over my memory.  Some of my favorite black and white films are those I once mistakenly remembered as being in color: Hiroshima, Mon AmourI Confess; The Lady from Shanghai.  This also happens to me with abstract art. Recently I was looking at Franz Kline pictures. At the same time that my sense of wonder for the art renewed, I felt anxiety moving me to self-doubt. Why had I remembered there being more color in his work? -- surely that seems absurd. 

I worried that, upon seeing Marion Cajori's film, Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, I might be in a situation again of questioning my reality. Fortunately, this was not the case. Mitchell's paintings flame out from the film in wild traceries of color. 

It is a short documentary, compared with other of Cajori's portraits -- runtime is less than an hour. Cajori is limited by Mitchell's reluctance to talk. Mitchell seems neither unfriendly nor inarticulate. Rather, there are flashes in which she possesses the hospitality and skill of a masterful storyteller. What stops Mitchell from talking is probably an irresolvable contradiction. The color in her paintings is out of spontaneous expressions: the color in her paintings is out of a complicated reflexive process invested with meditations on nature. For Mitchell, it seems truth is impossible with language. Only image will do.

It is a pleasure to watch Mitchell at work in Paris and talk about the quality of light there. She doesn't react to light intellectually, like a poet does. Her way of transposing light into jaggedly arranged strokes of color is a process language doesn't match. Her paintings suggest a preconscious authority -- the wilderness in stride. 

Image: "Ladybug" by Joan Mitchell, 1957