Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Denali 1. Prologue

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Working on the theatrical adaptation of The Blue Bear at Perseverance Theatre during 2010-11 had a transformative effect on me. I had realized fairly early on in the process that there were things about this story that were inaccessible to me because I simply didn’t have the relationship to the natural world that the two principal characters in the story had. It isn’t that I think that you need to share the principal characteristics of characters in order to portray them, but in this case, I felt that the vague sense of wonder and respect that I did feel for the natural environment of Alaska was too easily mistaken for the very specific and deep relationship that Lynn Schooler and Michio Hoshino had with it. It was too easy for me to think I understood it. So I went out with the Kayak rangers of Holcolm bay and at least had the sense that I understood the place, knocked down a bit. The experience didn’t give me the same depth of understanding, but I got a better sense of what it might be to have a deeper relationship to place, from which it was possible to extrapolate as an artist. The effect on The Blue Bear which premiered in Juneau in January of 2011 was of incalculable value.

I have been intending to blog about my experience with the Kayak rangers and still plan on doing it, but for the next little while, I’m going to post a series about another trip, while it’s still fresh in my mind, heart and body…

The summer of 2011 after the first ASTI (Alaska Summer Theatre Intensive) training program at Perseverance, I traveled up to Anchorage to look at the the Sydney Laurence theatre where we were going to remount The Blue Bear in early 2012. After spending some time at the theatre with Art Rotch, I headed over to the rather excellent Anchorage Museum. Wandering through the galleries I was struck by one room in particular. Landscapes that were poised precariously on the razor edge between impressionism and realism. And there was a subject that kept asserting itself like Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s prints. These were the paintings of Sydney Laurence, and his Mt. Fuji was North America’s highest peak, Mt Mckinley.

Like Monet’s water lilies, reproductions do little justice to these paintings.

This is how dumb I am: It took WAY TO LONG for me to realize that the theatre I had to come to Anchorage to check out, was named after the painter who’s work I was being so struck by in the museum.

But to be honest, what I was really getting from Laurence’s portraits of Mckinley was an awe and regard for the mountain itself. And there was one particularly monumental work that just took my breath away. The truly awe inspiring Arctic King:

This afternoon in the gallery began a low level obsession in me. Mt Mckinley is more properly called Mt. Denali or just Denali. That’s its Athabaskan name. Attempts to change the name are consistently blocked by the congressional delegation from president Mckinley’s home state: Ohio. That’s how dumb the United States is! Denali means something like “The Great One”. The mountain has an origin myth/story, which I will not relate because although I’ve heard it, I don’t really understand it or have the right to re-tell it.

Reproductions of these works being so poor, I hurried back to the museum when I returned to Anchorage for the remount of The Blue Bear. And looking at the paintings again, the low level obsession began to focus into an impulse. It was actually very simple.

“I want to go and be in a place where I can see Denali.”

I recognized this impulse. This was not a vague need to face nature, or testosterone driven need to test myself. This was an artistic impulse. I decidedly did not want to climb the mountain. It was almost the opposite of that impulse. It was an impulse to simply go to its feet and… hang out. To listen to what it might want to say to me.

But I wasn’t naive enough to think that I could handle such a trip. I was definitely being egged on by thoughts of Michio Hoshino spending 30 days in a tent on the Tokositna glacier just to get one shot of the northern lights:

Or Lynn Schooler’s solo trek around Lituya bay . But I wasn’t delusional enough to automatically think I could go out into the wilderness by myself. Nevertheless I knew that we were planning on doing another ASTI in the Summer of 2012 and it was looking as though my schedule might be open after it was over. I had enough Delta miles to get me a flight up to Anchorage from Juneau. Denali Park is a bit of a drive north from Anchorage, so just as a trial balloon I asked my good friend, the Anchorage based composer and sound-designer Lucy Peckham, if she could drive me up to Denali if I came up in early July. She said we could definitely figure something out and that I could assume her help.

But I still wasn’t sure if I was just fooling myself, so on one of the last nights we were in Anchorage, I mentioned the idea, rather hesitantly, to Lynn. I knew him well enough to know that the last thing he would do would be to encourage me to do anything foolhardy, but also that he would wish for me to learn the lessons that I would learn by getting into a bit of trouble. Half-way through my description of what I was thinking, he got a steely kind of look in his eyes, and he just started saying one word, over and over as I was talking…

He kept saying: “Go.”

Ghosts on Google Maps

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

One of the most interesting collisions between an implementation of a technology and the state of the art, is the Street View feature on Google Maps. I love it. I play around with it a lot. Wandering around streets near locations I am headed towards or places I know well. It works really well on the iPhone so I often check out the Street View view of places where I am. I was doing this last night while at the Westbank Cafe with Akiko celebrating Tater’s girlfriend Kelli’s b’day.

I was looking at Street View with Tater, which was interesting because it was snowing last night in NYC and the Street View shots show a beautiful summer day and the construction on 42nd Street, that’s going on there now, is non-existant. But then we noticed something very strange going on with the bus across the street.

It’s like some kind of spirit photography or something. The bus appears to be running over some kind of alternate reality of itself. If you poke around on Street View you see a lot of this same kind of weirdness. It’s reminiscent of the kinds of things you see in early photography, when exposure times were longer. But it comes from the fact that we don’t really have a way of capturing images in a way that would solve this. Its a collision between the nature of conventional photography and the nature of virtual reality. Unintentionally artistic.

All maps contain a hint of time as well as space, but Street View (and Satellite view for that matter) amp up the sense of time to the point where it becomes spooky and weird.

It also reminds me of the extreme photography of Michael Wesely. He does long exposures. VERY long exposures. Years long. Here’s a blog with some of his pictures. I saw some of his “Open Shutter” photos at MOMA here in New York a few years back, and they had a profound effect on my sense of time. The more something moves the less you can see it in the pictures. Trees turn into trunks that slowly fade to sharp points. The sun is a series of rough edged streaks across the sky. There are no people.

Time… hmmm…

Now I’m imagining a Street View made from multi-year exposures. No cars or people. Scaffolding becomes a ghostly veil on buildings. Some entire buildings are only faintly there…

I was standing on a street corner here in New York a while back and the Google Street View imaging van passed right in front of me. Something happened later that day and I forgot where I was standing when it passed. So I don’t know but I could be out there somewhere in Street View. Maybe I’m right on a stitch and half of me is blurred into a parking meter, or another person… Or maybe they’ve updated that street again since then and I’m gone…

I actually kind of like that I don’t know. But if you happen to see me, stop and say hello…

Manhattan Canyon

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Manhattan Canyon is a short film by my friend Greg King. It’s up on the IFC website. I’m posting about it because, aside from it being both brilliant and beautiful, it relates to my Walking Broadway project of a while back. It gets at something about the large scale patterning of New York, that I’m fascinated by. Greg did the video work on SITI Company’s Hotel Cassiopeia, and like Joseph Cornell, the subject of that play, he has a relationship to both New York City and beauty that I am always deeply moved by.

Greg is an artist with whom I have a certain degree of intimacy; The largest object in my living room is a painting by Greg. I see it every day I’m here in New York. It is a work of art that I live with. I think it’s important to live with art. To allow it to permeate one’s daily routine. Alter how you go about your business. Not as background. Decoration. Some sort of conspicuous bourgeoisie status badge.

When people come to visit the apartment, I often take them around to show them the Paul Jenkins watercolor, the Robert Wilson charcoal, the Harvey Wang photo, the Jan Sawka Beckett posters, etc. Not because I want to show off (I hope). But because I want to introduce them to the pieces of art I live with.

I’ve never been one to understand how one can read a great book, see a great movie, listen to a great piece of music, see a great production just once. It’s like meeting a good friend once.

So here’s a link to Manhattan Canyon. The IFC site is a bit obnoxious but the film is worth it.

Enjoy: Manhattan Canyon

The Dark Knight (part 1)

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

So I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about the second installment of the re-invention of the Batman film franchise: “The Dark Knight”. These conversations have led to a kind of formulation of some thinking about the film and what it represents so I’m going to try to spew some of that here:

Because I’m going to focus on a particular criticism here, let me preface this by saying that I enjoyed to movie and think it’s a thought provoking piece of entertainment with one foot (we’ll get to who’s) solidly in the realm of actual art.

It is not a new or original thought/observation that there is a shift well underway in the American cinema. It is a move from the novel to the comic book as primary source material. This has been going on for a long time, and much has been said about it. The aspect of this that I’ve been thinking about lately however is how the this shift has led to a reduction in the level of complexity within the stories that are told on our screens. What I mean by that is that comic books (and I am including graphic novels in that term, even though I realize that there is a distinction) are by their nature simpler in their construction than novels. I do not mean by this that they are less intelligent, legitimate or valuable. But there tends to be a certain simplification of issues.

Example: I recently saw “Wanted”. (Disclaimer: I have not read the graphic novel it was based on) The conceit of “Wanted” seems to be centered around an ancient and secret society of Assassins (which is what the “Assassins” were as well) who’s targets’ names are encoded into the fabric woven by a devise known as the “Loom of Fate”. If the “Loom of Fate” says that someone should be killed, there is no question about it. The rest is simply technique. The plot centers around an abuse of this loom, but nevertheless the plot doesn’t function unless there is a preexisting confidence in the “Loom of Fate”. What I’m saying is that this is a simplification of the entire moral problem of an assassin by eliminating the thorny “why.” This is not substantively different from the obviously less complicated situation of “Superman is the good guy.” I see this fundamental simplicity over and over in this material.

However, I also notice that there is a fetish, within comic book culture for a SENSE of complexity. An APPARENT ambiguity. This is where we get to Batman. The idea of the Dark Knight is that there is a fundamental moral ambiguity within him. Is he really a good guy? It seems that this is an attractive quandary in this culture. What I would argue is that this question isn’t being asked. Not really. In the case of Batman, there is never ANY doubt on the part of the audience (as distinct from the citizens of Gotham) that Batman is good. He is not a Dark Knight. He’s a White Knight in a bat-suit.

“Hellboy” is also a good example here (again, although in this case, I’ve glanced at the primary sources, I haven’t read them). The character himself who is supposed to be the son of the devil, whose destiny it is to bring about the end of the world, is never faced with a significant quandary about which side he’s on. Posters all over New York showing him with the caption “Believe it or not, he’s the good guy” are entirely misleading. There is NEVER any question which side he’s on. There is a momentary cognitive dissonance that comes from a character that looks like he does, being a good guy, but never an actual moment of ambiguity. The worst thing you can say about him is that he’s a lazy, beer swilling jerk, and although there’s something interesting about his low brow concerns, the implied question of actual evil never comes up. He’s an angel in a devil-suit.

Purely by coincidence I re-watched “A Clockwork Orange” (the new DVD edition) a day or so before seeing “The Dark Knight.” And I think this is why the thought about the distinction between comic books and novels crystallized for me. Anthony Burgess wrote the novel “A Clockwork Orange” as a complicated response to, among other things, a brutal rape his wife experienced. The resulting novel is not simply about justice or social responsibility. It is, most centrally, about free will. The book, and even more so Kubrick’s film, is constructed around the complicated dynamic resulting from a character who is simultaneously attractive and repellent. Alex is both. I would somewhat arrogantly assert that any reading of the film that collapses him to one side or the other is simply evidence of cinematic illiteracy (hence the copy-cat crimes that resulted). Now anyone who has seen both films realizes that the reason for bringing up “A Clockwork Orange” in a discussion about “The Dark Knight” is that Alex has a strong relationship to Heath Ledger’s deservedly acclaimed portrayal of The Joker. This is not an accident. I understand that there were conversations to this effect between director and actor. Ledger’s performance is amazing. Absolutely top shelf. And I don’t think it’s already becoming legendary only because of the actor’s tragic death. But I would argue that part of what is so arresting about The Joker is that there is actual, genuine ambiguity in our feelings towards him. Like Alex, we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by him. As a result, he walks away with the movie, and as much as I like it, I think that’s a problem. I can’t help imagining a film in which Batman is also as complicated. Where I honestly question, on a fundamental level, whether what he’s doing is ok. In “Batman Begins” there is a moment where Alfred directs Bruce Wayne’s attention to news footage of the violent high-speed chase that Batman caused the night before. Alfred’s admonishment of “It’s a good thing no one was killed” actually gets the character off the hook. How would we feel about Batman if Alfred came in and said “5 people were killed last night” and has to deal with the fact that Wayne/Batman actually thinks this collateral damage is worth it?

Why do I bring this up?

Because these films are claiming to be storming the wall separating entertainment from art. And if we apply the useful distinction that entertainment confirms existing assumptions, and art questions them, the question of Batman’s ambiguity is the question of whether or not he’s in a work of art or not.

Batman is a mythological character. Our historic proximity to his invention (and inventors) doesn’t change this. But what I think is often misunderstood is that the nature of mythology is that as source material, it is almost completely inert. It’s value and interest depend entirely on what artists do with it. To say that Batman is interesting is like saying the the marble of which Michelangelo’s David is hewn is what’s interesting about the sculpture. Obviously the stone does have certain values, but it is next to nothing compared to what the artist did with it. Our perceptions of a character like Odysseus and Agave have more to do with Homer and Euripides than with these figures themselves. Until Dark Knight for example, I never gave the character of The Joker much thought (sorry Jack), but what Mr. Ledger et al have done has changed what this mythological character is. He is alive in our culture now in a way he never was before.

I think that Batman is potentially a potent character for our time. I think it’s marble worth carving. I think he could be a hero to struggle with the dark moment of the soul that we are going through as a society. The Dark Knight suggests this, but I think the bar is higher. The bar that Heath Ledger set. I want to see a movie about Batman.

All that being said, let me repeat that I like the movie, I love what it made me think about, and it has resulted in some fascinating conversations with friends.

More coming soon, in part 2 of this post…