Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom at the Fair Oaks Theater

I spent my wonder years, from age five to nine, in a small town on the Central California Coast called Arroyo Grande.

The great cultural center of the town at that time, exposing me to the wider world with its history and music and narratives, was a second-run movie theater called the Fair Oaks. Astonishingly enough, the place still exists fifty-plus years later, and my sister dragged me to a matinee there this weekend of the latest Wes Anderson whimsy, Moonrise Kingdom, about a bunch of "khaki scouts," a pubescent romance, and some deeply unhappy adults. I found myself crying through the last half of the film not because of the story or images, which were fine, but on account of Benjamin Britten's music, which is used perfectly throughout.

The credits start with The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with its explanatory narration, a performance of the church parable Noye's Fludde which is where our protagonists meet cute, and continues with snatches of the boy sopranos Fairies' Choruses from the opera A Midsummer Night's Dream, and snippets from a song cycle called Friday Afternoons. This is great music that deepens every scene which it accompanies.

Hearing one of my favorite composers at this primal, favorite movie theater was an unexpected joy. The next day on Amtrak north to San Francisco continued the mood as two thirds of the Coast Starlight train were Boy Scout troops traveling to or from some Jamboree. It felt like I was still at the movie. The adult troop leaders were as dweeby as Edward Norton, and there was even a group of kids that was being mean to a gawky pubescent blonde boy who they kept trying to ditch, even though a scoutmaster insisted that nobody was to be left alone without a "buddy," or they might end up sitting alone next to somebody like me. (He didn't say the latter, but you could see it in his frightened eyes.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Jose Luis Arbus in Santa Barbara

Everywhere I have been turning lately, there have been photographic portrait shows at museums, and the Santa Barbara Art Museum this summer is no exception, with a large exhibit taken mostly from their permanent collection called Portrayal/Betrayal.

The exhibit turned out to be surprisingly entertaining at every corner, even though the arbitrary ArtSpeak themes for each room weren't particularly interesting. Above is a Sally Mann photograph, The Good Father, which is strange and erotic enough that it's easy to see why Ms. Mann has trouble with public authorities. This was in the "Photographing Family and Friends" room.

The most interesting room was devoted to artists taking pictures of artists, such as the bizarre 1965 photo of Bill Cosby at the Chateau Marmont above taken by the actor Dennis Hopper.

Hopper was also responsible for the outrageously sexy photo of painter Ed Ruscha in 1964 Los Angeles.

There was also an unexpected photo of William Faulkner with dogs by none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The prize for strangest cultural hybrid is the photo above of the Argentinian genius writer Jose Luis Borges in New York's Central Park in 1969 by the queen of weirdness, Diane Arbus.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pop Goes The Cultural Revolution

The Palm Springs Art Museum also has a show dedicated to Pop Art humour that's more interesting than amusing. Red Groom's 1997 3-D lithograph of Picasso was a case in point.

So was the Wayne Thiebaud clown print from 1979.

The best piece of humour was Steven Wibben posing in my Nixon in China T-shirt between the Warhol Mao prints. This was appropriation squared.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hello, Dali at the Racquet Club

The Palm Springs Art Museum Cafe has a new set of celebrity candid photographs from the Racquet Club in the 1950s and 1960s by a forgotten photographer named Bill Anderson. The original Marilyn Monroe, before her twenty-six foot sculptural commemoration a block away, is seen above with Charles Farrell circa 1954.

Maurice Chevalier, looking like his usual horndog self, is pictured above during a New Year's Eve party in 1963.

For sheer surrealism, however, nothing tops the photo of painter Salvador Dali at a Racquet Club "Mexican Theme Party" on December 14, 1966.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Forever Marilyn in Palm Springs

A 26-foot sculpture depicting Marilyn Monroe in her iconic pose over a New York subway grate from The Seven Year Itch has recently been installed in downtown Palm Springs.

The sculpture by Seward Johnson, a wealthy 82-year-old Johnson & Johnson heir, debuted for a year in Chicago's Pioneer Square, where it served as a powerful tourist magnet while being derided by many residents as the height of kitsch. (Click here for an amusing Chicago Tribune article detailing the controversy.)

The biggest objection seemed to be the statue's sheer vulgarity in having the skirt fly all the way into the air in the back, allowing everyone to look up at the figure's underwear. As somebody put it on Twitter in Chicago, ""Looking up Marilyn Monroe's skirt isn't any less creepy because she's a statue."

Palm Springs has mostly embraced the towering Marilyn, with merchants ecstatic at the throngs of tourists arriving for their close-up with the statue (click here for a Desert Sun article about the Marketing of Marilyn). There have been a few local critics, though, who would rather just look at the beautiful San Jacinto mountains that are newly visible from downtown after an abandoned bank building was recently torn down.

"Marilyn shouldn't be wearing granny panties," one young gay man was telling me at Wang's in the Desert's Friday Happy Hour. "It's just not right."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA: Bump It With a Trumpet!

A career retrospective of Cindy Sherman opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art in March, and it set off quite a critical kerfluffle, partly because the admiring New Yorker Magazine art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, threw down the gauntlet with his first paragraph in writing about the show:

The first sentence of the first wall text in the Cindy Sherman retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art reads, "Masquerading as a myriad of characters, Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954) invents personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography." The images do no such thing, of course. They hang on walls.

After a funny description of ArtSpeak and the many critical attempts over the decades to explain what Sherman has been up to with the photographic portaits of herself in a multiplicity of made-up, bewigged, outrageously dressed guises, Schjeldahl writes:

"She is remarkably tolerant of interviewers who keep asking her what she means, as if, like any true artist, she hadn't already answered in the only way possible for her: in the work. But the mysteries are irreducible. Alive in the experience of viewers who reject being told what to think, they qualify Sherman, to my mind as the strongest and finest American artist of her time."

There was a backlash to such high profile praise, such as Jed Perl's "The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman" in The New Republic, a feminist academic take by Nadine Lemmon at Brickhaus called "THE SHERMAN PHENOMENA: The Image of Theory or A Foreclosure of Dialectical Reasoning?", and Chris Knipp, who wrote a post entitled "Cindy Sherman is Great -- But at What?"

Sherman's art is very much a one-note gimmick, but the photos are surprisingly potent. Sherman creates a universe that is immediately recognizable as hers, and you won't look at the world in quite the same way afterwards, a quality she shares in common with the painter Frida Kahlo and the photographer Diane Arbus.

Thanks to critics like Schjeldahl and others, Sherman has become rich and famous. This makes her latest series, where she turns herself into a series of malevolent looking, aging society women, in huge wall-sized prints, seem less fantastical than her other creations. She looks like she knows this world all too well. The exhibit has moved to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in its first outing on the road before heading for Brazil.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Palm Springs Pool Toys

"I buy so many pharmaceuticals at Rite-Aid that they give me lots of discount coupons for ninety eight cent pool toys," my friend Steve explained on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in his backyard. The scene looked a bit like a Wayne Thiebaud painting with beach balls instead of cakes.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Marat/Sade at La Brava

The Thrillpeddlers have revived the 1960s theatrical sensation "Marat/Sade" at the La Brava Theatre on 24th Street in the Mission. The playwright, Peter Weiss, was a very serious German Jewish refugee from the 1930s whose family bounced from Switzerland to London to Sweden, where they settled. The play, set in an early 19th century French insane asylum, is designed to be a little bit Brecht/Weill and a little bit Antonin Artaud by way of Pirandello.

There is also a lot of long speechifying between the Marquis de Sade and a paranoid inmate impersonating the French revolutionary Marat in his bathtub prior to his assassination by Charlotte Corday. Actors spouting serious soliloquies about Freedom and Revolution and Blah-Blah-Blah is about as boring for me as a dreary church sermon, so I am not the right person to be writing about this production.

I did admire the sheer insane gusto the entire troupe brought to the production, and particularly enjoyed the show when director Russell Blackwood seemed to be sending up the material.

Happily I am in the minority and most of the critics who went to the press opening were fairly rapturous. Robert Avila in the San Francisco Bay Guardian loved it. So did Lily Janiak at the San Francisco Weekly. Not to mention Richard Dodds at the Bay Area Reporter.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pontificating Poolside

According to The Desert Sun 7-day weather forecast, Palm Springs this week was due for a cooling trend, meaning the high temperatures would be in the 100 to 108 range rather than 110 to 118. So I jumped on an Amtrak train from Oakland to Bakersfield, with a connecting bus to downtown Palm Springs on Monday. The trip was twelve hours long, but in just about every respect was wonderful, from the free wifi on the train to the great bus driver navigating the scary East L.A. freeways.

A few miles south of Merced, the train slowed down as we passed a diorama of destruction on the adjoining Highway 140, where an SUV had lost control and crashed head-on into a camper with four women from Soquel on their way to Yosemite. According to a report in the Merced Sun Star (click here), there were survivors which seemed impossible from the crash debris. (The above photo is by Bea Ahbeck from the Merced Sun Star.)

Best wishes for the survivors and their families.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Silent Stella Dallas

The fourth and final day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Sunday featured a lot of people who had seen too many movies in a row and were feeling like underground moles. Dave above was congratulating himself on limiting his viewing to one film a day rather than five, exiting from a showing of the Swedish film Erotikon which he called "the first real dog I've seen at the festival this year."

Sue in the Early Entrance line above at the Castro Theatre was complaining about the long delays before each of the scheduled films. "They've been holding this festival for seventeen years, so you'd think they would have gotten their act together by now. Making people wait outside in the cold for an hour is just wrong. And yes, you can tell Anita Monga that."

I asked Andrew Korniej above what he would like to say to Artistic Director Monga. "I'd love to see a Douglas MacLean film in the festival next year. He's one of my all-time favorites."

The silent version of the women's weepie, Stella Dallas, was introduced by San Francisco's Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller above. The film is about an uneducated, tasteless, lower-class mother who eventually gives up her teenage daughter so her upper-class father and new wife can provide the "proper" surroundings, and Muller confessed it was the one movie that always devastates him completely. "That's because my own mother IS Stella Dallas. She's still alive, by the way, at 96 years old."

Stella Dallas is adapted from a 1923 novel by the now obscure New England novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty, and the examination of the distorting forces of economic class is still surprisingly potent. Belle Bennett as Stella Dallas gives an incredible performance of the character, from her pretty, awkward teenage years to an absurdly trashy middle aged dame in a fat suit. The pathos of the story is that all the main characters are basically decent people who love each other, but the inflexible codes of class and education trump all.

The story was remarkably durable, spawning another famous movie version with Barbara Stanwyk (who eschewed the fat suit), along with a daily radio serial that ran for eighteen years which Prouty hated. There was even a more recent remake by Bette Midler that was reportedly a disaster. The silent film version, with live musical accompaniment by the incomparable Stephen Shore above, is probably the best adaptation, and people were openly sobbing in the theatre on Sunday through the whole last third of the film.

Incidentally, Prouty went on to write a series of five novels about a patrician Boston clan, the Vales, and the middle book was none other than Now, Voyager which was turned into the classic Bette Davis vehicle. She was also a Smith graduate where she started a mentoring program for gifted writing students, which is where she befriended Sylvia Plath. It really is a small world.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Canadian at the Silent Film Festival

Anita Monga, above, is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and one of the most important characters in the artistic life of the city. From 1988 and for the next 18 years, she was the main programmer for the Castro Theatre which has been one of the great cultural centers in San Francisco. After her shabby dismissal by the Nasser family about seven years ago (click here), she continued on as the programmer for the colossally successful Noir City Film Festival and SF Silent Film Festival. According to a friend, "she knows which studio vault, private collection, and institutional resource of every usable print of every film in just about the entire world is hiding."

Monga is not alone in her Bay Area cinema programming genius, as was attested by an award given to locals Gary Meyer and Tom Luddy, along with Julie Huntsinger above who are the directors of the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, which also features silent film rediscoveries alongside world premieres.

The Canadian was a lost and only recently rediscovered 1926 Paramount silent film about wheat farmers in Alberta, Canada, based on a play by Somerset Maugham of all people. The director was the workaholic William Beaudine (click here for an interesting article about him by Dennis Harvey at the SF Bay Guardian). The simple story is about a pretentious young London woman who is suddenly penniless when her aunt dies and she goes to visit her brother on his wheat ranch near Calgary. In a moment of spite, she marries a field hand trying to start his own farm, and the movie is about the disaster that ensues which manages to resolve itself into an affecting, happy ending.

The greatness of the film is in its mixture of naturalism and the wonderful presence of Thomas Meighan as the husband, who exudes both decency and sadness. At a site dedicated to Meighan, there is this detail: "so many people inside the industry liked Meighan personally that they conspired to keep secret his ongoing liquor problem."

The other reason the movie was so deeply moving was because of the musical accompanist, a British musician named Stephen Horne above, who played a grand piano along with an occasional accordion tune and a flute for the sadder romantic moments. The score he composed/improvised live with the film was delicate perfection.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Loves of Pharoah

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival went into high gear on Friday with five different programs at the Castro Theatre, including the newly reconstructed 1922 Ernst Lubitsch spectacular, The Loves of Pharoah. The film has been digitally remastered from half a dozen different incomplete prints, with about 30 minutes missing from the final film which are handled with stills and narrative titles. This seems only appropriate for a melodrama set in Ancient Egypt whose history has been preserved via fragmentary relics.

The narrative is essentially a spinoff from Verdi's opera Aida, with a beautiful slave girl in the middle of an Egyptian war with Ethiopia causing unintentional mayhem with her beauty everywhere she goes (she is played by Dagny Servaes above with Harry Liedtke as Ramphis, her accidental true love). In this version, the two doomed lovers are stoned to death by a huge crowd of extras in the final scenes rather than being suffocated in a tomb like the opera, and the jealous lover Amneris character is now The Pharoah, played in his usual glowering, crazed manner by Emil Jannings.

The massive sets were constructed 30 miles south of Berlin, and the costumes and sheer number of starving Weimar era extras makes for an amazing spectacle. It was amusingly reminiscent of the San Francisco Opera Aida production at the Bill Graham auditorium in the 1990s when the Opera House was being retrofitted. There were no real backstage dressing rooms at the Bill Graham at the time, so the company decided not to use body makeup on the supernumeraries, and it looked like Egypt had been invaded by the Irish Army wearing Ancient Egyptian costumes. In The Loves of Pharoah, Egypt looked similarly overtaken, except by Germans, some of them in blackface and fright wigs as Ethiopians.

The live accompaniment was by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer, and he even incorporated some of the Triumphal March from Aida while he was at it. Though his performance was completely over-the-top, it suited the film perfectly.

For more on this recently unearthed spectacular, click here for the Art House Films of Germany blog out of Toronto, and here for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans, and here for the Strictly Vintage Hollywood blog.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wings at the SF Silent Film Festival

Living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Film, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival only becomes more interesting and important with each year. The newly expanded four-day festival features restored films from multiple countries, usually with live musical accompaniment, and draws afficionados from all over the world. After the organization's wildly ambitious presentation this March of Abel Gance's 5-and-half-hour Napoleon, complete with live symphony orchestra and three-screen projection, it seemed like anything else this year would be anticlimactic, but the newly remastered print of the 1927 Wings on Thursday's opening night was in its own way just as spectacular.

Paramount Studios is having its 100th anniversary this year, and in celebration they undertook a high-definition digital remastering of the World War One aerial combat film Wings which they released as a Blue-Ray disc, complete with colored flames from machine guns and tinted scenes. It was the most pristine and gorgeous print I have ever seen of a silent era film.

Making Thursday evening's festival opening truly thrilling was the musical accompaniment by the Colorado based, five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra above, which was joined by by a small army of Foley sound effects artists led by Star Wars veteran Ben Burtt and Mont Alto's Rodney Sauer. The climactic battle scenes with complicated explosions, machine gun fire, and whirring airplane wings was colossally complex and exciting, sounding at times like an undiscovered Iannis Xenaxis percussion score.

Clara Bow stars as the girl next door, but it's Richard Arlen and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers above as the young, small-town flyers who carry the emotional narrative. Arlen's death scene above after Rogers has accidentally wounded his own best friend is extraordinarily touching and romantic, and it even ends up sealed with a kiss. Not only was Wings the first recipient of the Best Picture Academy Award, but it's one of the few films that actually deserved to win. If there is ever a reprise showing with these forces at the Castro Theatre, do not miss it.

For a full schedule of this weekend's film festival which includes everything from old standards to complete rarities, click here. And do get in line early, because the word seems to be out about this festival, and the huge Castro Theatre last night was full to the rafters.