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What We Wish We Were: On Biopic-Mania

May 23, 2013 | by

Liberacelarge

Sometimes there are things you didn’t know you wanted to see.

Like Michael Douglas, spangled and rouged, arms out in a white ostrich-trimmed cape, prancing sideways across a Vegas stage. This is barely two seconds of the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, about the relationship between Liberace and his younger lover, Scott Thorson, but those are two seconds I want to see over and over.

Usually I get cranky and snide about biopics. The last one I saw was Hitchcock. I went to have my prejudices against the genre affirmed, and they were. I kept watching Anthony Hopkins in his fat suit and thinking about his makeup, the boom just outside the frame, the camera rolling back on its track, the contrivance of the whole thing—and not in some provocative, Brechtian sense. I left full of scorn for the labored verisimilitude and regurgitated history—a petty way to go to the movies, but kind of satisfying, too, in the way that being petty can be.

Maybe it’s a good film if you weren’t aware Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for so-called icy blonds and that he got creepily obsessive when it came to his leading ladies. And if that’s not clear from watching Hopkins/Hitchcock skulk around dressing rooms, Jessica Biel/Vera Miles explains it to Scarlett Johansson/Janet Leigh and us in a scene that feels more like a DVD featurette about the “making of” than dialogue between two people. Read More »

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Documenta 13

July 11, 2012 | by

Massimo Bartolini, Untitled (Wave), 1997–2012. Photo: Nils Klinger

Michelangelo Antonioni was not happy with the grass. This was the summer of 1966, and London was experiencing an extreme drought. The director had shot the pivotal scene in Blow-Up where David Hemmings photographs an unconsenting Vanessa Redgrave and her lover, and maybe, or maybe not, a murder at Maryon Park. But the grass looked terrible, scraggy and yellow, so Antonioni had the crew spray-paint it green, and then shot the whole sequence again.

Antonioni would’ve approved of the grass in Kassel, though. It was incredibly green, food-coloring green. The leaves, too. The city, at the northern tip of the province of Hesse, in the middle of Germany, is known for having been nearly obliterated by Allied bombs in World War II and for Documenta, the hundred-day international exhibition of 150 contemporary artists that takes place every five years. I was there with my girlfriend, Liza, for the event's thirteenth incarnation, but at some point, everyone I met would mention the destruction—whether to explain the city’s history of manufacturing weapons or the blocky postwar architecture.

The painter and professor Arnold Bode organized the first Documenta in 1955 in order to exhibit publicly the “degenerate” art that had been banned under the Third Reich. The work of prewar and wartime modernism was displayed in the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum, not just as an act of recovery but of testimony, too. This year, the director is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and the exhibition spread beyond the renovated Fridericianum to the main square, the train station, the Brothers Grimm Museum, the sprawling Karslaue Park, and more. There were paintings, installations, films, performances, lectures, seminars, and, as described in the press packet, “periodic activity.” I was there for three days, which is enough time to realize how little time that is, especially since this year Documenta extends beyond Kassel to Alexandria, Cairo, and Kabul, where ruins, recovery, and testimony are not distant concepts.

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Taylor’s Multitudes

December 15, 2011 | by

Silvano and I met about ten years ago through mutual friends. I don’t remember the exact shirt he was wearing at the time, but I know it had bright colors and elaborate embroidery. (Later, I learned it came from Alpana Bawa.) Also, he was wearing one dangling, bauble-y earring. Possibly it included a feather. This was at a party where most people worked in publishing, which is to say, he stood apart.

Other details I have filed away about Silvano include that in the house he shares with his husband, Craig, there is a shrine to Anna Magnani and a poster from his 1977 campaign for supervisor of Board 5 in San Francisco. In the poster, he wears a one-shouldered top and tights and is beaming, his long arms flung skyward, a look inspired by a Patti Labelle album cover. He was running as the “dada alternative” to Harvey Milk. Also, in Robert Gluck’s novel Jack the Modernist, the narrator goes out to a performance piece in which Silvano appears as “Madame Chiang-Ch'ing.” More recently he got his associate's degree in accessories at FIT.

I knew all this about Silvano, but I didn’t have any idea how much Elizabeth Taylor meant to him. Not even when I met him at his home Sunday morning and he came to the door wearing a purple felt fedora, an iridescent purple mandarin-collared jacket, and purple suede boots. We were on our way to a preview of the Elizabeth Taylor collection being auctioned off this week. Read More »

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Screen Shots

October 27, 2011 | by

An early foray into fandom: I was eleven, maybe twelve, full of lust and greed. After school let out that day, my mother picked me up to go grocery shopping at Gemco, the massive warehouse supermarket that had recently opened on the outskirts of our Sacramento Valley town. Inside, while she got a cart and started making her rounds, I hung back at the newsstand, in my Catholic school uniform, and tore photos of boy heartthrobs from glossy teen magazines and then stuffed them into the waistband of my blue plaid skirt.

C. Thomas Howell.

I didn’t consider it stealing. I wasn’t taking the whole magazine, just a few pages. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was defacing property. Nor did I contemplate simply asking my mother to buy me the magazines. I wasn’t going to put these photos up on my bedroom wall; they would go inside my closet. This was the early eighties, so I would’ve been obsessed with The Outsiders—Ponyboy, Johnny, Soda, all the rest. Into my skirt went Rob Lowe. Into my skirt went C. Thomas Howell

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A Filmy Kind of Dread

November 1, 2010 | by

Georges Simenon famously wrote in a kind of concentrated trance state, starting and finishing books within a matter of weeks, sometimes days. And that has always seemed to me the best way to read him, too—in a concentrated trance state. Quick, immersive, done. (See his Paris Review interview here.) I don’t necessarily remember many details afterward—just a blur of images, a filmy kind of dread—but once I begin to read his work, especially the romans durs, nothing else exists but the slide into whatever seedy underworld awaits: cheap hotel rooms, colonial outposts, occupied cities, whorehouses, and roadside bars. Whiplash quick, atmospheric, his are usually the skinniest books on the shelf.

So, at five hundred and forty-four pages, his autobiographical novel Pedigree is something of a departure, and not simply in terms of length. Pedigree is the book that Simenon spent the most time on, and it’s the one where the most time passes. Set in his birthplace, Liège, it opens in 1903 and continues through 1918, just after the Armistice.

Liège, the town where Georges Simenon was born.

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