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Posts Tagged ‘documentaries’

The Ants of God

January 21, 2015 | by

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

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A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said. Read More »

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Recognition

August 21, 2014 | by

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From the poster to Art and Craft.

In The Recognitions, his brilliant novel about an art forger, William Gaddis wrote, “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people … Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing. Their only difficulty is that if they have a spark of wit or wisdom themselves, they’re given no credit. The curse of cleverness.”

Art and Craft, a new documentary, is a similarly vexed study of authenticity and creativity: it tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger who is, as the design site Colossal puts it,

arguably one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, having tricked over sixty museums in twenty states into believing his masterfully created replicas are authentic artworks. The catch: so far, it appears Landis, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, has yet to commit a crime. While he’s caused headaches, confusion, and multi-year investigations, he has never sought to benefit or profit from his forgeries in any way. Instead, he enjoys the performative act of pretending to be a philanthropist who makes donations of obscure artwork to art institutions, many of which unknowingly exhibited the fakes, allowing Landis the secret thrill of seeing his work on display.

On the other end of the spectrum is Matthew Leininger, a righteous curator whom the Times calls “a kind of Javert to Mr. Landis’s Valjean.” Leininger has made it his mission to put a halt to Landis’s ruse; he “maintains a database of all known contacts with Mr. Landis, sightings of him and works he has copied … he uses a dry-erase marker to update a laminated map in his office.”

But has the man really done anything wrong—is he really a kind of failure? Certainly Gaddis would say so—“I tried to make clear,” he says of The Recognitions in his Art of Fiction interview, “that Wyatt [the forger] was the very height of a talent but not a genius—quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.”

Maybe the same could be said of Landis, but that seems to give short shrift to his project. A 2012 article elaborates on the remarkable scope of his talents (or, if you remain skeptical of the validity of such things, his “talents”):

Landis creates works in oil, watercolor, pastels, chalk, ink and pencil, making most of his copies from museum or auction catalogs that provide dimensions and information on the originals.

He sometimes bestows gifts under different names, such as the Father Arthur Scott alias used at Hilliard. In that case, he told officials that his dead mother had left works including Curran’s oil-on-wood painting “Three Women” and that he was donating it in her memory … To convince museums he is a philanthropist, he also concocts elaborate stories about health concerns, said Cincinnati exhibit co-curator Matthew Leininger.

“He has been having heart surgery for almost thirty years,” Leininger said with a frustrated laugh. “This is the strangest case the museum realm has known in years.”

Landis, fifty-seven, acknowledges what he’s up to. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Laurel, Miss., that he made his first forgery donation to a California museum in 1985.

“They were so nice. I just got used to that, and one thing led to another,” he said. “It never occurred to me that anyone would think it was wrong.”

There’s no release date for Art and Craft yet, but you can see the trailer, which brings to life Landis’s eccentricities, here. “The art world is a very strange place,” says one of its interviewees, in what may be the understatement of the year.

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The Sound of Pure Internet, and Other News

May 6, 2014 | by

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Photo: Fleshas, via Wikimedia Commons

  • One of the finest World War II documentaries, 1945’s The Battle of San Pietro, was faked. Does this make it less true?
  • Here’s what it was like to attend a literature seminar taught by Philip Roth in the seventies: “He barely looked at us or made eye contact, but murmured a hello, then sat down in his chair, crossed one long leg over the other, and slowly unbuckled his watch. That’s as sexy as it got.”
  • Does journalism fit into capitalism? … Journalism does exist in capitalism, and capitalism is kicking journalists’ asses. The same goes for editors, and for many publications.”
  • Matt Parker, a sound artist, has been touring data hubs—those epicenters of the Internet, where all our e-stuff takes physical form—and recording the ethereal hum they give off. The result: “musical renderings of the great churn … an incredibly loud and obnoxious place filled with white noise and buzzing hard drives.”
  • Analyzing the artisanal toast trend: “Artisanal toast is hardly the first harbinger of our food obsession, or even necessarily the most egregious, but it’s become a scapegoat for a growing, broader cultural backlash; the toast that broke the camel’s back.”

 

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