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Staff Picks: Bad Calls, Bad Books, Breakups

June 24, 2016 | by

From Cemetery of Splendor.

A still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendor.

Tate Modern, in London, recently showed Cemetery of Splendor, the new and wonderful movie by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It was part of a weekend homage to the sly, metaphysical Thai filmmaker, including an all-night sequence of his complete works. Now, I am no longer young enough to watch movies all night, so I contented myself with my own home retrospective, including the wonderful bipartite movies Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. In the new Tanks space at Tate Modern, which just opened this weekend, you can also see his installation Primitive, a nine-video extravaganza. There are few people thinking more rigorously, or more joyfully. —Adam Thirlwell

I was so relieved to read Tim Parks’s review of The Vegetarian, the Man Booker–winning novel by Korean Han Kang. The novel came recommended by a friend, so I persisted till the bitter end, despite grousing about every awkward sentence, every cliché, every narrative contradiction. I spent much of the first section wondering whether it was the fault of the writer or the translator. Parks was bothered by the same question and spends the space of his review examining the way content and style in the English translation work in relation to one another. He concludes that “the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom.” But for Parks, The Vegetarian isn’t merely a bad book badly translated; it’s representative of a “shared vision of what critics would like a work of ‘global fiction’ to be.” The desire to always see oneself in a story necessarily limits one’s view of the world, and seems to me to be the exact opposite reason for reading a book in translation—or any book, for that matter—in the first place. —Nicole Rudick

Just yesterday I was given two gorgeous chapbooks, both part of a series called Señal of contemporary Latin American poetry in translation. I began the first in the series—Sor Juana y otros monstruos, a dissertation (of sorts) in verse by Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by John Pluecker—this morning, and I haven’t been able to put it down. Fabre muses on the scholarship buzzing around the seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, tackling one assertion in particular. “Yes: Sor Juana was a monster,” he writes. It’s a claim most academics accept as true, but “where they differ / is / / on what kind of monster she was.” Was she a phoenix? A sphinx? Will she, as Fabre imagines, return at night to devour her scholars because her body has never been found? And yet, the most striking question Fabre goes on to ask is this: “What kind / of monster is it whose power / resides in language?” Whatever it is, Fabre would be one, too; Sor Juana y otros mostruos is like nothing I’ve read in a long while. —Caitlin Youngquist
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Staff Picks: Light, Lust, LiveJournal

May 20, 2016 | by

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent [251b], ca. 1923, black-and-white photograph flush-mounted on card, mounted to board, 4 9/16" x 3 9/16".

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz began a series of moody, diminutive photographs of cloud patterns (abstracted, they resembled curls and skeins of smoke); he called it Songs of the Sky, before later changing it to Equivalents. He showed the images to his friend, the composer Ernest Bloch, who, according to Stieglitz, declared it to be music. Partly in response to his friend’s photographs, Bloch composed “Poems of the Sea.” A show at Bruce Silverstein Gallery takes its name from Stieglitz’s series and presents five pairings of art and music, including Stieglitz/Bloch. The idea is to listen to a piece of music while looking at artworks that were inspired either by that composition, that composer, or by music more generally. Though it’s not always convincing, the idea of having two mediums respond and react to and provoke one another is intriguing. I love Frederick Sommer’s ink drawings of musical notation (they’re hieroglyphs and also stacked Futurist cityscapes), but his coupling with Chris Washburne is too on the nose. The obliqueness of Lisette Model’s photographs of people’s shadows resonates well with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal Pierrot lunaire. My favorite, though, may be Aaron Siskind’s black-and-white photographs of male bodies tumbling through space set to a string-quartet arrangement of John Cage’s delicate, gorgeous Cheap Imitation: neither transcends its medium, but instead seems more acutely, more exquisitely itself. —Nicole Rudick

I spent some time this week on websafe2k16.com, an Internet project dedicated to cataloging memories of the early web. Built by three artists—Ben Sisto, Josephine Livingstone, and Joe Bernardi—the “literary/graphic” project asks writers to draw inspiration from one of the 216 web-safe color codes, such as the offending #66FF33 or the wistful #0099CC, writing personal recollections in 216 words. I scrolled through Web Safe’s rainbow grid, reading lyric memories about the conversant gargle of dial-up (Andrew Blevins, #CC6600), multiplayer computer games (Adrian Chen, #33CC00), LiveJournal (Anna Weiner, #003366), and other relics of the early web. Colors in the palette regularly inspire memories of braces and prom, group chats and forums. I wondered, reading about MySpace and MSN, what the colors of the early Internet trigger for me. Maybe Ask Jeeves, the first man in my life to whom I never could ask the right questions. Or Xanga, where I lurked on blogs written by my classmates. Or maybe Machu Picchu, an obscure nineties computer game I’ve lost nearly all memory of and haven’t ever found again. All that’s left is the name, and the bellow of nostalgia. —Caitlin Love Read More »

Timbuktu’s Massive Book Heist, and Other News

April 25, 2016 | by

Abdel Kader Haidara in Timbuktu, 2009. Photo: Brent Stirton/National Geographic

  • Today in censored statues: in Italy, the fashionable thing to do with one’s nude statues is not to display them but to conceal them with some plywood or maybe a heavy drop-cloth or whatever else you’ve got lying around. The Capitoline Venus, which resides in the hall of the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, was boxed up last month to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the visiting Iranian president, but really this sort of thing happens all the time: “True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’s horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall … This kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed … And—in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment—it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin ... were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.”
  • A few months ago, I used this space to hawk Saul Bellow’s ten-thousand-dollar desk, which was not, at the time, a hot seller. But things have changed. That desk is gone. As Bellow’s son Daniel explained to Atlas Obscura: “All of a sudden, everyone from famous journalists to doctors from the Mayo Clinic contacted him about purchasing his father’s desk … In the end, though, Bellow’s desk was sold to his son’s niece, who matched the top bid at the auction, and kept the desk in the family … The desk will be put in his niece’s new home in Hudson, New York. As for the money from the auction, Daniel says he is going to use it to build a kiln chimney in his new pottery studio.”
  • Faced with an al-Qaida invasion, librarians in Timbuktu oversaw a massive smuggling operation in which some 300,000 rare books and manuscripts were secreted away to safety: “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks. We’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep, and then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses—safe houses scattered around the city. And hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation … They’re in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali.”
  • In which Meghan O’Gieblyn decides to give Updike a chance, takes Couples off the shelf, and finds … many things she expected and a few she didn’t: “There was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (‘She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth’) … There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I—someone in possession of a female body—had never considered. ‘Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,’ he writes of Piet’s wife, Angela, ‘their stringy backs and reddened fingertips’ … What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy.”
  • Jonas Mekas was the first film critic for the Village Voice, and a new collection of his critical writing reveals “an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy”: “There’s a live-wire spontaneity to Mekas’s writing, an excitement sparked by his sense of beauty, by his sheer pleasure in cinematic imagination, and it’s connected to a soulful sense of inwardness and empathy … What energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.”

Serial Queens Now and Forever, and Other News

April 1, 2016 | by

The actress Ruth Roland in an advertisement for the serial Hands Up in 1918. Image via The Atlantic.

  • Remembering Zaha Hadid, the “starchitect” who died yesterday at sixty-five: “It always amazed me that Hadid had somehow attracted a singular reputation for being difficult to deal with. Compared with other prominent architects, no one was more down to earth, more exuberantly real, than her … Why did every second article attach ‘diva’ to her name? Isn’t every architect a diva? Truly, it was because Hadid was a woman who had dared to enter a man’s world, and took no shit from anybody, though plenty was offered. She had to be twice as smart and three times as tough as her male counterparts in order to get anything built. And even then she struggled for years to realize her projects, and was forced to endure cruel and humiliating referendums on such thwarted projects as the Cardiff Bay Opera House, or the ongoing Olympic-stadium debacle in Tokyo, in which the government blocked Hadid’s competition-winning design from going forward after protests from prominent Japanese architects.”
  • In the 1910s, before women even had the vote, they were starring in swashbuckling adventures courtesy of the early film industry: “During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ‘serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic. The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains … By the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ‘serial queens,’ disappeared. What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process … ”
  • Everyone wants to be an artist. If you want to be a wealthy artist, though, there’s one simple trait you should go out of your way to cultivate: narcissism. “Researchers found that work by narcissistic artists is likely to sell for more money at auction than work by their humbler counterparts … The researchers obtained the signatures of 815 modern and contemporary artists from Oxford Art Online, then used them as a measure of narcissism when comparing auction price data sets from 1980 to 2012. In their analysis of hundreds of pre- and postwar paintings, they found that narcissistic artists’ work sold for as much as 25 percent more than that by their less narcissistic peers.”
  • Teju Cole on the photographer Raghubir Singh: “Singh worked from the late ’60s until his untimely death in 1999, traveling all over India to create a series of powerful books about his homeland … Singh had a democratic eye, and he took pictures of everything: cities, towns, villages, shops, rivers, worshipers, workers, construction sites, motorbikes, statues, modern furniture, balconies, suits, dresses and, sure, turbans and saris … How do we know when a photographer caters to life and not to some previous prejudice? One clue is when the picture evades compositional cliché. But there is also the question of what the photograph is for, what role it plays within the economic circulation of images. Some photographs, like Singh’s, are freer of the censorship of the market. Others are taken only to elicit particular conventional responses—images that masquerade as art but fully inhabit the vocabulary of advertising.”
  • Today in fact-checking imperialism: “In its last week in print, the Independent carried a piece under the headline: ONE MORE THING IMPERIALISM HAS TO ANSWER FOR: DYSENTERY. It’s a striking statement, but is it true? … In the case of Shigella flexneri … imperialism has to take some of the blame. Study no. 19 from the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, ‘Dysentery in the Federated Malay States’ by William Fletcher (a bacteriologist) and Margaret Jepps (a protozoologist), was published in 1924 … Jepps and Fletcher’s laboratory studies showed that most cases of dysentery were caused by flexneri, and that the link between its mortality rate and poverty was dramatic. The Kuala Lumpur General Hospital charged fees. It had wards of three classes: first for ‘Europeans’ (mortality negligible), second for ‘Eurasians, well-to-do Asiatics and government clerks’ (mortality 2 to 3 per cent), and third for ‘native laborers, paupers and vagrants’ (mortality about 25 per cent).”

A Huntsman of Ogres, and Other News

March 22, 2016 | by

From the cover of a new collection of Broodthaers’s poetry by Siglio Press.

  • At a moment when Syria, in the Western imagination, is synonymous with violence and war, an anonymous Syrian film collective called Abounaddaraprovides a strikingly different picture of Syrians and their country,” as our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, writes: “The members of Abounaddara, an Arabic phrase meaning ‘the man with glasses,’ began making films in 2010, but it was Syria’s version of the Arab Spring that gave them an urgent sense of purpose. For the past five years, they have posted a new documentary film every week, resulting in an archive of nearly four hundred shorts that can be watched for free on Vimeo … These films, whose subjects include soccer players for the Syrian national team, bereaved parents, former prisoners of ISIS, intellectuals, and refugees, are powerful portraits of individual Syrians, yet they can also be hard to read, in part because we’re told so little about the subjects and settings. This withholding of information is clearly by design. The films often begin and end in medias res, leaving the viewer to puzzle out their significance. They require one to think as well as to look.”
  • The set designer Es Devlin has a CV that includes everyone from Shakespeare to Verdi to Miley Cyrus: “Devlin argues that there is something in between pictorial realism and complete abstraction. Though she borrows elements from every period, her approach is thoroughly contemporary. She’s not interested in straight realism, or in traditional production design … She is theatre’s postmodern expert, and has an instinctive sense of how Shakespeare and opera and fashion and pop concerts might draw from the same dark web of psychological information. Each of her designs is an attack on the notion that a set is merely scenery. She is in demand because she can enter the psychic ether of each production and make it glow with significance. She told me, ‘A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment’—something that directors and actors can respond to. ‘Sometimes what these people want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.’ ”
  • A new biography of Wallace Stevens, The Whole Harmonium, reminds us of the vast chasm between artist and art: “He never left North America. He was casually racist and anti-Semitic. A Hoover Republican, he distrusted labor unions. He drank too much at parties, to overcome his natural shyness, and later had to apologize for his boorishness. In the depths of the Depression, he made $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $350,000 today … ‘Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming,’ Marianne Moore wrote, comparing him to a person with ‘a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose.’ But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s.”
  • Before he found renown as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, collector, and God knows what else, Marcel Broodthaers was a poet. And his poems pursued (among other subjects) ogres: “The world of these poems is far removed from modern life. My Ogre Book in particular, a self-described ‘suite of poetic tales,’ unfolds across a medieval-ish neverland of forests, mad kings, storm-swept landscapes, and those ogres invoked in the title. Its fairy-tale idiom is vivid but generalized, the animal and human figures serving as emblems that are never far distant from elemental strife: ‘Lost in solitude / I have always been prey,’ reflects the speaker of ‘The Donkey-Drummer’; ‘The toads devour themselves / at the heart of diamonds,’ runs the full text of one of the brief untitled poems interlarded throughout the book; in ‘A Drama of Solitude’ a ‘huntsman of ogres’ turns on his loyal dog and kills him, preferring ‘to be alone in the Great North.’ Broodthaers’s archaism, which according to his translator extends to his use of anachronistic phrasing in the original French, was also deeply personal, providing him with a means to map his inner geography in ways both distanced and intimate.”
  • Today in nomenclature and direct democracy: just when you’re coming around to the idea of the Internet as a tool to empower the masses, something like this happens … and you’re more convinced of its awesome potential than ever before. “A proposal by a British government agency to let the Internet suggest a name for a $287 million polar research ship probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, the agency is the latest group to see what happens when web users are asked to unleash their creative energy: R.S. Boaty McBoatface is a clear front-runner … Alison Robinson, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the group was ‘delighted by the enthusiasm and creativity’ of people vying for names like Boaty McBoatface. The ship is scheduled to set sail in 2019.”

There Is a New Record for Most Bollywood Lyrics Ever Written, and Other News

February 18, 2016 | by

"Tu Dharti Pe Chahe Jahan Bhi Rahegi"

“Tu Dharti Pe Chahe Jahan Bhi Rahegi”

  • Lyricist Sameer Anjaan has entered The Guinness Book of World Records—they had to make a new category—for writing the greatest number of Bollywood songs, ever. By the numbers: 3,524 songs, 650 films, 33 years. Writes his biographer, “Sameer was a hit both with the fans and the singers because he wrote songs that did not require dictionary to understand. He wrote in the language of the common people.” Listen to his top twenty-five songs here.
  • In other lyrical news: Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera as part of its 2016–2017 season—the first opera by a woman the company has mounted since 1903.
  • Female spies in seventeenth-century Northern Europe had all sorts of ingenious means of transporting information, writes historian Nadine Ackerman, author of  “Female Spies or ‘she-Intelligencers’: Towards a Gendered History of Seventeenth-Century Espionage.” The women—who ranged from poets to bakers, aristocrats to peasants—were generally considered unsuspicious, even in times of war, and if caught did not face the capital punishment of their male counterparts. In a pair videos, the author re-creates several of their espionage methods: using artichokes and hollow eggs. 
  • In many ways, we are less intrigued by The Vatican Cookbook revealing the Holy Father’s love of pizza than by the fact that such information is “as told by members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.” It seems like breaking some kind of seal, or at least NDA, but no! In fact! “Polish nuns do the majority of cooking at the Vatican, but the Swiss Guard chefs do step in to make food on formal occasions or to fulfill a special request. Though a guard cooking is a rarity, these men know more about the Pope’s eating habits than anyone else, since they are no more than a few steps from him at all times.” 
  • “What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?” asks Jacob Weisberg in The New York Review of Books. Writing about four new books that plumb different aspects of our dependence on—ambivalent relationship to—technology, he finds that most raise more questions than they answer—we’re still living the answer in real time. 

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