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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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Memoirs

August 13, 2014 | by

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Lauren Bacall and Howard Hawks, ca. 1943

When I heard the news that Lauren Bacall had died, at first I felt the melancholy we all feel when another legend of a fading age goes. And then I thought: Is she in the Scotty Bowers book?

Since Valentine’s Day, 2012, the world has been divided unevenly between those who still live in a state of blissful innocence, and those who have read Scotty Bowers’s memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. If you enjoy old movies, mourn the passing of the Golden Age of Hollywood, want to be able to watch Mutiny on the Bounty, or have a soul, I beg you not to open this book, for once you do, you’ll feel compelled to devour every page in fascinated horror. Everyone else: read it immediately.

My mom was the first one I knew to read the book. She spoke so darkly and incessantly about it that I felt compelled to buy it. (This was one of the few cases in which I felt an e-book was the appropriate medium.) After reading it, obsessively, I started evangelizing myself, much as my mom had, in the vaguest and most menacing terms. I wanted people to know—and yet, I didn’t. I felt like a sort of Ancient Mariner, wandering the world and sharing the darkness I had seen.

Not that the book is especially dark, mind you. Scotty Bowers is possibly the happiest man to have ever walked the earth. Here is the rather sanitized Wikipedia description: Read More »

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Sartre and Borges on Welles

August 12, 2014 | by

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Theatrical release poster, 1941

In a sense, that poster doesn’t lie: everyone was talking about Citizen Kane. In another, more accurate sense, that poster does lie: not everyone was joining in that “It’s terrific!” chorus.

I hadn’t known, until Open Culture told me earlier today, that Sartre and Borges numbered among Kane’s more outspoken critics. Sartre reviewed the film in 1945, meaning he took four years even to bother seeing it. His is a damning appraisal not just of the movie but—kind of toothlessly—the whole United States cinema culture:

Kane might have been interesting for the Americans, [but] it is completely passé for us, because the whole film is based on a misconception of what cinema is all about. The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kissing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indian who is being pursued, I am the man pursuing the Indian.’ And film in the past tense is the antithesis of cinema. Therefore Citizen Kane is not cinema.

Not exactly an open-and-shut syllogism, but that’s in keeping with the Continental tradition, I guess.

Borges reviewed Citizen Kane in 1941—in fact, he reviewed many a film in his day, among them King Kong, The Petrified Forest, and Sabotage (the 1936 classic, not the 2014 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). Many of these can be found in his Collected Nonfictions. As the translation below attests, his review of Kane is typically well observed, though he’s kind of hard on Rosebud, and we can now say, from the vantage of more than fifty years, that he was dead wrong about the whole endurance thing: Read More »

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Sword-and-Sandal Epics Be Damned, and Other News

July 25, 2014 | by

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Poster for Atlas Against the Cyclops, 1961.

  • Movies set in Ancient Rome always do well at the box office. Why not Ancient Greece? “What is Hollywood to do with a world of 1,000 competing city-states, where homoeroticism was institutionalized and philosophers were more interested in the rationale for Platonic love than for war? … Greek tales would be better treated as supernatural thrillers. Imagine the real, lived historical experience for the ancient Greeks: the day-to-day jeopardy of knowing there was a fickle spirit in every breath of wind and ear of grain; that malicious deities might be lurking around the corner, shape-shifting to have their way with you.”
  • David Lynch, whose suspiciously mercantile interests I’ve complained about before, is now designing women’s luxury activewear. “The special collection features ‘limited edition David Lynch Floral’ print leggings, sports bras, shorts, and one very plain T-shirt, none of which are priced below $100.”
  • Why are so many cities building “innovation districts”? “Dozens of cities across the United States, Europe, South America, and East Asia are cultivating local utopias of entrepreneurship … These districts represent a mash-up of research institutions, corporations, start-ups, and business incubators, intermixed with ‘innovative housing,’ neighborhood amenities, and cultural sites in a clean energy, Wi-Fi-enabled environment … But is crowding a bunch of people into a few city blocks really the way to make creative sparks fly?”
  • Joan “Tiger” Morse “was a mod fashion designer in the mid 1960s … As the proprietress of the Teeny Weeny, her pop boutique located on Madison Avenue at 73rd Street, Morse sold mini dresses and other fashion oddities that used primarily man-made fabrications. With her frequent collaborator Diana Dew, Morse turned out illuminated mini dresses that would glow in myriad colors, all powered by a small battery pack worn at the waist.”
  • The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door—it would be weird—but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful.”

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The Many Poses of Marcel Marceau

July 9, 2014 | by

Mime’s brief spell in the mainstream.

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A 1974 publicity photo of Marcel Marceau.

At seven years old, before he becomes Marcel Marceau, Marcel Mangel goes to the cinema in Strasbourg with his his father, a butcher with a fine voice. The film is City Lights. A heavy curtain in the cinema pulls back as the lights go down. He sits next to his father, his shoes dangling, the seat and the velvety darkness huge around him.

Music. On the screen: a title, credits, grand municipal buildings, a crowd of people made of blacks, whites, and grays. They’re all still, waiting for something. Then comes a line of speech written in curled white letters, and a fat man gesticulating—these are the final days of the silent-film era. On the screen, a lady holding flowers pulls a ribbon to the sound of a trumpet fanfare, unveiling three giant stone figures. And there is Charlie Chaplin, horizontal, asleep across a giant stone lap. He stretches a leg upward, itches it, yawns. In the crowd, chaos. Chaplin sits up, grabs his cane, tips his bowler hat, tries to wriggle off the sculpture, and gets stuck. He fills the screen, the size of three Marcels.

When the butcher looks down, he sees Marcel’s eyes wide open in wonder, an expression the boy will mime often in years to come when he is the entertainment, being watched by rows of faces in theaters around the world. Read More »

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The Whys and Wherefores

June 18, 2014 | by

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Jeanette MacDonald in an Argentinean Magazine, February 1934

I remember the moment clearly: it was a late winter afternoon, and I was sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, reading Michelle Phillips’s memoir California Dreamin instead of doing my ninth-grade English homework. The author described moving into the mansion where the 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald had once lived. The Mamas and the Papas—then at the height of their fame—gutted the place, in the process ripping out the built-in wardrobes, whose enormous drawers had been designed to hold entire gowns, laid flat. And I made the conscious decision not to tell my grandmother about it. I thought it would distress her.

Back when the world was simpler and videotapes were physical objects, my grandmother and I used to set aside an afternoon when we’d settle ourselves on the couch with the milk shakes she made from homemade ice cream and gorge on Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy films. Why my grandparents had them all on cassette I don’t know; maybe my grandpa had picked up the lot at a tag sale. Those operettas became the soundtrack to my summers; to this day, I can’t hear the “Indian Love Call” without a Proustian rush of nostalgia. Of course, since one never hears the “Indian Love Call,” said rush has yet to happen.

There was a time when everyone knew MacDonald and Eddy. Films like Rose-Marie and Maytime made the handsome singers household names, and made hits of their scores. The films were corny and soapy, and even eighty years ago the music was nostalgic. Eddy’s acting—especially in their early collaborations—was wooden. (Check out the clinch in Naughty Marietta for proof.) But my grandmother loved them when she was a little girl, and at the same age, I adored them. A few plot synopses will illustrate why. Read More »

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