Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) written and directed by Noah Baumbach

 

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To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.

And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.

In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.

This, of course, is purely delusional.

Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)

Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.

In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.

Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, wearing a beard and newsboy cap, films 'The Meyerowitz Stories' in East Village

Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz            Picture by: Christopher Peterson/Splash News    photodesk@splashnews.com

Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch.  (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny  is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.

But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s

Sandler

Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz

son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.

 

The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.

And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.

So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.

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Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is  much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.

 

L.A. … the rain … and the raving Jesus

 

Alexei von Jawlensky "Young Christ" (1919-1920)

Alexei von Jawlensky
“Young Christ”
(1919-1920)

In late February I had the chance to be in Los Angeles for a long weekend. It promised to be a sweet respite from the Northeastern winter we had all been going through, a winter that alternated sub-arctic temperatures with crippling snow storms. And when I left the weather reporters were gearing up their apocalyptic terms for yet another storm which was to arrive.

Anyway, Southern California seemed a treat in February.

In 2013, Los Angeles received about 3 inches of rain for the entire year. The Friday I was there, it received a little more than 6—with much more in the San Berandino valley.

But what the rain does do is it forces one inside and we spent an enormous amount of time in the wonderful LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When we arrived we walked into a free exhibit of Diane von Furstenberg’s design. I know little of fashion, but I did recognize the name. The entrance of the exhibit was papered with oversize advertisements, movies, and photos of people wearing von Furstenberg’s dresses–particularly her iconic wrap-around dress.

The next room presented a phalanx of white mannequins clothed in Von Furstenberg’s dresses. In many ways, it resembled a scene from a bad science-fiction film:

The von Furstenberg exhibit at LACMA

The von Furstenberg exhibit at LACMA

The floors and walls were painted in continuous patterns, so that it appeared that one entered the pattern itself. It was all very op-art-ish. (In fact, Von Fustenberg, the LACMA and the Andy Warhol museum had collaborated to create special edition t-shirts–which were way out of my t-shirt budget category!)

The floor of the von Furstenberg exhibit..and my boot.

The floor of the von Furstenberg exhibit…and my boot.

We moved from one gallery to another–running through pouring rain from one building to the next. We entered the Linda and Stewart Resnick pavilion (for whom I once worked) where a small Hockney exhibit was being mounted. We visited the Mexican gallery with its Riveras and Kahlos. We visited an exciting exhibit on soccer–gearing up for the 2014 World Cup. And we delighted in the funky moving sculptures:  Chris Burden’s “Metropolis II, a city of 1,100 Hot-Wheels, and Jesus Rafael Soto’s remarkable “Penetrable,”  kinetic sculpture of yellow plastic ribbons that hangs from ceiling to floor in the hundreds and which one can walk through.

But it was in the modern art gallery, in the early 20th-century Eastern European room, that I discovered a delightful artist and painting that I had never known before. It was Alexei von Jawlenski’s “Young Christ.”  Working boldly apart from the long tradition of Christ portraits, this work was brightly colored and freely drawn, and it popped with excitement.

My daughter said it looked as if Christ had been to a “rave,” so that is what we christened it:  The Raving Jesus.

Movie Review: The Artist and the Model dir. by Fernando Trueba…simply a masterpiece

poster for Trueba's The Artist and the Model

poster for Trueba’s The Artist and the Model

Trueba’s The Artist and the Model is the art of film raised to the highest level. Its story is poignant, its intelligence is palpable, its cinematography is mesmerizing, its acting is subtle and powerful and its beauty is breathtaking. And in a film that addresses life and art and beauty and work, it is the very face of the artist Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) that comes to represent them all, a face that Trueba closes in on with love and craftsmanship, a face that seems to contain the very themes of the film itself.

Jean Rochefort as the sculptor in The Artist and the Model.

Jean Rochefort as the sculptor Marc Cros in The Artist and the Model.

An elderly sculptor (Rochefort) has isolated himself in a small village apart from the business of war in Occupied France during World War II. One day, his wife (Claudia Cardinale) discovers a Spanish refugee (Aida Folch) sleeping rough and washing herself in the village’s fountain, She brings the girl home to her husband to be his next (and last) model, to be the muse for him that she had once first been.

In exchange, the young woman, Mercè, receives room and board and a salary. Awkward at first, their relationship–the artist and the model– grows into a symbiotic one: she inspires the sculptor and he transforms her into his masterpiece. In their life together, she is joyous and he is crotchety. She is young and he is wise. She is involved in the war and he is trying to keep it at bay.

Aida Folch as Mercè in The Artist and the Model

Aida Folch as Mercè in The Artist and the Model

The film is shot in black and white. But to merely say “black and white” does not capture the luminous beauty of the photography. Each scene has a shimmering silver light that imbues the film with both beauty and gravitas. Each scene seems as if a Richard Avedon portrait had come to life. I do not exaggerate when I say that this may be the most beautiful film I have ever seen.

The slow rhythm of the film may be off-putting to some, but it should not. We are watching something very special here. The creative process has always been a difficult one to portray, and a slew of films have done it badly. But not this. This comes as close as is probably possible in capturing the artistic process: idea, incubation, trial, and execution.

And aside from our watching the process, there is the sculptor’s instruction for his model. At one point, he tells her his version of creation. God, he says, having created the beauty of the universe, wanted someone to share it with and so he created woman. (He believes the female body and olive oil are God’s greatest creations.) Together, God and the woman, had a son Adam.

At another time, he takes a scribbled pen-and-ink drawing of Rembrandt’s and explains to Mercè what the artist was doing. In a simple three minutes of film, he gives a master class in art–and one that any art student should attend to.

We learn more about the artist when a Nazi officer drives up to his mountain studio. Mercè–who at that point is hiding a wounded Resistance fighter–is naturally on alert. But the Nazi is there to discuss the biography he is writing on the artist. (He already has some 400 pages.) After the two discuss the book, the Nazi departs, telling Cros that he has been transferred to the Russian Front. We get the idea that he’ll never live long enough to finish his book.

The stories surrounding the making of The Artist and the Model are a lesson in creativity as well. Based loosely on the sculptor Aridste Maillol and his final model, Trueba began working on the script in 1990, intending to collaborate with his brother the sculptor Maximo. But Maximo’s young and sudden death, put Trueba off the project. It was not until, Rochefort, whom Trueba had already considered to play his sculptor, told him he was retiring that Trueba decided to go ahead with it.

It is undoubtedly, the high point of Trueba’s career so far, as it probably is also for Jean Rochefort. Indeed, like the sculptor that he plays, Rochefort’s finest performance–in a long and celebrated career–is here in this his final performance.

Certainly, there is much good art around. There is very little great art. The Artist and the Model falls into the second category.

Here is the trailer:

Do What You Love: The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show

David D’Imperio’s sculptured lighting

On Friday past, I went to the Philadelphia Art Museum’s annual Craft Show.  Now this isn’t your usual craft show with knitted tea cozies, outré Christmas decorations, and cute tchotchkes for the home. This is major art.  The exhibitors were potters and metal workers, fabric artists and glass blowers, painters, fashion designers and jewelers, woodworkers and stone carvers. This was some major stuff–and more often than not far above my price range.

Yet it was all beautiful.  At one point, I called over one of the women I was with to see these magnificent glass platters. The artist corrected me: what I thought was glass was actually wood. All his pieces were wood.  Yet they were so translucent and brilliant and delicate that one would never first believe that they were wood.

Mark Schuler’s wooden bowl.

Two fashion designers–at opposite ends of the “elegance” scale–were both kicky and inventive. Their dresses and capes and skirts and pants were flowing with ruched materials or angular draping. One woman painted gorgeous canvasses, part abstract/part folk art, and treated them so they could be use as floor coverings. Runners for hallways, area mats for large rooms. They were exquisite. 

There was exquisite furniture and graceful pots, jewelry both elegant and extreme. There was a perpetual motion glass wine aerator and eyeglasses made of wood. There were graceful ceramics and fun metal sculptures. There was simply aisle after aisle in the cavernous Convention Center filled with magnificent works of human artistry. 

And that was the true beauty of this collection. Hundreds of people from around the world were simply doing what they loved–creating things of beauty.  How lucky one must be to be able to do what he or she loves as not their job but as their vocation, to be able to start the day with nothing and end up with something. For the artist does not go to work, he is always at work. He eats and sleeps and breathes his work.  And while not all of these crafts were to my taste–though many, many were–all were to my liking. For something inside me loves the idea that human beings are a species that does create, and often creates piece not for their utility but for their simple and utter beauty.

A goddess’s eyes, a museum’s treasures, and the fall of civilizations

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed.  Why not yours. How much longer do you think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”  Catch-22, Joseph Heller


I spent the day yesterday in The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Part of a photographic-mural, the woman above looks over you as you enter the Mid-Eastern galleries; her almond eyes seem those of a goddess, knowing, far-seeing, beautiful.  And then one wonders, what might she have actually seen in her life. What is her life like?  Is she still alive? Still in her native land?

Afterwards, when I was thinking about the various galleries in the museum that  I had lingered in, I was struck by this: I had visited Persia, Greece, Rome, Mexico, Egypt–high-points of human civilization and, in 2012,  flashpoints of suffering and discontent, violence, confusion and uncertainty.

The poets are helpful here–though not necessarily hopeful–and the photos I took seemed to have their own poetic soundtrack in my mind.  Here is Yeats:

THE SECOND COMING                                                                                              

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere                         
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And then here’s Shelley on the same tack although not as apocalyptic:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“If the world sees all these pictures, what are they going to say about Iran? I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“Where did the good old days go? Are they in the story books or just gone from here.”

“A new sorrow has been added to my sorrow. The thought of darkness and this destruction.”

“My love has gone underground. The taste of night is nothing but awareness.”

“God, if you’re there and you hear us, come now. God, we need you now. God, give us an answer.”

The Persians have long been known for their poetry. Lush, emotional, spiritual and clear. The poems to the left were tweets sent during the contested elections in Iran in June 2009.  It is evidence of my theory that poetry–in fact all written expression– is an innate desire, beaten out of children by well-meaning but misinformed teachers. While the immediate world seems to be spinning out of control (see Yeats’ spiral above), these young Iranians find the need to put their thoughts on paper–or onto some kind of device in 140 characters or less.

GREECE — Poor Greece, so beautiful, so lovely, and so fragile to economic decisions that seem far removed from the people themselves.

Headless Statue by  Kyriakos Haralambdis
(translated by Kimon Friar). Hellenic Quarterly, Summer, 2000.

I have heard that your head
has been sent as a sacred skull to Constantinople.
Byzantine emperors manfully
placed you in red and gold.
The star of God’s Holy Wisdom
studies you and covers you.
And you, a woman, in a late hour
open your closed eyelashes.
You look fruitlessly, for we have gone away on a journey,
and you call out to us “come to my guest room.”
But we, artful head, seek your whole body,
in a city that resembles you. If we succeed,
we shall call this bone our own.

Poor city, ten years in bed,
without the lamp stead at our head,
as headless and cold as lead.

I don’t want to be distressed by seeing you, my bird.
I know you are absent, all has been heard.
Your skill in a huge box
embellished with small serpents and small stars
all made of paper, seed of manliness
travelled around the world to be placed
in houses of ill repute and cabarets
in the sky of the city where it reigned.

You who hear me, do not misunderstand me.
Such things serve the natural remembrance of mortals,
others the cleansing of memory.

MEXICO— one murder is always too many. Poor Mexico is  far beyond too many, far beyond human understanding, far beyond humanity.

“And every time they opened, it was night and the moon, while they climbed the great terraced steps, his head hanging down backward now, and up at the top were the bonfires, red columns of perfumed smoke, and suddenly he saw the red stone, shiny with the blood dripping off it, and the spinning arcs cut by the feet of the victim whom they pulled off to throw him rolling down the north steps. With a last hope he shut his lids tightly, moaning to wake up. For a second he thought he had gotten there, because once more he was immobile in the bed, except that his head was hanging down off it, swinging. But he smelled death, and when he opened his eyes he saw the blood-soaked fig­ure of the executioner-priest coming toward him with the stone knife in his hand. He managed to close his eyelids again, although he knew now he was not going to wake up, that he was awake, that the marvelous dream had been the other, absurd as all dreams are-a dream in which he was going through the strange avenues of an astonishing city, with green and red lights that burned without fire or smoke, on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs. In the infinite he of the dream, they had also picked him up off the ground, some­one had approached him also with a knife in his hand, approached him who was lying face up, face up with his eyes closed between the bonfires on the steps.”  from “The Night Face-Up” by Julio Cortazar

ROME–And on a happier note, this from Catallus:

–5–

Let’s you and me live it up, my Lesbia,

and make some love, and let old cranks

go cheap talk their fool heads off.

Maybe suns can set and come back up again,

but once the brief light goes out on us

the night’s one long sleep forever.

First give me a kiss, a thousand kisses,

then a hundred, and then a thousand more,

then another hundred, and another thousand,

and keep kissing and kissing me so many times

we get all mixed up and can’t count anymore,

that way nobody can give us the evil eye

trying to figure how many kisses we’ve got.

I spent the majority of my visit in the Greco-Roman-Estruscan galleries, though I took a guided tour through the Meso-American gallery and the Southwest American gallery.  These dealt with the ancient peoples of the Yucatan peninsula and the southwest corner of what is now the United States.  Current theories claim that these wide reaching people actually traded and influenced one another over the centuries: the Incans, the Mayans, the Hopi, the Pueblo.  Yet they too–the Mayan cities seem so much more advanced than the Athens, Roman, Cairo counterparts–all were subsumed by human violence and  human greed.

It is an impressive museum, The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  But it left me feeling a bit desperate…a little hopeless…a little sad.  Sad, except for the women in the photographic mural whose eyes are so beguiling. Perhaps the poets are right all along, and it is beauty and love that will carry us through.