Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.” But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:
The Power of Music
In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.
Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment. The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.” (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.) It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.
It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.
I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t. It isn’t available yet. So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:
A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance. Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.
The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.
A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity
I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.
Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.
Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”
Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.
A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.
The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.
“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.
It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .
We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.
By the way…
The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
I’ve had the nice experience of putting two seemingly different works together and seeing startling comparisons that I hadn’t thought of before. In the class I am teaching on Irish Literature, we had begun the semester with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From there we moved through some Frank O’Connor stories, some Yeats poems, and three plays by John Millington Synge. And then as a breather, I showed the film My Left Foot, based on the autobiography of the Dublin poet, painter and writer, Christy Brown.
I have a fond relationship with My Left Foot which began long before the film was released. A friend of mine was living in San Francisco, working as a nurse. She would search the used book shops looking for the odd nugget, and she was always very kind to me. Every so often there would be a T-shirt from some cleverly-named dive bar, an esoteric album that no one knew about it, or a used book she found in her travels. One day, in the mail came a package containing My Left Foot by Christy Brown. I didn’t know the book at the time though it was twenty years old by then, but the worn and ragged dust jacket and the beaming face of Christy Brown on the back announced the joy, the vibrancy, the humor, and the pathos of the story inside.
I remember reading it twice in a short space of time, of lending it to a friend, and then lending it to another, and soon I lost track of it. And, to be truthful, I forgot about it. Until the movie was released and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance announced to the world that this was someone to watch.
Viewing it this past week, so close to having finished Joyce’s Portrait, however, impressed on me how similar the story of these two Irish artists are. Joyce’s hero–Stephen Dedalus–is a sensitive, young child, bullied a bit at school, helpless without his glasses.
That Christy is also helpless, everyone assumes. Born with cerebral palsy and able to move only his left leg, he spends his early years lying under the stairs watching his family interact with each other—for better or worse. Joyce’s novel also begins with the early interactions of the family. From the hairy face of his father and the nicer smell of his mother when he was an infant to the fierce political/religious argument at Christmas Dinner, the Daedalus family is indeed similar to the Brown family. Particularly in the characterization of the fathers and mothers.
Simon Dedalus and Paddy Brown are hard men, perhaps a bit too fond of the drink. And both young boys, Christy and Stephen, see it as their responsibility to save their families from the fathers’ excesses. The mothers are doting: Christy’s mother innately sure that her son was more than just the vegetable that everyone believed him to be and Dedalus’ mother praying for her son’s soul and protecting him from his father’s increasing wrath.
And it wouldn’t be an Irish tale, if religion didn’t play a part. Father Arnall’s sermon on hell affects Stephen to such a large degree that he believes he might have a priestly vocation. And Christy is taught religion by a priest who comes to the house and who is also fond of describing the fires of hell–and causing young Christy no end of terrors.
Relations with the opposite sex are a stumbling block in both works as well. Sensitive Stephen vacillates from madonna to whore to madonna throughout, while Christy–caged within his crippled body–falls in love easily and is rebuked as often.
But the importance of both works is the creation of the Artist. Joyce’s Dedalus ultimately abandons church, nation and family in order to strike out on his own and “forge …the consciousness of [his] race,” while Christy embraces that world–dear dirty old Dublin and his sprawling family–to find the inspiration of his art. The artistic output–however disparate–is not the point here. The point is the development of an artist within similar constraints and backgrounds, a tale of two young men who travel the same narrative arc in order to discover the art that is within them.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
To one and all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
It used to be when I thought of Scandinavia, I thought of crystal-blue fjords, aromatic forests, statuesque blondes, and a palatable wholesomeness.
That’s before Stieg Larson gave us his girl with the dragon tattoo, and Jo Nesbø, his various riffs on Scandinavian violence. Now when I think of Scandinavian, it seems a place of outrageous torture, imaginative violence, and not a little repressed fascism.
Headhunters (Hodejegerne) is Mortin Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s slick, stylish novel of a professional headhunter who is also a major art-thief.
Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie who has a striking resemblance to a young Christopher Walken) is a very successful headhunter–he brings talent to very powerful and influential corporations. In interviewing potential clients, he discovers their routine, the artworks they own, and whether they have a dog. In this way, he is able to case his next heist in the luxury of his offices. Roger tells us that he is only 1.6 meters tall (about 5’3″) and that he has to “compensate.” He does this by buying his stunningly beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund ) everything he thinks she desires: A house right out of the glossiest of architectural magazines, expensive and rare jewelry, an art gallery to run. He can afford none of this–which is why he must steal art, and even that income is proving to be too little.
We begin by seeing him steal a lithograph by Munch. (Is it just me or is Munch the most stolen artist of our time? I don’t know how many versions of The Scream have been stolen in the past thirty years.) Anyway, the print that he steals is called “The Broach” but it looked very much like one of Munch’s Madonna paintings.
But even the Munch is not enough to silence Roger’s creditors, so he has to go after a really big score–a long lost Rubens that is in the apartment of a man who he is recruiting for a major position. In the interview, we learn that the man, Clas Greve, (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a former mercenary, a world expert at tracking people and deposing of them–aha, the plot is setting itself up. He is also ruthlessly ambitious. We also soon learn that he is sleeping with Roger’s wife.
I will not spoil how it all plays out except to say that there is an enormous amount of bloodletting and creative violence. We move from Roger’s sleek house to Appalachian-like cabins, where the patina of civilization has been long ripped off.
Headhunters is very taut, fast moving, and exciting. It works very well as a slick thriller, a clever heist movie, with surprising twists and tense, rapid moments. It also aspires, it seems, to be a good-old-fashion “slasher movie.” This is where it fails. The blood is overdone.
And along with trying to be a heist movie, a thriller, a slasher-movie, it also makes periodic stabs at being comedic. There are very fat twin cops protecting Roger’s hospital room who bungle everything–although their very large size might be what saves Roger’s life. There is a nonsensical bit with a Russian prostitute and Roger’s partner in crime (which has to be introduced for a technical reason, but it is mostly nonsensical and more irrelevant than essential.) Heist, thriller, slasher, comedy–perhaps Tyldum is trying to juggle too many balls at once.
In truth, however, Headhunters is a very good way to spend an hour and forty minutes. Fast-paced, handsome, and clever, if it does nothing else, it is sure to drive more people to reading Jo Nesbø. And that’s a good thing.
Check out the trailer below: