Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lust, Caution

When I was an undergraduate in Washington D.C., during the Johnson Administration, the Circle Theater had an Ingmar Bergman Festival that ran for several days. I remember cutting classes to go to double and triple features of that great director’s films in hopes of seeing Harriet Andersson naked or Bibi Andersson naked or any other actress, named Andersson or not, naked. Such delights were still a few years away in mainstream American movies. Amazingly enough, I absorbed bits of Bergman’s cinematic vision along with visions of the glorious Anderssons, and my interest in foreign films began.

Sex in non-pornographic movies is problematic. You risk taking the viewer out of the narrative and into contemplating an actor or actress’s normally covered bits. Ang Lee manages not to do this in “Lust, Caution”. The actors are naked and the sex is realistic enough that it got an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA (they’re particularly down on thrusting and there’s lots of that) but the sex is not arousing and it absolutely furthers the plot in a way that is rarely seen.

The film is set before and during WWII and is about a young woman (played by Wei Tang), an idealistic student supporter of the Chinese Nationalist Government, who takes on the task of becoming the mistress of an official (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in the Chinese Collaborationist Government, a torturer and executioner, so that she can set up his assassination. She succeeds eventually in becoming his mistress but through watching their sex together and other aspects of their relationship we see the complications developing. No spoilers!

People who don’t like the film complain that it takes too long getting to the sex but I think the pace is necessary to build the tension. The rest of the cast is as good as the principal actors and the film is beautifully shot. I find it a minor masterpiece and wish that it had been seen by more people last year.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The San Francisco MOMA – August 7, 2008

We went down to see the Frida Kahlo show. She’s like Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, very popular but also very good. It was crowded but we are museum members and could walk in.

Over the years Madame Le Chef and I have seen several shows of her work, and her paintings reproduce well, so there were few revelations, although there was great pleasure, in seeing the actual pieces.

What was a revelation were some unfamiliar photos of her and Diego Rivera and a delightful home movie of them. There is a long tradition in Western Art of a court painter doing a portrait of some misshapen royal and making him or her look godlike. Frida Kahlo did the exact opposite thing to herself. In the photos and the home movie you see just what a beautiful woman she was but when she painted herself, she was unmerciful to every defect.

There were major revelations to be had on the same floor as her show. We had forgotten that there was a show of contemporary Chinese Art at the museum that was all from the Logan Collection. In this case it was very important to see the actual pieces, most of which are large.

There is a wonderful piece by Sui Jianguo that consists of a collection of several thousand brightly painted toy dinosaurs with a life-sized Chairman Mao asleep on top of them. It’s called “The Sleep of Reason” (shout-out to Goya). The same artist also has a large piece called “Made in China” out on the 4th Floor terrace, which is the only piece one can photograph and we did.

There are also a lot of very interesting paintings. Not everything is as Pop as the two pieces I’ve mentioned but there is very dark humor manifested in a lot of them.

I definitely recommend the show to any of my Bay Area readers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I Am The Odd Shaped Object

The morning of July 3rd was cold and gray in Paris. I tucked in my canvas overshirt for warmth and put on my straw hat. We took the Metro to the Concorde station to change to the Number One line. As we walked through the connecting tunnel it occurred to me that the crowds were getting thicker and that I should move my wallet from the back pocket of my jeans to the front. I didn’t.

A train was pulling in as we arrived at the platform. Madame Le Chef was trailing slightly behind me in the crowd. I stepped onto the train. A short girl with black hair and a pink top suddenly stopped in front of me, blocking my way. I assumed she was unsure if she was on the right train. I had the impression she was a young teenager. I never saw her face.

She was violating the unspoken rule that one moves rapidly on and off the Metro. The trains do not normally linger in the station. I was trying to figure out how to get around her without pushing when she turned and left the car, just as the doors closed. I turned and found Madame Le Chef who immediately asked me if I had my wallet. I put my hand back. It was gone.

I felt sick as the train accelerated. It was a fait accompli. We got off at the next station, thought briefly of notifying the police and rejected that idea. We headed back to the apartment where I got on the phone and canceled my Credit and Debit cards. We were out over 120 Euro and my driver’s license, which meant that Madame Le Chef would be the chauffeur when we rented a car.

Since she was behind me, Madame Le Chef saw much more of the robbery although she did not realize at the time that that’s what it was. While the first girl blocked me, her identically sized confederate came up behind me. Madame saw her put one hand on my back but did not see her other hand pick my pocket. I never felt anything. The teenage Artful Dodgers exited the train with military precision.

Everyone I told the story to said, “Oh, Gypsies”. Apparently Les Gitanes have the franchise for petty thievery or, at least, are widely perceived as having it.

I realized in retrospect that the pintsized felons probably first noticed me because of my straw hat and then registered the wallet shape in my back pocket. Maybe I even sensed them watching me and that caused my inkling that I should move my wallet. As an American, everything has to be a learning experience, so the moral of this tale is: if you have an inkling, act on it. (Unless it’s an inkling telling you to take off all your clothes and start screaming about Earth’s imminent collision with an asteroid.)