Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Black Swan

The bureau chief saw Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" back during his salad days. Being young I found it creepy but quite a black humor hoot. Years later I tried to re-watch it but found it too disturbing. I felt sorry for Catherine Deneuve. I felt the same way about Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan". Although the films' plots are totally different, they share the same machinery---let's watch one of the most beautiful women on the planet fall apart, one  in a London apartment and the other in a New York ballet company, and let's wallow in the voyeuristic delight of her abjection.

As we would expect, Polanski faced the tawdry horror film elements and porny thrills and went for it. Who can forget the rotting rabbit or the straight edged razor? Bravo. Aronofsky, on the other hand, wraps it in a high art package but it's not fooling us. It's the same thing. (The bureau chief wants to mention that he is not against voyeurism but against dishonest voyeurism.)

Stuart Klawans, The Nation's fine film reviewer, had a wonderful time reviewing "Black Swan". I genuflect to him and here's my favorite paragraph:

"I laughed longer and louder than at any other movie this year; but before you try doing the same, be aware that you'll have to twitch and sigh through the first two-thirds, and then, when it gets good, face the wrath of people who are taking "Black Swan" seriously.

How they do it, I can't imagine."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Social Network

It's Oscar season and the people behind "The Social Network" are pimping it for best movie of the year. Some critics are agreeing with them. The bureau chief does not, although it's pretty good and definitely the best thing David Fincher has done. I think the film is benefiting from the dancing dog syndrome. No one believed you could make a film about the origins of an Internet company that was entertaining and so it's overpraised.

Fincher uses his considerable technical abilities to keep the film going at a furious pace and writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is similarly fast and clever. The acting is excellent. Plus it's about Facebook, which presently has over 500,000,000 users (the bureau chief is not one of them). However a certain amount of slight of hand is involved. The film is not really about the Facebook phenomenon in the 21st Century. It's constructed of much older stuff: the queasiness of the supposedly nonexistent American class system; the youthful agonies of lust and love; the central capitalist myth of the bootstrapping young entrepreneur; the betrayals that success brings etc. This is not a criticism. These are the constituent things that will be here when Facebook morphs into something else or is pushed aside by something bigger.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Palace of the Legion of Honor

Madame Le Chef and I usually visit the beautifully situated Palace of the Legion of Honor on weekends. We never fail to see at least one wedding party having their pictures taken with the museum as the backdrop. We visited the Palace the day after Thanksgiving to see "Japanesque", a wonderful show of nineteenth century Japanese  prints and the Impressionist prints that they influenced. Perhaps because it's the start of the holidays and wintery there were no wedding parties, but our expectations were not disappointed because there was a fashion shoot with a cold looking model.

At last, some warmth.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Animals of all types

I've found a photo where the little girl with the monkey on her head looks happier (the monkey hasn't budged).

Monkeys were not the only pets in the village.

When the bureau chef was a kid, back in the Pleistocene Era, itinerant photographers used to come around to neighborhoods with a pony and child-sized cowboy outfits in hopes of convincing parents to pay for having their darling child photographed looking like a pint-sized Roy Rogers.

Below is the Ecuadorian version, circa 1979, except with a mariachi theme and a wooden pony. I find this creature's painted eye disturbing.

The chief and some fellow travelers walked by this stand just as the butcher had hung the pig up. He had a knife and a stack of plastic bags and a line was forming. We went off for beers (SOP) and when we walked by again, maybe 45minutes later, all that was left on the hook was the head. Unfortunately I did not take an "after" picture.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Cockfight

As bureau chief I must apologize to my faithful readers for taking so long between posts. I just didn't have anything I wanted to comment on. But now the second set of negatives and slides from my 1979 trip to Ecuador has traveled to Bangalore and back, by way of Burlingame, and I have the scans from them in hand. I realize now that I lucked out with the technician who scanned my first set of photos. He or she was an artist. This time I got a journeyman although, in her or his defense, a lot of these photos were more marginal in terms of exposure than in the first batch.

Cockfighting was legal in Ecuador in 1979 and I think still is. These photos were taken in a small cockfighting arena in the jungle town of Puyo. The owners show their birds before a match so the crowd can decide which one to bet on.

The birds wear sharp metal spikes over their natural spurs.

The handlers exploit a genetic tendency of gamecocks to become extremely aggressive just at the sight of other males.

When the fight begins the birds meet in a blur of beating wings, pecking beaks and kicking feet. They actually rise a foot or two above the dirt but can only sustain this level of activity for about a minute. If neither bird has mortally wounded the other they settle into a avian Sumo match where they circle, facing each other and trying to get their head under their opponent's wing so that they can flip him onto the dirt and finish him. This can go on for tens of minutes as they weaken from their wounds. Finally one prevails.

An owner with his losing bird. Hardly any of them recover so it's most likely the stew pot.

Much more direct and human-scale than OTB.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two Takes on the Same Subject

The bureau chief freely admits to having teared up while watching the last scene of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). It's easy to do so, particularly after a cup of wassail. The film has become part of the American Christmas ritual and the American film canon . The chief has probably seen it five or six times. It's a wonderful mix of comedy, fantasy and sentimentality, with a solid substrata of New Deal populism and post WW II optimism. It asks the question, "What is the worth of a person's life?"

Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (1952) asks the same question but from an entirely different perspective. The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the year of "Ikiru's" release, but there's still a sense of residual economic anxiety in the film. Unlike George Bailey (James Stewart) of Bailey Building and Loan, who in the end realizes how many people's lives he's touched,  Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura) is part of a city bureaucracy dedicated to passing the buck. After thirty years of work, his only accomplishment is to have stamped thousands of papers and sent them on to other offices.

"Ikiru" is not a Christmas tale and has no supernatural elements so I will end the comparisons except to point out that George Bailey, in despair, learns he has already accomplished many good things while Kanji Watanabi, in despair, realizes that he has to accomplish one. He has fatal stomach cancer. He's estranged from his son whom he has sacrificed for. He makes a brief attempt at hedonism but is badly suited for it. He decides he will accomplish one thing before he dies, he will get a children's playground built in a working class neighborhood where there in currently an insect-ridden cesspool.

The story of how he does this is shown in flashbacks during his wake. This is a wonderful scene where as the city officials and bureaucrats get more and more drunk, the truth about Watanabi's accomplishment emerges. This is a great film, wonderfully written, acted and directed. I was led to it by a review by Roger Ebert which is well worth reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Art Inconnu

The bureau chief followed a link from Metafilter (cool in its own right) to Art Inconnu (Unknown Art), which is a beautiful site. Its purpose is stated thusly, "Collected here are works by artists who are forgotten, under appreciated, or little known to the mainstream". If you follow the link today, the works of an anonymous 15th Century Italian artist are displayed first but if you scroll down or click on any of the collections on the right of the screen, you will find that most of the works are from the 19th and 20th centuries. Also, almost everything in the collection is figurative.

A commenter on Metafilter pointed out that a lot of the "unknown" artists might be quite well known in their own countries and the bureau chief can testify that John French Sloan (1871 -1951) is in the collections of the biggest art museums in the US. Here's his "Six o'clock, Winter" from 1912.

On the other hand Zinaida Serebriakova (1884 - 1967) is new to the bureau chief but apparently well known in Russia and France. A self portrait from 1909.

Heinrich Maria Davringhausen (1894 - 1970) was driven out of Germany by the Nazis and his paintings were suppressed for being decadent. When he switched to an abstract style after WW II he changed his name to Henri Davring. The bureau chief knew none of this. This is his most famous painting, "Der Schieber" (The Black-Marketeer) from 1921.

The bureau chief had also never seen the work of the Scots artist Joan Eardley (1921 - 1963) who died way too young. One of her two subjects was the urchins that swarmed through the streets of the poor neighborhood were she had a studio. This is "Little Girl with a Comic".

Her other subject was the fishing village where she had a cottage. This is "Catterline in Winter".

Sometimes when you think the internet couldn't get anymore craptastic, you come across something really nice.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ivan's Childhood

The bureau chief freely admits there are numerous holes in his knowledge of film history. This is a side effect of having been a graduate student in an English department with a small and, in retrospect, rather eccentric film program. The emphasis was on "Experimental Films", films as fine art, films meant to be shown in museums and other noncommercial venues.  Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle (which I've never seen) would be a current example of this genre, although Barney's films seem much grander and much more expensive to produce than anything by his forebears like Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage.

Actually, these film historical empty spots are good things. Being in English graduate school, where one's job is reading and having opinions about great works of literature, can have a deadening effect on one's enjoyment of same (for decades). Having never been marched through the canon of great films (if such a thing could be agreed on) has left me with nothing but discoveries ahead of me.

This is all a preamble to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Ivan's Childhood"(1962) which I just watched on DVD. It is as beautiful as any object in a museum and terribly grim. Set in WW II, it tells the story of a 12-year-old Russian boy whose family has been killed by the invading Wehrmacht and who has become a scout for the Soviet Army. The film was shot in pristine black and white by Vadim Yusov and Criterion has done their usual amazing job of finding the best looking print on the planet.

The film is divided between dreams set in a sunlit summer and the shadowy reality of the war. Death lies over the film but Tarkovsky does an interesting thing. We see the dead bodies of various characters but, unlike in current American films where endless energy is put into killing people off in cool ways, we never see the actual killing, just the aftermath.

The film was done on location next to the Dnieper river in Ukraine but the shots are so rigorously composed that it sometimes looks like it was shot on a multi-million dollar set. It has echos of Eisenstein and Bergman (who apparently loved it). I highly recommend this film but not for a first date.

Friday, September 3, 2010


When the DVD of "A Town Called Panic" ("Panique au village") arrived from Netflix, Mme Le Chef was skeptical that a stop motion animation made with off the shelf, mass produced little figures could be funny but I assured her that numerous critics swore it was. They didn't lie. It's very funny.

True to the name of the film, everyone is in a perpetual state of PANIC, particularly Cowboy and Indian, our hero Horse's two idiot sidekicks. The film was made by Belgian animators and is in French. The polite nature of that language adds to the amusement, "Bonjour Cheval, ça va?   Ça va, Facteur". The plot is wonderfully absurd and becomes even more so as it advances. Horse's romantic interest is the town's music teacher, Mme Longray, a lovely mare with a sexy voice. Horse keeps trying to have a lesson with her but is always being interrupted by things like thieving fish creatures from the center of the Earth.

The film is only 75 minutes long but reaches its peak of comic frenzy about a half hour into it. It slows down a little towards the end but is a delight all the way through.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

French Finale, Bits and Pieces

There are extensive vineyards on the plateau above the town of Montsoreau. This windmill is in the middle of one of them. It looks like it was designed by Hieronymus Bosch.

This is the front of the church of Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers. It dates from the 10th and 11th centuries. It's profusion of statues seems almost Hindu in its exuberance.

This is a detail of some of the statues. They've had their heads removed. This was probably done during the French Revolution when stone saints were being beheaded, along with kings and aristocrats.

This statue is in the Cathedral in Nantes. It is one of four wise virgins guarding a tomb. How having an old man's face on the back of your head, makes you wise, is not clear to me.

This is a very serious conversation which cannot be interrupted by a brass band in Nantes.

Madame Le Chef, myself and two friends were forced to consume this plate of charcuterie and cheese in order to keep body and soul together while we waited for a late dinner reservation at another restaurant in Nantes. Travel can be rough.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Locks on the Pont des Arts

If you faithful and much appreciated readers are getting tired of our French trip, there are just two more posts on that subject, including this one. The Pont des Arts is a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Seine between the Louvre and the Institut de France. The only panoramic shot of the bridge I could find was taken in winter 2005. At that time of year it's almost empty.

On summer evenings, however, it is covered in a very well behaved crowd of people (mostly young), sitting on the deck of the bridge, eating, drinking and hanging out. In the picture below, from this summer, an intense heat wave has just been broken by a storm, which is why people are wearing jackets.

You'll notice things on the wire mesh behind the people. They are locks.

Since we were last on the bridge in 2008, this ritual has become really popular. Lovers write or incise their names on locks and fasten them to the wire.

The Bureau Chief thinks this could be tempting the Fates, but supports the optimism of the young. "Only time will tell", the old farts say.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Mother Superior Jumped The Gun

Fontevraud Abbey is a beautiful and interesting place.

During its almost 700 year history as a religious institution, it always had an abbess in charge of it. From early on these women were from very powerful noble and even royal families. In the Middle Ages and later, if noble women did not marry, their only other option was to become a nun. Various of the abbesses did not worry too much about the virtues of humility as demonstrated by these wonderful murals from a chapel at the abbey. Where's mother superior?

She's there when Judas betrays Jesus.

And another mother superior.

Is there at the descent from the cross.

The abbey became a prison during the French Revolution and remained so until 1963. Now it's a secular cultural site. Some contemporary artists used the image of the nuns in conjunction with other things in a piece described as, "Chimera of yesterday, chimera of today".

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


This time of year, in 2014, will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. There will probably be plenty of films and TV shows about it. Steven Spielberg already has one in the works. Below is a plaque I photographed in the cemetery de la Bouteillerie in Nantes.

It says, roughly, "In this military square lie 1781 soldiers, French, English, Belgium, Russian, Polish and German, victims of the war 1914 - 1918".

I assume this plaque was put up between the two World Wars. I doubt that after their defeat and occupation in WW II the French would be broad minded enough to include the Germans on it. But this was possible after WW I because the utter futility of the war was so obvious. Contrary to the propaganda of the time, none of the belligerents were monsters like the Nazis. Aside from the republic of France, they were a collection of empires and kingdoms, most with some elements of democracy, their monarchs all related, engaged in their ancestral business of taking land and treasure from each other. Everybody thought the war would be over in a few weeks. Nobody understood how utterly deadly the technology of war had become.

The United States got into it late (and for no good reason). It was the the European powers that suffered the millions of casualties. In all the small towns in France there are monuments like this:

and this:

When you consider the size of the towns and how many names are on the monuments, you realize that a huge part of a generation of young men was wiped out in the war. Maybe that's why, when WW II started a mere 21 years later, the French had a hard time rising to the occasion.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Les Machines, part 2

In addition to the gigantic elephant, there are other machines that may be enlarged to that scale in the future, but at the moment exist on a human scale with considerable Mélièsesque charm. Who knew you could do so much with fans, smoke machines and cutout waves.