Sunday, February 25, 2007
The Power of Art (DVDs on Oscar night)
MOVIES have the power to transport us, sometimes almost literally. More than once at the end of a Woody Allen or Fred Astaire movie when the lights go up I've been startled to find myself surrounded by foreigners in London or Paris, because I think I've been in New York with Woody or Fred.
At my boarding school, we had first-run movies on Saturday nights. We also had a place called "the Wade House" where seniors could smoke and play cards. One weekend we saw Truman Capote's moving In Cold Blood: the movie portrays one of the two brutal killers as an unredeemed psychopath while making the other killer, Perry Smith, a more complex and sympathetic figure (Norman Mailer called Capote's Smith one of the two or three most interesting characters in American literature).
The murderers' lives, and the movie, ended in a midnight downpour: the two convicted killers were hung in a warehouse in the middle of a very heavy rain. It's a very moving scene, so when the lights went up and a friend said, "Let's go up the Wade," I replied, "We can't go there. It's pouring rain." He had to take me outside to convince it wasn't.
I was reminded of this when I watched Infamous on DVD. The movie starts with a light touch and a good comic portrayal of Capote by the English actor Toby Jones, but by the time it gets to reenactments of the murders and then the hangings, the comedy is over. Anyone who liked In Cold Blood will probably find Infamous interesting — maybe very interesting.
More DVDs below.
The movie starts on a weak note, with a musical scene that is supposed to set up the movie and its major theme that doesn't quite work. Gwyneth Paltrow sings Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love? at the famous El Morocco, a quintessential New York setting for the young Truman Capote. At one point, she breaks down, and her band stops playing, but we don't understand why, and so the opening scene has the opposite effect of the emotionally gripping final scene of In Cold Blood. Instead of being pulled in to the world of the movie, we are made detached observers of artifice, and the movie has to overcome that to gain our trust. Slowly it does, but while it does, we appreciate the early parts of the movie less.
Watching the movie a second time around with the commentary from Douglas McGrath, the writer / director of Infamous (also the writer / director of Gwynnie's Emma), we hear McGrath's explanation of how the opening scene relates to Capote's experiences with Smith, and his life after Smith's death, and the whole film becomes tighter and better. Seeing the early scenes through new eyes, we're more involved in the story, and more understanding of McGrath's theme of the power of love.
A lot of McGrath's commentary makes a good movie better. We learn about the recreation of El Morocco and La Cote Basque, hear more details about Truman's childhood abandonment and how he lived out his mother's dream, and discover more about Truman's emotional relationship with Perry Smith, and how it affected the rest of his life.
Sketches of Frank Gehry does not portray the power of art very well. Gehry's friend and biographer, the director Sidney Pollack, admits that he doesn't know much about architecture, and he simply lets Gehry talk, and talk, about his design process. But for his part Gehry admits he's not particularly conscious of, or articulate about, his design process. And (not surprisingly to anyone who knows much about him), he turns out to be quite an egomaniac. Happily for him, he's reached a stage in life where patrons pay him well to indulge the idea that everything he does is genius. Some of the results, like Bilbao, may be. More are merely odd and mildly anti-urban, or even plain ol' bad.
Others in the film set the context for Gehry's egotism. Mildred Friedman, represents the Modernist establishment idea that the job of an artist is to create something never seen before, even if the process often leads to failure. Art-world power figure Julian Schnabel frequently appears in the movie in his bathrobe, wearing sunglasses and holding a drink and a cigarette. He should have a sign around his neck reading "My balls are bigger than yours."
Only Gehry hints that architecture is a public art, with a responsibility to the making of the city and the public realm. For a better movie about architecture, watch My Architect.
The Celestine Prophecy, the third DVD I watched over the weekend, could say something about the power of love, but it lacks the power of art. James Redfield, who also wrote the best-selling book the movie's dramatizes, doesn't dramatize well. He's both the writer and the director of the film, which comes across as an amateur effort. But I've started writing a blog post about one of the "insights."
Watching DVDs: In movie theaters I get more involved in movies if I sit up front, where I can't focus on the entire screen at once. I feel surrounded by the experience, and more easily shut out the world.
So I like watching DVDs on a big-screen laptop in bed, with the lights out. Your eyes have to move back and forth across the screen to catch everything. If you have a good set of headphones, or can plug your laptop into a good set of speakers and turn on the SurroundSound, the experience is very different than the detachment of watching something on tv.
* In the picture at the top of the post, that's Sandra Bullock on the left as Nelle Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), and Toby Jones as Truman Capote on the right. Notice how each is dressed and how much each luggage each had.
Below is Julian Schabel as himself.
Click on either photo for a larger view.
PC & NU
OVER on the Urbanists internet list, there's been a long discussion about the Harvard faculty censuring (former) Harvard President Larry Summers, who was later forced to resign. This led to a discussion on political correctness, and what role it plays in the Academy.
Marxism is dead everywhere but in academia and a few Central American countries, but in the Academy some of the attitudes live on as trickle-down behaviors among misanthropic, politically correct professors who are quick to call those they think are to the right of them classist, sexist, elitist, racist or even Fordist — regardless of what the truth is.
New Urbanism is a progressive architecture movements that promotes the social goals "avant garde" and experimental architecture have abandoned, but following the success of the New Urban Mississippi charrette, the Deans and Directors of three architecture schools — Tulane, Louisiana State, and SciArc — tried to paint the New Urbanists as paleo-cons:
Here were the poor New Urbanists staying up all hours of the night, gulping all the coffee and Red Bull they could take, and planning an entire region in seven days. And what did they get in response? They got a kick in the keister from Eric Owen Moss, director of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). He told the Post's Linda Hales that the New Urbanists' traditional town planning "would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role." Moss didn't say that Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk wanted to bring back the Jim Crow laws, but he might as well have. (Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune)
Plain and simple, this is a power move. The New Urbanists are succeeding in Mississippi and Louisiana? Better call them classist and racist. Let the victims of Katrina eat cake, until they embrace Starchitecture.
Universities are supposed to be places of open-minded discovery and debate, but many of the dominant voices in architecture schools are ideologues saying whatever it takes to maintain control of the schools. Why don't their more reasonable colleagues speak out?
Vita brevis, ars longa.
Happy Birthday, George.
(now he knows)
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
The future of one of our greatest cities ...
But in the Gentilly charrette, I was so put off by the blatant selfishness and corruption of many of the local leaders, power brokers and architects that I became physically ill. I understand Andrés's point (see below) about the laid-back charm of the Caribbean, which applies just as much to bohemian villages like the old Greenwich Village and the newer East Village. During the Gentilly charrette, however, what I heard was that New Orleanians want better government, better education, and less crime in the new New Orleans.
So far, they're not getting it.
OLD New Orleans may never come back. Gang members are coming back, so the city's murder rate is climbing, and working people who love the city and who've stuck it out so far are leaving. Others are still living in places they never wanted to be in, like Wichita, because they have no job to come back to, or because FEMA regulations are stopping them from building, or because they can't get insurance money to rebuild.
Andrés Duany, who's bought a house in the Marigny, has an interesting insight on this:
I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, “This is Cuba.” (I am Cuban.) I realized at that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one. I understood that, when seen through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and truly began to sympathize. But the government? Like everyone, I found the city government to be a bit random; then I thought that if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place—and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is. It is the human flaws that make New Orleans the most human of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)
When understood as Caribbean, New Orleans’s culture seems ever more precious—and vulnerable to the effects of Katrina. Anxiety about cultural loss is not new. There has been a great deal of anguish regarding the diminishment of the black population, and how without it New Orleans could not regain itself. Just so. But I fear that the situation is more dire and less controllable. I am afraid that even if the majority of the population does return to reinhabit its neighborhoods, it will not mean that New Orleans, or at least the culture of New Orleans, will be back. The reason is not political but technical.
I went on one of Andrés's New Orleans charrettes and had a very different reaction. I love the buildings and streets of the old city, I've met many people there I enjoy spending time with, and I love the bohemian neighborhoods and atmosphere.* But maybe I'm just too much of a New England Anglo to put up with all the infighting and bad government that's prevented the rebuilding of a great city. There's a tendency to complain about the Federal government, but the Mayor and his government are a bigger problem.
Read the rest of Andrés's article here. Waiting for good government probably won't get the job done. In our charrette we tried to empower the local neighborhoods, but nothing moves quickly in New Orleans.
* Ever since I arrived in Coral Gables last year, I've been meaning to write about the bohemian neighborhoods of New Orleans and why Miami suffers from a lack of similar places — maybe this will get me to write that.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Baby, I'm Amazed.
Quote of the Day, re the Boomers
Our next President will need a real program for dealing with Global Warming to win. We've passed a tipping point, and we're not going to accept another Western oilman.
Our Baby Boomer generation has done a bad job the last few decades, but we're going to remember the idealism we had when we were young and start to fix things.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
C-SPAN had an interesting program yesterday, with Newt Gingrich and Senator Chuck Schumer. They both have new books, and each says the other politician's book is very good. Gingrich particularly praises Schumer's book, and says it has a lot of overlap with his own.
Both books are about how to win the next election. Gingrich says the overlap comes in discussions of "human capital" and an important shift we've made in the 21st century, and recommends Schumer's book to Republican leaders.
Recent discussions about the race have focused on the fact that we might have the first female candidate for president, or the first black candidate. But watching Schumer made me think we might have the first Jewish candidate.
During the program, a member of the press asked Gingrich if he would run for president. His answer was that if he did, he wouldn't announce until November. He then proceeded to explain why he thinks it's very bad that candidates are announcing now.
If no Democrat jumps out front (there are many people who won't vote for Hillary, and Obama's inexperience is an obvious issue), might "the environmental candidate" throw his hat in the ring again? Why not? He's already won once.
We seem to have reached a tipping point on Global Warming: more and more people think not only that it's real but that it's really our most important problem. And who is better suited for that than Gore? An Inconvenient Truth was very well done.