Category Archives: Art

A couple of comfort movies

This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows, Anne Hathaway, left, as Jules Ostin, and Christina Scherer as Becky, in scene from the comedy, "The Intern," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Francois Duhamel/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
This photo is provided by Warner Bros.

There’s no denying that candy is comfort food and it’s affordable. Dylan Lauren, the daughter of clothing designer Ralph Lauren and owner of New York City’s Dylan’s Candy Bar

While Michele was improving her mind at Bioneers, I saw a Nancy Meyers’ movie, The Intern, at an early afternoon matinée, with a smallish group of other old people. I’m almost certain that there were only old people in the audience – it was 2 o’clock on a Friday afternoon which might be a small factor – and I think we were all there for the same reasons. To see a good upbeat movie – that requires very little exertion – done well and to watch a comfortable old guy be the hero (played by Robert De Niro channeling a bemused Gary Cooper). It lived up to my expectations .  

It was fun and very forgettable except that I am still thinking about it. The colors were bright, the music was great, and everybody lived in a perfect, very covetable, house or loft. As an aside, according to The New York Times  Nancy Meyers has an almost cult following, her interiors are fetishized by moviegoers and Architectural Digest alike. End aside. The movie stars Anne Hathaway, the CEO of a company that she started, with her likability and cuteness cranked up to eleven  and the plot revolves around her investors being worried that the company is growing too fast and they want to hire a seasoned CEO.

I liked Meyers’ terrific craftsmanship, the Norman Rockwell storytelling and optimism. There are no villains, only people who are misled and there is no violence. The movie starts with a great hall-of-mirrors video tape being made by De Niro and zips right along after that. If this sound like condemnation by faint praise, I don’t mean to, I liked the movie, it is the kind of movie that I am a sucker for.

Before I talk about Bridge of Spies, I have a disclaimer, in the spring of 1981, I went to a sneak preview of an unidentified movie (one of those deals where you fill out the form about the movie after the movie). We thought we were going to see something else which had been cancelled and we were given the choice of the sneak or go home so we watched the sneak. When we walked out, we agreed it was one of the worst movies of all time. It was only a couple of months later, when we learned the name of the sneak movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark which had come out to rave reviews. The New York Times said  ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made. Maybe if I had know it was a comedy, I would have liked it or, maybe, I just don’t have the same timing as Spielberg. I’m inclined to lean towards the latter so any comments on a Spielberg movie should be adjusted for that. Bridge-of-Spies-8

Last Saturday, at a late matinée, Michele and I saw Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies in a packed theater. In many ways it was the polar opposite of The Intern, it was much darker, I remember it raining or snowing in almost every scene and the oppressiveness of the late 50s, early 60s America was claustrophobic. The cold war fear, with children practicing ducking under their school desks to wait for their doom, permeates the movie and it makes a judge not being fair, at least understandable if not likable. To Spielberg’s credit, he is able to both show that the fear is real and rational and that it is also imagined and paranoic.

When I think of Spielberg, I think of the suburbs, like in ET, but Bridge is urban. Somehow, with all the rain and snow, with the paranoia and fear, Spielberg still maintains his signature Midas-touch ability to find grounds for optimism everywhere, to quote theguardian. Spielberg is also able to lay down a dense image, especially a desaturated image, better than anybody. Tom Hanks – channeling Gregory Peck channeling Atticus Finch – is great, he is the decent man being fair in a world afraid to be fair or decent.

The movie opens with a Russian spy – we are soon to find out – Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall, painting a self portrait. It is a wonderful opening sequence, The Spy in white shirt and tie, his Reflection in a dirty mirror, and his portrait showing a more relaxed, American,  Rudolf – maybe Rudy – Abel in an open shirt. Still, this is not a movie I loved. I really do think it is a matter of having a different sense of timing – or, maybe, degree is a better word – than Spielberg. It just seems to be raining a little too much, there are two or three too many cars in the street scenes. In a shot of the Berlin Wall being built, an obvious dolly shot just goes on and on until I started thinking,  how long does this fake wall have to be to make the point? how big is the set? just how big is this budget?

I guess, in the end, I admired the movie, I was engrossed, and I think it is 10% too obvious.


Frank Gehry and the out of town architect

Gerhry (1 of 1)-3Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you’re the only expert. Frank Gehry

Before I went, I thought that the whole purpose of my going to Los Angeles was to see the Frank Gehry show at LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but, on the way home, I realized that the highlight of the trip was just being in Los Angeles for a day. Like many people – actually, most is probably more accurate –  raised in Northern California, I was raised to look down on Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. We were taught that L.A. was crass, even vulgar, completely lacking the refinement of us Northern Californians.

As an aside, one of my favorite Northern v. Southern California stories is from Herb Caen, “Mr. San Francisco”,  who quoted a well known bon vivant from Santa Barbara (which really is in Southern California even though we Northerners sometimes try to claim it). The Santa Barbaian, let’s call him Bon,  told of a time he was in San Francisco visiting a schoolmate who was now a lawyer on Montgomery Street; it was summer and Bon was wearing a tan linen suit with white shoes, feeling very spiffy. As Bon was walking down Montgomery Street, he spotted two guys wearing sandwich boards that advertised a health food store. They were walking towards him, the one on the right was wearing a tomato costume under his sandwich board and the guy on the left was dressed as a carrot. He giggled to himself, thinking Only in San Francisco.  As they passed him, the carrot leaned over to the tomato and said in a stage whisper, “I can’t believe that idiot is wearing white shoes on Montgomery Street.” End side.

I wouldn’t say that Los Angeles is totally unlike San Francisco, but they are atleast a third of a culture apart; the climate is very different, even the light is different, the standards are looser – and, if that sounds pejorative, it is because that’s how I learned it, maybe a better way to say it is that the culture is more open to innovation and change – and the chaos is amped way up.

The Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry (picture from Wikipedia)
The Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry (picture from Wikipedia)

This difference shows itself the most in L.A.’s streetscape and architecture. The chaotic grid  covers hundreds of square miles and there are times when the out-of-towner has no idea where the particular disorganized spot where he/she/or it is standing is in relation to some famous landmark, identifiable place, or where they want to be. Every part of Los Angeles seems to be screaming for attention. It is this landscape and this light that educated the architects who matured in it. Yet, when Los Angeles wanted a Museum Of Contemporary Art, they chose an outsider, Arata Isozaki. He is from Japan and about as far away as they could get.

MOCA, picture from Wikipedia.
MOCA, picture from Wikipedia.

I don’t want to say that Isozaki is not a good, or even great, architect but when Michele and I went to MOCA about twenty years ago, we were very disappointed, it seemed too formal, too contained. Then we walked down the street to The Temporary Contemporary – now relabeled as The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA – which was a warehouse lightly redone by Frank Gehry and were delighted.

Temporary Contemporary. (not my picture)
Temporary Contemporary (not my picture).

Somehow, as simple as it was, this museum was more L A and everybody liked it. Even the New York Times’ art critic, William Wilson, liked it, saying it was a prince among spaces that was all set to embrace whatever princess came round the corner.  The space prompted, the Guggenheim to talk to Gehry about a remodel in a factory space at Bilbao for their new museum. That lead to the totally new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.Gehry (1 of 1)

(1 of 1)
Gehry Bilbao (not my picture, duh)

As an aside, Gehry must have as much of a distortion field as Steve Jobs once he gets close. Many, maybe most, of his jobs started out small or as remodels and became bigger and more expensive.  End aside.

With Gehry living and practicing in Los Angeles , the Museum still felt it had to go out of town to get a prestigious architect. And that is the rub, it seems finding or showing or using out of town architects is considered better – better as in more prestigious, in a we are a world-class-town way, I think –  than using local guys. And that is not just in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hired a guy from Switzerland who designed a building that not only doesn’t fit in but doesn’t work very well. Sadly, it is not just in signature museums that the out of town syndrome reigns, it is also the art in them. I have been going to museums all my life – dragged would have been a better term for the first dozen years – and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum that really spun my beanie. It was on the top three floors of the The War Memorial Veterans Building – designed by Arthur Brown Jr, a local guy who also designed the City Hall – and it was full of art I had never seen before. Some of it was the permanent collection but much of it was small shows of local, emerging, artists. 

That is not the case now (with some exceptions). The shows have gotten bigger and the artists have become more famous and often that means the artists are from somewhere else. I think the purpose of travel is to see a different place and the homogenization of art in museums, like the standardization of stores and restaurants, makes places seem less different.

As an aside, the only museum that I know about that fights this trend is the Oakland Museum. It only has local – by that, they mean California, so not local, local – art so the visitor is treated to a great Robert Arneson Robert Arneson (1 of 1)or a  Michael McMillen,  McMillion (1 of 1)

rather than a mediocre Jasper Johns. And that is good, because you aren’t going to see any McMillion in New York, only great Jasper Johns. End aside.

Racism and Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith (1 of 1)An examination of traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, N.C., uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct. Sharon LaFraniere, Andrew W. Lehren, and Susan Beachy in The New York Times 10/25/2015

Last Wednesday, we saw Anna Deavere Smith at the Stanford Chapel. I would probably only know her as the National Security Advisor on West Wing, if it hadn’t been for a fortuitous blind ticket buy about twenty years ago. We were in L A for my former partner’s widow’s 85th birthday and we decided to see if we could see a play – L A being a hotbed for great, small, local, theater companies – and we ended up in small theater watching  Anna Deavere Smith put on a performance about the Rodney King Riots, called Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,  in which she played all the parts.

To back up, what Anna Deavere Smith did was to interview various people that were involved in the riots, from young black men who broke windows and stole TVs, to a Korean shop owner who was robbed, to LAPD chief Daryl Gates and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She then tells each part of the story, using the interviewees’ own words and attitude. We were blown away.

Now Smith is an Artist in Residence at Stanford and, last Wednesday, she put on a show that was billed as Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Of course, the center of the show was her reading of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail but what I found most moving was the first reading, Glass All Over My Clothes, which came from an interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault who was one of the first two African-American students to enroll in the University of Georgia. Gault told about how carefully she had packed, wanting her clothes to be just perfect – she had gone to Wayne State, in Detroit, for a year and a half and she thought her clothes looked very look cool and hip – and how a riot of white kids threw bricks through her dorm window, the only window with a light on because every other girl in the dorm had quietly been told to turn their lights off. Anna Deavere Smith embodied the nineteen year old Charlayne Hunter Gault’s feelings of isolation and fear just perfectly.

That feeling of isolation and fear, of not being an equal American – projected large by Anna Deavere Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates in his writings and the drumbeat of cops killing young black men- are the reality of how we treat our fellow citizens. I might have never thrown a rock through a young girl’s dorm window, but in a Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King reminds me that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice. I have never thrown a rock through a young girl’s dorm window nor did I even know it was happening in 1957 but, I didn’t know and didn’t care only because I was looking the other way.

As an aside: a couple of days ago, I read a book review of KL: A History of The Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann. The KL are not the Nazi Death Camps that we know through the holocaust, but slave labor camps and Wachsmann writes that even though they were not death camps, the mortality rate was about 50% annually. He goes on to say that the only comparable mortality rate was in prisons in the Southern United States after the Civil War in which about 50% of the black prisoners died annually (after about 1880, the death rate dropped to only about 15% annually).  I did not know that appalling fact. The only place that compares with Nazi slave labor camps is the United States, sixty years earlier. End aside.

As much as I want to exonerate the US or only blame people south of the Mason-Dixon Line for the way we have treated black people and, of course, by extension, exonerate myself, with Social Media that exoneration is now impossible. It’s not just slavery or Jim Crow in the South but redlining in the north, it’s California with a 6.6% black population having a black prison population of 29%. In reality, we have been disenfranchising, disempowering, marginalizing, and demonizing, black people since our country was formed. Formed on that grand principle that that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, by men who put the three fifths clause in the Constitution, by men who were more devoted to order than to justice.

The subtitle of  the Letter from Birmingham City Jail is The Negro Is Your Brother and the last performance of Anna Deavere Smith was a story told by John Lewis. Lewis was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on Bloody Sunday and he was beaten by a what? civilian volunteer beater? bully? idiot? asshole? take your pick. Lewis goes on to say that the guy approached him about ten years ago, hat in hand. He apologized and asked for forgiveness and, of course, John Lewis forgave him. Lewis went on to say that they have met four times since and now they call each other Brother.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith quotes Cornel West on Optimism versus Hope, Optimism Is when you look out the window and think things are going well and Hope is when you look out the window and you go, “It doesn’t look good at all, but I’m going to go beyond what I see to give people visions of what could be.”  Looking at how we treat people of color, especially Americans of African heritage, Hope is as good as it is going to get.  Anna Deavere Smith (1 of 1)

Michael Graves

capistrano2Michael Graves died a couple of days ago and I feel a loss from it that is bigger than I expected (that is if I had thought about it at all). I think that I have only been in one building designed by Graves, the Capistrano Library. It was one of the most interesting interiors I have ever been in. As good as a Frank Lloyd Wright house and, unexpectedly, almost as completely designed, right down to the table lamps. Even more unexpected was that the library was packed on a mid-week late afternoon.

It was a soft thrill, for lack of a better way to describe the hour or so, walking through and around the building. Good architecture – which, for purposes here, I’ll define good as original, thoughtful, and appropriate to its location – influences us in a positive way. Most architecture is neutral, but Graves was anything but neutral. He designed the stuffing out of everything. I once talked to a City Planner who had worked in the Portland City Hall, one of Graves’ signature buildings, and he said that it was an almost impossible place to work and I believe him. I just not sure that I care how well it works as a machine but how well it works at enriching Portland.

Architecture, good architecture, great architecture – which isn’t always good, certainly Frank Lloyd Wright’s great building weren’t always good – has nurtured my life as long as I can remember. It is a gene, or interest, that I think I got from my Daddy, maybe when he took me to see Frank Lloyd Wright. It was one of the few things we did together and that has emphasized its importance. I don’t particularly care what style the architecture is, I love buildings from Baroque to Mid-century Modern, from the San Francisco City Hall complex to the Oakland Museum. The Capistrano Library is one of my favorite buildings, just walking around it has enriched my life, and I bet that it still enriches the community of Capistrano. That is a nice legacy.

Thinking about the water we swim in while listening to Tina and Amy joke at the Golden Globes

Jelly Fish at Monterey Bay Aquarium-
Jelly Fish at Monterey Bay Aquarium

After a day of football playoffs, mostly droning in the background as we did other things, Michele and I sat down to watch the Golden Globe Awards. I love the Golden Globe Awards and I love the Academy Awards, both for the same reasons, the meritocracy of the awards. This year’s Golden Globes, however, seemed to be especially interested in diversity which made it even more interesting to watch. Selma did not do as well as I had hoped but it is hard to argue against Boyhood.

For me, the best part of the show was Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. For the third year in a row, they managed to make fun of the people they were there to honor and still honor them. I guess they will be not be back next year and I miss them already.

I especially liked their Bill Cosby rape riff. Cosby is a showbiz icon and, to go after him like Tina and Amy did, in a bit about Into the Woods, takes nerve. The kind of nerve that only great comics have.

Another distinctly pertinent bit was at George Clooney’s expense – and by extension, most of the people there. George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin this year. Amal is a human-rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected of a three-person U.N. commission regarding rules-of-war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime-achievement award. 

This joke seemed even more pertinent when I read the New York Times reporting of it this morning. As he accepted his award, Mr. Clooney joked about celebrities using the night as a chance to apologize for all the “snarky” things they said about one another in hacked Sony emails, but he too turned serious when talking about his new wife, Amal, a human rights lawyer, saying that it was “humbling” to be in love at last and that he was proud to be her husband. She wore a Dior haute couture sheath...

That’s it, the New York Times didn’t tell us what George Clooney wore but, for some reason they thought it was of major importance when describing Amal Alamuddin. Our culture, if the New York Times is any indication, has a long way to go before it catches up with Amy and Tina.