"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara


Blair Mclendon, WKCR Arts Programmer and lover of obscure cinema. (Forgive the blurry iPhone photo.)

Fellow Cinephiles — here’s a chance to hear me spout off in a different medium. An interview will air tonight (September 9th) at 9:30 pm on 89.9 FM and online at (click on the “listen now” button in the upper right hand corner). Topics covered include Steve McQueen’s Hunger, “Slow” cinema (more satisfying than slow food), auteurism, Cassavetes, you name it.
Blair Mclendon, who invited me to be on the program, is a diehard cinephile from San Diego who is taking a class with Andrew Sarris this semester — I have to admit I’m a little jealous. Anyway, have a listen!

Being Bit By Charlie [Chaplin]

So I’m coming off the high that was Film Forum’s Charlie Chaplin Festival and I can’t stop thinking about what makes Chaplin so singular as a performance artist for me. Perhaps there are no words — fitting for a mostly silent star. As I learned over the course of the series, Chaplin also shone brightly in speaking parts, but his true genius is centered mostly in his body as a threshold for human movement — especially as movement gathers force in his seismographic face. I could wax on for hours about that exquisite piece of tissue — framed by those twitchy brows and set off with an iconic exclamation point of a mustache — and its mimetic power. When Chaplin smiles, the audience cannot help but smile with him. In James Agee’s essay on Monsieur Verdoux he expresses regret that his words can only approximate Chaplin’s greatness: “I can only hope that these notes may faintly suggest the frame-by-frame appreciation; the gratitude; and the tribute which we owe this great poet and his great poem.” In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite Chaplin moments, film by film.

MODERN TIMES: Chaplin must perform a song to a packed house. He forgets the words and makes up something that sounds vaguely Italian, complete with saucy gestures. Side-splittingly funny.

THE CIRCUS: A slew of monkeys make a late entrance and predictably steal the show.

CITY LIGHTS: The tramp and his rich tippler of a friend sit down to eat. Spaghetti, confetti, what’s the difference?

THE GREAT DICTATOR: Chaplin as Der Phooey is full of hot air.

THE IDLE CLASS: This short contains one of my favorite Chaplin moments of all time. Watch it all the way through — there’s a big payoff that involves a cocktail shaker!

The White Rose [Bruce Conner, 1967]

Film Forum is doing a Bruce Conner retrospective in November, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing the short The White Rose up on the big screen. I’ve only viewed it via Tudou (which also has uploads of Conner’s seminal A Movie and Vivian).

The Beat artist Jay DeFeo spent many years of her life painting just one massive picture. Eleven feet tall, eight feet wide, and weighing almost a ton, it grew so heavy from the built-up layers of pigment that it had to be removed from her studio by cutting away the wall and lifting it out via crane. This process is memorialized by Conner (a close friend) with an almost clinical austerity, augmented by a melancholy Gil Evans soundtrack.

What happened to the painting after the film? It was rarely exhibited due to its size and precarious condition, and was put into storage and plastered over to keep slabs of pigment from breaking off the surface. It was eventually acquired by the Whitney and uncovered many years later. For most viewers, the primary means of encountering Defeo’s legendary painting was through Connor’s film. A protest as well as a lament, The White Rose is a singular testament to Defeo’s life work — a mammoth flower that rarely saw the light of day, but bloomed through the light of the projector.

More: John Perreault’s Artopia essay on “The Rose”

Street Art on Film

THE CYNEPHILE needs to build up its street cred, ergo a post about street art! (and with the term, ergo, I destroy any possibility of having any ‘cred’ whatsoever…sigh). Anyway I am deliberately using the term street art instead of graffiti, because I do think the two practices differ in important ways. Banksy’s latest film, Exit Through The Gift Shop, does a good job at elucidating the differences between bombing subways and tagging to a more illustration-based & three-dimensional approach, starting with Space Invader (pew! pew! pew! pew!).

Aside from Banksy’s annoying burka-cum-voice-distortion routine, this film is actually very funny, and an excellent primer on the evolution of street art. The title, as you have already deduced because you are infinitely smarter than me, is a comment on street art’s institutionalization and commercialization. What happens when you take an art form predicated on the defiance of authority and stick it in a museum? You get rules and “don’t touch” signs and mugs emblazoned with Andre the Giant — lame.

But if you want to travel back to street art’s roots (aka graffiti) you HAVE to watch Style Wars, the definitive doc on the subject.This film was way ahead of its time (it was shown on PBS) and is mostly good when it doesn’t revert back to a slightly problematic voice-of-god narration mode. (*cough *cough “To some it’s art. To most people however, it is a PLAGUE that NEVER ENDS.” ahem).

The best part? Some kindred spirit has uploaded the entire film onto YouTube!

When I was in Buenos Aires, I saw some really amazing large-scale street art. Is taking pictures of graffiti touristy? Do I somehow betray my native New Yawk by praising another city’s street art? If so, I am a geeky tourist and a shameless traitor.

And then there’s Blu, the graffiti artist whose animations have been making the rounds on the web. I would give my eyes, ears, nose and throat to see Blu in action. (ok maybe not all of those). Blu is an Italian graffiti artist that paints narratives that unfold over time. He creates something, takes a picture, changes it a little bit and then takes another photo. All of these photos put together at warp speed become a film — but instead of happening on an old-fashioned animation cell it happens on public surfaces. (Take that, Walt Disney.)

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

Doesn’t Blu make Banksy look like a one-note hack? And isn’t street art like this so wondrous and full of potential?

Street Art vs. Graffiti
Hollywood in Cambodia, a Street Art gallery in Buenos Aires (a play on the Dead Kennedy’s song Holiday in Cambodia)

Louise Bourgeois on her 95th Birthday

Jonas, Seb and Ben visit Louise Bourgeois to wish her a happy birthday. They sing to her. Chocolates are passed around and eaten. There is a close-up of Louise’s dangling feet. Seb practices his throat singing. There is another close-up of her feet. Bravo. C’est beau, ah? [Fade to black.]

Some Comments on Godard


Godard’s new film Socialisme premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, and is also being streamed online (though sadly only available to those in France). Though I wasn’t able to view the film (mon dieu did i try) the few reviews I’ve scrounged up are all tentative attempts to make sense of the subject matter, and avoid passing judgment on its aesthetic merits. The film is undoubtedly layered and opaque, and part of the confusion seems to stem from the deliberately obfuscatory subtitles — perhaps Godard’s resistance to translating the film into coherent English is an attempt to undermine its commodification. There is also a lot of controversy over Godard’s no-show at the press conference and the statement he faxed (faxed!) over to Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director:

Suite à des problèmes de type Grec, je ne pourrai être votre obligé à Cannes.Avec le festival, j’irai jusqu’à la mort, mais je ne ferai pas un pas de plus. Amicalement, Jean-Luc Godard [“Due to problems of Greek type, I can not be obliged to you in Cannes. I would go unto death for the festival, but I will not be able to take a step further. Regards. Jean-Luc Godard”]
This note was accompanied by a portrait of Ozu.

In our flurry to understand the most enigmatic of directors we cannot resist trying to decode this statement. Do “problems of the Greek type” allude to the present-day riots, or is it a more oblique Classical reference? Does Ozu have any special significance? And does the potent phrase “jusqu’à la mort” suggest health problems?

The film also ends with the title card displaying the words “NO COMMENT” (There are no credits). This strikes me as an extraordinarily pessimistic coda, and the lack of subject position/opinion betrayed by this statement is in and of itself a commentary on the possibility of political action. “No comment” is a deflecting phrase, used to fend off ornery inquiries and to eradicate conversation. I can’t really determine anything beyond that without having seen the film, but here is the elliptical trailer (with English subtitles):

Whatever one may think of Godard’s talent as a director, it is difficult to deny the breadth of his intelligence — evidenced by his copious references. When faced with the daunting prospect of having to produce copy on a Godard film after a single viewing, it is only natural that most reviews will fall into one of the two established camps: anti-intellectual hostility or cinephilic adulation. While I personally think Godard is a great director who has produced a few stinkers (e.g. King Lear), I just wish that critics would abandon their usual criteria for evaluating his films, because for Godard, the rules don’t apply (and they never did). Take a deep breath. Soak in the composition and the movement. Use the film as a skein and weave your thoughts around it — the words, the music, the images.

My favorite essay on Godard is actually quite critical of his films — but evinces a strong fascination with his aesthetic philosophy and a desire to determine if the films are good, bad or something in between. The writer is none other than Raymond Durgnat and it is entitled “Asides on Godard” (from The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron). Here are some excerpts that seem especially relevant in light of Socialisme:

I. God, Godard, Godot

Godard is of Swiss Calvinist stock. His art is basically a Protestant one. Grey, ascetic images reduce the world to a concept of itself. He photographs Karina like Dreyer photographs Falconetti, but reduces her to just a face, mysterious, melancholy, ethereal even gaiety, where Dreyer’s images are sculptural, anguished. There’s flesh in Dreyer, despite the resonances, resemblances between flesh and stone, which asceticism apart, carry the implication that people are real and strong like stone, like rocks of ages. Bu in Godard everything is a grey, jerky flow. Godard’s is an art of the plastic age, of fluent, pliable, putty characters.

Godard’s words-on-images suggest an agnostic, nay nihilistic Bresson, and indeed the Catholic critic Henri Agel accused Bresson of Jansenism, which is a heresy with many Calvinistic connections. Godard’s is a Calvinistic mind astray in a Godless, soulless world, a world of accidents which because they lack essence lack even a felt existence…

Godard’s films which seem to me ludicrously bad fascinate several people whose opinions I respect, and I explain their infatuation as follows (which infuriates them). His evocations of an emotionally and morally lost world would appeal to my acquaintances’ disillusionment, their pain as nice, idealistic, upper-middle class liberals, finding themselves in today’s cool, fluid, cynical world. His despair catches their own melancholy. His best films are those where feelings of pain and loss are most plausible: À Bout de Souffle, Let Petit Soldat, and one or two passages in Pierrot Le Fou, notably the beautiful ending. The feelings are plausible because the characters have positive, focused desires, the frustration of which we observe.

There are of course other reasons for responding to Godard’s duller films. One may be a connoisseur of remarkable idioms and styles. One may be skeptical to the point of nihilism, suffering from a moral and emotional impotence behind which lies just the breath of remorse that appears in Godard’s films…Or one may admire Godard’s bad films because of their sense of the world as unreal — a schizophrenic art for a schizophrenic epoch.

Film Socialisme may very well be the latter.

All About Eva Tanguay

A few months ago a friend sent me this fascinating article about Eva Tanguay, an outrageous but nearly-forgotten vaudeville actress who may have been the inspiration for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Whether or not this is the case, and whether or not she deserves the title of “first” rock star does nothing to diminish her star quality: Ms. Tanguay understood the essential ingredients of celebrity. What she wasn’t cognizant of was the need to record herself for posterity, and this is perhaps why she fell victim to history. Only one 78 rpm recording exists of her voice, that of her signature song “I Don’t Care.”

Tanguay also only made one feature which I would give my eyeteeth to see: the 1916 silent film The Wild Girl.

Performance excerpts, along with clips from the The Wild Girl (And yes, that’s Judy Garland singing ‘I Don’t Care.”)

The author points out in the article that press and popular literature mention Tanguay all the time. I came across this delicious anecdote in a book that I just ordered and I can’t get enough of: Show Biz, from Vaude to Video, by Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr. Luc Sante describes it in his source notes as “a history of prewar American popular culture derived from the files of Variety and narrated in that paper’s side-of-the-mouth style.”

The book is treasure trove of colorful details, and this Tanguay entry is one of many. Behold:

Heywoud Broun, as drama critic for the New York Tribune, reviewed her act under headline:

Wrote the acidulous Broun:

“Ours is a democracy, so probably nothing much can be done about the singing of Eva Tanguay. But even in a free country, there should be some moral force, or physical if need be, to keep her away from the ‘Marseillaise.’ She should not be allowed to sing it even on her knees, and it is monstrous that the great hymn of human liberty should be shrilled as a climax to a vulgar act by a bouncing singer in a grotesque costume begirt with little flags.

Miss Tanguay sings in French, and I have no idea whether she is trying to be funny. I never know what she is trying to be except noisy. I think she is the parsnip of performers. The only cheerful song in her repertory yesterday was one in which she hinted that some day she would retire. Miss Tanguay is billed as ‘bombshell.’ Would be to Heaven she were, for a bomb is something which is carried to a great height and then dropped.”

The outraged Eva promptly took an ad in Variety. With more courage than prudence, she reprinted the withering Broun review under the scornful headline: EVA TANGUAY–THE PARSNIP OF PERFORMERS. And then Eva let loose her blast of indignation, in some very free and fiery verse:

“Have you ever noticed when a woman succeeds how they attack her until her character bleeds? They snap at her heels like mongrels unfed, just because she has escaped being dropped into FAILURE’S big web. They don’t give her credit for talent or art. They don’t discount a very hard start. They don’t give her credit for heartaches or pains; how she grimly held tight to the reins when the road ahead was rocky and drear; how smiling she met every discouraging sneer. AND…

Now to you who have slandered, YOU are dirt ‘neath my feet, for I have beaten your game and it’s a hard game to beat!”

Imponderabilia [Marina Abramović at MoMA]

Forgive me for beginning with beginning with an insidious Kantian claim: good performance art is marked by an air of imponderability. Its most salient feature is its presence — its aliveness and unpredictability in the here and now. Its power is not conceptual but visceral, and though it can be parsed, talked about and chewed over after the fact, if it’s any good, what you will remember will not be abstractions of thought and meaning but the unforeseen sensations and emotions that made that-thing-there-that-you-see-and-hear stand apart from everyday life.


Imponderabilia is a 1977 performance in which Marina Abramović and her partner Ulay stood on opposite sides of a doorway, forcing visitors to squeeze between them in order to pass through. I first saw a video of this piece at ShContemporary and while I appreciated that it was projected near the entrance, it felt a bit dated to me, stuck in the Body Art Moment. The “choice” forced by those who transverse the narrow passageway — to face the man or woman — felt disingenuous. On another level, I feel dissatisfied with just footage of performances: drained of the aura that emanates from live bodies, the initial provocation becomes an object of historical interest — nothing more, nothing less. In other words, watching videos of 1970’s performance art takes me straight back to endless discussions of gender at Bryn Mawr [cue Indigo Girls soundtrack here] which — let’s face it — gets old pretty quickly.

WHAT!? (Shut up, Bryn Mawr.)

Marina Abramović’s retrospective and performance at MoMA doesn’t resemble so much school, but rather boot camp for performance artists. Scattered throughout the exhibition are “re-performances” (Abramović’s term) of her most famous pieces. Some of these are rather tame, such as a man and a woman joined together by their hair. Others look downright excruciating: for the piece entitled Luminosity, a woman balances precariously on bicycle seat mounted high upon a wall. The oft-talked-about re-performance of Imponderabilia is participatory, and you too can brush up against the unclothed body of your choosing, albeit under the eye of an exceedingly nervous guard who stands an arm’s length away.


What I was surprised to discover was that Abramović’s performances still retain a bit of their sensory violence, even thirty years later. By violence I mean not merely the potential to shock but a latent or prospective violence, the violence of a potential reaction or expression. I have to admit my heart raced a bit faster passing through the two naked strangers (and since you asked, I faced the woman). And Luminosity snatched my breath away when I realized that it was a real nude outstretched on the wall and not a projected image.


But the most chilling performer is of course Marina Abramović herself. John Perreault is right in that none of these performance art rookies can match her level of charisma, and in person, she struck me as a peculiar synthesis of a Buddhist monk and a witch. For her performance at MoMA, she will sit in silence at a table for the length of the exhibition — more than three months. You can sit in the empty chair across from her, but she won’t speak to anyone during the entire duration of the piece. The performance is called “The Artist is Present” and it as simple as it is profound.

Marina Abramović sitting across from Tehching Hsieh, another master of endurance.

Except when she isn’t present. In this edition of Marina Abramović 2.0, the performance is webcast via a live feed from MoMA’s website. You can check in with Marina when the museum is open, and check out whoever is sitting opposite the diva at that very moment. Part JenniCam, part Andy-Warhol’s Empire, the webcast hangs onto the liveness but subtracts the presence. One hopes that people will not forgo seeing Abramović in person.


In addition to the webcast, Abramović’s (and perhap’s MoMA’s) obsession with documenting her work is more than evident here, with three cameras, light reflectors, and a photographer that will snap the picture of every person who sits across from her. This is nothing if not a movie set, with Marina as its star.


Except when she isn’t. When I visited the museum, a performance artist named Anya Liftig came dressed as Marina in a royal blue dress, her hair braided over her shoulder. On that day, I would say Marina and Anya shared equal billing, as everyone was entranced by this spectacle of look-alikes looking at each other. Here’s what Anya wrote on Jerry Saltz’s facebook page about her experience:

I went through so many transformations as I sat there. Initially, I wanted some rise out of her, some acknowledgement of my gesture. Then I wanted to confess, as if I had been a bad child. Then, I felt myself get so angry that I almost started to cry. Why was she so special and why was I so small and weak? The glory of the venue wore off rather quickly. At a certain point, I felt like we were locking horns. She leaned forward and so did I. I started aping her every little movement and I kept hearing myself say, “move over bacon, here comes sausage.” Then I would crack again. She’s so strong. I was intimidated. She is like a mountain. She is my hero. But I knew I could make it through the day. I was hallucinating all over the place. She looked like a baby to me at one point. I thought about how hard it is to let myself be loved, I wondered if she felt that way too. I asked her with my mind. I wondered what I wanted out of her, why approval from anyone was so important. I wondered if I really just wanted all of the people in the atrium to loathe me so I sat there and let them loathe me. I thought about my parents and that one day they will die and I will be devastated. I thought I was hallucinating the whole thing. I thought that performance art is a more wonderful experience than any drug ever. I wanted to pee really badly. I wanted a way in. I wanted my contacts to stop falling out of my eyes. Every time I thought about leaving the chair, I got pissed at myself. I got pissed at her. I got pissed at the museum. I just got pissed. And damn it felt GOOD.

Getting pissed is pretty imponderable, if you ask me. And though some have criticized “The Artist is Present” for being highly scripted, Anya’s performance proves that there’s space for unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances to arouse viewers (and potential performers) alike.

John Perreault’s Artopia review

A post-performance interview with Anya Liftig from No Smarties

Daybreak Express [D.A. Pennebaker, 1953]

Watch this film immediately if you are partial to any of the following: elevated trains, jazz, vintage views of New York City, sunrises, or sunsets. It ranks up there as one of the most sublime train films ever made, and the combination of the Duke Ellington’s soundtrack, upside-down-all-around angles, and lightning fast cuts make this commuter train feel more like a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone!

The train featured is none other than the Third Avenue El, which suspended Manhattan service in 1955, two years after this film was made. Pennebaker writes, “I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and it’s packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like the New York City paintings of John Sloan.” The Ashcan artist Sloan was also fascinated by the El, and his impressionistic paintings capture the lively ambiance — if not the movement — of the train. His painting Pigeons in particular could almost be an outtake from the film.

John Sloan, Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street [1928]

John Sloan, Pigeons [1910]

But I wonder if Pennebaker was also inspired by the short film Third Avenue El, which was also made in the 1950’s and contains many avant-garde views of the city along with a diverse (and often funny) portrait of the passengers that took the train on a daily basis.

New York City’s elevated trains have made their mark on popular culture, often as a menacing symbol of an overcrowded urban landscape. But on the eve of its destruction, Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express proved that the new vantage points afforded by the towering El could also be glorious.

More on Ashcan artist John Sloan: “The fun of being a New York painter… is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvases become historical records almost before the paint on them is dry.”

More on the New York City El in photography and film, from the ICP blog Fans in a Flashbulb

Robert Breer’s Sculptures at The Independent, New York

For me, the loveliest discovery of Armory Week (which is not, by and large, the time to chance upon new art) were the kinetic sculptures of Robert Breer. The avant-garde animator / rotoscoper par excellence also makes motorized, tongue-in-cheek specimens that made me smile, especially in the midst of an abundance of morbid assemblage art and limp attempts at appearing revolutionary. Most of these pieces trembled just so, making me doubt the source of their movement and forcing me to take a second look. The genius of these sculptures, I think, is the way that Breer bestows everyday items with a slight animism, turning household objects into these kooky/creepy minimalist robots. It’s almost as if Breer was inspired by my favorite childhood movie, (which is an unparalleled surrealist MASTERPIECE which has yet to be recognized as such):

Here are some exhibition views kindly sent to me by gb agency, the Parisian gallery that represents Breer. Still images obviously can’t do these sculptures justice, but I will try to describe their movement below.

Untitled (flower pot), 1962. Painted metal, flower pot, motor. The stem of this gothic flower slowly twitched and turned.

Zig, 1965. Painted styrofoam, wheels and motor. Imagine a staircase turning into a Roomba.

Porcupine, 1967-2006. Cut foam, wooden sticks, motor and wheels. This thorny lil’ guy shivered and scurried about.

Rug, 1968. Motorized sculpture with aluminum blanket, two motors and wheels.

My favorite piece was a simple nugget of gold foil, motorized to slowly crinkle and uncrinkle itself. It was shown next to Breer’s virtuosic Recreation, which also features a dynamic square of paper.

I feel like Breer is overdue for a mini-retrospective, perhaps at a smaller venue like The Drawing Center or a place where hand-drawn animation is still practiced in earnest. In this era of Illustrator, Pixar and sophisticated CGI modeling, the imaginative potential of a sketch drawn with an oh-so-human hand should not be overlooked.