The Reviewer: Martin Kippenberger at MoMA

A week spent in New York began with a free trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Aware of the continuing economic recession, MoMA has finally taken a cue from the European art museums and is providing free entry, even if it is corporately sponsored (Target Free Fridays!) and only one afternoon a week. The visitors inside couldn’t seem farther removed from the recession, they laughed and talked together, while taking it all in. What was the featured exhibit captivating my attention? Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective.

It is my opinion that Kippenberger’s work asks not the question, ‘What is Art?’ but rather, ‘What is an artist?’ Dead at 44 from a liver disease undoubtedly linked to his alcoholism, Kippenberger represents what I think to be the ‘Insane Artist’ prototype. Both his critics and his fans agree he was manic, unpredictable and wildly productive.

Living up the crazy stereotype, he defied all others. Was he a painter? A photographer? A graphic designer? A performance artist? A carpenter?

Walking into MoMA, I was greeted by a huge open space chock full of Kippenberger-created furniture. Tables, chairs, swings, shelves, dressers, even wooden people filled the space. A small circular train track didn’t carry your typical cars. Instead, replicas of the capital punishment electric chair lined the track.

His furniture alone could have carried the exhibit. But his furniture was only the beginning. As I made my way up to the sixth floor, I found a wall of posters. Nearly every poster featured a photograph of himself, his name consistently larger than all other words on the piece. Most of the posters announced his gallery openings, and he designed each one himself, making them an easy outlet for his glaring narcissism.

Then, as if on cue, he fooled me again. I entered a room that was literally breathtaking – I cannot remember the last time I saw something new that was so captivating. I stood in front of a wall of his paintings for 15 minutes. A grid of the square paintings seduced viewers, with depictions of everything from a city street to a portrait of a young girl. The relatively small paintings (probably two feet by two feet) were done in only black and white gauche, with intensely brilliant attention to light.

Simply turning around within the same room illuminated his mastery of light. Behind me, hung Kippenberger’s photography. Certainly practice with a camera brings a new understanding of light, one Kippenberger capitalized on to create dramatic representations of light.

The little I knew about Kippenberger was mostly associated with his mania and productivity, but I had no idea the range of his work. I remember hoping at this point, that as I continued through the exhibit I would be struck by a real rarity -consistent excellence throughout it.

I was disappointed. It seemed the curators of MoMA packed a lot of punch with Kippenberger’s first few rooms, only to strikingly taper off towards the end. The paintings went from great to mediocre, his real skill hidden behind what looked to be a purging of insanity. I imagined my own journal of neuroses and frustration with EDS poured onto a canvas, and found it in his more abstract work.

Still, I loved the exhibit. Kippenberger took risks, tried new things, never resting on his laurels. He kept creating, drawing, drinking and indulging until his death. Kippenberger broke all conventional rules of mastery of medium, opting instead for a life of a renaissance addict. Some of his work represented the adage of quantity of quality, but his philosophy of “living life to the fullest” was clear – Kippenberger chose quality of life over quantity any day.

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The Reviewer: Sunshine Cleaning

A dark comedy with the word sunshine in the title is usually a good sign. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” left me in a dark and sunny place, and “Little Miss Sunshine” was so brightly uncomfortable it received a whole handful of Oscar nods – including a nomination for Best Picture and two wins: Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin’s performance as foul-mouthed Edwin. Knowing a good thing when they produce one, “Little Miss Sunshine” producers Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub again joined forces to bring “Sunshine” to the big-screen: “Sunshine Cleaning.”

The similarities don’t end with the titles and producers. Both “Sunshine” films are set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and both are brightened by an Alan Arkin supporting role. This time around, Arkin plays Joe Lorkowski, father of daughters Rose and Norah, played by Hollywood’s surprise favorites Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Receiving critical acclaim in “Doubt” (Adams) and “The Devil Wears Prada” (Blunt), both women give sincerely convincing performances as two sisters trying to dig themselves out of dreary realities.

“Sunshine Cleaning” succeeds from its two lead female characters and the women who play them. Rose (Adams) is the reformed head cheerleader, now a career-less single mom longing to provide a better life for her son and hell bent on proving herself to the world. Her world of course, consists of old high school chums who broke the lower-class ceiling, living the good life as middle-class stay-at-home moms with successful husbands, 3,000 sq. ft. homes, and lavish baby showers. Living the life of a never-ending high school reunion from hell, Rose starts her own business in a desperate attempt to become someone her high school classmates will again envy.

Her one employee is her sister Norah, another failure by societal standards. Your pseudo-gothic, beer chugging, blue eye-shadow wearing Norah is your typical woman stuck in adolescence. She lives at home, screws up every minimum wage job she lands, and still parties under the train tracks. So, you’ve got your pick of heroines: Rose, the uptight, delusional poser, or Norah, the foul-mouthed, attention-hungry punk.

The characters of “Sunshine Cleaning” are brought to life by authentic performances from Adams and Blunt. Adams couldn’t play a character farther from her role as a sinless nun in “Doubt,” yet she is as convincing as a woman of God as she is in “Sunshine Cleaning” as an ex-high school siren, now having a sex-filled affair with a married man.  Blunt, playing an anorexic uptight snob in “The Devil Wears Prada” effortlessly transforms into her “Sunshine” role as the free spirit with no notion of “posh” or “class” to say the least.

Both women use “Sunshine Cleaning” to showcase their acting versatility, and ability to save a film from mediocrity.  Your run of the mill dark comedy elevates to a praiseworthy date flick.

The Reviewer: Slumdog Millionaire

I felt compelled to view “Slumdog Millionaire” after the film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Two and a half hours later, I sat in a near state of shock as the film ended. This movie won what? I searched and searched my most respected film review sources, The New Yorker, MetaCritic, Pitchfork, and felt in shock further still as each source praised the genius that is “Slumdog Millionaire”. After much reflection, I must admit – I wholeheartedly disagree.

Even the film’s highpoints seem calculated – the cinematography captivated me, but in an uncomfortable way more than anything. The visual circus assaulted me. I thought the colors intensely overdone and the music and sound effects louder than necessary to create the intended setting. But hey, maybe this really was India. A bright and bustling circus full of grime, poverty and horror. And the sensory overload seemed of pornographic proportion. I remember catching myself a few times, staring at the movie with a facial contortion made possible only by unease.

It’s not the calculated production choices that led me to such distaste of Slumdog. It is the plot itself. Slumdog, a screenplay adapted from the novel Q&A, is a fairytale in every sense; boy meets girl, overcomes obstacle after obstacle in winning her back, and the story ends happily ever after. Well, at least their story does.

The two main characters make the impossible ascent from rags to riches, while the rest of Indian slum residents remain in destitution. Using the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as the catalyst for two slumgoers to escape the horror of abuse, starvation, and wildly unsanitary conditions, I was unable to enjoy the success of Jamal and Latika when prefaced by such exploitation of the slums.

Even as reviewers united in their praise of the film, Slumdog is not without its criticism. Slum-dwellers protest the title itself, shamed by the reference that they are dogs. Many held signs in the streets of Mumbai, including one that said, “We are not dogs, we are the future of India.” Bloggers railed against the Fox production company after news surfaced that the child actors of the film still lived in harsh poverty, and will return there after a brief showcase of the two children at the Oscars. These two complaints by Mumbai natives and bloggers are indicative of my severe distaste for the film. Placing a fairytale against the backdrop of very real poverty and hell on earth seems insensitive if not just plain exploitative.

Now, I realize I may sound harsh. And honestly, that does disturb me. I’ve heard the argument, “You don’t go to the cinema for a dose of reality, isn’t the escapist fairytale the whole reason you go to the movies?” Yes. I am not at all making the extreme moral argument that one should never go to the movies because it is time better spent saving the world or curing the evils that plague humanity. Go out, get entertained! But I will not apologize for my opinion that the film was completely low brow. And there, in fact, is the beauty of “Slumdog Millionaire.” I have always been an art appreciator who aired on the side of mass adoration. I have long felt that it was necessary to see the good in art to keep its concept expanding, finding value in the plain white canvas of the play Art, and the La Guernicas of the world. They all had their place. But this movie, personally, this movie was plain offensive. A movie so socially acclaimed reminds me that art is so many things to so many people, and I’m back where I started. Just what is art again?

The Reviewer: Man On Wire

Just what is art, anyway? Is it a classic Greek sculpture? Is it a blank canvas with nothing but a painted black square staring back at you? I have always been an advocate of expanding the confines of art, allow more not less, to qualify. Placing such rigid constraints upon art could limit the possibilities, creating a small box with which art is to fit inside – antithetical to the whole idea of creativity. The Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” rebels against any art snobbery, forcing its viewers to acknowledge the art of life.

“Man on Wire” tells the story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman with a big imagination, who achieved what is now revered as the greatest artistic crime of the century. In the middle of the night in August 1974, Mr. Petit and a group of associates illegally entered the World Trade Center, made their way to the top of both twin towers, and rigged a wire from roof to roof. Then, at around 7:15 a.m., Mr. Petit, practically walked on thin air for an hour, before finally surrendering to police waiting in awe on the roofs of both towers.

This is the best film I’ve seen in 2009 as of yet. I couldn’t recommend it more. The film is a work of art, defined by the art of wire walking it is documenting. The intricacies of the film mirrored Petit’s painstaking attention to detail; every aspect of the film was obviously intentional and carefully planned. The film’s classical piano score will move viewers as Petit dances on the wire, and it soon becomes apparent that no other music would suit the film as well. While classical music seemed an obvious choice, the decision between color and black and white was less clear. Director James Marsh impresses film aficionados by alternating between color and black and white, adding more visual flair to an already aesthetically enticing film.

The impeccable score, the interesting story devices and the showcase of the actual 35-year-old pencil drawings planning the scheme are all works of art, but the true art is the man on the wire. Mr. Petit delivers a thrill far exceeding my expectations, as he takes to the wire with such command and grace, you’d swear it couldn’t be real.

Mr. Petit is one of many narrators in the film, giving the audience a ground view of the high wire enigma. He lives up to all you’ve imagined, with wild eyes belonging only to a man truly moved by his own imagination. As friends and co-conspirators talk to the camera recounting memories and adoration of Philippe, I realized that Mr. Petit had seduced all of these people with his infatuation for adrenaline, fame and beauty. Mr. Petit speaks of his passion with such fervor; the audience sits in wonder of his life’s philosophy and his high wire gift, most certainly an art form.

The Reviewer: “Coraline” in 3D

Modernity does not exist without its past. Like only the best animated features, “Coraline” masks the sage wisdom you’d expect from a classic novel by delivering an aesthetic feast for the eyes. Experimental colors, shapes and sounds serenade your visual attention as you surprise yourself in realizing the message of the film shines just as bright.

While the creators of “Coraline” relied on state of the art technology to deliver a 3-D performance unrivaled, the movie’s message was age old. The story follows a young girl isolated from friends by a new move, allowing loneliness to take her as its prey. With parents that don’t care, and nothing to occupy her insatiable imagination, Coraline resents her life as she knows it, just in time to find an alternate universe exists.

The film was pure aesthetic bliss. Oh, the colors! Bright purples you’d long forgotten, the blues and greens that you’d find deep in a rainforest make their way to the screen. You journey with the art direction of the film and think to yourself, I don’t ever want this to end. The beauty of the film, aesthetic and otherwise, comes in the seamless transition from the “real” world to the “other” world. The other world, complete with Coraline’s “Other Mother” drastically improves every aspect of Coraline’s mediocre life; drab walls turn to palace paintings, funky dinners turn to delightful feasts. It’s everything she’s dreamed of, or is it?

I think the preview of the film gave too much away, upon even my first viewing of the trailer I’d thought I’d seen to much, wishing I could have come into the film with innocent eyes. I will give no more away except to say that Coraline the character exists as a courageous soul and learns one of life’s most important lessons – know what you have and love it before you lose it.

The Reviewer: “The Reader”

“The Reader” offers the modern audience a glimpse at a story resembling the tragedies of Ancient Greece. Viewers will find themselves surprised, appalled, delighted and frightened all at the same time. Be prepared to express the most sympathy and empathy for Kate Winslet’s character, Hanna Schmitz, a guard for the Nazis. You’ll ask yourself, how could a woman who actively participated in the mass extermination of an entire religious group be the character I feel closest to?

The answer lies in the wisdom of Ancient Greece. Many Greek philosophers debated the value and purpose of art, particularly poetry and theatre. While Plato saw art as condemnable, Aristotle found art’s value in its ability to teach its viewers lessons of humanity. I recalled Aristotle’s concept of tragedy and catharsis as I experienced “The Reader.”

Aristotle describes tragedy as:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament (rhythm, harmony, and song) being found in separate parts of the play, in form of action, not of narrative (Poetics VI, 2).“The Reader” illustrates a fictitious experience in relation to the very real Nazi Germany, one of the most horrifying and compelling points in human history. While I did learn something about the historical significance of the attempt at complete extermination of the Jews, I learned far more about the human condition. Many of my preconceived notions and stereotypes about humanity were shattered. I recognized an intense wisdom in Hanna, a woman who was illiterate for much of her life. Instead of viewing her as a woman of stupidity, I saw a woman with specific values and perception. While she was the “killer” in the court, I felt far more disgust towards the main character, for his lack of courage.

Aristotle argued in his work Poetics that the very best tragedies grant the viewer the experience of catharsis. A word of Greek origin, catharsis refers to the purging and cleansing of the soul, a renewal of sorts. A successful tragedy will force viewers to experience both fear and pity for the characters, and relate those emotions to their own life. Viewers will feel more empathy for fellow members of society in knowing that everyone has troubles and conflicts that are difficult to overcome. With this revelation, comes a catharsis.

In sympathizing with a Nazi, I felt extremely uncomfortable. In experiencing empathy for Schmitz, an offender linked to one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, I realized something I’ve known, but don’t always keep in the forefront of my mind – perspective changes everything.

In “The Reader”, I felt something that must have resembled catharsis.