Topic: Film

Reflections on the Monolith: Kubrick, McCracken, Zeppelin, Nothing

2001 A Space Odyssey - Monolith with apes
John McCracken - Nine Planks IV (1974)
Led Zeppelin - Presence album cover

Images from top to bottom: 1) Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monolith with apes; 2) John McCracken, Nine Planks IV (1974), with viewer; 3) Led Zeppelin, Presence (1976) album cover; 4) a Nothing object (2013-present).

The artist John McCracken (1934–2011), who I had the privilege to know and work with as an undergraduate art student, began making his famous leaning “plank” sculptures and freestanding “monoliths” in the mid-1960s, before Stanley Kubrick’s famous monolith appeared in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). McCracken apparently didn’t care for the connection, as noted here in this William Poundstone review of the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), November 1, 2012–June 30, 2013, which made the connection by including one of McCracken’s iconic planks:

LACMA has added a few more generally related works by better-known artists. A John McCracken plank sculpture, Nine Planks IV (1974) appears in the 2001 gallery in lieu of a monolith. McCracken produced his first planks at just about the time that Kubrick and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke were adapting Clarke’s 1951 story, “The Sentinel,” into the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Clarke’s original story, the alien artifact is a tetrahedron. In the screenplay it became a black monolith of 1:4:9 proportions. It’s unlikely that Kubrick/Clarke knew of McCracken, or vice-versa. For years afterward, McCracken was annoyed by comparisons of his art to the 2001 monolith. He was not the first L.A. artist to feel steamrollered by the movie business.

He may have been annoyed with the 2001 monolith comparison, but McCracken was very much into such topics as space and time travel, extra-terrestrial beings, and psychic phenomena. In his 2011 obituary of John McCracken, the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote:

[McCracken’s] remarkable exhibition at David Zwirner in 2006 consisted of tall, black, shiny columns that had the presence of sentinels or guideposts and seemed to mark some kind of landing strip for extraterrestrials or UFOs, both of which he spoke of often. These almost-perfect freestanding keepers-of-metaphysical-secrets and celestial-navigation devices made Chelsea slip away and other worlds seem possible, even probable, as I entered a blessed-out dimension where these obdurate things, with the bearing of basalt Egyptian columns, became abstract angels in the architecture. I thought of Wallace Stevens’s writing about “a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that also exists.” A physical fullness filled the almost empty room.

McCracken kept what he called a diary of “Remote Viewing & Psychic Traveling,” in which he recorded contacting “aliens,” “high-minded beings,” “the ghost of my grandfather,” and of being “in a spaceship with a female copilot…approaching earth,” seeing “huge, spider-like creatures.” He concluded that these creatures were “expressions of fear coming from the human race.” All this, he wrote, had “the feeling of home, a good feeling.” It’s no wonder that many thought that the monolith featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a McCracken sculpture.

Eight years after 2001 came the Led Zeppelin album Presence, with a cover by Hipgnosis, the art-design collective that created the cover art for many rock albums from 1968-1982, including the Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon album. The Wikipedia page for the Presence album tells the story of the album design and the mysterious “object” featured in multiple tongue-in-cheek photographs:

The cover and inside sleeve of this album, created by Hipgnosis, features various images of people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped object. Inside the album sleeve, the item is referred to simply as “The Object.” It was intended to represent the “force and presence” of Led Zeppelin. In the liner notes of the first Led Zeppelin boxed set, Page explained:

There was no working title for the album. The record-jacket designer said ‘When I think of the group, I always think of power and force. There’s a definite presence there.’ That was it. He wanted to call it Obelisk. To me, it was more important what was behind the obelisk. The cover is very tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest. Sort of a joke on [the film] 2001. I think it’s quite amusing.

The background used in the cover photograph is of an artificial marina that was installed inside London’s Earl’s Court Arena for the annual Earl’s Court Boat Show that was held in the winter of 1974–75. This was the same venue where the band played a series of concerts a few months after the boat show, in May 1975.

In 1977 Hipgnosis and George Hardie were nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package.

Ultimately, this scenic detour into the world of the monolith arrives at Nothing, a smallish, nicely-finished black rectangular block of sculpture, with a perfect name that we have written about in our CAN. The promise of presence has arrived at the evocation of absence, of Nothing.

Let’s conclude this journey with another Kubrick-McCracken pairing. Top: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monolith in the Louis XVI-style bedroom in space; Bottom: John McCracken, three column sculptures, from left to right: Luster (2006), Stardust (2006), and Ring (2006), installation view of the 2009 solo exhibition John McCracken at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; image courtesy David Zwirner gallery.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Monolith in the Louis XVI-style bedroom in space
John McCracken -- 3 columns, installation view, 2009

The cutaway: The bisected sets of Anderson, Godard, Lewis, Berkeley, Keaton and Parrott

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a Goings On listing written by Richard Brody noted that the Museum of the Moving Image was screening the Jerry Lewis film, The Ladies Man. In the movie, Lewis plays Herbert H. Heebert, “a high-strung and wounded young man who seeks a secular sanctuary from sex and ends up in Hollywood, as a handyman in a women’s boarding house.” Brody goes on to write, “The house where Herbert lives and works is one of the greatest and most influential sets of all time,” which got me thinking about where else have I seen this “colossal dollhouse-like cutaway” approach before and, for that matter, since.

A recent example of an epic “dollhouse effect” is Wes Anderson’s set piece for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which featured a fantastic cutaway/bisected research vessel dubbed the Belafonte. The Belafonte, complete with mini-sub and helicopter, is of course a loving homage to oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s vessel, the Calypso. And yes, Harry Belafonte played calypso music on an album called Calypso. Seu Jorge, on the other hand, is a Brazilian Samba musician and the Belafonte’s resident recording artist who performs haunting David Bowie covers at intervals throughout the film. But I digress. The point is, after doing a little research on the making of the Belafonte set I stumbled upon Anthony Balducci’s blog, which itemizes a half-dozen examples of this visual trope, which apparently has been around for at leat 95 years.

Here are some examples, traveling back in time from the present:

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)

Tout Va Bien (Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Godard; 1972)

Tout Va Bien (Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Godard; 1972)

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961)

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961)


Symmetry and one-point perspective in the films of Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson

TOP: Kubrick // One-Point Perspective from kogonada on Vimeo.
BOTTOM: Wes Anderson // Centered from kogonada on Vimeo.

These are beautiful video compilations that demonstrate quite vividly Stanly Kubrick’s love of symmetry and how the director made use of one-point perspective in his films, and the influence he has had in this regard on the contemporary director Wes Anderson.

Visit to see move very interesting video “essays” on the work of great directors.

See also: The cutaway: The bisected sets of Anderson, Godard, Lewis, Berkeley, Keaton and Parrott

How HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” got his name…and no, it’s not IBM minus one

HAL 9000The HAL 9000 computer is one of the stars of Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the novel it is based on by Arthur C. Clarke. It has often been a legend that the name HAL was derived because each letter comes one place before IBM in the alphabet. Arthur C. Clarke has always denied this, and the true origin of HAL’s name is recounted on the HAL 9000 Wikipedia page:

Although it is often conjectured that the name HAL was based on a one-letter shift from the name IBM, this has been denied by both Clarke and 2001 director Stanley Kubrick. In 2010: Odyssey Two, Clarke speaks through the character of Dr. Chandra (he originally spoke through Dr. Floyd until Chandra was awoken), who characterized this idea as: “[u]tter nonsense! […] I thought that by now every intelligent person knew that H-A-L is derived from Heuristic ALgorithmic”.

Clarke more directly addressed this issue in his book The Lost Worlds of 2001:

As is clearly stated in the novel (Chapter 16), HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. However, about once a week some character spots the fact that HAL is one letter ahead of IBM, and promptly assumes that Stanley and I were taking a crack at the estimable institution … As it happened, IBM had given us a good deal of help, so we were quite embarrassed by this, and would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence.

Also, IBM is explicitly mentioned in the film 2001, as are many other real companies. IBM is given fictional credit as being the manufacturer of the Pan Am Clipper’s computer, and the IBM logo can be seen in the center of the cockpit’s instrument panel. In addition, the IBM logo is shown on the lower arm keypad on Poole’s space suit in the scene where he space walks to replace the antenna unit, and may possibly be shown reflected on Bowman’s face when he is inside the pod on his way to retrieve the body of Poole (there is speculation as to whether or not the reflection is that of the letters “IBM” or the letters “MGM”, the film studio).

HAL has become such an icon of our culture that we are fortunate neither Clarke or Kubrick noticed the downshift from “IBM,” or this epic computer may have been named “Siri.” Or Dora. Or Obie. Or any one of these other names of fictional computers.

The cinema and visual poetry of the Lettrists of Lettrism (AKA Lettrisme or Letterism)

Littrist cinema

Stills from Maurice Lemaitre’s Le Film Est Deja Commencé? (1951). Image from Vertigo (see below).

Lettrism (or Lettrisme or Letterism) is a French film and visual poetry movement that enjoyed a brief heyday as the avant-garde du jour in 1950s Paris, and is often associated with the French Revolutionary Student Movement of 1968. Founded by Elvis lookalike  Isidore Isou (born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein, 1925-2007), Lettrism influenced other forms of art and poetry in Europe and Latin America up to the present and likely into the future, even as most Viners and Snapchatters remain unaware of this strange fold in the space-time continuum of art.

From the Wikipedia article on Lettrism:

Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou. In a body of work totaling hundreds of volumes, Isou and the Lettrists have applied their theories to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, painting and political theory. The movement has its theoretical roots in Dada and Surrealism. Isou viewed his fellow countryman, Tristan Tzara, as the greatest creator and rightful leader of the Dada movement, and dismissed most of the others as plagiarists and falsifiers. Among the Surrealists, André Breton was a significant influence, but Isou was dissatisfied by what he saw as the stagnation and theoretical bankruptcy of the movement as it stood in the 1940s.

In French, the movement is called Lettrisme, from the French word for letter, arising from the fact that many of their early works centred around letters and other visual or spoken symbols. The Lettristes themselves prefer the spelling ‘Letterism’ for the Anglicised term, and this is the form that is used on those rare occasions when they produce or supervise English translations of their writings: however, ‘Lettrism’ is at least as common in English usage. The term, having been the original name that was first given to the group, has lingered as a blanket term to cover all of their activities, even as many of these have moved away from any connection to letters. But other names have also been introduced, either for the group as a whole or for its activities in specific domains, such as ‘the Isouian movement’, ‘youth uprising’, ‘hypergraphics’, ‘creatics’, ‘infinitesimal art’ and ‘excoördism’.

Vertigo Magazine has an excellent article about Lettrism, The Negation of Cinema: Some Brief Notes on Letterist Cinema 1950 – 1952, by Louis Benassi; here are some excerpts to further elucidate the story of Lettrism: »»»

Masticating Up The Scenery (Pinky Raised)

Making A Scene is a collection of 11 short films featuring Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Adèle, Greta Gerwig, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Robert Redford and Forest Whitaker. Directed by Janusz Kaminski, the films “screen” online at the The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Jenison’s Vermeer Machine

Tim Jenison

NPR aired a wonderful feature on Teller’s new documentary of inventor Tim Jenison’s attempt to paint in the manner of 17th century Flemish master Johannes Vermeer. You can hear the entire interview at NPR; here is an excerpt of the interview, Teller Breaks His Silence To Talk ‘Tim’s Vermeer’:

Jenison was inspired by Vermeer’s paintings and by the book Secret Knowledge, in which the contemporary English artist David Hockney theorized that Renaissance painters might have achieved photographic accuracy by employing tools that anticipated photography.

He proposed they may have used the camera obscura, a darkened room with a small aperture that a painter would have sat in as if he were inside a giant pinhole camera — along with lenses, possibly, or more likely concave mirrors.

Jenison brought an inventor’s mind to the task of putting these theories to the test, and Tim’s Vermeer, which explains the project and documents the results, is narrated by Jenison’s friend Penn Gillette, of the magic act Penn and Teller, and directed by the other half of that duo.

Though Penn and Teller’s act usually involves the latter working strictly in silence, Teller took himself off mute to speak with NPR’s Robert Siegel about the film and the method he believes Vermeer used.

“In the 1600s in Holland and that area of Europe, lenses and mirrors were quite popular as things for science hobbyists,” he says.” The telescope had just been invented, so the chances that Vermeer had very good access to all sorts of lenses and mirrors is very high.” »»»

Everyday mysteries: Saul Leiter, a master of lyrical color street photography

Saul Leiter - Snow, 1960

Saul Leiter, perhaps the most famous non-famous New York street photographer, has just passed away at age 89. A pioneer who worked mostly in color in an age when street photography was still a predominantly black and white medium, Leiter captured the ineffable details than can only be seen and appreciated if you slow down and pay attention. Notes the obituary in today’s New York Times:

Mr. Leiter was considered a member of the New York School of photographers — the circle that included Weegee and Arbus and Avedon — and yet he was not quite of it. He was largely self-taught, and his work resembles no one else’s: tender, contemplative, quasi-abstract and intensely concerned with color and geometry, it seems as much as anything to be about the essential condition of perceiving the world.

“Seeing is a neglected enterprise,” Mr. Leiter often said.

Where other New York photographers of the period were apt to document the city’s elements discretely — streets, people, buildings — Mr. Leiter captured the almost indefinable spaces where all three intersect, many of them within a two-block radius of the East Village apartment in which he had lived since the early 1950s.

… Unplanned and unstaged, Mr. Leiter’s photographs are slices fleetingly glimpsed by a walker in the city. People are often in soft focus, shown only in part or absent altogether, though their presence is keenly implied. Sensitive to the city’s found geometry, he shot by design around the edges of things: vistas are often seen through rain, snow or misted windows.

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,” Mr. Leiter says in the recently-released feature-length documentary, In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter, by the British filmmaker Tomas Leach. Here is the trailer for the film:

The New York Times continues: »»»

Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen show, 1963, playing music on bicycles

This a great. A young, unknown Frank Zappa (Allen and the announcer keep pronouncing his name “Zoppa”) on the Steve Allen show creating an interactive music happening with two bicycles, the studio band (playing “non-musically”), and recorded electronic music. Obviously inspired by John Cage, but very funny. Steve Allen makes some funny jokes, but has adds a nice, respectful coda, and Zappa cracks up repeatedly.

Zappa takes the opportunity to promote his new album, How’s Your Bird, due for release one week later, and the “world’s worst move” — The Worlds Greatest Sinner — for which he composed the score. The movie, by iconoclastic “grindhouse” actor/writer/director Timothy Carey, was not released, and would not be seen by the public for 50 years. So of course we’ll have to hunt it down and see it. Carey’s biography is very interesting, and among his many strange appearances on the fringes of popular culture, he is on the iconic Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, album, in a still from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, though all but a small part of the back of his shirt (seen directly behind George) is obscured in the final version released with the album. Check out “The Sgt Pepper Album Cover Shoot Dissected” for more fascinating details about the murkier aspects of this most famous of album covers.

See also:

Sightings: Bigfoot, Elf and J.D. Salinger

Bigfoot, Elf, J.D. Salinger

Three mysterious creatures in the wild: Bigfoot, Buddy the Elf, and J.D. Salinger (photo: Paul Adao, 1988).

The classic Bigfoot image is from a 1967 film by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, at Bluff Creek in Northern California (see video below). The Bigfoot might be fake, but the scarred and battered film stock is the real deal, real enough perhaps to inspire a few new Hipstamatic filters. The movie Elf is a Christmas classic from 2003, starring Will Ferrell as the feral elf, Buddy, seen here in Central Park in homage to Patterson’s Bigfoot. And the alleged and unverified photo of the late great J.D. Salinger was snapped by Paul Adao in 1988. Another Adao photo illustrates a wonderful New York Magazine story by publisher Roger Lathbury from 2010, Betraying Salinger. I scored the publishing coup of the decade: his final book. And then I blew it.

Bonus: there’s been another Bigfoot sighting — in our portfolio.

“The Master” Paul Thomas Anderson

Terri Gross interviewed director Paul Thomas Anderson on Fresh Air, about his new film The Master, staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.

Highlights from the interview include: Anderson’s father Ernie Anderson was the voice of ABC, and a Cleveland television late-night horror movie host known as “Ghoulardi.” Mr. Anderson attempts to imitate his father’s voiceover work, does so poorly. Why The Master was shot on crotchety 65 mm wide high-resolution film. Mr. Anderson has a sense of humor. Turner Movie Classics play perpetually in Mr. Anderson’s house like Norma Desmond Muzak.

Here is the interview:

David Lynch’s hair as art motif

David Lynch's hair in paintings

Artist, filmmaker and composer David Lynch sports a head of hair that’s an art motif in itself, seen here in some famous paintings. Created / discovered by Jeremy Chen in his post, The Painter, which includes a couple more examples.

The Clock by Christian Marclay

Christian Marclay - The Clock (composite)

Chances are by now that you’ve heard of Christian Marclay’s brilliant work of art, The Clock (2010), though less likely that you have actually seen it (I haven’t as yet). As described by Wikipedia, the piece “is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in ‘real time’: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time.”

A lot has been written about The Clock, and from what I’ve read, this is much more than just a collage of film images. The images not only work in sequence as a clock, but the pacing of the editing builds to moments of climax, as the top of the hour approaches, and then to a more relaxed pace after the hour has passed. And the soundtracks of the clips are overlapped and blended across transitions, creating new correspondences and “dialog” between disparate scenes. In short, this is a living, breathing clock, more like a day-long dream (a contemporary Ulysses?) than a typical film, clock, art work, or “typical” anything.

Check out this wonderful New Yorker profile piece by Daniel Zalewski, The Hours: How Christian Marclay created the ultimate digital mosaic. Here is an excerpt about how Marclay transforms the ordinary into art:

Part of Marclay’s fascination with the cinematic archive had to do with the way it resisted transfiguration. It wasn’t hard to turn a recorded sound into an estranged abstraction, by slowing it down or folding it into a new rhythm. But, even if you chopped a film into a single frame, specificity clung to it: Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, Manhattan, 1961. Marclay wondered if he could fashion from familiar clips a genuinely unfamiliar film, one with its own logic, rhythm, and aesthetics. In his view, the best collages combined the “memory aspect”—recognition of the source material—with the pleasurable violence of transformation. If Marclay could turn the sky green for one day, he’d do it.

Later in the piece, Zalewski offers this observation about the paradoxical nature of time both in The Clock and in the viewing of it:

There were darker resonances, too. People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.

… There was a lineage of avant-garde cinema that, with varying degrees of obscurity, examined the temporal qualities of film. Marclay’s contribution to the cinema of duration, though, would be pleasurable to watch. He sensed a creepy challenge. If his film was sufficiently seductive, he might coax people to sit for hours, literally watching their lives tick away.

There are several copies of The Clock owned by museums or private collectors that are in circulation, touring the globe for short-run performances. Be sure to catch all or part of it when it comes to a city near you, and watch your life tick away. I can’t wait.

Salesman by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

Before An American Family (1973), The Real World (1992), Road Rules (1994), True Life (1998), Making the Band (2001), Project Greenlight (2001), American Chopper (2003), American Casino (2004), American Hot Rod (2004), Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County (2004), Dog Whisperer (2004), The Real Housewives of Orange County (2006), The Real Housewives of New Jersey (2009), The Real Housewives of Atlanta (2008), Ice Road Truckers (2007), Jersey Shore (2009) or American Pickers (2010), there was Salesman (1968). Featuring big, beefy, gin-soaked, topcoat-wearing, caddy-wielding bible salesmen like Jamie “The Rabbit” Baker, Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Raymond “The Bull” Martos and Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt. There are some wonderfully candid scenes and it is perhaps one of the most lifelike films (in pace, tenor and tone) that I have ever seen. The Maysles-Zwerin team are very, very patient observers, and they must have literally become flies on the wall to have captured the emotional nudity contained in this very empathetic film. There is no hint of the filmmakers either leading or directing the participating characters into “behaving,” “acting” or “performing for the cameras.” The dramatic (unscripted) rise and fall of many of the characters’ fortunes are in fact in the hands of a higher power and/or fate depending on your personal beliefs. Either way its a powerful reality and enjoyable to watch from a safe distance.

From the Criterion Collection: “A landmark American documentary, Salesman captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses—then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair.”

A Fine Ending: 1950s movie end titles

Film end titles from the 1950s

A composite of 1950s American, Italian and French movie end title screenshots from one of our favorite websites, The Movie Title Stills Collection, created by the most excellent designer Christian Annyas. Here are the film titles, from left-to-right, top-to-bottom:

  1. FINE: Il Cammino Della Speranza (1950)
  2. THE END: Human Desire (1954)
  3. FINE: Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi (1950)
  4. The End: Big Heat (1953)
  5. FINE: Grido (1957)
  6. THE END: Desk Set (1957)
  7. FINE: Un Maledetto Imbroglio (1959)
  8. The End: It Happened To Jane (1959)
  9. FINE: Un Americano a Roma (1954)
  10. The End: Teacher’s Pet (1958)
  11. FIN: Bob le Flambeur (1955)
  12. The End: His Kind of Woman (1951)
  13. FINE: Guardie e Ladri (1951)
  14. THE END: From Here To Eternity (1953)
  15. FINE: La Grand Guerra (1959)
  16. the end: 12 Angry Men (1957)
  17. Fine: Le Notti di Cabiria (1957)
  18. THE END: Not As A Stranger (1955)

To END this silly dialectic with one last FINE, here is a quick video of the end title sequence of Un Americano a Roma (1954), which I found after I had already begun contrasting the title languages:

For a related post, see: The End (1991) by Ed Ruscha.

Caine’s Arcade and the joy of creative play

Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick: A 9 year old boy – who built an elaborate cardboard arcade inside his dad’s used auto part store – is about to have the best day of his life.

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”
~Albert Einstein

You’ve probably heard by now the story of Caine Monroy, which began with an exuberantly creative 9 year old boy and his chance encounter with a kindred spirit, blossomed into an act of love, and went viral thanks to the 11-minute video above. Andy Isaacson wrote a great story about the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon in this week’s New Yorker, The Perfect Moment Goes Perfectly Viral, which is a must-read. It tells the whole amazing story, which is almost as much about the 37 year old struggling filmmaker playing in his artistic medium as it is about young Caine playing in his.

I find this story very inspiring, and a wonderful tonic to the glut of bad news we hear about every day. And it got me thinking afresh about the role of inspiration, joy, and creative play in our work here at Zinzin and in our everyday lives.

In our Manifesto (#13) we ask the question, When Was The Last Time You Enjoyed Naming?, and go on to say that the naming process, “should be engaging, thought-provoking, cathartic, stimulating, argumentative, enlightening, and just plain fun. You are creating a name that ideally will function as a very concise poem and catch fire out in the wider world. It’s a rush.” This belief is at the core of who we are at Zinzin, and Caine’s Arcade is a perfect example. We believe that what matters most is the capacity and willingness to perceive poetry and art in the words and life all around us. It’s not about “skills,” it’s about sensibility, and sensitivity. If you have it, you know it can’t be turned off. There is no down time, nor would you ever want there to be.

There is so much rich language  all around us–past, present and future–that it’s simply the funnest thing in the world to play with it, mold it, break it down and rejigger it. This is the art of naming. This is the joy of creation and discovery applied to the real world task of creating brands. We strive to live in an inspired state all the time, because inspiration is joyful, and inspiration is addictive. This is what Caine Monroy embodies for me with every fiber of his being, and this is where all great art–and names–comes from. No wonder he almost always has such a big grin on his face–he’s only nine, but he already knows the secret of happiness. Let’s hope he stays “forever young,” for, as Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think Caine Monroy has a great chance to hold onto that spirit of creative joy, and Mullick’s wonderful little film will always be there to remind him of it.

Pile Up Gawking Slack-Jawed and Rubbernecked: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) by Monte Hellman

James Taylor is The Driver, Warren Oates is G.T.O, Laurie Bird is The Girl, Harry Dean Stanton is The Oklahoma Hitchhiker (as H.D. Stanton) and Dennis ‘Beach Boy’ Wilson is The Mechanic! Monte Hellman directs this 1971 bunch of small town car freaks chasing me across two states, make that three states. Pink slips for cars where to? DC? Then on down to Florida. Florida? Yes Florida. Color me gone, baby. Check out the rear end. This man is on something officer and may very well want to suck us up his tail pipe. And all they think about is cars, them small town car freaks. Are you trying to blow my mind in the far-out world of the high-speed scene! SFX: screeching careening tires and dueling approaching colliding car horns. Yes it is truly a mess, a muddle, a pickle, a befuddle, a heap, a botch, a blunder, a bust, a ruin, a fumble, a bumble, a snafu, a goof, and an utter shambles of a film, but what a glorious mess it is. And like any good wreck this 19 car pile up is bound to leave you gawking slack-jawed and rubbernecked. In fact Hellman’s Blacktop and Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) would make wonderful drive-in double feature. Here is an excerpt from the Criterion Collection synopsis:

“…Yet no summary can do justice to the existential punch of Two-Lane Blacktop. Maverick director Monte Hellman’s stripped-down narrative, gorgeous widescreen compositions, and sophisticated look at American male obsession make this one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.”

Verisimilitude: Furniture Guy vs. Mattress Man

Just who is Vinnie “T” Testeroni, the would-be daredevil spokesperson for “The Furniture Guy”? And why doesn’t “The Furniture Guy” appear in his own commercial? Whoever Vinnie “T” is, director Paul Thomas Anderson went to great lengths to recreate his character in the 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. In fact, the main antagonist in the film, Dean “The Mattress Man” Trumbell, played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was based on the above commercial blooper for “The Furniture Guy.” Interestingly, this re-enacted scene, which inspired Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in the first place, was deleted from the final film. Fortunately, this lovely re-enactment was found on the cutting room floor. Either way it served its purpose as muse to director Anderson.

The original “The Furniture Guy” commercial poses more questions, however. Does Vinnie’s middle initial “T” stand for Testosterone? Is he a real life honest-to-goodness guitarist or a stunt man? Or perhaps a stunt guitarist? Who knows? I searched high and low, but I couldn’t find any information about Vinnie “T” online. What we do know is that Mr. Anderson has an acute eye for the sincere detail, or “truthlikeness,” in every scene. To illustrate this, here is a list of details for this scene, showing their appearance in the original “The Furniture Guy” (FG) commercial and in “The Mattress Man” (MM) re-enactment:

Scene Description FG MM
Ambient white freeway noise X X
Unamplified perfunctory guitar strumming X X
Black leather jacket with flames on the sleeves X
Mop of hair/wig resembling a condemned rodent’s nest X
Mop of hair/wig secured in place by a Karate Kid black head band X
Phone number is 351-3900 X
Awkward hesitation before opening line of dialog X X
Sad parrot infested “Southland” palm trees in background X
Red racing trailer parked oddly across 6 parking spaces X X
5 mattresses piled on roof of early 1980s Stretched Lincoln Town Car X X
Awkward walking and talking tracking shot X X
“…got queen mattresses sets for 99 dollars” X X
“…and king sets for 129” X X
Sack of potatoes ‘Foley’ thump when body hits mattress X
Account Executive with gray pants and compulsory “power” suspenders X
Stretched gold Lincoln Town Car adorned with red flames along the front fender to driver’s door X
Short cast shadows suggest mid-morning or mid-afternoon video shoot X X
Full name is obscured on the side of racing trailer X X
Production Assistant in mandatory black polo shirt holding note pad X
Videographer with obligatory “correspondent’s” vest and requisite mullet hairstyle X
Account Executive’s first response is to pick up the guitar cord X
Videographer’s first response is to steady the guitar X
Production Assistant’s first response is to adjust/reposition the mattress X
Videographer: “Try your arm and stuff” X X
Production Assistant: “He’s wearing leather” X X
Fallen Protagonist: “Did you get it on film?” X X
Videographer: “Yea” X X
Fallen Protagonist: “Alright” X X
Total running time in seconds 40 50

Zabriskie Point redux: how you get there depends on where you’re at

Zabriskie Point screen shots

Screen shots of Zabriskie Point. Click to enlarge.

Concluding my recent obsession with Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, here is the grid of 40 screen shots I mentioned working on in my previous Zabriskie post:

Every frame of this film is a work of art, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is through stop-motion, frame-by-frame viewing of the DVD, something that was not possible to viewers back in 1970. That’s what I did, after first watching the film “normally,” in an effort to figure out how this thing was constructed. (I even shot a bunch of photos of individual frames, some of which I am putting together into a composite image for a follow-up blog post, to try to express visually this feeling I had while watching the film.)

Well, that “follow-up” post is now here. I took over ten times as many screen shots as you see above, so editing the grid down to this group of 40 images was challenging. You could easily make many other equally interesting composites out of different selections of images, and you might even find the task as interesting and enjoyable as I did.

As the narrator of the original Zabriskie Point trailer says, “Zabriskie Point. How you get there depends on where you’re at.” These 40 images represent where I’m at with this film, at this moment in time.

After the Cataclysmic Oatmeal War of Prehistory: Reconsidering Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point

Now considered a cult film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, was a huge commercial flop, costing $7 million to make–a huge sum back then–and grossing less than $1 million in its brief theatrical run. The director of the very successful Blow Up , his first of three English-language films, had blown up at the box office. The film also literally–as “literal” as a fantasy sequence can be in any film, especially this one–blew up at the end, as the above YouTube clip of the final scene depicts.

The music, which starts about half way through the scene, is by Pink Floyd (“Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” a variation of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”). The house didn’t really blow up — it is a fantasy of the beautiful female lead Daria (played by Daria Halprin), who is otherwise “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations,” wrote Vincent Canby in his original New York Times review of Zabriskie Point. Why, I wondered, if a film at least looks this good, was it panned and attacked upon release by nearly everybody of every political and cultural stripe? Here’s Canby again:

The main problem with “Zabriskie Point” is that Antonioni has done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any.

They are completely instinctive people, but their instincts have been imposed upon them by an intellectualizing Antonioni, rather than by God. Everything in the film is calculated, including the prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic contrasts between the principal locations—Los Angeles (used-car lots, absurd billboards, glass-and-steel office buildings reaching above the smog) and Death Valley, whose barren hills look like the remains of some cataclysmic oatmeal war of prehistory.

Paradoxically, even though everything is calculated, nothing within the film justifies its final, apocalyptic vision of the disintegration of the Western world to the accompaniment of a funky rock tune. It’s lovely to look at (books, furniture, food, a copy of Look magazine, all hanging suspended in an emulsion of deep blue), but completely absurd in the context.

Prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic, is a deft putdown of any work of art with grand pretension, which Zabriskie Point had in spades. But times change, and so do opinions, at least some of them. It’s important to remember that Zabriskie Point was made in the era before home video, home theater, cable TV, movie channels, the Internet, TiVo, timeshifting, DVDs, Netflix, Redbox, movie streaming, Apple TV, YouTube, Vimeo, iPods-Phones-Pads and all the countless other ways we ingest, digest and otherwise consume “motion pictures” today. So when a movie stopped playing in theaters back then, if it didn’t get picked up by network television–the only kind of television there was–it was never heard from again outside the occasional art house screening. And since no TV network would ever show this film, it effectively vanished, and didn’t even get released on DVD until a few years ago. It became, in effect, a cultural time capsule of a most bygone era, rarely seen or discussed for nearly 40 years. Now that Zabriskie Point can be seen by an entire culture of fresh eyes, is the critical judgment any less harsh?

Strange charm

Dennis Lim, writing in Slate in 2009, asks the astute question: Was Zabriskie Point–Antonioni’s biggest flop–just misunderstood?

All this rancor is a little hard to fathom today. Recently issued on DVD for the first time by Warner Home Video, Zabriskie Point is of a piece with Antonioni’s best work: a luxuriant portrait of spiritual alienation with a sense of place far more expressive than its blankly beautiful characters…. But was Zabriskie Point out of fashion precisely because it nailed the zeitgeist?

In other words, if Zabriskie Point was actually a faithful depiction of a bad trip, then of course people at the time, many still living the bad trip, would hate the movie. Like waking up in the morning with the worst hangover in your life, stumbling into the bathroom and getting mad at the mirror for the hideous scene it depicts. And the “straight culture” that was critical of the bad trip to begin with would of course comply with the film’s artsy stereotype that they are “square” and summarily reject this film. Thus a movie that nobody, at the time, could like. So, could it possibly be likable now?

Having never seen this film, and being a huge fan of Antonioni’s earlier Italian films and his other two English-language films Blow Up and The Passenger (with Jack Nicholson), I decided to rent the Zabriskie Point DVD and finally see what all the fuss was about. I was skeptical, and prepared for the worst. But guess what? I loved the film. Yes, much of the acting is pretty bad (but not that of Rod Taylor as the land developer/boss/lover of Daria, and his compadres at Sunny Dunes Corp), and its attempts at social and political relevance are pretentious and clunky. Such damnation would sink most films, and have sunk this one for over four decades. But I believe the film succeeds in spite of all those knocks, and perhaps the negatives even add to its allure now, and become part of its charm. Because the naivete behind the director, writers and the characters is kind of charming from this vantage point, almost like some kind of primitive folk art.

What I think is most astonishing about Zabriskie Point is partly the very prettily-photographed scenes that Vincent Canby decried, but especially the craft and precision with which those scenes are put together. Every frame of this film is a work of art, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is through stop-motion, frame-by-frame viewing of the DVD, something that was not possible to viewers back in 1970. That’s what I did, after first watching the film “normally,” in an effort to figure out how this thing was constructed. (I even shot a bunch of photos of individual frames, some of which I am putting together into a composite image for a follow-up blog post, to try to express visually this feeling I had while watching the film.)

Charged and sentenced

Vincent Canby complained that Antonioni had “done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any,” but I think he missed the point. I don’t think the emotional states of the main characters, especially Mark, are the focus here. I think its the emotional state of the camera, and by extension us, the audience, is what’s most important. We witness scenes and encounters more than much of a conventional “plot,” and the invention, to me, is in how strikingly third-person in tone it all is: the camera/director become our avatar in an alien world, forty years before James Cameron’s mystical blue people of planet Pandora did this literally, and much less interestingly.

When Canby wrote of the climactic scene that, “it’s lovely to look at…but completely absurd in the context,” I think it shows that he, like everybody at the time, misunderstood what the context of the film actually is, so of course it seemed absurd to him. If if the context is misjudged, then the way the film is shot can easily be seen as mannered, as Canby notes:

Various Antonioni mannerisms—the blank screen suddenly filled with a face, the endless tracking shots, the pregnant pauses between unfinished thoughts—are finally only tolerable because you remember the times when they were better used.

Whatever the faults of Zabriskie Point — and there are many — it is a visual and structural masterpiece. It is dense with signs and symbols — literally — but that alone isn’t what makes the film so interesting. It’s the way in which the film becomes a persona of it’s own that is so striking. I think that when it came out, a charged (and foreign) indictment of American culture released into a very politically charged environment, it became an easy scapegoat of all that is wrong, from every cranny of the political spectrum. It is a film that has suffered, in effect, from its own cataclysmic oatmeal war of (contemporary) prehistory. That war is now over. (Spoiler: nobody won.) We have our very own culture wars now.

The sound of silence

Zabriskie Point  also has a great soundtrack, featuring music by Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, John Fahey, The Rolling Stones, Roscoe Holcomb, and Patti Page. However, the strongest audio presence in the film is silence. Like a true ancestor of the Dogme 95 movement, most songs are only heard very briefly in the film, and usually only when a character turns on a radio; most of the time, there is no musical accompaniment, and nearly silence on the soundtrack. This gives the action on screen a lot more breathing room, and furthers the transformation of camera into character, as we are not distracted by the artifice of soundtrack music.

Perhaps the most telling comment of all comes from a throwaway line narrated in the original Zabriskie Point trailer: Zabriskie Point. How you get there depends on where you’re at. My advice for today’s viewer is to leave your ideologies “where you’re at,” and surrender to the thoroughly alien — and rapturously beautiful — world that is Zabriskie Point.