On a recent episode of WNYC Studios, Here’s The Thing (Elliott Gould: Mash Notes on a Long Career), Alec Baldwin shines while recounting a conversation he had with Jack Nicholson about working on Chinatown, with Roman Polanski and John Huston. (at the 19:10 mark Baldwin does a killer John Huston impression). Nicholson recals Huston turning to Polanski and saying, “Now Romannn, there are really only two directions — a little more and a little less.”
Peter Greenaway. John Cage. Indeterminacy. What more could you want? Not the greatest video quality here in YouTube video form, but still. Not easy (impossible) to find this film series of films on an American format DVD, so this will have to do. Enjoy.
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. 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.
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:
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 kogonada.com to see move very interesting video “essays” on the work of great directors.
The 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.
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: [Read more…] about The cinema and visual poetry of the Lettrists of Lettrism (AKA Lettrisme or Letterism)
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.” [Read more…] about Tim Jenison’s Vermeer Machine
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: [Read more…] about Everyday mysteries: Saul Leiter, a master of lyrical color street photography
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.
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.