w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions
Not writing about pop culture today. I felt it was important to put some thoughts down about election results and our future. Everyone else is writing long, painful, sometimes smart and insightful, essays so I decided to just write a poem.
November 9, 2016
Another date that lives on in infamy
Like December 7, 1941, and 9/11.
81 percent of Americans live in urban areas
19 percent in rural areas.
How could there be enough old, rural, poor and uneducated
To be taken in by the orange pirate?
While the urban, young, diverse future of America
Protests “Not my president”
On the streets of our cities.
Is this “America the mean,” as my friend Charles wrote today?
Now I fear for the future of my grandsons and nieces,
All the young people who woke up today to find
They’d been abandoned by their grands,
Just like the Brexit orphans in Britain.
The question is, how much damage
Can he do in four years?
Is our Bill of Rights in danger?
Most of the world’s despots started out
Being elected to office.
Is the only date we can look forward to
November 2, 2020?
PS to the Founding Fathers:
All respect to you, Sirs, but your idea
For the electoral college should have been left
In the inkpot, never to besmirch your parchment
And our futures.
October is Chicago International Film Festival month with its glorious menu of 140 films from 50 countries, most of which I wanted to see. However, life intrudes and so I measure out my life in coffee spoons, seeing eight or ten or twelve of them.
On top of that, I’m thrilled to see that Jim Jarmusch, one of my favorite film directors, has two new films out now. One of them is Paterson–a beautiful film about a busdriver/poet. That was a special feature of CIFF. In addition, his new music documentary, Gimme Danger, about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, was just released. So first of all, a Jarmusch recap.
I have always loved the cool and quirky plots and characters in Jarmusch films, as in Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train, three of his early films. But some of his recent films–including Paterson–are a little different. Paterson, written and directed by Jarmusch, is set in Paterson, New Jersey, and it’s the name of the leading character, the bus driver/poet, played superbly by Adam Driver. The city of Paterson is also a character; we become acquainted with it as Paterson walks to work and drives his bus route around the old industrial city. And we learn about some of Paterson’s famous local heroes, including the poet William Carlos Williams.
Our Paterson stops for lunch and writes poetry in his notebook at the magnificent Great Falls of the Passaic River. As he writes, we hear him read the lines and see them scrawled on screen in handwriting. The poetry scenes are very moving. His wife, charmingly played by Golshifteh Farahani, is an artist and artisan who turns everything into a black-and-white work of art, from cupcakes for his lunch to shower curtains and garments. Nothing much happens in Paterson. It’s a celebration of the small details of life and work.
This is the first Jarmusch documentary I’ve seen and it’s masterful. We meet Jim Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, as an older, wry, self-reflective guy who meanders fondly through his childhood, growing up in Ann Arbor, and his punk rock past. Between the MC5 and the Stooges, the Detroit area was considered the epicenter of punk rock in the 1970s. The Iggy interviews are the main thread of the film, but it’s laced with elements of the script scrawled on the screen (like Paterson’s poems) plus animated scenes that recreate some of the adventures Iggy describes. (The use of animation is similar to what is done in Two Trains Runnin’, which I’ll describe below.) Great editing and massive amounts of great concert footage where we see Iggy perform, always shirtless and dervishlike. He tells how he invented and perfected the stage dive. Gimme Danger is well done and will be a treat for any ’70s rock and punk rock fans. As we watched the credits roll, my friend and I were in awe of the hundreds of clearances that Jarmusch’s lawyer had to obtain for the intellectual property, people and locations used.
These are the highlights of the other films I saw during CIFF. Watch for them. Most of them will appear in Chicago theaters in the next few months.
This is a Romanian film, directed by Cristii Puiu, and takes place almost entirely in a dark, crowded apartment in Bucharest, where a family celebrates the life of the deceased patriarch. The apartment has many rooms, opening on to a dark, central hall. People go in and out, doors open and close, conversations start and stop, in a realistic way throughout the three-hour film, which feels as if it’s filmed in real time. Various secrets emerge of family members’ pasts and the family tries to deal with the day. The film’s title does not have anything specific to do with the film or with anything in film history.
Two Trains Runnin’
This is a road documentary, directed by Sam Pollard, about two efforts in 1963-64 Mississippi. One is the freedom riders movement and the effort to register voters in Mississippi, which ended in violence and tragedy. The other is the search by two separate teams for a couple of old-time delta blues performers–Son House and Skip James. The film’s structure and storyline are straightforward, but the use of animation to show scenes where footage is not available is a nice touch. The addition of blues renditions by modern artists like Gary Clark Jr. adds a lot to the film, as does the narration by Common. The 82-minute film hasn’t been released yet. Pollard said in the Q&A following the film that he’s looking for a distributor. And yes, Pollard acknowledges that the title is the same as the title of an August Wilson play.
Un + Une
This is a French film, mostly set in India, directed by Claude Lelouch snd starring Jean Dujardin (you’ll remember him from The Artist). He plays a famous film composer who goes to India to score a Bollywood adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Un + Une is a film about relationships broken and made and has a funky spiritual aura. The film is a spin on Lelouch’s 1966 film, Un Homme et Une Femme, also shown at the festival in a restored version. Un + Une is a lovely bit of romantic fluff with an edge of poignancy.
This French film directed by Paul Verhoeven stars the magnificent actor Isabelle Huppert, who often plays women in dicey situations (as in Ma Mere and The Piano Teacher). Her performance here is fine as the highly sexualized business executive, but this was a troubling film with some violent scenes of sexual assault. Not easy to watch at times.
This interesting documentary, directed by Charlie Siskel, is the story of William Powell, the man who wrote and published The Anarchist Cookbook at the age of 19 in 1970. Although Powell says the book is distributed without any effort on his part, it’s still used today by radicals and terrorists because of its detailed instructions on how to make bombs or how to turn a shotgun into a grenade launcher. Siskel interviews Powell, who was 65 at the time of the interviews and died in July just before the film’s release. Powell, rather disingenuously, denies any culpability for how the book has been used, says he doesn’t own a copy and hasn’t read it in years.
My Journey through French Cinema
This is a loving film memoir of director Bernard Tavernier’s career in the French film industry. In a beautifully edited film montage, he recalls the actors and directors he worked with and describes and analyzes their work and his experiences working with them. This three-hour documentary may not have a very wide release, but it’s a must for all lovers of the grand French cinema of the 20th century.
Finally, I have to write about this beautiful Japanese anime film that’s not part of the film festival. It’s set in 19th century Edo, before the city was named Tokyo. It’s an historical film, adapted from a manga series, about the daughter of a famous artist. The plot is kind of episodic and there’s not very much character development, but the film is beautifully drawn and every aspect of it is perfect, including the sound. Spoken in Japanese with subtitles. The film is running this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, an important moment in history that has never received the attention it deserves as a prequel to the geopolitical changes of World War II, the Cold War and the culture wars that continue today.
The following essay is adapted from the reading I gave at Third Coast Review’s Kill Your Darlings live lit and improv series last month.
Did you ever feel you were born at the wrong time? I’ve always wished I was around in the 1930s when people were excited about politics and leftwing activism. I suspect that many of us—at least those who consider ourselves liberals — would have been Communists in the 1930s. Most liberal intellectuals and working class people did at least sympathize with the Communist Party USA then because it seemed as if they presented solutions that would help our country. And we were naïve about the cruel and violent aspects of the party in Russia. (It was not until 1956 that American leftists learned the full story of Stalin’s criminal legacy, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin.)
We certainly would have supported the anti-fascist, Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. The democratically elected government of Spain was anti-fascist, anti-clerical, anti-royalty, pro-education and yes, pro-communist.
in those years, we sat in saloons and union halls — in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, near stockyards and steel mills on the south side of Chicago – talking about unemployment, the evils of capitalism, the rise of fascism in Europe and the hope we saw in Spain. And some of us did something about it. Some of us went to Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939. The novel thing about this war was that volunteers from America and around the world went to Spain to fight for the good cause.
That good cause was our support for the legal, democratically elected, left-wing Republic of Spain, which faced a military coup by the fascist Spanish military led by Francisco Franco. The slogan was No pasarán and a raised fist. They shall not pass.
If I had been a young woman in the 1930s, I would have wanted to be on the ship that left New York harbor in December 1936—80 years ago. That was the first ship that took American volunteers to Spain. The people who went left without telling anyone their destination or talking to anyone about it on board ship. They knew they were committing an illegal act—because the State Department had banned all travel to Spain and those who went risked losing their citizenship.
A total of 45,000 volunteers from 53 countries formed the International Brigades who went to Spain in late 1936 and early 1937. Most of them traveled by ship to France and then had to travel by train to southern France and on foot during the night across the Pyrenees to Spain.
From the US, 2,800 left but a third of them didn’t come back. The American section of the International Brigades was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Two hundred Chicagoans were among the volunteers. I’m sure I knew some of them.
They were men with names like Paul Lutka, Sid Harris, Milt Cohen, Sam Gibbons, Charles Hall, Ed Balchowsky, Steve Nelson. And Oliver Law, an African-American who couldn’t serve as an officer in the Jim Crow US Army in World War I, but was a battalion commander in Spain. He died in battle a few months later.
You can see some of them interviewed (and Balchowsky playing the piano) on the excellent 1984 documentary, The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Studs Terkel. The film is available to see and stream on Vimeo.
If I had gone to Spain, I would have been a photographer or a journalist, or perhaps a driver or nurse. Very few women were in combat. Most of the volunteers I would have met were from New York or San Francisco. They were mostly urban working class. About a fourth were Jewish, about 90 were African-American. Many were the children of Eastern Europeans who came here after World War I. They left to escape political repression and economic distress in their home countries.
In many ways, the Spanish Civil War was a culture war—urban against rural, modernity against tradition, freedom of expression against repression of ideas.
The International Brigades were sent out to the front lines with poor quality equipment, no uniforms—often little food or water–and little or no training. Some of them had never handled a gun before.
But the internationals were shock troops for the Republic. That’s one of the reasons their death toll was so high. Their remains are on battlefields named Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, the Ebro River.
Fascist Germany and Italy contributed weapons, warplanes, warships and 100,000 troops to the Nationalist cause—the fascist or Franco side. Russia and Mexico contributed some weapons and advisers to the Spanish government—the Republican side–but it was minimal compared to what Germany and Italy did. What did the US do? Nada. The US, Britain and France refused to support the Spanish Republic. They wouldn’t even sell them munitions or oil, even though Spain had plenty of gold to pay for them.
The war ended in 1939 as the fascists gradually rolled over all of Spain. Barcelona and Catalonia, the heart of the Republican cause, fell in January and February–and Madrid in March. Franco declared victory; his government was recognized by the good old USA. Democracy died in Spain. Franco ruled as the dictatorial Caudillo until he died in 1975.
The veterans of the Spanish Civil War continued to be political activists who later supported the civil rights movement and antiwar movements. The last American veteran died in February. He was Delmer Berg, who died at 99.
I tell this story because I believe we need to remember the Spanish Civil War and teach our kids about it. Why was it important?
- It was the prequel to World War II and the Cold War. And it prefigured the culture wars of today.
- The American volunteers went on their own dime to Spain. And most of those who returned were ostracized and threatened by the US government, the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for the rest of their lives.
- The war inspired many artists, writers, journalists and photographers. George Orwell wrote a memoir Homage to Catalonia about fighting with the POUM, the anarchists, a splinter group of Marxists. Ernest Hemingway covered the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance and gathered material for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- Photographer Robert Capa shot some memorable images, including the iconic image titled “Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier being shot down.
- Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard, was kidnapped and executed by the Franco thugs. His body was tossed in a mass grave and his remains have never been found.
- There were many others. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Andre Malraux, Salvador Dali, Martha Gellhorn, Willy Brandt, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Emma Goldman, Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos were involved in various ways.
- Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, captured the aftermath of the vicious aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German bombers flown by German pilots. About 1,650 people were killed, mostly women, children and old men, because the other men had gone off to fight the fascists. The bombardment of Guernica became a world symbol of the horrors of war.
- Picasso had left Spain and refused to return or to have his art displayed there as long as Franco was in power. Guernica’s home for years was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I saw it in the 1970s. Then recently I saw it at the Museo de Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it is now permanently installed.
Back to the present, I think we should vow to celebrate this moment in history by becoming knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War. Here are my suggestions for how you might do this.
First of all, explore the resources of ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights, as well as the history and legacy of the Spanish Civil War. You can sign up for ALBA’s mailing list here.
Readings about the Spanish Civil War
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The story of Robert Jordan, an American, who goes to Spain to fight with the International Brigades.
- Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005). A good resource for a basic history and timeline of the war.
- Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (2016). An engrossing history drawn from the letters and diaries of the participants.
- Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1994). Carroll had the advantage of interviews with some of the living veterans of the war.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell’s memoir about his time fighting with the POUM in Spain.
- Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems About the Spanish Civil War (2002). An excellent collection of poetry edited by a UIUC professor and published by the University of Illinois Press.
- Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961, rev. 2001). This is the definitive history of the war by the distinguished British historian.
Films about the Spanish Civil War
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, dir Sam Wood (DVD, 1943). It was a box office hit and nominated for nine Oscars. The bridge-detonation scene is based on Hemingway’s actual experience.
- The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, dirs Noel Buckner and Mary Dore, narrated by Studs Terkel (Vimeo, 1984).
- Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, dir Julia Newman (DVD, 2002)
- Land and Freedom, dir Ken Loach (parts are on Vimeo, 1995). This is a dramatized history of the war with actors portraying participants but also making use of documentary footage. I have not been able to find this film in one piece (probably because of copyright restrictions) although it’s possible to watch 9- or 10-minute sections of it on Vimeo.
- Plus Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Butterfly’s Tongue, Hemingway and Gellhorn, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and more.
In conclusion, remember this for today’s protests: No Pasaran!
So you didn’t get tickets to the great behemoth from Broadway…or you have to wait five or six months to use your tickets? If you’re a theater fan, take advantage of all the great shows that have recently opened on stages large and small. I’ve been having a great time checking out the new productions. Here are my favorites so far.
The Last Wife at Timeline Theatre
This is the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Wait, don’t check her Wikipedia page yet. The new Timeline production will give you some insights, both fact and fantasy, into her life as a feminist before her time. Kate was a woman of intellect and strength who carried out a sort of “school for queens” in Henry’s household. She was grooming his two daughters, Mary and Bess, for their ascensions to the throne. That’s right. Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen.
The play by Kate Hennig, a Canadian theater artist and playwright, premiered last year at Stratford, Ontario, and this is its first US production. It’s a very good production indeed with fine acting and a crisp, smart script, plus modern dress and decidedly modern language. The Last Wife runs into December. Here’s my review.
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
Don’t avoid this play because you think it’s about boxing and you hate boxing. Well, yes, it is about boxing but so much more. It’s about one moment that changed the life of the great Emile Griffith, a talented hat designer, entertainer, bisexual and an impressive fighter. You won’t see any punches in this play. Charles Newell’s direction, plus stage design and lighting, reimagine the fight scenes. Body percussion is used very cleverly to simulate fights and create tension. But brain damage and “dementia pugilistica” are part of the story.
Man in the Ring is a moving, even haunting journey through the life of one man, played as his older self by Allen Gilmore, one of Chicago’s finest actors, and as the young fighter by Kamal Angelo Bolden.
The play has a very short run for some reason. It just opened last weekend and closes October 16. Check out my review and then call the box office.
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Yes, this is another reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya. It’s getting so Chekhov is reimagined almost as often as Shakespeare (and the Russian’s oeuvre is much smaller, so how far can this go?). This is Aaron Posner’s retelling of the Uncle Vanya story in modern dress and language, set at someone’s country home somewhere east of here. If you saw Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre last year, you will immediately want to see this too. Bird was a retelling of The Seagull and it was delightfully smart and funny (my 2015 review). Life Sucks (an accurate summary of any Chekhov play) is warmer and sweeter but equally delightful.
My review describes the play like this.
Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition.
The Lookingglass production and staging are excellent and the performances are terrific, especially those by Chicago favorites such as Philip R. Smith, Barbara Robertson plus Eddie Jemison, Penelope Walker and Chaon Cross. The play runs thru November 6.
True West at Shattered Globe Theatre
Sam Shepard is one of my favorite playwrights and Steppenwolf Theatre has staged some masterful productions of his work, including their seminal production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I remember that production vividly so I went into this performance with some trepidation. But Shattered Globe does an excellent job in staging this violent and vivid play and almost grabs the Shepard dynamite. Lee is the older, bolder, meaner brother and Austin is the quieter writer — and then both brothers change.
The story of two brothers of course reminded me of my own two sons. There’s a different dynamic in a family, I think, when there are more than two brothers. So my review begins this way.
Anyone who had rowdy brothers or raised a pair of sons will feel a chill of recognition at some point during Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play of brotherly rivalry.
The duality of emotion lies in wait in every aspect of our tense two hours with brothers Lee (Joseph Wiens) and Austin (Kevin Viol). They compete and collaborate, love and hate, drink and work, reminisce and prevaricate.
True West runs until October 22 at Theater Wit on Belmont.
This essay was adapted from one of my readings at Kill Your Darlings, our live lit and improv series. This was from the night celebrated as Art (one of the cultural categories on thirdcoastreview.com).
How do you define art? This question has always plagued me.
I know what art is. It’s a visual representation of life or some emotion or some experience. Not exactly tangible. That’s why it’s hard to define art.
There are dictionary definitions. “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.“ But that’s crazy because art doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Then there are people who think only they can define art. The know-nothings who say, “That’s not art” or “My kid could have done that with his crayons (or clay)” about any piece of art that isn’t representational. Or that they don’t understand.
If a sculpture isn’t a man on a horse, then it’s not art.
If a painting isn’t fruit on a table, or people dressed up and posing, then it’s not art.
Public art is very often the object of this opinion: That’s not art.
When our Picasso was unveiled in Daley Center in 1967, it was met with jokes, nicknames and worse. And this was before the internet. The late columnist Mike Royko said people could see
“it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like a giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
“But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago.
“Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the police scandals, the settlers who took the Indians but good. Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”
Royko concludes this way. “It is all there in that Picasso thing. The I Will spirit of Chicago. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.”
People insisted on knowing that the Picasso looked like something. Anything. A woman. A dog. Something real. Don’t show me that abstract crap.
Now we love it, however. You can believe the Picasso will be wearing a Cubs cap soon – if the Cubs get into the World Series.
There have been similar reactions to other abstract public art.
There was “Tilted Arc,” the Richard Serra sculpture on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The sculpture was a massive arc of steel that bisected the plaza. Serra attributed meaning to it in the context of the government agencies and workers in that public building. People hated it. They hated the way it looked. They hated the way it slashed through the plaza and made them detour around it on their way to their offices.
I had a similar artistic experience last weekend when I was visiting Greensboro, North Carolina.
There’s a new piece of public art in a new downtown city park. It’s called “Where We Met” by Janet Echelman. It’s made of net and wire and is meant to honor the local textile industry and its workers and the networks of roads and rails that supported the industry for the many years it thrived.
While I was hanging around taking photos and watching my grandsons play, I heard people’s comments. “Huh? Why is that art?” “It’s just a bunch of net. The city paid a million bucks for that?”
And so it goes. The Picasso survives and thrives. The Serra was the subject of such controversy that it was removed from the plaza, despite the artist’s objections. We’ll see how the Echelman survives in Greensboro.
Yasmina Reza wrote a play that sums up the whole question. It’s titled, appropriately, “Art.” It’s about three friends. Serge buys a very expensive painting by a fashionable artist and invites Marc and Yvan over to see it. It’s a large canvas, painted completely white with white diagonal lines.
The friends’ reactions—laughter, anger, sarcasm—affect their relationships with each other. It ends up (spoiler alert) with Serge offering Marc a bright blue marker and inviting him to draw on the “canvas.” Marc draws a blue diagonal and then a little skier with a woolly hat. In the final scene, the two of them are carefully cleaning the painting.
An old friend of mine used to say, “Art is what the artist says it is.” And I believe he’s right.
If I define myself as an artist, then what I create is art. If I pile garbage in the middle of a gallery, it’s an installation. And there’s a label on it that says it’s art. If I smear the garbage on a canvas, it’s a painting. It’s art because I’m an artist and I say it’s art. And when I’m well known, people will pay big money for that painting. Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.
And that’s the best answer to my question: What is art?
I’ve been watching music biopics this week. Three of them. They’re stories of individual musicians and each film is flawed yet satisfying in its depiction of some part of a musician’s life and struggle. The films are recent and all available on DVD—or you may be able to find them on a streaming service.
I Saw the Light (2015, 123 minutes)
This is the weakest of the three films in its portrayal of the life and career of the great Hank Williams, who died at the age of 29 after a short but brilliant career beset by addiction to alcohol and drugs. The film is worth seeing for Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal and performances of Hank Williams’ songs. He seems to become Williams physically and his voice is close to the tone and style of the original. (I listened to some original Hank Williams after watching the film and Hiddleston’s voice is more silky smooth than Williams’ voice.) Even so, Hiddleston never gets beneath the surface of what made Williams tick. And neither does the film.
Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife Audrey, who had delusions of being a country singer herself despite no talent. Cherry Jones has some great scenes as Hank’s mother, Lillie.
My objection to the approach taken by the director Marc Abraham is that it doesn’t show any of Williams’ early musical inspirations in black gospel music or anything about Rufus Payne, the black street musician who taught him to play the guitar. The play Lost Highway staged by American Blues Theater in 2015 and 2016 did a better job of showing Williams’ life and influences and included Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne as one of the characters important in Williams’ life.
So I’m still waiting for a good film about the great Hank Williams. The Last Ride (2012) directed by Harry Thomason was even less satisfying. Henry Thomas plays the Hank Williams character who hires a local kid to drive his own blue Cadillac to his last gigs in late December 1952. That was indeed the last ride; Williams died in the car on New Year’s Day 1953.
And I don’t even want to watch Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) again. I remember it as dreadful. Directed by Gene Nelson, it features George Hamilton lip-synching (badly) as Williams.
Miles Ahead (2015, 100 minutes)
Another film about a great musician, Miles Ahead also takes a segment of that life. The film portrays trumpeter Miles Davis during the five-year stretch that he took off from playing or composing. Don Cheadle is the best part of this film. He wrote, directed and plays Davis, very believably. Cheadle bears some slight resemblance to Davis (as Hiddleston does to Williams) so that helps. The late 1970s scenes are intercut with earlier scenes when Davis was performing with his band in the top jazz clubs around the world and celebrated as a brilliant performer. His first wife, Frances Taylor, is beautifully played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, a dancer who gives up her career for Davis.
The plot suggests some events that happened or might have happened in Davis’ life and uses the plot device of a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to write a profile of Davis. (Echoes of End of the Tour, about a reporter’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, among other films.) There’s also a storyline about Davis trying to get back the session tapes he believes he owns from his recording company.
Some famous and talented musicians play members of Davis’ band. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark Jr. and Esperanza Spalding add a lot to the musical performance scenes. Cheadle did learn to play the trumpet for the film but the music we hear is usually the trumpet work of contemporary jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold who recorded over Cheadle’s playing. The rest of the trumpet work is that of Miles Davis himself, pulled from old recordings.
Some of the plot devices—like fist fights and a car chase punctuated with shooting—just seem silly and don’t add to the film’s quality.
After I watched Miles Ahead, I got out my Miles CDs and listened to Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, my two personal jazz favorites.
Born to be Blue (2016, 97 minutes)
Another film about a jazz trumpeter—Chet Baker—features a really fine performance by Ethan Hawke as the troubled musician. I think this is the best of the three music films I’m reviewing here.
The story, directed by Robert Budreau, is a “reimagining” of the musician’s life in mid-career. Baker, a white West Coast musician who played the cool West Coast style jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wanted to play at Birdland in New York and be accepted by the black jazz musicians of the bebop and cool genre. (At one point, Miles Davis tells him “Come back after you’ve done some livin’.”) He does eventually play at Birdland but the story is primarily about his battle with heroin and recovery from a brutal attack (possibly by a drug dealer) that severely cut his lips, knocked out his front teeth and ruined his embouchure. He wasn’t able to play the trumpet comfortably for months.
Like Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, Hawke learned to play the trumpet for his role—so he could look like he knew how to play the trumpet. The music he plays was recorded by another musician—Kevin Turcotte. Baker also often sang in concert and on his albums—in a wispy, reedy soft voice—and Hawke does the vocals himself in a couple of scenes.
Carmen Ejogo is terrific as Jane, sort of an amalgam of the various women in Baker’s live over the years. There’s a real chemistry between them and the interracial relationship works. There’s a film within a film story going on but the main plotline is about Baker’s recovery from the attack, and his efforts to stay off heroin and thus out of jail.
Ultimately (and here’s a spoiler), he decides he loves heroin and the way it allows him to play too much to give it up. At one point, he explains to his manager (Callum Rennie) why. “It gives me confidence,” he explains. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note.”
Baker spent most of the last decades of his life in Europe as a musician and heroin addict. He died at 58 in Amsterdam in 1988.