Friday, February 14, 2014

Della: She's a Heck of a Broad

Whew!  Haven't been over here in quite a while.  Mostly I'm on my Tumblr these days, posting my own work (is it okay to shamelessly plug your own blog on another one of your own blogs? Probably not, but yolo.)  And once again I am here to write not about a music video, this blog's intended purpose, but about a totally under-appreciated eye candy gem called Della.

This film is even more under-appreciated than Black Narcissus, which definitely seems to be considered cool among some film geeks and even got a screening at Film Forum.  In fact, I only saw Della because I was at my folks' place in the burbs with nothing to do but binge watch Turner Classic Movies.  This was after a night of watching Blue Jasmine followed by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.  Apparently I just can't get enough maudlin tales starring strong females, and neither could Joan Crawford late in her career.

It's not hard to figure out why this hidden gem has stayed hidden.  It's mostly just a sad, desperate attempt to capitalize on the monster success of Peyton Place.  The plot is held together by dental floss, nothing really makes sense, and the one guy who is supposed to explain everything never really does.  Paul Burke, the male lead who was supposed to be the protagonist of the TV follow up, is lukewarm at best.  Essentially this is a complete shitshow pilot episode, but with great production values.

But the hot mess that is Della is the perfect backdrop to allow the female stars to shine.  And shine they do, in their sumptuous costumes and wacky yet palatial set.  Joan Crawford is brilliant as Della Chappell, the wealthy and reclusive matriarch of a sleepy seaside town. Ms. Crawford is a caricature of herself with dramatically gray-streaked, severely bouffant hair and drag queen eye brows that Divine would appreciate.  She still has her acting chops, though, and brings a fully-embodied, yet mysterious matron to the screen despite the flimsy writing.  Diane Baker was handpicked by Ms. Crawford to play Della's daughter, Jenny, after they acted together in Strait-Jacket.  Ms. Baker breathes life into her contrived damsel in distress and easily steals scenes from Paul Burke with winsome charm and credible depth.  She even gamely holds her own next to the great Ms. Crawford.

The set and costuming are characters in themselves.  We first get to be swallowed up by the strange and wonderful Chappell world when Mr. Burke's character Barney pays a visit to the family estate.  Through foreboding gates and past a Greek frieze, is the Chappell mansion.  Inside is a potpourri of colors, textures, and styles, from the post-Modern art to the Victorian-inspired wallpaper to the hodgepodge of antiques.  I love that the art director, Gibson Holley, had a lot of fun with proportions and anachronistic details. The enchanting Chappell mavens are always dressed like goddesses, sometimes mythological goddesses, as in their diaphanous pink numbers in this scene, and sometimes contemporary '50s goddesses, as in their killer gray ensembles in this one.  Both the set and wardrobe create a feeling that the Chappell world is both of its time and place and, at the same time, untouched by time and out of this world.

This project was originally titled Royal Bay and written to be just long enough for an epic pilot.  However, it ended up being repackaged and released as a short feature named after Ms. Crawford's character.  As the TCM website says, "the would-be pilot made the fatal error of focusing, almost exclusively, on the only two characters the series would be missing, mother and daughter Della and Jenny Chappell," and I have to say that what was fatal for the planned Royal Bay is very, very good for us.  The whole film is available for free on Youtube if you're okay with watching it in installments.  I highly recommend.  Except you might want to fast forward through all the scenes that don't include Ms. Crawford or Ms. Baker, unless you want a laugh.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Black Narcissus

I have decided to re-dedicate this blog to music videos, so it may seem incongruous that I'm beginning with a feature film review.  However, seeing "Black Narcissus" in all its Technicolor glory last night at Film Forum definitely inspired my inner music video director.  From its expressionistic cinematography to its otherworldly production design and meticulous costuming, it's an eye candy lover's dream.  And, according to Film Forum's page for the film, this was "experiment in 'composed film' — the 10-12 minutes leading up to the finale were shot, stop-watch in hand, to a pre-composed score," so parts of it are like a long-form music video.  I was first introduced to this film a few years ago when my Art Direction teacher at NYU showed us a clip.  I always remembered how striking one of the shots was of looking down a Himalayan cliff.  This film was made in 1947, entirely on Hollywood film sets and in England, so the effect was created simply by using a painting.  As a big fan of practical effects, I much prefer painted backdrops and models over CGI, and they certainly fit well within the beautifully artificial world of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka The Archers).  The melodramatic plotline and period acting can come across as silly and outdated.  But I recommend drinking Black Narcissus' Kool Aid and immersing yourself in its richly sensuous world.  It's a shame not to view DP Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning cinematography on the big screen, but perhaps watching it on Youtube will inspire you to seek it out in another form.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Forest of Fred

Over the past week, I have gotten very well acquainted with the work of art pioneer and rebel Fred Forest.  Forest is an artist in residence at Residency Unlimited, where I intern.  It is fair to say that if I wasn't working where I am, I probably never would have heard of him.  This surprised me at first because a lot of his work was on the cutting edge of what would become mainstream in postmodern art.  For example, Forest began using a video camera to create art in 1067, before they were used widely in homes.  He explored video as a sociological tool, recording the everyday events and rituals of his neighborhood.  Throughout his career, he strove to overturn the traditional media power structure.  Using media as an instrument to facilitate social interaction, Forest attempted to make television and newspapers participatory.  His work has also encompassed institutional critique, focusing in recent years on trying to force museums to be more transparent about purchases.  He has earned a reputation as agitator, often critiquing institutions of which he is a part.  I suspect that this habit of biting the hand that feeds him is a large part of why I had never heard of him before.

Last week, I participated in Forest's performance at the MoMA, "Invisible Square Meter."  This piece was a continuation of his work "The Artistic Square Meter," in which he compared the art market to the real estate market by taking out a fake real estate ad.  This work was an homage to the art critic Pierre Restany (a supporter of Forest's) and to the artist Ian Wilson.  Forest feels Wilson's work anticipated that of Tino Seghal, but Seghal's work is the one in the MoMA.  Forest proposes that the reason why Wilson's work is not recognized is because he lacks the insider status that Seghal has in the art world.  "Invisible Square Meter" was not an official, MoMA-sanctioned work and Forest was told by security guard that if he performed inside the museum, they would call the police.  So, outside the front doors, in the rain, three other volunteers and I formed a square three times, which Forest would measure and then declare, "The invisible square meter is born!" Creating conceptual art isn't such a bad way to spend a rainy Friday afternoon.

Monday, September 12, 2011

If I could sum up MoMA's "Talk to Me" exhibit in one phrase, it would be that on the above placard. The theme was supposed to be interactive art, but it mainly consisted of finished products behind glass or processes that ended in other places (such as BakerTweet).  I expected to feel like a kid in a candy store with this exhibit, but instead I felt like a kid in a china shop.  My museum-going buddy described it as "frustrating," and I couldn't agree more.  I did enjoy playing with Doodlebuzz, an experimental news feed interface, and listening to the inner thoughts of trees in Tree Listening.  And seeing the Metrocard machine in a museum context made me notice for the first time that there is a scrolling "If you see something, say something" LED sign above each and every one (file under: disturbing).  Overall though, I would say this exhibit was a big ol' flop.  In contrast to the inaccessibility of "Talk To Me," Carlito Carvalhosa's "Sum of Days" is a truly participatory installation in The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.  Its ethereal beauty is what initially lured us in, but the intriguing system of microphones and speakers is what continued to lead us through labyrinth.  The microphones record "accidental noise inherent in everyday experience" of visitors walking through the installation, and each day a layer of sound from the day before to create a multi-textured soundscape.  In addition to these everyday sounds, musicians will be performing inside the installation periodically and this will be recorded and integrated as well.  Ironically, MoMA announces the performance times each day through its Twitter account.  It seems that "Sum of Days" is a more compelling and use-friendly interactive experience.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It's Rainin' Oo Baby It's Rainin'

All the Hurricane Irene hype made me think of Rihanna's megahit from 2007, "Umbrella." I don't think I've watched the full video since then, but since I'm stuck inside with nothing else to do I've been hitting up You Tube for entertainment. I was struck by how much this video seems to have been influenced by Robert Mapplethorpe (starting at 2:24). I'm not sure whether this was intentional or just a product of the fact that artists have always loved to create abstract forms from the human body. However, the silvery gradation and geometric framing and poses in the video definitely call to mind Mapplethorpe's classically beautiful black and white portraits of Lisa Lyons and other body builders.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Getting a little meta here...

Pioneering modern dancer Isadora Duncan once said, "No, I can't explain the dance to you. If I could say it -- I wouldn't have to dance it!" I often think about this quotation and the subtext that goes with it. I think Isadora's quotation carries with it a strong whiff of many artists' disdain towards intellectual analysis of art. In my experience, there seems to be a strong trend (I'm saying a lot, not all) of the artistic world clearly separating itself from critics, scholars, etc. The dominant view seems to be that artists are the ones who suck the marrow out of life, while intellectuals and appreciators are on the sidelines, critiquing things they can never fully understand. And never the twain shall meet!

The fact is, in today's reality, artists have to be able to articulate what their art means in words (or pay someone else to do it). Whether trying to convince investors that a film will bring a return or a cultural council that a site-specific performance piece deserves a grant, artists have to be able to express what their art is about and why it has value in order to get the funding to make it happen. Maybe this is part of the issue - artists see their art as something sacred (as they should), and they don't want to degrade it by associating it with financial transactions. However, mystifying the art-making process and adopting a martyr complex can only go so far. Maintaining the myth of the long-suffering, "starving artist" may promote a feeling of camaraderie through an "us versus them" mentality, but it ultimately does artists and their art a disservice. If you truly believe your art has value, you should put some effort into allowing the world to understand it. Challenging does not have to mean inaccessible. Obfuscating the intent and process behind a work does not add a layer of meaning.

To paraphrase another giant of modern dance, Twyla Tharp, making great art is about showing up to work every day because you never know when the divine nectar will fall. It is true that art has moments of transcendence that can't be expressed in words - that's why we love it. But, in my experience, you can't have those moments without a strong foundation of discipline and dedication. And that is very easy to grasp.