Thursday, November 27, 2014

Le jour se lève

Marcel Carne was renowned for Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, l945). Le jour se leve, (Daybreak, l939), which was recently revived at Film Forum (today is the last day of the run), is a relatively minor melodrama. However it’s notable for the way that it exhibits the signature stylistic elements and themes which would blossom in Carne’s great masterpiece released 6 years later. Jacques Prevert wrote the screenplay for both and the themes of illusion and reality, which are the palette from which the director works in Les enfants du paradis, unfold from the beginning of Le jour se leve, when a blind man cries out “quelqu’un est tombe.” Later the police shoot at a reflection in a mirror rather than the reality and then there’s the character of Mr. Valentin (Jules Berry), the animal trainer who performs his tricks on a magical proscenium stage. One of his other bits of magic is the art of seduction and it’s in the fight over a woman named Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent) that Valentin and a factory worker named Francois (Jean Gabin) square off. Gabin, one of the greats of the French cinema, never appears in film without a cigarette in the side of his mouth. Yet Carne takes this to new lengths in Le jour se leve, where Gabin is forced to chain smoke since he doesn’t have matches in the room where he is holed up from the police. What’s even more significant on the subject of illusion is that the whole set of the movie, never ceases to look like a set, as would be the case in Les enfants. Carne was a film director who was enchanted by theater and theatricality itself would become his subject in the later film. The other woman of the movie an enchantress named Clara is played by another great of the French cinema, Arletty, who Carne would choose to star in Les enfants. It’s she who proclaims “I’m sick of men who talk of love. They talk so much they forget to make love.” It’s the perfect line from an actress who was imprisoned due to a wartime relationship with a German flyer and who once famously said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ode to Big Bank Hank

The Times ran the obit of Big Bank Hank (“Big Bank Hank, 58, an Early Star of Rap,” NYT, 11/11/14). Big Bank Hank was part of the Sugar Hill Gang. He’s the guy in the “Rapper’s Delight” video with the paunch, the rolled up sleeves and the blue sunhat, who carries a lot of weight, literally and figuratively. “Rapper’s Delight” was the song for which Sugar Hill Gang became famous and it featured one of the first examples of sampling (Chic’s “Good Times” threaded though the track) that was also a harbinger of the appropriation frenzy that would infect the art world at the same time. But the video is really crazy. It’s a world. The only thing close to it is Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,” with its famous line “I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.” “Rapper’s Delight” isn’t even mildly dated. It’s may be the first rap song, but it’s the Grecian Urn of rap and it exudes the air of something very hopeful, a feeling of ecstasy, of knowing that you’re really cool and dancing to the beat, and of feeling that you’re so in the groove that you’re almost omnipotent and can have anything you want—the feeling that comes before the high wears off. “Rapper’s Delight” didn’t have any of the darkness or the violence of a lot later rap and hip hop and it gave no hint that of the upcoming wars which would result in shootings like the Lil’ Kim episode outside of Hot 97 and actual casualties of war like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (at one point the East and West Coast rappers exhibited a deadly level of animosity). “Rapper’s Delight” looked back towards Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes the Judge” (the producer of “Rapper’s Delight” was Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia, the duo who came to fame with “Love is Strange,” during the 50’s) and forward to Snoop’s “Doggystyle." But Big Bank Hank was a unifying presence, at least according to the persona he portrayed in the song. The Democrats and Republicans and their feuding constituencies could use a Big Bang Hank to get an immigration bill through congress.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Matisse’s Cut-Outs at MoMA

Blue Nude by Henri Matisse
Was Matisse a designer manqué? His parents's involvement with textiles and fabric design has always been considered an influence on his work (viz.Matisse, His Art and His Textiles by Ann Dumas, Jack Flam and Remi Labrusse). Imagine him as a student at F.I.T. with fine arts as his avocation. Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which may be applicable to the case of Matisse. He was an artist whose work is reproduced so ubiquitously that we forget the revolutionary impact that his cut-outs or decoupages had on how we view the hue of an image. Seeing Matisse up close in the current show of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA of course changes things. In "La Chute d”Icare" (1943), you actually can locate the pins holding the yellow starbursts, the pin locking in the sky and another holding Icarus’s “flame red heart.” Here is what Matisse had to say, “You have no idea how, during the cut-out paper period, the sensation of flight which emanated from me helped me better adjust my hand when it used the scissor. It’s a kind of linear and graphic equivalence to the sensation of light.” “Icare” also appears as the maquette for plate VIII of Matisse’s book of cut-outs, Jazz. But actually one of the most enchanting of the decoupages in the show and one which avoids all chance of expropriation as design is titled simply “Forms,” which is the maquette for plate IX of Jazz.  Commenting on Matisse’s technique, the curators remark that “rather than discarding the paper that fell from his scissors when he cut out a shape, Matisse understood that each cut produced two equally valid forms." “Forms” represents the positive and negative of a torso with an almost Brancusi like purity. Like the “Blue Nudes" series, it’s almost daring in its abstract simplicity and could never be mistaken for decorative art.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The Daily Show is considered primarily a comedy program finding it’s provenance in That Was the Week That Was and the media parodies on SNL. However, there’s undoubtedly a substantial segment of The Daily Show’s audience for whom the program’s satire is their primary news source. And if the satire about seemingly sacrosanct news items seems tasteless, the argument can be made that the grotesquery of what is going on in Iraq and Syria, in the Ukraine and to the Ozone layer is what’s truly lacking in taste. Rosewater,, the movie about the imprisonment of Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison (based on his memoir Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival), was directed by Jon Stewart, of Daily Show fame. However, as a director Stewart’s persona is a far cry from that of the television host. Instead of treating Bahari’s story as a comic strip or subject of satire (in the way Argo partially did in its tale of a notorious escape from Iran), Stewart tackles his subject with deadly seriousness. If there are humorous elements like one in which Bahari entices the film’s eponymous interrogator (Kim Bodnia) with stories about massage excursions in the exotic New Jersey city of Fort Lee, they’re intrinsic to the reality of what’s going on. The movie is curiously complex and a far cry from the kind of homiletics that are often the dark side of the satirist’s trade. The association between Rosewater and Rosebud is not serendipitous when one considers that one of the main axes Bahari’s tormentors have to grind is the link between journalism and spying. Whether Stewart or Bahari intended it, it’s hard not to fault the Iranian hardliners their insinuation of collusion (however one might detest their methods). The movie points to layers upon layers of connections rather than disconnects between the journalist and his captors, including the fact that Bahari’s father had been a prisoner of a common enemy the Shah—whose rise to power had come about due to the CIA’s machinations against the democratically elected Mosaddegh back in l953. There’s a scene where Bahari is about to be executed in the prison courtyard. His interrogator pulls the trigger, but there are no bullets in the gun. It’s a replication of an event in Dostoevsky’s early life. One wonders if the character, whose novelistic sensibility Stewart so vividly paints in Rosewater (personal/historical flashbacks are interspersed throughout the film), will someday turn the nightmare he lived into a great work of fiction.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Have you noticed the odd way that newscasters have of accenting varying words. One of the most common forms of poetic expression is iambic pentameter. Shakespeare employed it in his plays. Newspeak  was the language Orwell created for the repressive society he envisioned in l984. But it’s a good word to use to describe how television announcers communicate. It’s not iambic pentameter, but it has definite cadences that revolve around emphasizing certain words and whether you’re listening to CNN or NPR or CBS or even Al Jazeera, it has the tendency to make all the news, whether it concerns a lost pet or plane, sound remarkably the same. There’s an old neuroscience conjecture that if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter long enough he will write Hamlet. Can the same thing be said about newscasters? Sometimes the emphasis seems arbitrary. Every sentence seems to require a key word. For instance let’s say a CNN’s anchor like Carol Costello or Chris Cuomo wants to say “the cat is out of the bag.” They won’t just iterate the words like you or I. They will probably emphasize the last two words of the sentence, “the bag.”  Let’s take another sentence an anchor might say, like “Ray Rice punched his then fiancé.” “Then” would obviously be the nominee in that particular sentence. Or here’s another possible sentence a newscaster might read, “Sources at the Pentagon have indicated that the ‘no boots on the ground’ policy may soon be reversed.” You’d think the emphasis might fall on “sources” or “Pentagon,” but “indicated” is clearly the word that punctuates the mood that the sentence creates.  Newspeak is definitely a language that one has to learn like French or Spanish and like all language it contains its own river of meanings that lies under the superficial veneer that the words create once they are encoded into a particular syntax. For instance, French communicates a certain pertness (as opposed to the perkiness of Newspeak), verging on rudeness or abruptness; there ‘s a hyberbolic sardonicism to French. When a French man or woman can’t do something that you require, they say “Je suis desole,” which means they are not desole at all and you can go fuck yourself since you’re not getting squat. Newscasters are totally the opposite of the French. There hardly a negative personality amongst them and every word out of their mouths is an expression of interest and enthusiasm. When Carol or Chris speaks to one of their correspondents out in the field, she or he is incredibly interested in everything the correspondent has to say, no matter how insignificant it is. Neither Chris nor Carol would probably ever dream of uttering the English equivalent of “Je suis desole.” Berlitz is one of the places one goes to learn French, Spanish or Italian, but how does one learn Newspeak. It’s the old nature versus nurture question. Obviously there are some people who are born talking like newscasters. Others start to talk this way after watching too much news and other wannabees attend schools of broadcasting which supposedly will teach you how to be a radio or television announcer. But once you have learned to talk like an announcer, can you ever return to the monotone of normal human speech. Can a pickle be turned back into a cucumber once he or she returns home from announcing headline stories?