Archive for January, 2009

Updike

Posted in Books with tags on January 28, 2009 by Adam

Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we have only to be still to experience.”

Advertisements

Red Balloons

Posted in Film with tags , on January 27, 2009 by Adam

There are several narrative techniques that tend to alienate audiences all too quickly, and among them must certainly be counted all members of the reference family: self-, homage, allusion, etc. Whether it is because they go over one’s head or because they come off as overly pretentious, these tactics, especially in film, can be a kiss of death to the casual consumer.

Yet, when done properly, references can enhance a piece of art immensely, making the text richer and deeper while piquing the curiosity of some and giving a friendly nod to others. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Flight of the Red Balloon not only manages to do it properly, it manages to place itself in the same league as the works to which it pays tribute, and it does so with a joyful whimsicality and gentle restraint that move the viewer past voyeurism and into an unexpected place of personal familiarity.

The cinematic references span from, of course, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, to Tommy to Breathless, while making plenty of brief stops in between. More importantly, though, the movie pays homage to the art of filmmaking itself. By writing in a lead character who is a young art filmmaker, Hsiao-hsien decided to tread in murky meta waters, yet his film never gets bogged down by its within-a-film aspects. In fact, the scenes in which Song Fang, the aforementioned filmmaker character, records young Simon, the boy she has been hired to babysit, are some of the most honest and touching moments of adult/child interaction I have seen on film. The magic that emits naturally from her handheld camera, both when she is behind the lens and when Simon begins to take control, is a testament to the childlike sense of awe present in artistic self-discovery. While the eponymous red balloon does not take as central an on-screen role as in Lamorisse’s film, the camera, in addition to many other objects that make appearances in Simon and Song’s time together–pancakes, puppets, pinball machines–becomes enough of a vehicle of dreamy wonderment that the red orb’s greatest use in the film is that of a springboard into a discussion about modern film technology and editing trickery.

And while this kind of contemporary spin might sound as if it is doing Lamorisse’s objet d’art a disservice, Hsiao-hsien has actually managed, in moving away from the focus of The Red Balloon, to accomplish the very feat that Lamorisse did in 1956: to pay tribute to the joyous experience that is discovery. This time around, the discoveries are domesticated a bit, but we know that the real sense of wonder for Lamorisse’s Pascal was one of internal exploration anyway, and Simon keeps this intellectual curiosity very much alive. More importantly, Hsiao-hsien keeps alive the cinematic curiosity of Lamorisse and, with an unmistakable sense of love and admiration for the craft, honors the human passion for making–and watching–undefinable notions come alive on screen.

Eggleston’s Depth

Posted in Visual Art with tags , , on January 23, 2009 by Adam

This past weekend, I finally made it to see the William Eggleston Democratic Camera exhibit at The Whitney. I had seen many of his photos dozens of times, in books or on a screen, but this was my first experience seeing any prints in person.

There are so many things that can be striking about one of Eggleston’s photos. It might be the otherworldly glow cast upon a subject as she sits in an angled sun ray. It might be the seemingly immense scope of an everyday item shot from a low angle. But for me, the most striking thing about any of the work I saw at The Whitney was the visual jarring that occurred when looking at a photograph of branches. These branches, as I moved toward and away from the photograph, existed in a countless number of planes, and each time I tried to focus my eye on one part, my brain would be convinced that there was someplace else I should be looking, either in front of or behind that particular branch.

The result, in person, was an incredible visual sensation that actually made me a bit dizzy as I moved around the photograph. Because there were so many layers to the photo, my eyes found it difficult to process the entire image at once. As they scanned up and down, left and right, it felt as if my head was shaking ever so slightly, as if I were a bobble head about to become still once again. This sensation, rather than take away from the pleasure of the experience, enhanced it in a way that I could not have expected: it made this photograph, simple on the surface, a tormentor, daring me to level my gaze on one spot, and than grabbing me by the ears and tossing about the contents of my skull. That kind of interaction, I found, made the visit priceless.

Recollective

Posted in Music with tags , on January 20, 2009 by Adam

I’ve been sitting on Merriweather Post Pavilion for two weeks now, trying to separate my experience from those of the thousands of others who have chimed in. Yet I cannot, and I will recount two recent conversations I overheard and/or took part in during that same amount of time:

1.) In Connecticut, at a friend’s house, as we were sitting around listening to MPP, one of the people in the room: “I’m really glad our generation has this band.”

2.) On a public bus in Brooklyn: A minor debate, between myself and my roommate, as to whether 50% of American college students have heard of Animal Collective.

Now, let me make it clear that the friend quoted is one who does not generally subscribe to cliches; she was expressing a very honest belief that, in witnessing this band move from album to album, we of a certain age are in on some kind of shared experiential growth process. Namely, that we are witnessing an artistic career worth remembering.

Yet this shared experience she hinted at seems to take root in a countless number of very personal emotions and reactions that, while potentially easy to relate to, make it very hard to come to any definitive conclusions about the impact of the band. While this can be said for a good deal of art, for those who have a particularly vested interest in Animal Collective, objective separation exists at a distinct level of impossibility, at a point where the sonic aesthetics of the music come to take a backseat to the very unique set of associations.

In the above video, we can see hints as to why this sort of possessive engagement occurs. Quite simply, this band is not comprised of distant idols whose existences lie solely in a realm to which the listener dares not imagine visiting. Especially at a young age, such as they were in 2003, these appear to be people who, through their art, are reaching up toward something beyond their own lives, which if the conversation gives any clues, have their fair share of mundaneness. The language used is plain and earthly, with attention paid to extremely tangible things like rent and geography. And these earthly notions, when one listens to the music, are being left in the dust as these four men try to escape toward something difficult to place yet obviously beyond terrestrial demands.

This sense of escape from the mundane is, I think, what lies at the center of the band’s appeal. Even as the listener enters into a world made deep by the layers of sound, there is, after enough time spent with the material, a very great sense of safety. And while I hesitate to make musical comparisons to The Grateful Dead, there is certainly something to be said for the level of possibility inherent in the words and the music. While Garcia and Co. played the role of the elder guides who were always careful not to harshen things up by providing definitives–a point brought to my attention by an interview with Devendra Banhart in which he notes the importance of American Beauty opening with the word “Maybe”–AC seem to be more like the spiritual brethren whose occasional explorations of the darker aspects of life are reined in by a gentleness that comes as much from their pop tendencies as from the overarching themes of morality that have littered their recent work, Person Pitch included. This morality, combined with the demographic similarities between band and fans, has always made it incredibly easy for listeners to move beyond any challenging aspects of the music and imagine themselves as being in on the escape.

And now comes Merriweather Post Pavilion, what seems to be the band’s ultimate push for an escape, an album with themes–family life (“My Girls,” “Also Frightened”), the desire for youthful spontaneity (“Summertime Clothes”) and the costs of constant movement (“No More Runnin'”)–that are both comforting because of their domesticity and terrifying because they are a straightfaced acknowledgment of the pains of growing up. For every sweet sentiment there is a moment of nearly unbearable tension, and the accumulated emotional taxation caused by this doesn’t see any real release until the buoyant chants of closer “Brothersport” remind the listener to “Open up your throat”, as if to serve as a reminder that yes, while we are all horrified by the passing of time, we are all in on that journey together, and we must all do everything we can to not let the process strike us silent as we plot a way out of it.

Sonically, Merriweather Post Pavilion is an album that sounds equally deconstructed and harmonious, intriguingly identifiable yet layered to the point of mystery. Emotionally, it is an album that represents the plight of all those wishing to break from the claustrophobia induced by the body’s natural progression and the demands of a world that frowns upon a life simultaneously simple and full of exuberance. And because the men in that video seem so familiar to us, we listen with the hope that, together, they and we can get to that sunny place where escape is no longer necessary.

Welcome

Posted in Admin on January 15, 2009 by Adam

Artefax is a place for cultural criticism that asks you not only to think about but to engage with the things you consume. It is also a place where your thoughts and engagement are always appreciated.