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If you are looking for light holiday viewing, Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, isn’t it. If however you are compelled by the power of myth, by the archetype of the artist as a dark hero on a difficult journey, or have firsthand knowledge of how success is often dealt out by the cruel draconian dictum of “timing is everything,” Inside is a portrait that any artist will find familiar.

Llewyn Davis (portrayed with a pitch-perfect blend of frustating and sympathetic by Julliard-trained Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in New York City during the early 60’s right at the cusp of folk music breaking into the mainstream after years of being underground and overlooked (in the final few moments of the film we watch Llewyn leave the Gaslight Cafe while Bob Dylan, newly arriving on the scene, is playing.) Loosely modeled after Dave Van Ronk‘s self portrait in his 2006 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Llewyn is unlucky, unpleasant and while talented, not in possession of the kind of genius that might lead to international fame.

From Llewyn’s early performance of “I’ve Been All Around This World” with its more famous chorus of “Hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone,” we then follow his very difficult life over the course of a few days. He is without a home and mooches for a couch to sleep on from anyone and everyone. His relationships with his “friends” and family are in various stages of broken disrepair, and he has a problem getting cats back to where they belong (there are two of them over the course of the film.) His hero’s descent is best epitomized by a nightmarish car trip to Chicago in a snow storm with two unsavory characters (one of them played by an unforgettable John Goodman) as well as one of the aforementioned misplaced cats. His destination, the folk nightclub called Gate of Horn,* proves to be another disappointment for this young and troubled artist who is only alive and connected with the sweet and the transcendent parts of life when he is singing.

From the LA Times review by Kenneth Turan:

Though Davis clearly has the karma of someone who couldn’t catch a break with both hands, “Inside” also reveals him to be a genuine artist willing to stoically suffer the cards dealt him if that’s necessary to preserve his creative integrity. It’s the film’s empathy with him, its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes “Inside” an unexpectedly emotional piece.

Llewyn Davis is a complex, contradictory character who sometimes does the worst things for the best reasons and comes alive most fully, most appealingly, only when he sings. It’s a gift no one can take away from him, not even himself.

The notion of the struggling artist—one that values suffering as the price of great creativity—is frequently treated as an outdated 19th century concept that is not in keeping with our current fast paced, “no time for laggards”, DYI social culture. I have mixed feelings about the ease with which that meme is referenced and/or dismissed. It would be dishonest and a disservice to truth to eschew the extreme difficulty associated with being a committed, self-employed artist who neomances works into existence from their inchoate and imagined state. Not all artists pulled the rough road card of course, but there are way more of us, the yeoman foot travelers, than those lucky enough to make the journey in a cushioned carriage. Wherever you sit with how art comes into being, this film offers an unforgettable portrait of the darker side of a way of life that feels as if it chose us. Like Lleywn, I can’t not do what I do.

*Homer explained that it is through the Gate of Horn that true dreams (rather than false or deluding ones) will pass.

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Rama Burshtein, the Israeli director of “Fill the Void,” at right on the film set. (Photo: Vered Adir/Sony Picture Classics)

Some art forms favor expansion. Those are the ones that ask—require?—you to untether yourself and be taken outward, into a nimbus that exists beyond the quotidian of terrestrial constraints. The epic experience in art is a call of surrender to an expansive, visionary, fully immersive adventure.

That’s what is asked for by Richard Wagner‘s music, David Foster Wallace novels, James Turrell‘s Roden Crater, Matthew Barney‘s Cremaster Cycle. And of course many theater productions like Robert Wilson‘s Einstein on the Beach, Richard Foreman‘s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, or a marathon viewing of Tom Stoppard‘s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia.

The counterpoint to the “epic out” is the “epic in”—work that brings us into a beautifully crafted universe where the mystery is in miniature, detailed and often a bit arcane. The Book of Kells comes to mind. Persian miniatures. Ann Carson‘s Vox. Many of the compositions by Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

I want both of these artistic directionals in my life. A culture that leans too heavily into one or the other is out of balance. Too much expansiveness results in a loss of nuance and delicacy. Too much of the intimate can constrict with its claustrophobia.

Cinema leans heavily toward the former, so films that take the counter stance and do it well are particularly inspiring. Rama Burshtein‘s Fill the Void is set in a tightly knit ultra-Orthodox community in Tel Aviv. Almost all of the film takes place indoors, the cinematography lushly detailed and evocate, Vuillard-esque in its jeweled beauty. Because Burshtein is a member of the community, her telling of this variation on the marriage plot theme has a tender intimacy even though the social mores of this community are as foreign to our contemporary values as a Margaret Mead South Seas exposé. Their world is small and isolated from everything outside (at one point in the film the sound of a Purim celebration on the street below is quelled by closing the open window) but Burshtein takes us through the keyhole and into a richly textured, emotionally fine tuned, deeply authentic portrait of life.

I know something about communities that isolate themselves and preserve their heritage in a culture within a culture bubble. Survival for these groups requires vigilance, so most of the stories involving cloistered groups focus on boundary skirmishes and the primal “are you in or are you out?” issues. Refreshingly that is not Burshtein’s focus at all. Rather she immerses you completely in a world where support for all the members is unquestioned. One of the women in the community who has no arms is fed effortlessly by her sister. Another woman wants to purchase a stove and interrupts a rabbinical council to ask for help. When the rabbi discovers she has no family to assist her in that decision, he stops the proceedings to advise her. The compassion is so simply stated, and so extraordinary. That small action offers up a window into the bigger meaning.

The power of the small. This is an exquisite example and an unforgettable film.

Part 2, coming soon: Working both ends, the epic out and the epic in. Matthew Barney‘s show of (mostly) drawings at the Morgan Library, Subliming Vessel, offers an extraordinary counterpoint to his large scale undertakings.

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Penelope’s Heart, by Paula Overbay

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

This is spoken as a voice-over at the beginning of Sarah Polley‘s new film, Stories We Tell. This part documentary/part artful exploration of how to tell a story is a stylistic tour de force. It is also one more example of Polley’s steely commitment to truth speaking, but a truth speaking that doesn’t flail or decimate as it burrows into our core. The deft hand of her film making, evidenced in her earlier projects including Away From Her and Take This Waltz, is becoming even more nuanced and sophisticated. Polley holds the delicate tension between what is authentic and the essential theatricity that is a film. She runs a grounding wire down deep and keeps her storytelling from losing its footing. I don’t know of another film that demonstrates this level of respect for the complexity and layered nature of a family secret. See the movie. I would love to hear what you think.

This quote by Margaret Atwood is also provocative on other levels. There is this now we are in and then there is the story that evolves about this moment that is constructed by our future selves. Similarly, visual art emerges from us in its own way, sourced and nurtured by who knows what. How differently we see a body of work when we look back on it years later, when its etymology and evolutionary lineage have been exposed and are easier for us to trace.

Yesterday my artist friend Paula Overbay showed me several works from her collection of art that she had purchased or traded for many years ago. Looking at many of those pieces now we both smiled to see the subtle suggestions and elements that ended up appearing in her own work many years later. They were there, in various stages of exposure and definition, presaged in pieces made by the hands of others. “I was drawn to these years ago, and I had no idea at the time that this was where my work would eventually end up,” she said. In the words of Margaret Atwood, “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.”

Buzz, by Paula Overbay

(Both images courtesy of Paula Overbay)

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From “The Return” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)

Manohla Dargis has written a stop-in-your-tracks kind of piece about the filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky in the Sunday Times. His rhapsodic appreciation of a body of work completely captured me even though I have never had the oppoortunity to see any of Dorsky’s films. (His book, Devotional Cinema, is now on order so there will be more about that here at some later date.)

These excerpts speak to more than Dorsky’s work, clearly:

Although the narratively conditioned brain may attempt to piece together a story from these images (once upon a time in winter there was a tree), Mr. Dorsky’s work requires a different kind of engagement. These are films created for contemplation, and they both invite and resist interpretation.

Although Mr. Dorsky gestures in certain interpretive directions…he never forces you down this or that path. Then again, what can the image of eye-poppingly purple flowers mean? “Interpretation,” as Susan Sontag memorably wrote “is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” A few pages later in the same essay, “Against Interpretation,” she extols transparence in art (and criticism), writing that it “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” Art, as Sontag persuasively argued, doesn’t stand for something else but is itself a thing, and while Mr. Dorsky’s films can inspire explanatory reveries, they are also beautiful objects.

“If we do relinquish control,” Mr. Dorsky wrote in his short 2003 book “Devotional Cinema,” “we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of the poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us.”

Thoreau said that “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” There’s a similar imperative, an urgency, about being in the here and the now in Mr. Dorsky’s work, even if the world in his films is of his own making. (Thoreau wrote that it was “necessary to see objects by moonlight — as well as sunlight — to get a complete notion of them,” which nicely fits Mr. Dorsky’s duskier imagery.)

A scene from “Sarabande” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)

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Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, featured in the film MANA: Beyond Belief, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma. Tradition claims that the boulder was placed on the cliff 2500 years ago by Burmese spirits. A gilded boulder sits on top and is believed to contain a hair of the Buddha.

This is a Wonderful Poem

Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

–David Wagoner

I am a long time fan of Wagoner’s work, but this morning this poem spoke directly to the tussling I am in with pieces still emerging in the studio. Things we make take on thingness, like the quickening of a babe in the womb. But as a painting claims its thingness, complexities come along as well. Like sweet infants that become rabidly difficult teenagers, I don’t always like where something is headed. Then what?

I recently viewed a film from a few years ago called MANA: Beyond Belief. Mana is a Polynesian word for the power that resides in things. Filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley have cobbled together a visually stunning collage of images and experiences from all over the world that speaks to the concept of power objects. They describe it as a film about “what makes matter matter”:

All over the world, in every society, there are objects that have special power over people. People climb mountains or make pilgrimages just to see or touch them. They prostrate themselves or engage in rituals in their presence, caress them in the hopes of absorbing some of their magic, they enshrine them in temples or pass them on to descendants; wear them or store them in treasure houses or sometimes burn them. An individual object might hold power over only one group or even just one person, but the phenomenon of “power objects” is universal.

From the breathtaking Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma to the Japanese tradition of O-Hanami (cherry blossom veneration), the film unfolds with almost no dialogue, similar to the hauntingly mesmerizing Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. One of the most memorable segments for me was watching the meticulously accurate replication of a life sized Mercedes Benz, assembled out of paper and balsam wood. This Malaysian variation on the commonly encountered funereal tradition of making sure the dead has everything he or she will need ends with the entire structure going up in flames.

So yes, there are times when the thought of setting fire to certain pieces of my work feels like the right way to go. A pyre in the streets of South Boston? Not without its appeal at times.

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International man of mystery, artist Banksy

I am still carrying around a big chunk of Canada’s uncivilized wildness in me, and it just doesn’t sit well with culturally-induced cynicism. And art world cynicism is cynicism of a particular stripe, leaving one to search for a few gentle but targeted exorcisms to remove that nasty taste in the mouth.

The cynicism-inducing culprits are clear. The first is Work of Art, Bravo’s “reality” (so in quotes, that) show about making art. For me and my friends it was quick to become the summer’s top contender for the program we most love to hate. I know, Jerry Saltz is a judge, and we all love him. But one good guy can’t save a program so bereft of nutritional value. Please, someone say something soulful, authentic, resonant—just once! In this world, art is entertainment, novelty, a plaything.

The problem is that Work of Art is so high in the chip factor: You know it is bad, really bad for you. But like that bag of greasy, salty, preservative-laced, empty-caloried potato chips that you just can’t stop ingesting, they know how to hook you. I need to be rescued from my perverse curiosity! Even though I fast forward to the last 10 minutes of each episode so I only have to sit through the infuriating crit and the cheap trick elimination, that’s 10 minutes better spent doing something less painful, like beating my head against a cement wall.

The second oil spill of cynicism is actually an amazing piece of work and one that deserves full viewing by anyone interested in contemporary art. But you’ll need your Wellies on to wade through the art world slime factor which is in full view. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop, purportedly made by Banksy (England’s masked mystery man and street art’s reigning king) is one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in a darkened theater in a long time. It is cinematic trompe l’oeil, a complex mirrored snake of a thing that turns in on itself and constantly undermines any sense of a grounding wire. Part documentary, part punkumentary, part tongue in cheek expose on art and the art world, there’s no way to know just who and what this is really about. It is smart, engaging and very provocative.

But this is provocation at a price. For anyone who approaches artmaking with sincerity and respect for the deep mystery of it all, there’s just no room for you in the world portrayed by Work of Art or Exit Through the Gift Shop. And visual art is not the only creative field squeezing out practitioners who are committed to their work and don’t play the game of image, appearance and hype. This excerpt is from Will Blythe’s New York Times review of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, whose dystopic view of American life now and in the future sounds harsh, bleak and all too familiar:

Egan’s depiction of Jules, the celebrity journalist, embodies her sophisticated sympathy. Such types are normally easy prey for fiction writers, cheap signifiers of corruption. But Egan understands that the manufacture of image in the modern world is as routine as the assembly of Model T’s in the old industrial economy. Which is to say it’s done by regular people like you and me, not villains but folks just trying to get by.

It just may be that the most subversive path is to openly and candidly care most about the quality, integrity and intentionality of one’s work. And being actively subversive is a well tested antidote to cynicism’s paralyzing and deadening wake.

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The Thinkers: From left, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler and Cornel West discuss ideas in the documentary “Examined Life.” (Photo: Zeitgeist Films)

The title of this post of course is making reference to the famous line from Plato about unexamined lives not being worth much. That phrase was also the inspiration for Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” in which a slew of philosophers are given 10 minutes and asked to explain, in simple terms, their particular area of interest. Taylor states her challenge up front: Is it possible to move the experience of contemporary philosophical thought (which lives primarily in the form of written text) into everyday language? It is an interesting challenge, and some rise to it better than others. Avital Ronell speaks about meaning, Peter Singer on ethics, Martha Nussbaum on justice, among others. Oh, and of course, the inimitable Brother Cornel who gets to address the big one—TRUTH.

I agreed with the portrayal of Cornel’s guerilla style soliloquizing (he appears in snippets throughout the film) from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film:

Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition — not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available — he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.

All in all, the film is worthwhile viewing. And there were moments when I was caught quite off guard. Like when Ronell quoted Derrida saying that if you are a person who has a good conscience, you are worthless. No one who is aware and paying attention can believe we have ever done enough to care for the other, she paraphrased. Good reminder, not that I’m swimming in any abundance of smug self satisfaction. But it hit me straight on. As was intended.

As a sidebar, a piece just recently appearing in the New York Times, The Examined Life, Age 8, deals with teaching young children about philosophy. It is an interesting variation on the film’s premise.

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