Milton Glaser: Art Is Work (2009)

Curtis Hillman made an interesting series of short films about artists. This one on Milton Glaser is especially good.

After a long career as a graphic artist, he reports being grateful to have maintained his "capacity for astonishment" and concludes that "none of us have an ability to understand our path until it's all over."

He refers to Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift, an investigation into how gift exchange throughout history provides people a common bond that prevents us from killing one another. Milton Glaser sees the role of artist as offering this gift of commonality.

Watch this wonderful film here...


500 Days of Summer (2009)

Twenty-somethings in love. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meet at work. Although he studied architecture in college, he is now writing greeting cards. She is the boss's new assistant who Tom immediately falls for. After days of quietly pining for her, he finally has a chance to connect with her at a karaoke bar office party where a lot of alcohol is consumed.

Although there is a spark between them, she mentions right away that she is not looking for anything serious. We watch the 500-day romance flourish and flounder as they frolic and play. She is one of those girls that simply perplexes a guy. She kisses him in the copier room at work then turns away just as unexpectedly to leave him wondering what it all means. This new romance makes Tom very happy and a little crazy. Isn't that always the downside of love? The uncertainty of it all is maddening.

We watch them at the movies watching the final scene of The Graduate, where Ben (Dustin Hoffman) has rescued Elaine (Katherine Ross) from the wrong marriage. They run out of the church, giddy and carefree. While sitting in the back of a bus their expressions of laughter flatten to worried introspection. What have they just done?

Summer is tearful as she watches this. Outside with Tom afterwards, she says she is tired and wants to go home. She is obviously pulling away from Tom. He does not really get this and convinces her to go with him for pancakes. She goes, but breaks up with him without eating a bite. He has not seen this coming and leaves in total desparation...returns home to binge-drink his way through heartbreak. Summer leaves her job at the greeting card company and Tom does not adjust well.

Months later, he runs into Summer at a wedding. They hang out together throughout the evening and she dances with him. The fun they have together implies to Tom a reunion of sorts. Summer invites him to a party she is hosting. He goes there with hope for a renewed romance. The film shows his time at the party in split screen with his expectations on one side and reality on the other. On one side she greets him with a kiss on the lips...the reality side shows a friendly hug. The expectation side shows her unwrapping the small gift with obvious heartfelt appreciation for the copy of the book called The Architecture of Happiness...the other side of the screen shows Summer awkwardly opening the gift with little fanfare and quickly moving on to other guests.

When someone asks him what he does, Summer chimes in with "He could be a great architect if he wanted to." Tom has no choice but address the humiliating moment with irony. "Why make something disposable like a building when you can make something everlasting like a greeting card." The party is one disappointing moment after the next until he observes her showing a girlfriend the diamond ring on her left hand. He nearly faints with the shock of that and quickly exits the party. Days later he impulsively walks out of a meeting at the job and quit on the spot.

Tom begins to move himself in a new direction as he pulls out the architecture books he once loved. On the 500th day after meeting Summer, he sits on his favorite park bench. She speaks to him from nearby where she seems to have been waiting for him to appear. They have both grown a lot in the time since their break-up. Both are subdued as they talk, but he speaks up to let her know that he still does not understand how a girl who claimed to not want anything serious, ended up married to somebody else.

He now claims to have renounced any belief in true love, soulmates, or other romantic foolishness that he once thrived on. She was the practical one who had brushed aside all of that by the time they had first met. She tells him that she was wrong. "I just woke up one day and I knew with him what I was never sure of with you." While sitting in a deli one day reading Dorian Grey, a guy started talking to her about the book. It just happened and it was meant to be.

These encounters between former lovers are common. It's most difficult for the one who has not moved on to a new relationship. Tom does go on to find his own destiny. The movie leaves us rooting for him anyway. It's all a little too neat, but the story is universal. Zooey Deschanel's cuteness is a bit much for me, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt has classic movie star presence that we will be seeing a lot more of in future movies.


Joni Mitchell--Woman of Heart & Mind (2003)

This is a beautiful story of a talented small-town Canadian girl who was a born painter, poet, singer, and restless soul. A teen mom who gave up her infant for adoption, she carried the pain of that choice for years to come. She married for a brief time to Chuck Mitchell, who she partnered with in early performances, although his controlling ways did not agree with free-spirited Joni. Her creative spirit was unstoppable. She wrote songs that reflected the struggles of a young woman searching for love, but needing independence.

Joni would soon become the golden girl of the blossoming Laurel Canyon folk rock music scene of the late 1960s. She was revered by her male peers, such as David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Bob Dylan. Not only was she gorgeous, but her talent as a singer/songwriter was admired by all. While Woodstock was happening in 1969, she was back in New York writing the infamous song, Woodstock, that she performed the day after the concert on The Dick Cavett Show. Crosby, Stills, and Nash also turned up on the stage with her for the historical interview.

Joni and Graham Nash were in love, but she turned down his marriage proposal, determined to follow her muse and took off for Greece, where she sent him this note. with a note...

"If you hold sand too tightly in your hand it will run through your fingers."

She speaks of her "chords of inquiry" and describes how she rotates her art process between writing, recording, painting to balance her creative needs. She never set out to make popular music so she is able to brush off any criticism she receives for some of her more experimental projects. During the 1980s her themes have shifted from struggles with love to social commentary. She eventually reconnected with her daughter, Kilauren, and now enjoys knowing her grandchildren.


The Cool School (2008)

This documentary is narrated by Jeff Bridges and includes commentary by Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell who were on the periphery of the beat artist scene of the late 1950s when Venice was the backwater of bohemia that drew the artists to the edge of the world. They were a small group and medical school dropout, Walter Hopps, got to know them all when he opened a tiny Los Angeles art gallery called Ferus and gave California artists a serious venue for exhibitions...artists such as Jay DeFeo, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kaufman, Wallace Berman, John Baldessari, Peter Voulkos, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz.

L.A. never embraced the "New American Art." They viewed the abstract expressionism that had a grip on the New York artworld as communist. Hopps opened another small avante gard gallery with Irving Blum called Syndell Studio, but the partnership failed and Blum stole his wife. Hopps went on to curate shows at The Pasadena Museum where he hosted Andy Warhol's first show and charged just $100 for the Warhol soup can prints. He later gave Marcel Duchamp his first retrospective in 1963.

Hopps helped cultivate an interest in art by offering an adult ed class to wanna-be collectors and began to take some of artworld attention away from New York as he brought the California aesthetic to the art magazines and collectors. The subject of the modernist world was not external...it came from the artist. Wallace Berman did for assemblage what Ed Ruscha did for language (as visual experience). Robert Irwin did for the Light & Space Movement what Peter Voulkos did for the ceramic art sculpture.

This may not appeal to many, but I appreciate seeing evidence of a simpler time in history, a time when so much fresh excitement about contemporary visual art was happening for the first time.


Ninotchka (1939)

Michael and Trudy recommended this classic and now I am suggesting it to anyone who reads this. It's funny and full of quotable lines.

The film opens with these words...In Paris during the wonderful days when a siren was a brunette not an alarm and if a frenchman turns out the light it was not on account of an air raid.

Greta Garbo is a stern comrade who does everything by the book...soviet-style. She is sent to Paris to arrange the sale of some of the Grand Duchess's jewels for the government. Three of her comrades are there as well, meeting the sophisticated world of Paris like children.

During the visit she meets Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas) who is the Duchess's lawyer. He greets her at the airport and tries to help with her bags. "Don't make an issue of my womanhood," she says. He is smitten and slowly-but-surely melts her heart just a bit as she meets materialistic Paris with disdain. She rejects paying for the pricey hotel that was arranged for her, as the amount is equivalent to the cost of seven cows for the Russian people.

Greta Garbo's Ninotchka is a complete feminist before the word had been imagined. She appears braless throughout the movie, an unusual sight in hollywood, except for a few offbeat films during the 1970s. Early in the film she remarks on a strange stovepipe-shaped hat on display. "How can a civilization survive that allows women to put things like that on their head?"

She approaches siteseeing with full seriousness. "I'm interested in the Eiffel Tower from a technical standpoint." As Leon pushes forward in his effort to woo her, she says "Must you flirt? Suppress it!" and adds "Love is a romantic designation for an ordinary biological impulse."

When he asks "What kind of girl are you, anyway?" She replies solemnly "A tiny cog in the wheel of evolution." Leon is the consummate romantic who says things like. "Look at the clock...one hand meets the other hand and they kiss...it's midnight and one half of Paris is making love with the other half." Ninotchka easily brushes aside such a remark with "You merely feel that you must put yourself into a romantic mood to add to your exhileration."

At an ordinary restaurant she orders raw beets and carrots. The waiter is apalled and says "Let me bring you a nice little lunch." Leon does eventually crack her open in laughter when he falls off his chair. She begins to warm up and love life a little more with Leon's help. "I always felt a little hurt when the swallows left in winter for the capitalistic countries and now I know why...we have the high ideals and they have the warm climate."

Another Leon come-on..."It's nine o'clock and one half of Paris is saying to the other half...Do you have plans?" He opens a bottle of champagne, more indulgence than she could ever imagine. "I was brought up on goatsmilk and ration of vodka in the army."

As the melting of icy Ninotchka progresses we see her share with a girlfriend a souvenir from Paris. Smiling, she takes out of a box the once-silly stovepipe hat that make her glow for the moment she allows herself to place it on her head. She learns to be happy.

Back home in Russia, she sets the table for a small dinner party for the three comrades and tells a roomate she is preparing an omelette, an obvious challenge when one is rationed just one egg. She explains that she has saved two eggs...and we watch the men arrive with their own egg packed in a tiny box. Ninotchka sums up the Soviet moral of this tale. "If you stand alone you eat a boiled egg. If you stand with your comrades you eat an omelette."

She also wear home a silk and lace slip from Paris that she washes and nearly undermines the entire soviet cause as the comrades see it hanging on the clothesline to dry. She explains to the friend with a bit of excitement that people change their clothes rather frequently in Paris...women typically go from negligee to home frock to evening dress in the course of a day. The friend asks to borrow the lovely silk negligee for her upcoming honeymoon. Ninotchka gives it to her with new happiness.

Leon is back home missing her with Karl Marx on his nightstand and comments that he feels good...like he's making a contribution...when he makes his bed each morning. Ninotchka eagerly greets the mail, but sadly discovers his letters are entirely censored and unreadable. Her friend tries to comfort her and says "They can't censor our memories , can they?" The three comrades open a restaurant that serves borscht and beef stroganoff with the help of financial backing from Count Leon.

All ends well.


Weeds - Season 5

This is not a movie. It's actually a soap opera of the best kind. As a DVD watcher, I am a season behind the live broadcasts.

Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) is a modern heroine who survived widowhood and began supporting her two boys with a career in the marijuana growing and distribution industry. Her deceased husband, Judah, remains a constant point of reference throughout the story as her sons grow up and she moves on into relationships with other men. Judah's brother, Andy (Justin Kirk) lives with Nancy and the boys. Nancy life has moved through many sagas and involvements with drug world characters, but this season she is pregnant with the lovechild of Esteban. Also the Mayor of Tijuana, he is a dangerous, controlling man who also has a lot a charm. Andy loves Nancy, but he is unable to capture her heart. Fortunately, he becomes smitten with Audra, a doctor played by Alanis Morrisette. They happen to be one of the best matched couples ever. Nancy's sons, Silas and Shane do not escape the dark influences in their impressionable lives. Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins and a few others add new levels of craziness to the storyline. These people are all terribly flawed. This makes the show a slice of life that feels very real in its outrageousness.

The DVDs include entertaining extra features, such as University of Andy. I am a huge Andy fan and guess that many of the other female viewers would be less interested in the show without him. He loves women and means well, but has pretty poor follow-through. "If you give her all of you, she won't want more of you" is a typical Andy truism.

There is also another feature, Crazy Love Guide to Dysfunctional Relationships in Weeds. The wisdom about Nancy is that she wants to be taken care of and yet she doesn't need to be taken care of. Her youngest son, Shane, calls her the teflon warrior.

Another feature is a History of Weed, beginning with the year 2727 BC when cannabis was used as medicine in China. By 500 AD it turned up in Europe. Supposedly, Columbus brought it to the new world in 1492 and Jamestown colony law stated that all settlers in the year 1619 were required to grow cannabis. George Washington's primary crop in 1797 at Mount Vernon was cannabis. By 1880, Turkish smoking parlors opened all over the US northeast. Henry Ford's first Model T vehicle in 1908 was made with hemp plastic and ran on hemp ethanol. Federal law banned marijuana in 1937, but the US military used it as a truth serum in 1942. By 1965 one million Americans had tried marijuana and by 1972 that figure was up to 24 million. In the 1980s, supposedly someone was arrested for a cannabis violation every 38 seconds. Proposition 215 in California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Marijuana is now America's top cash crop, earning 36 billion yearly.

I am not sure about the accuracy of all these statistics, but for anyone who questions why an entire television series is devoted to the substance, these facts add a lot of weight to the argument.

Hurt Locker (2008)

In an effort to catch up with a few oscar nominees, I sat through this intensely graphic psychological action film that succeeded in providing the viewer with an up-close intimate two hours of living in a war zone. The main characters were actors I was not familiar with, though other smaller roles were played by David Morse and Ralph Fiennes. The story revolves around a small unit dedicated to high-stress task of uncovering and disengaging IEDs. The men manage their emotions by storing away their pain (hurt locker), as there is no time for it. They cope by drinking and fighting with one another. James (Jeremy Renner) joins the team as an expert technician who is also a renegade type who seems to continually puts his peers at risk, an adrenaline junkie who never stops.

Director Kathryn Biegelow is married to James Cameron who was a writer on her last big picture, Strange Days. Curiously, his blockbuster, Avatar, is also waiting for a slew of oscars. I made my way into that one too. The 3D tropical lushness is engaging, but all that military testosterone on the pretty planet of Pandora is exhausting. I can say the same of this film. Both pictures will likely clean up on award night, though. While each film seems to be pointing out the wrongs of military operations, the chance of moving beyond that force appears to be hopeless. I left both feeling bad.


Ladies and Gentlemen--Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965)

This is a fun documentary for anyone who appreciates the evolution of Leonard Cohen's career. Before he was a man with a guitar...before his gravely voice and hat, he was a cleancut stand-up poet wearing suit and tie. Although, it was the early 1960s, he was already a notable writer with records of his readings on the market. He was also documenting his career for posterity. Funny thing is that he does not even look all that young. I guess he was in his late twenties at the time.

Leonard had been blessed with an idyllic childhood in Montreal, where his parents began shooting movies and photos of him as a young child. He is shown on bike, sled, skate, and ski. He talks about the first rebellious act as the refusal to sleep and we see shots of the late-night coffee houses and nightclubs where young people listened to the poets, who were the rock stars of the day. He began to view himself as a social critic. Always a poet. The film simply watches Cohen throughout the course of his day during a simpler time in history.

Soon after that I happened to watch Isle of Wight, made just five years later. The post-Woodstock mega music festival on a tiny island off the south of Great Britain attracted 600,000 young people who had come to see Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, and others. We see a more laidback Leonard Cohen perform Suzanne, his hair shaggy and wearing a scruffy fatigue jacket.


The Tenant (1976)

I recently saw previews for a new film, the Ghost Writer, by Roman Polanski. It looks good and despite all his bad press in recent months, I wanted to see one of his older films. Of course, we all know about the creepy 1968 film, Rosemary's Baby. The Tenant is another psychological thriller, starring Polansky as Trelkowski, a quiet young man who rents an apartment somewhere in France and soon discovers that the previous occupant was a woman named Simone, who had flung herself out the window and was dying in the hospital. He actually goes to visit her and some kind of exchange of energy occurs that kills her and begins to unsettle his calm world. Complaints from neighbors and strange occurances begin to mount up. He becomes involved with a girlfriend (Isabelle Adjani) as he begins having a mental breakdown. That leads him to dressing up as the deceased Simone and lots of other crazy behaviors follow. I had to laugh when I received an email from my landlord the day after watching this bizarre film listing me along with a slew of other people. Beside my name was the word "tenant." Yes, anyone who has lived alone in old buildings knows how these places can rattle one's wellbeing at times. The occasional psycho thriller is enjoyable in a weird way.


The Single Man (2009)

I just heard that this movie is up for an Oscar and it's no wonder because I stopped in to see this on a quiet Monday night with just a few others watchers and thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully sad story. Fashion designer, Tom Ford, wrote the screenplay of the Christopher Isherwood novel and directed the stylish film with the help of the production design team who created the look of MadMen.

Colin Firth is an actor I have seen over and over in ensemble productions with more notable stars. Here he portrays George Falconer, a trim British English professor at a small southern California college 1962. Flashbacks show us his younger self during the 1940s meeting a handsome sailor (Matthew Goode). Sixteen years later, Jim and George share a cozy home by the beach until a car crash leaves George alone to grieve quietly at a time when there was no open gay life. He struggles to find meaning through his encounters with others until his own fate is revealed. His performance is completely engaging. Julianne Moore is the glamorous loving woman friend next door. I especially loved the scene where they dance together to the 1962 hit song by Booker T & The MGs, Green Onions. For what it's worth...Rolling Stone ranked this #181 of the 500 greatest songs of all time.


Dream of Life (2008)

I saw this documentary last year, an indepth look at the artist, Patti Smith, through the eyes of photographer/filmmaker, Steven Sebring. The filming took place over twelve years after her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, passed away in 1994 and Patti began to re-start her career after living quietly in Detroit raising her children, Jackson and Jesse. The film tells the story of her life as a developing poet/singer/songwriter/painter growing up in the midwest and moving to New York in the early 1970s. A truly artful film, it shows a lot of daily life, as well as important interviews with family and friends.

This wonderful PBS interview with Patti and Steven that explores the making of the film...http://video.pbs.org/video/1372960914/

Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, also just came out...recollections of the early years in New York when she and best friend, Robert Maplethorpe, were beginning their artistic lives.