Against American Hustle, in favour of Tim’s Vermeer
January 22, 2014, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Artworks, film

A couple of film posts from me over at The Economist’s blogs.

One was on the Oscar nominations, to go with a very nice graphic by my colleagues Guy and Lloyd. While it is kinder than people close to me have been about American Hustle (or “that piece of shit”, as it is known in Orpington), it concludes that:

“Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” are both, in their ways, landmarks of film. “Gravity” is a tour de force that uses a well-executed B-movie peril-in-space plot to provide a transcendent visual and aural evocation of the vast, the empty and the intimate. “12 Years”, which if it wins Best Picture will be the first film by a black director to do so, navigates the landscapes of slavery with a poise that does nothing to diminish the horror of its story, or the audience’s empathy – indeed its consummate artistry magnifies them. For both of those films to lose to yet another likeable, comfortable story about the American government running con games in the 1970s — also the subject matter of last year’s winner, “Argo” — would be a travesty.

Whole thing here

Second was on Tim’s Vermeer, a really wonderful film by Teller. For me, the key sentence in the piece is  “‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a film that those who see it will think about a lot over the years”. Which is to say that I’m not sure I have quite got the levels of revelations within revelations and reflections on reflections quite right in this first take. Ask me again in a few years time.

It begins:

“SUNDAY in the Park with George”, by Stephen Sondheim, is a work of art about a work of art which takes place, in part, within a work of art. The life, or at least a life, of the painter Georges Seurat is imagined running through, around and past his magnificent “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. The musical is said to have a particular importance to Teller, an American stage magician. Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat”—in which a paean to the sublime rewards of creation triumphs, just, over an accounting of its costs—can reportedly move him to tears.

So it is hardly remarkable that Teller’s first film as a director is also about a work of art and its creation, seen from the inside. But that is one of the few things about “Tim’s Vermeer”, which opened in Britain this week, that is not remarkable. Simultaneously charming and challenging, it asks its viewers at the same time to celebrate art—in fact, on that front it does not merely ask, it demands—and to question it. [read the whole thing]

And whether I quite got it right or not, Teller liked the piece, which makes me happy.

Oscars 2011
February 26, 2011, 1:53 pm
Filed under: Artworks, film

Is this thing still on…

Apologies for a profound lack of blogging about the earth system and energy and climate and plants and the sun and geoengineering and stuff. I may try and catch up with some past product and do better in the future. I may not. In the meantime, here are my Oscar predictions, because that’s what I wanted to post today…

In what may be a personal best for the past decade or so I have seen eight out of the ten nominees for best picture, and the two I haven’t seen, 127 hours and Winter’s Bone, aren’t going to win. The rest are all pretty good films, I think, which I suppose is encouraging. Despite the inaccuracy and tendentious political revisionism I liked and admired Kings Speech a lot, and see no particular reason to doubt what seems the accepted wisdom in terms of it winning (the fact that it’s now taken more than $100m makes that even surer, I suspect). If I trusted Social Network’s sense of geek motivation more, and if it didn’t have that terribly pat last scene with the young female associate telling Mark Z what the moral was, I might hold more of a torch for it. But as is I don’t think it will be hard-done-by to lose.
In years to come Toy Story 3 may well be remembered in a way that neither of the other two are, and there’s precedent in Return of the King for giving the final part of a trilogy an oscar meant for the thing as a whole, but I don’t think that the prejudice against animation can be beaten by a second sequel. True Grit seems to me a very good film — indeed I have now seen it twice, and liked it as much or more the second time. But it is not, I think, going to be a winner. Inception seems ruled out judging by the inexplicable decision not to nominate Nolan as director, and very highly though I think of it I have to say the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service part of it does seem misconceived, or poorly handled, or both.
So it’s The Kings Speech, and while we’re at it, Colin Firth for best actor. Three reasons beyond the obvious qualities of the performance: 1) TKS isn’t the best movie unless that’s a great performance, so if is best movie Firth kinda has to get it. 2) Obviously a lot of people liked A Single Man and there’s always that second bite effect. 3) I don’t see any of the others except possibly Franco as serious contendors. Bridges is too soon and the performance not interesting enough, Eisenberg is good in a way that the fact of the nomination rewards in and of itself, same probably goes for  Franco and who if anyone has seen Biutiful.
Following on, I think and hope that Helena Bonham Carter has a good shot at best actress in a supporting role. It’s a lovely performance, funny and touching and, indeed, supporting, and it  comes across really well in the film thanks to sympathetic direction. Also, she’s been a round for a while, she’s good, she’s fun and she hasn’t got one. I think two actresses from The Fighter cancel each other out (though I thought Amy Adams was splendid) and that Animal Kingdom — which I look forward to with huge anticipation and may indeed see tonight — is just too obscure. Finally a weird atavistic faith in Academy voters makes me think that they surely can’t really commit the absurdity for voting for Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine leading performance in the utterly inappropriate category it has been nominated for. Maybe I am wrong about that. Roger Ebert thinks so. It would be a travesty, but there have been travesties before and there doubtless will be again. I am choosing to think that this will not be one.
David Seidler for best original screenplay seems certain, in the light of the above. I find it slightly perplexing as I feel sure I have read that there is/was also a stage version which would seem to me to make it adapted, but maybe I’m hallucinating. An even firmer lock is surely Aaron Sorkin‘s for best adapted screenplay.
Perhaps just because I’m getting bored I am going to say that that’s it for TKS — a good haul and a clear win but not a complete rout. Best actor in a supporting role will go not to Geoffrey Rush but to Christian Bale. It’s such a very good piece of acting, and at the same time one well pitched to appeal to/flatter the practitioners of that craft. I obviously wouldn’t be surprised if Rush won, as some seem to expect, but he has one already and good though he is, the part doesn’t actually go anywhere, which seems to me to undercut the performance. I was ready for the wartime fate of one of his sons to be a powerful reveal at the end of the movie, and the fact that that didn’t happen made me aware of the lack of any other real resolution for him; one of the sons may be in uniform in one of the all-the-nation-together cutaways during the speech, but I couldn’t swear to it.
The fact that I can’t makes me a little cagey about Tom Hooper as best director. It would seem natural in a film which seems very likely to get best film and best actor and an award for screenplay and a supporting role too. But I can’t say that the direction really blew me away. Fincher is a triffic director, hasn’t won an oscar though he should have done for Fight Club, and Social Network has won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA in this category. Not that the globes count for much, but the Bafta seems telling in that everything else went for TKS; if Hooper doesn’t get a BAFTA with home crowd advantage, will he really get an oscar. That said, Tom Hooper won the Directors Guild award, and that is a more reliable indicator than either of the others. But I still feel somehow that it will be David Fincher who wins.
Even if he doesn’t, Social Network’s editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter will surely take home their award. Without their editing Sorkin’s script would be a lot harder to parse. They might be joined by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score. I must say that, lacking subtlety, I preferred Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception, and because I think it needs the love I will say that that’s my prediction, though either Reznor or the-bloke-who-did-TKS are probably as likely or more, and on a second viewing I liked the True Grit score even more than the first time. Yes, there are a bunch of fences here and I straddled all over them, but if I have to get down I am going to get down on Hans Zimmer‘s side. Inception should also take visual effects and sound, twice. It won’t, I suspect, win art direction, which along with costumes will go to Alice in Wonderland.
Inception deserves more, if only for being the only live action film in the box office top ten last year that wasn’t an adaptation, a sequel or both. (Here’s a truly scary thing: the next highest non-sequel non-adaptation live-action film on that list was Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups) But I can’t see how Inception gets more given the big Nolan diss on best director, which still seems insane to me even if my outrage makes me a figure of fun to Anthony Lane. Possible exception would be Wally Pfister’s cinematography, but I strongly suspect he will be beaten by Roger Deakins getting his much deserved cinematography oscar, at last, for True Grit. And he did indeed deliver a great looking film.
Documentaries. Have only seen one of these, though I might possibly get to Inside Job tomorrow. Among the features I would have tended to assume Restrepo, but others tell me it could be Inside Job or even Waste Land, which I am going to back simply because I recently met the director. Incomprehensibly, to me, serious people seem to think that Exit through the Gift Shop both will and should win; to me all the cleverness of the film, such as it was, simply underlined that I really didn’t care what parts of it were true and to what extent. I have no idea about the short docos. Maybe Killing in the name. Short live action, I hear, is all but certain to be Na Wewe. Staggered that Gods and Men isn’t on the best foreign language feature list (appears to have done festivals only so I guess not eligible), and in its absence a bit flummoxed.
Toy Story 3 obviously wins best animated feature and I would expect also takes best song (here there’s a definite Return of the King thing, since Randy Newman’s songs for both the first two were nominated). And not having seen the animated shorts I think Pixar may well do the double with Night and Day, which may well be the best use of 3D I have yet seen. But animation voters tend to deny Pixar their love when it comes to shorts, and UK cinemas no longer seem to screen the nominees, so who knows.
There seems a near universal agreement that Natalie Portman will win for Black Swan, a daft film that everyone including its director seems to misunderstand (clues to reversing this misunderstanding: concentrate on why the Cassel character cast her in the first place, and think how much clearer things would be if it were made obvious that he is incapable of an erection). It’s a strong performance, but fails quite badly in a few places. There’s a near insurmountable problem with the 60 seconds or so we see of her as the black swan on stage, which do almost nothing to convince us that her sexuality has indeed been unleashed. Not sure how it could, in context. For myself I would far prefer to see Annette Bening win for a truly terrific, nuanced and moving performance. So I am going to say that she will, and appeal to the fact that the academy audience is aging to back my otherwise poorly founded and sentimental choice.
Other stuff: Make up: Barney’s Version, because I don’t think a film as poorly received as The Wolfman can really be commended. Foreign language film: In a Better World.
What I’m most likely to be wrong on: Portman v Benning, Bale v Rush, Bonham Carter v Stanfield, Zimmer contra mundis, Waste Land, Tom Hooper. If I have called more than three of those right I will allow myself some chuffedness; if I have all six right I will consider myself an Awesome Seer. You have been warned.
UPDATE: So no noticeable awesomeness, or even chuffedness. Struck out on actresses: Portman I sort of expected, Leo I really didn’t. (And having just seen Animal Kingdom, I disagree with it too. Jacki Weaver is staggering in a vaguely similar controlling-mother-of-violent-men role.) Wise people were saying that Reznor would get one and he duly did, and again Inside Job, tipped by many, beat the field. That said, strong vibe that Fincher would  win turned out not to be right. I wish that the voting numbers were made public as they are in the Hugos and we could see what was close and what was not.
That said, by my count I beat Roger Ebert in predictive accuracy, because when submitting my predictions to the beat Ebert contest I changed short animation to “The Lost Thing”, the Shaun Tam animation, at my wife’s suggestion. Beating Ebert may not be much, but I guess it’s something.

How to see the world
January 26, 2010, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Artworks, Nature writing, Published stuff

Photography is

the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence

— Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Steven Poole.

“Are you going to move our stuff?”

“No, that’s the view. We’re in the picture”

— William Fox and Mark Klett, quoted in Fox’s Viewfinder, a book about Klett’s rephotography project

It struck me reading Poole’s review that an awful lot of the concerns in my writing, most recently in “Globe and Sphere, Cycles and Flows: How to See the World”, which is my essay in the Royal Society collection, Seeing Further, sit firmly in the space defined by those two quotations, the second one of which is the epigraph for Mapping Mars.

The ability to see the Earth as an astronomer would another planet marked a fundamental shift, the long-term effects of which we still cannot gauge. It has provided valuable new perspectives and treasure troves of data. But no image can reveal everything; and every revelation obscures something. For all that it is an image of the whole, the vision of the Earth from space is necessarily partial. By leaving things out, it makes the Earth too easy to objectify, too easy to hold at a distance, too easy to idealise. It needs to be offset by a deeper sense of the world as it is felt from the inside, and as it extends out of view into past and future. Because of the changes we are putting the planet through, we need as many ways of looking at and thinking about it as we can find. We need ways to see it as a history, a system, and a set of choices, not just a thing of beauty – one which, from our astronomical perspective, we seem already to have left. There are other ways to see the beauty of the world than in the rear-view mirror of progress.

How better, though, can people see the world than as a fragile blue marble separated from their own experience, cut off from any cosmic continuity by a sharp 360º horizon? And why, given the objective truth of the world as revealed by Apollo, should we even try? To the second question, the answer is that there is more than one way of seeing, just as there is more than one way of speaking. There are times when seeing the Earth as a discrete object, a thing in a picture, is peculiarly helpful; there are times when something else is called for.

Not to be a tease, but if you want to get an answer to the first question you better get your hands on a copy of the book (Amazon UK), though  it must be said that some of the ideas were worked through in a rather different way in my Earthrise piece a couple of years back.

Image from Mark Klett, permission sought used with kind permission, all rights reserved

A rephotography project in waiting
March 28, 2009, 12:47 am
Filed under: Artworks, Trees

The Forestry Commission has unknowingly thwarted a David Hockney project. Sometime in the past month or so the commission cut down a small stand of beech trees (at the private owners request) in Yorkshire. Here’s the before and after on that:

What the woodsmen didn’t know was that David Hockney had painted the copse twice, in winter and in summer, and had wanted to complete the whole four season set. As it is, that ain’t going to happen. He gave the whole story to the Guardian, including repro rights on the two pictures involved.

On the radio later I heard someone from the Forestry Commission apparently taking the fairly reasonable position that one couldn’t leave trees standing when people wanted to fell them on the off chance that a major artist was going to paint them. In retrospect it would probably have been a good idea if Hockney had let the owners know about his project. That’s not to blame him — but it’s worth remembering, in England, that most pretty stuff you see in the countryside is someone’s property and responsibility, and often their pride and joy too.

Anyway, the Guardian story quotes Hockney saying he may do some sort of follow up painting anyway.

Though he still mourns the lost trees [on returning yesterday he] was impressed by the patterns of the massive stacked trunks.

“I think now this is my next painting of the wood. It will be very different – but the piles of wood are quite beautiful in their own right, simply because wood can’t help being beautiful.”

I’d be big on that. I’m something of a Hockney fan; there was a time when he was occasionally visiting the gallery downstairs from our flat, and I wish I’d known that he had been. A retrospective in Paris that had some of the Grand Canyon pictures in it was quite an influence on one of the chapters of Mapping Mars. I’m sorry he won’t complete the set — but not too sorry, as he’ll surely use the time for something else. And his unfinished project provides scope for other eyes and hands to undertake a companion project he wouldn’t necessarily be able to see through to maturity. It seems to me that someone, or some collective, should adopt this little copse on the corner as a phenology/rephotography project, or more, and record what regrowth there is, or isn’t, as a tribute to Hockney. If I had visual skills and lived nearby I might even do it myself. Anyway, if anyone’s interested I’m pretty sure this is the spot in question in Google Maps.

Update: More on the story in the Mail.

All images except the Google one from David Hockney, used with great respect but no permission

Humans as a geological process
February 20, 2009, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Artworks | Tags:

There are many ways in which human activities now compete with or exceed comparable natural processes on the planet. The nitrogen cycle (Vitousek et at, 1997) is perhaps the most obvious, but there are others, such as erosion, where ploughs, in particular, play a spectacular role; we may not move the sediment all the way to the sea, but we move more of it, and from different places, than nature does (Wilkinson and McElroy, 2007). Whether we break up more limestone than natural processes do, I couldn’t say. But we do do it a lot, and we do do it spectacularly. I’d love to see this series by Naoya Hatakeyama in the C-print-on-aluminium flesh.

Blast 5416 by Naoya Hatakeyama

Blast 5707 by Naoya Hatakeyama

From the Blast series by Naoya Hatakeyama

According to Pink Tentacle Japan alone produces 200m tnnes of calcium carbonate a year from its quarries, so I’d guess world figures might be on the order of a billion tonnes. If I had to hazard a further guess I would guess that the situation for limestone is the opposite of the situation for soil. There, as I understand it, agriculture moves more than nature, but doesn’t move it very far.  For limestone I would guess that more falls off mountain sides unaided than is blow away by quarriers, but that the stuff that’s quarried travels further, quicker. It takes times for boulders to wander.

Some of Hatakeyama’s art is collected in a book, Lime Works, but not, I think, the Blast series. Prints are for sale.

Via @alexismadrigal

Tim Knowles — Tree drawings
July 30, 2008, 9:46 am
Filed under: Artworks, Nature writing, Trees



Tim Knowles (via Patrick Appel standing in on The Dish) is an artist who lets his trees do the drawing, and I wish I had known of him before, for example when he had an instillation at The Economist building earlier this year. Natural movements of the branches and well positioned canvases make the trees into devices that record movements of which they have no knowledge. Recursively, he photographs the set-up, too, apparently for parallel display. Here’s his online gallery

I think I would absolutely love this work. It certainly sets my mind whirring about nature and the unintended and their connection. One thing it reminded me of was a microcosmic reprise of David Nash’s Wooden Boulder (documented on his gallery’s site, though you have to click around to find it), in which the eponymous object rolled down a Welsh river and into an estuary and out to sea over many years; the natural movement shapes the artform. That thought led me to Google and via Plinius’s Some landscapes (a great resource to which you may be sure I will be returning) I came to this comment by Nash in an interview in Sculpture magazine

I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.

At one level you could see Knowles as continuing this process by enabling natural self portraits; not self portraits by the tree, but self portraits of the tree-wind process. But that obviously doesn’t really tell the story, because the invisible intervention of Knowles himself is obviously also part of the subject, in the way that it permits the powerful orthogonality in the display — the record of movement on one side, the captured-moment stillness of the photo on the other. (I’d put in a quote about the meaning of the space between frames here, but I seem to have leant my copy of Understanding Comics to someone…)

I suppose one way to read the works is as post-situationist “happenings” — very post, in that the set up, the game, is defined without any overt reference to society and then highly aestheticised, and I suspect from a position of very little knowledge that situationists would have disapproved of both those things. Another way in would be to see them in the context of Bruno Latour’s notion of the inscription device, nicely outlined by George Goodall on his blog Facetation — but here, this being art not science, the inscription device is not made invisible, but re-rendered in parallel. 

I would, pretty obviously, love to see these pieces — and much of his other work, a lot of which also works on the basis of the unintended: movements of the wind, postal delivery services, etc. Here, for example, is a picture of the full moon reflected in the Serpentine on a long exposure.

More on Inhabitat, Le Territoire des sens

Image by Tim Knowles used under “fair use” for purposes of review. 

Mars and an oak tree
March 6, 2008, 8:29 am
Filed under: Artworks, Trees

An oak treeI’m more marginally martian than mainly martian these days, but my old enthusiasms are remembered in some interesting places — so I was happy to be invited to talk about the new “Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art” contemporary art show at the Barbican on Radio Four’s Front Row yesterday. I’m afraid I don’t have time to blog on it now, except to say a) the concept is a bit overdone, b) there’s good stuff and not so good stuff there and c) Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (pictured) is in the first of those classes. It reminds me hugely of Stranger in a Strange Land, and has the advantage of being a lot shorter (nb that’s a cheap jibe, not a serious diss). Here’s part of the artist’s accompanying text; if you want to imagine the Answerer as Michael Valentine Smith in order to grok it more fully, be my guest…

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.

More on Oak Tree here, and here’s the listen-again realplayer link to hear the program, for those interested — martian stuff about 15 minutes in. The listen-again link will rot in a week.

Oak Tree image copyright Michael Craig-Martin — used with respect but without permission