Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round FOUR: Ely v. Haeckel!

Some funny things happened on the way to this month's Fourth Round match.  The oldest pair of open Third Round matches were Benton/Lotto and Goldsworthy/Magritte, but there's no point in advancing them because the left bracket is already congested by a tie in that area.  The next oldest pair was Massys/Matisse and Metsu/Michaelangelo, but -- check this out -- Metsu and Michaelangelo have fought to a tie themselves!  So that brings us to the current match, brought to you by two close-fought art-historical upsets: Haeckel defeating Franz Marc, and Tim Ely upsetting Manet.  Never a dull moment!

Timothy Ely
born 1949
  • Took First Place in Phase 1, Flight 7, with a voting score of .813.
  • Tied for First in Phase 2, Flight 5 of the Play-In Tournament with a voting score of .500.
  • Laid a beating on William Dobson in Round 1.
  • Surprised Man Ray in Round 2.
  • Upset Édouard Manet in Round 3 by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!

Ernst Haeckel
1834 - 1919

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Fourth-round matches are open for at least three months after posting.

Friday, February 5, 2016

At the Movies: The Wild Bunch

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969.

imbd: 8.0
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Fresh

Mrs.5000 and Patrick and myself met at the Hollywood Theater on Monday to watch The Seven Samurai on the big screen. Alas, it was sold out -- and isn't it cool that The Seven Samurai can sell out a movie theater in 2016?   We ended up having to settle for pizza and, you know, conversation.

So instead of revisiting my old review of The Seven Samurai today, I'll revisit my old review of The Wild Bunch, which we watched on the Hollywood's big screen more successfully a few months back with Jennifer, this blog's Shakespearean scholar in residence.

The Wild Bunch is a movie that begins with a spectacular orgy of violence, has quite a bit of violence in the middle, and ends with a spectacular orgy of violence. It's the Kill Bill of 1969, I thought while watching it, and then found that Ebert makes the Tarantino comparison as well in his "Great Movies" review. It was apparently quite controversial after its initial release, and no wonder -- I didn't even know they HAD this much violence in the 1960s.

If you have the stomach to watch gunmen and innocent bystanders die in agony as bullets rip through their innards -- and let's face it, you probably do, you've watched your share of killings in filmed entertainment just like the rest of us -- The Wild Bunch is a very well-made Western. Like most Westerns, it works the clichéd theme of personal codes of honor, but it mixes things up a bit by thinking about the differences between individual and institutional control of the means of violence. Which is to say, it contrasts an old-fashioned band of armed thieves with the sanctioned and semi-sanctioned armed men of a railroad company, the U.S. army, and a splinter faction in the Mexican Civil War. In so doing, the film keeps an admirably neutral tone; we are concerned with the thieves, because they are the point-of-view characters, but we are not necessarily led to admire them.

The action takes place in and around the Mexican Civil War, which is treated with more subtlety and sympathy than I would have expected in 1969. The militia band we see the most of is, to be sure, a corrupt and poorly led outfit, but in my limited knowledge of the Mexican Civil War, that would have been pretty much par for the course.  We visit a Mexican village which has perhaps a hint of a late-sixties commune about it, but is also the only inhabited place in the movie that is not awash in violence and corruption.  The village headman is probably the only character you would really want to meet for coffee.

A creepy motif that runs through the film is the violence of children. The film opens with an image of a happy bunch of lovable ragamuffins torturing bugs, and throughout the movie kids are often shown participating in violence, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, and most memorably chasing along merrily behind a car that is torturing a man to death by dragging him slowly around the town.  This is not, I might mention, a particularly optimistic movie.

Much is made of this movie being about men who have trouble adjusting to changing times, and how it reflects director Sam Peckinpah's own trouble adjusting to his own changing times.  Well, maybe.  I frankly don't feel like the film supports this interpretation very well.  Its occasional references to the march of technology or the possibility of war in Europe (the latter somewhat psychic, as the movie is set a full year before the events that precipitated World War I) do not really seem much like much more than bits of period window-dressing, in my own viewing of the film.

Plot: A wild bunch of thieves want to steal some weapons and sell them to a wild bunch of Mexican soldiers. Meanwhile, a wild bunch of mercenaries in the employ of a railroad company want to catch the thieves. The main characters are frequently torn between exigencies and their Code of Loyalty to the men in their own wild bunch, and sometimes their respect for the leaders of the other wild bunches. And then the shooting starts, except the shooting started about five minutes into the movie.

Visuals: Beautifully filmed in vivid color! Early 20th Century towns and encampments in the border deserts are rendered with impressive verisimilitude (excepting only a city park early in the film with trees and landscaping that are way more mature than the town that supposedly planted them). People falling off of roofs and cliffs in slow motion as they writhe in terror and in agony from their gunshot wounds have seldom been portrayed so beautifully.

When we watched it at the Hollywood, we got to see the 70mm print, which might have been visually dazzling had it not been kind of a beat-up and I think slightly discolored 70mm print, which pretty much left us back where we started.  But, it was fun to see with lots of other people on a big screen.

Dialog: Terse and macho, but well-delivered in the service of building relatively well-rounded characters. The film would not suffer from having fewer scenes that end with a bunch of men laughing heartily.

Prognosis: If you like Westerns, there's a lot of The Wild Bunch to like -- it clocks in at about two and a half hours. If you don't like Westerns, and particularly if you don't like cinematic violence, this would be a good one to skip.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Dove v. Murillo!

Arthur Dove
1880 - 1946

Tied with Gerrard Dou in his first attempt at the First Round, back in January 2013.
Lost to Norman Rockwell in a second shot at Round 1.
Knocked out Robert Motherwell in First Round Elimination.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
1618 - 1682

Defeated Paul Nash after a last-second flipflop in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Lost to the Munch-slayer, Alphonse Mucha, in Round 2.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting, but likely much longer.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Wednesday Post

Michael5000 Returns to High Hawsker
Yeah he was a complete little bastard.

On July 22, 2010, this was your Thursday boring postcard from Michael5000:


Last week, somebody left this delightful comment on the old post:
Ha. I spent my childhood holidays here. In the spring mornings it used to get major fog. My three cousins and I would run up and down the fog towards the sea with my oldest cousin screaming that we [were] near the edge of the cliff and not to move. Yeah he was a complete little bastard. I can see [that] one man's meat is another man's poison. Anywhere is boring, very especially if the people around you are boring. 
Of course regular readers will understand that the Northcliffe Caravan Park is "meat" to me and the commenter alike, since when I call a postcard "boring" I am essentially confessing to be half in love with it.  Nor do I know what it is to have boring people around me, for I am never more than a click away from readers of Infinite Art Tournament, am I right?

All that aside, I was immediately infected after reading the comment with aching nostalgia for High Hawsker.  Nostalgia, coupled with a painful certainty that such a place must long ago have been ground beneath the wheel of time.

But no:

Northcliffe Caravan Park is still there!  In fact, "Northcliffe & [neighboring] Seaview Holiday Parks have been in family ownership since 1967 and both parks are still personally managed today by the third generation of the same family."  You can check out amenities, rates, and local attractions at their website!

If you pull back for a little context, modern aerial photography reveals that the parks are on a spectacular agricultural tableland.  The fancifully named "Robin Hood's Bay" is just a few miles away, over to the south.  And, after a careful perusal of the visual evidence, you can at least say this about the commenter's oldest cousin...

...he was right to be scared of the cliff!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Infinite Art Tournament, First Elimination Round #45/64

Faceoff #1: Pechstein v. Perugino

Max Hermann Pechstein
1881 - 1955

Skunked by Joachim Patenier in Round 1.


1447ish - 1523

Lost to Francis Picabia in Round 1.

Faceoff #2: Piero della Francesca v. Pietro da Cortona

Piero della Francesca
1410s - 1492

Lost to Pablo Picasso in Round 1.


Pietro da Cortona
1596 - 1669

Crushed by Piero di Cosimo and RENAISSANCE DINOSAURS in Round 1.

Vote for the two artists of your choice! Votes generally go in the comments, but have been known to arrive by email, by postcard, or in a sealed envelope.

Please note that you may vote only once in each face-off.  Opining that both of the artists in one of the two faceoffs is superior to the other is fine, but casting your votes for two artists in the same faceoff is not permissible.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Michael5000 v. Dickens: Hard Times

2012 Assessment: I'm pretty sure I have not read it. [I was right!]

Current Reading: Eye-read in a Penguin Classics that's been around the house for a decade or three.

Hard Times is, like most of Charles Dickens’ work, driven by a profoundly humane impulse. Here as ever, Dickens wants to tell stories that are emotionally and intellectually involving, but also to demonstrate that decency can prevail over apathy and villainy. He wants to show his middle-class Victorian readers something of the conditions of the working classes, to cast light on the intricate social, political, educational, medical, geographical, legal, and architectural systems by which the cards were thoroughly stacked against the urban poor, and against himself in his own tough childhood. He is one of the founders of the modern social conscience, bless his heart.

The broadest target in Hard Times is an educational system based solely on the rote learning of facts. Early on we meet Mr. Gradgrind, who demands that his students, including his own children, commit a random treasury of technical esoterica to memory. He strives to save them from the distractions of emotion, self-expression, and entertainment, and comes off as a Victorian Mr. Spock without the madcap sense of whimsy.  The second broadest target is the Victorian industrialist; our real villain will prove to be Mr. Bounderby, a gasbag who prides himself on his humble origins and holds his labor force in contempt for not having pulled themselves up to be factory owners like himself. To be exploited to the hilt, he might bluster, is no more than they deserve for their lack of initiative.

Now to a modern eye, the caricatures that Dickens offers seem pretty darn broad, but as the editor of my 1969 edition (a charmingly Marxist professor of the old school) is at pains to point out, the satire is not nearly as over-the-top as it seems in retrospect. Mid-Victorian regimentation of factory labor and education did such a fine job of parodying itself that the social critic had to strain to take things one step further. (The editor is disappointed only that Dickens does not call for the reader to rise up and cast off the chains of capitalism, but reasonably concedes that for him to do so would have really cut into his sales.)

But it is not the setting and situation that makes Hard Times a bad novel; it is the paper-thin characters that inhabit its mechanical contrivance of a plot. Most people know the principle of fiction writing that an author should “show, not tell.” In Hard Times, Dickens gets it backwards. He tells and does not show.

Let me show you what I mean. (See what I did there?) Here are three examples on facing pages 60 and 61, where I opened the book at random:
“Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.”
His pride in having at any time of his life achieved such a great social distinction as to be a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest, was only to be satisfied by three sonorous repetitions of the boast.
In the first paragraph, we hear Mr. Bounderby blustering about his childhood.  This is fine and good. In the second paragraph, Dickens essentially inserts a footnote explaining what the dialog was meant to convey about his character. This is tedious, and just a little insulting.
Mr. Gradgrind did not seem favourably impressed by these cogent remarks. He frowned impatiently.
Here, Dickens somewhat pompously tells us about how his character reacted, or “seemed” to react, before grudgingly giving us three words that show us what actually happened. The sad thing is that those three words, if left to their work, could have carried the weight of the passage very effectively on their own. They needed no introduction.
‘Go and be somethingological directly,’ [said Mrs. Gradgrind]. Mrs. Gradgrind was not a scientific character, and usually dismissed her children to their studies with this general injunction to choose their pursuit.
Here we go again: Mrs. Gradgrind makes an amusing malapropism that shows she isn’t well-educated. This is good character writing – and it is immediately ruined by a long, dull sentence that explains, and therefore ruins, the joke.

This constant barrage of explanation is, I assure you, not limited to pages 60 and 61. Throughout Hard Times, Dickens relentlessly explains his own jokes, heckles his own villains, and swoons over the virtues of his own heroes. The effect, as you would expect, is painfully tedious – “like having the intended message(s) hammered into you by a journeyman carpenter” as Maddy, who was book-clubbing the reading with me, put it.

When you are required to read a bad book, even if only by your own stubbornness, there is an unfortunate kind of literary relativity in which – because it is so untempting to pick up and so easy to put back down – the time required to plow through it can stretch out for weeks. Hard Times is actually one of Dickens’ shortest novels, but it took me an age to read. Well, 16 days. But it felt like an age.

In reviewing Barnaby Rudge, I said that “in reviewing Martin Chuzzlewit, I said that ‘Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors.’ I'll stand by that. Third-rank Dickens might however be given a miss.”

In Hard Times, we have arrived at Fourth-rank Dickens.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 10/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.  Still on deck: Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Second Opinion: It's Michael Faber's favorite!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Della Quercia v. Raeburn!

Jacopo Della Quercia
1374 - 1438


Sir Henry Raeburn
1756 - 1823


Vote for the artist of your choice! Votes go in the comments. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.