Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Semi-Finals: Degas v. Dürer!

Edgar Degas
1834 - 1917
Degas was the only Impressionist to truly bridge the gap between traditional academic art and the radical movements of the early 20th century, a restless innovator who often set the pace for his younger colleagues.... Acknowledged as one of the finest draftsmen of his age, Degas experimented with a wide variety of media.... Once marginalized as a “painter of dancers,” Degas is now counted among the most complex and innovative figures of his generation, credited with influencing Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and many of the leading figurative artists of the 20th century. - Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Whupped it up on sculptor Richard Deacon in Round 1.
  • Stomped on Eugène Delacroix in Round 2.
  • Crushed countryman Honoré Daumier in Round 3.
  • Bested Caravaggio in Round 4.

Albrecht Dürer
1471 - 1528
No artist better fits Thomas Carlyle's definition of genius, as the "transcendent capacity of taking trouble," than Albrecht Dürer. The industry of the man was breathtaking, his mastery of detail astonishing, yet everything he did seemed fresh and newly minted. The most intellectual of northern Renaissance artists, but the one who responded most immediately to nature, to the world and the people around him, he was profoundly religious yet supremely open-minded. - New York Times
  • Defeated Anthony Van Dyck without too much trouble in Round 1.
  • Art-Brutalized Jean Dubuffet in Round 2.
  • Went ninja on Donatello in a massive Round 3 victory.
  • Beat Richard Diebenkorn on his home court in Round 4.

Friday, July 3, 2015

At the Movies: "Heat"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Michael Mann, 1995.

imbd: 8.3 (imdb 250: #124)
Ebert: Three and a half Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 86% Fresh

When I saw that Heat was on the imdb 250, I was surprised. I remembered it, from a first viewing in the late 1990s, as a mediocre sort of action business. “Well,” I thought, “maybe it has excellences that I didn’t catch the first time around.”

After watching it this time, I checked imdb again to make sure there was no mistake. Was there another, better movie named “Heat?” No, I was watching the right Heat all right. It was just not as good as I had remembered. But there it is at #124, forming an odd little trio with #122, On the Waterfront, and #123, Good Will Hunting, mediocre movies whose reputations have run out way in front of their content.

Heat is ostensibly a heist movie. I am generally a sucker for heist movies! But the fun of the genre is in the logistics – either the clever things that the thieves do to procure money, or the clever things that the cops do to foil them. Heat leaves this part out altogether. Its idea of an exciting heist is for men to wave guns around and shout a lot, and then to walk across a plaza to a waiting car carrying enormous bags of money. No, really, that’s the plan. The police plan is to materialize miraculously, in force, and to engage in a pitched gun battle right there in the plaza. “Get down,” they suggest helpfully to passers-by, as cops and robbers exchange machine-gun fire on a downtown street.

The interesting-crime aspect of the film is underdeveloped to allow for extensive exploration of the love lives of the various cops and robbers. Each relationship is developed over a series of two or three painfully clichéd scenes. These were written, as far as I can tell, by men who had never met any actual women, and were working from hearsay. Much of this relationship aspect of the movie is pretty cringe-worthy, which is especially too bad since the movie sprawls out to an exasperating three hours. It would be an easy matter, and a service, to cut Heat down to a more compact one-and-three-quarters. It would still be no masterpiece, but it would have an exciting tempo with good shoot-outs, and let folks get on to the next part of the evening.

The strength of Heat is that it is beautifully filmed and framed. The camera work is very strong all the way through.

Its weaknesses include, first, an overlong screenplay rife with cliché. Secondly, Heat completely fails to reconcile a pose of gritty realism with a complete disregard for plausibility in many, perhaps most, scenes. I won’t play the game of “that couldn’t really happen because” here because, first, it would be tiresome of me, and second, the list would extend well into next week. Thirdly, Heat has a very bland musical score.

Of the very popular principal actors, Robert de Niro does a good job of acting very masculine and inscrutable, and looking great in suits. Al Pacino, as the dogged detective, puts in a performance that is uncomfortably reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Kramer – check him out, in particular, when he “intimidates criminals.” Val Kilmer looks great. An unnecessarily large supporting cast puts in strong, serviceable performances, doing what they can with the dialog they’ve got.

Prognosis: A lot of people are clearly seeing merit in Heat that goes straight over my head. It is a little surreal, for instance, to read in Ebert's review that "the dialogue is complex enough to allow the characters to say what they're thinking: They are eloquent, insightful, fanciful, poetic when necessary. They're not trapped with cliches." It sounds great! And it also sounds like the very opposite of the movie I just watched. Which is a shame, because I bet I would have really enjoyed the "meticulously conceived bank robbery" that Ebert makes reference to.

What can I say? If you are reading this, I sincerely do not think you would find it a sound investment of three hours.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 4.

This technical goof is insignificant, but it hit my funny bone: during an
epic machine gun battle, the camera sweeps by this police car's preternaturally
even grid of bullet holes.  The tires are unscathed and perky.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Cragg v. Mabuse!

Tony Cragg
born 1949

Tied with John Robert Cozens in his initial Round 1 outing, in September 2012.
Lost to Andy Goldsworthy in Round 1.
Lambasted Lucas van Leyden in First Round Elimination.

Mabuse / aka Jan Gossaert
c.1478 - 1532

Beat Bernardino Luini in Round 1.
Lost to René Magritte 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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament Left Bracket Second-Round Elimination: Hausmann v. Kokoschka!

Willem de Kooning and Jeff Koons came in together, and they go out together. Both artists left us this week with records of 1-2, with de Kooning falling to Oskar Kokoschka and Koons overpowered by Raoul Hausmann.

Today's contestants share a loss to Domenico Ghirlandaio. Hausmann fared better against the Florentine master than did Kokoschka, but that doesn't matter today, as they go head to head for the right to survive into the Third Round!

Raoul Hausmann
1886 - 1971
Austrian; worked in Germany and France

Oskar Kokoschka
1886 - 1980
Austrian; worked internationally

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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Through History with The Monday Quiz: the 1030s

What, you don't know anything about the 1030s?  That's OK!  Neither did I, last week! 

1. Yarn is made by twisting fibers together tight enough so that they form a continuous thread. There is evidence that in the 1030s, in China, a simple machine was being used that would, with refinement, speed up this process enormously. What was this yarn-making machine?

2. Godwin, Earl of Wessex, was at the height of his power in the 1030s. His support was essential to the reign of Harold Harefoot, and later in securing the succession of Harthacnut to the throne. In what kingdom was Godwin a leading mover and shaker?

3. Gang Gam-chan, leader of the peninsular Goryeo kingdom, died in 1031. Under the Liao Dynasty, the Khitans had attempted several invasions of Goryeo. In the third and last of these invasions, Gang Gam-chan ordered a river dammed, and then had the dam destroyed while the invaders were crossing the river below. The resulting victory meant the survival of the Goryeo Kingdom, which in turn allowed the continued development of its distinct culture.

What do we call Goryeo these days?

4. A number of contemporary writers noted that an unusual number of Christian tourists made the trip to Jerusalem in 1033. What did they figure was so special about 1033?

5. Michael IV the Paphlagonian (no relation) started as a servant in the women’s quarters of the palace, but something about him caught the fancy of the Empress Zoe, who made him her lover. Soon afterwards, on April 11, 1034, Emporer Romanos III Argyros was found mysteriously dead in his bath; Zoe and Michael were married that afternoon, and Michael was crowned emperor on the next day. This is the kind of palace intrigue that gave what empire a bad reputation?

6. A new business model!
“After having spent some decades in the business of ferrying Latin pilgrims to the Holy Land, in 1034 the Pisans hit upon the idea of combining such a voyage with a return-trip raid on ‘Annaba in Islamic Ifriqiya, a raid in which the pilgrims would be invited to participate. Thus, the Pisans, who lacked ground forces, could pillage a Muslim town with the help of the pilgrims, while the loot the pilgrims carried off would help them recoup the cost of their voyage. Because ‘Annaba was a Muslim town the attack could be presented as a virtuous act of piety, and all the participants would come away not only richer, but having redeemed their sins.”
Brian A. Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors
 What does Professor Catlos mean by “Pisans,” and why were they in a position to try out this enterprise?

7. Some people say that Saint Sophia Cathedral was completed in 1037; others that construction began in that year. Here’s what it looks like these days, after a number of remodelings of course. What city, then as now a capital, must it be in?

8. Here’s a little story that was probably first told in the 1030s, although it is set much earlier:
The Buddha gathered his disciples. They sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But the Buddha said nothing; he only held up a flower.

The disciples were very confused at the Buddha’s silence. But Mahākāśyapa understood that the flower was itself the sermon, and smiled.

“What can be said I have said to you,” said the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahākāśyapa.”
The story of the “Flower Sermon” is a foundational story of what specific belief system?

9. In 1037, Tughril Beg united the Turkic peoples of eastern Islam and founded an empire that would rule a vast area of the Middle East for the next century and a half. This map shows the empire and its neighbors at its late eleventh century peak. What do we call this Turkish empire?

10. In 1038, a Tangut leader declared himself emperor and demanded that his former ruler, the emperor of Song, recognize him as an equal. After a rocky start, the Tangut Empire would last for almost two centuries, coexisting with the Song and Liao dynasties, until their society was destroyed by the Mongols in 1227 in one of history’s first and most effective examples of attempted genocide. It's another chapter of the complicated history of what country?

Through History with The Monday Quiz: the 1020s

1. "...died at home in Greenland" -- Leif Erickson.
2. The Vaspurakan Kingdom -- was Armenian.
3. What important job was thereby kept in the Tusculum family? -- The Papacy.
4. The not-quite-forgotten empire -- Ghana.
5. "Short Discourse on the Discipline and Art of Music" -- Don't make it harder than it is!
6.  Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā, one of the most important figures in the history of medicine and science -- we traditionally call him Avicenna.
7. Robert of Normandy's little bastard -- William the Conquerer.
8. King of England, Denmark, Norway, and sort of Sweden -- Cnut, or Canute the Great.
9. Kaifang was where the Yellow River met the Grand Canal, the less hyped but more important of China's linear ancient engineering marvels.
10. The Rainbow Serpent holds an Australian passport these days.

Therefore, good readers, we have a tie -- a TIE -- with both pfly ("these are too hard for poor me") and Unwise Owl ("Who knows what you want here?") crushing it with 8/10.  Will they triumph again next week, or will they, like Srivijaya, go into decline after the 1020s? History will tell!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Morisot v. Moroni!

Berthe Morisot
1841 - 1895


Giovanni Battista Moroni
1520ish - 1578


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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

At the Movies: "Oldboy"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Park Chan-Wook, 2003.

imbd: 8.4 (imdb 250: #69)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80% Fresh

Going into Oldboy, I knew only that it was a Korean thriller that, according to a little blurb on the front of the box, has “Quentin Tarantino's seal of approval." Based on this, I thought I'd be seeing a little violence, a little action, and a few twists, and figured it would be a good movie to watch while I took care of some chores. But the chores never got done. Oldboy grabbed me and held me, completely fascinated. Not because it explores interesting issues, not because it tells an especially fresh and surprising story, and certainly not because it is realistic or particularly insightful. It's just a pure, well-paced, well-structured entertainment machine. It's engrossing.

Plot: Oldboy is a direct descendent of another very successful piece of action-adventure entertainment, The Count of Monte Christo. Dumas' hero spends 15 years in a miserable prison, escapes in an irritable mood, and spends the next chapter of his life inflicting horrible -- and entertaining! -- social, psychological, and economic revenge on the people who framed him. Oldboy's hero, Oh Dae-su, is similarly locked up in solitary confinement for 15 years, and naturally feels inclined for a little revenge. In this case, however, Mr. Oh has no idea who imprisoned him, or why. As he starts to investigate, he begins finding galling clues which suggest that his laborious escape was all part of his captor's plan. This gives him a three questions to pursue: Who was his captor? Why was he put in prison? And, why was he released? The answers to all three questions will be a bit strange.

Visuals: Oldboy is told as a sequence of episodes. There are only a few instances where the film cuts between two actions taking place simultaneously; in general, we progress from setting to setting. These episodes aren’t necessarily single incidents (Oh’s captivity is shown as a montage covering fifteen years) nor are they strictly confined to one place (his initial detective work will involve sampling the fried dumplings of all the restaurants in town), but each episode has its own look and feel -- if not its own “visual language,” than maybe its own visual dialect.

There is a lot of inspiration from film noir here, and most of the episodes are either dark, grim, and gritty or dark, grim, and kind of sleek. Oh is a classic noir hero, battered, discouraged, and weary. There is a standout fight scene, in which he takes on twenty strong young toughs. Now, you’ve seen a number of movies where a hero takes on twenty men and wins, and he has done it with his amazing, superhuman fighting skills and in cheerful defiance of physical laws. In Oldboy, our hero wins his battle without any particular skills and without a single martial arts move.  All he has is an indifference to pain learned through 15 years of solitary confinement. As the camera pans down the hallway in one continuous take, Oh, dressed in his street clothes, beats on the younger men while they beat on him, winning solely through his capacity to absorb damage. It’s like the world’s grimmest side-scroller video game. Now, I’m pretty sure that in real life it’s not really possible for a middle-aged man to beat up 20 youths armed with staffs, but if it was possible, this is what it would look like.

Dialog: In Korean. Information rationing is excellent: it takes a long time to confirm your suspicions about what’s going on.

Prognosis: Hard to beat as a modern film noir action thriller.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.