Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament Left Bracket Second-Round Elimination: Spilliaert v. Smith!

Here's a Second Round Elimination match between the two guys who knocked out Nicolas de Staël.  It promises to be another fine contest, unless you're a diehard Nicolas de Staël fan, in which case you'll probably be disgusted with this whole area of the brackets.

Léon Spilliaert
1881 - 1946

David Smith
1906 - 1965

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, November 29, 2017

Michael5000 v. Dickens: Oliver Twist

2012 Assessment: "I don't think I've read it, but was shown bits of Oliver! in high school.  It has such a broad cultural footprint that one feels like one has read it."

Current Reading: Simon & Schuster "Enriched Classic" Edition.  I read it in an informal "book group of two" with frequent Tournament voter Morgan.

What I have to say about Oliver Twist is very similar to what I had to say about Nicholas Nickleby five years back. But, even on the off chance you are reading this, you probably haven’t seen that earlier review, at least not recently, so I can probably get away with repeating myself quite a bit.

First of all, like Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist is very early Dickens. They are his third and second novels, respectively, although the first novel, The Pickwick Papers, is so picaresque that we almost wouldn't call it a novel, if we really cared to enforce a definition of "novel." And in none of these first three, nor in the two that followed (The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge) do we really get a satisfying, fully realized Dickens novel.

I've wondered about this a lot, because in our current literary-commercial regime one reads an awful lot of "first novels," and often times those turn out to be, as one finds after buying the sophomore effort, conspicuously the best novel that that writer had in them. It doesn't always feel like contemporary authors have had the chance to mature into the fullness of a mature style -- or so I often think. On the other hand, I suppose there are counterexamples (especially in writers of serial fiction) where you can go back and check out the rerelease of a favorite author's first few published works, and you say "wow, this early stuff kind of stinks." Yes, I realize I just said two completely contradictory things. I said I've wondered about this a lot, not that I've figured out any answers about this.

Anyway, back to Oliver Twist.

In the Nicholas Nickleby review, I said "Although he's not as stylistically daring as he will be later in his career, Dickens' voice is already in place. You've got the lovely, well-turned sentences, the ironic wit, and the tendency to go a bit overboard, by modern standards, on the flights of pathos. His concern for social justice and the plight of the folks at the bottom of the social ladder is very much in evidence as well." That's true in Oliver Twist as well.

Next, I moved on to this: "What's missing, though, is the big complex kaleidoscope of a fully realized Dickens plot. In my favorite of the novels, there will be several scores of characters who are all twined together through an elaborate tangle of circumstance and back-story. In Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, you'd be hard pressed even to identify a "main character," and three different people could each give you accurate plot synopses without it being obvious that they were talking about the same book. There's just a hell of a lot going on in these full-fledged Dickens masterpieces."

Whereas, Oliver Twist is another novel, like Nicholas Nickleby, that for the most part runs down a single narrative and chronological path. For the most part. To be fair, it is actually considerably more interesting than Nickleby, because we do see some characters take on lives of their own and have side adventures not directly related to the title character. But everything ultimately ties back to little Oliver and the mystery around his parentage, a mystery which is, alas, both overcomplicated and profoundly uninteresting.

I had a general idea of what would happen in Oliver Twist, but all of those things turned out to happen in the first few chapters. This is a common enough phenomenon with well-known, infrequently read books – a friend who saw me with the book in my hand mentioned that it is "set in an orphanage," which it is, but only for a couple of chapters. That whole "please sir, I want some more" business happens in Chapter 2, and there are 53 chapters. I suspect that, like me, most first time readers will find that the book they expected is contained in the first eight or nine chapters, after which the story keeps on going.

Like other Dickens title characters, Nick Nickleby and also David Copperfield, Oliver Twist as a title character is by far the least interesting person in his own book. We know, but only because we are told so and because of how some of the other characters react to him, that he is a child of remarkable (not to say improbable) attractiveness and virtue. That's about all we know, though, because he only ever opens his mouth to say something painfully sincere and virtuous. He is the star of the book only in that his existence gives other, more rounded and interesting characters a central point to revolve around.

True to the Dickens stereotype, Oliver Twist relies a bit too heavily on outlandishly convenient coincidence to lubricate the engine of its story. More than most Dickens, it also relies heavily on people doggedly failing to have obvious conversations with each other so that they can preserve misconceptions that are important to the plot.

Finally, to put it plainly, the biggest problem with Oliver Twist is just that it's kind of boring.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 13/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.  The only ones left are Little Dorrit and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Second Opinion: Publisher's Weekly ranks it as the sixth-best Dickens novel:
With its larger-than-life villainies and its endless excitements, is the perfect book to begin with. Who will ever forget the supremely wicked Fagin who co-opts homeless boys into a life of crime, the murderous Bill Sikes, the brave young Oliver himself, however idealized? No wonder it had such an immense triumph as successor to the benign and lovable Pickwick!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament Left Bracket Second-Round Elimination: Rubens v. Sluter!

The main thing that Rubens and Sluter have in common, from an Art-Historical point of view, is that they have both been burned by Michiel Sittow in this Tournament.  They meet here in Second Round Elimination, and only one of them can survive.  But whoever wins this one, if they can beat Sodoma in the next one, and if Sittow beats the winner of Spilliaert/Smith (no spoilers, but I sure bet he will), then they will have a chance to turn the tables on Sittow!  Never a dull moment.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens
1577 - 1640

Claus Sluter
1380ish - 1405
Dutch; worked in France.

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, November 27, 2017

At the Movies: Vertigo

At the Movies with Michael5000

Alfred Hitchcock, 1958.

imbd: 8.4 (imdb 250: #73)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh
BFI Greatest Films of All Time: #1

I last watched Vertigo in 2010.  Since then, it has continue to thrive as a critical "great movie," most notably by being anointed the best film of all time in the British Film Institute's 2012 poll.  Unfortunately, a recent rewatching shows that the film itself has not changed; its terrific first act still bogs down by the midway point, and the ending is still mediocre at best.  Here's a mildly revised version of my 2010 review.

- - - -

I’m puzzled enough about Vertigo’s presence on Roger Ebert's Great Movies list that I’ve looked into the history of its reception. At its release, it got mixed but accurate reviews as a stylish thriller with pacing and plot problems. From the late 1960s on, though, it became a critic’s darling, “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us” in the words of one dazzled soul. Ebert’s own evaluation is uncharacteristically vague, florid, and divorced from reality:
And the camera circles them hopelessly, like the pinwheel images in Scottie's nightmares, until the shot is about the dizzying futility of our human desires, the impossibility of forcing life to make us happy. This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.
Wow!  That's a lot to ask from one camera shot, which I think was really more about trying to convey a sense of emotional intensity and keeping an image of two people clutching each other from becoming too static.  But, maybe I just haven't twigged to the dizzying futility of our human desires.

From where I was sitting, Vertigo is not a Great Movie, nor even an especially strong Hitchcock movie. It starts slowly, with a leisurely portrayal of an interesting, dynamic relationship that will subsequently become entirely irrelevant. The development of the central puzzle is interesting and conveys a stylish air of mystery, but it also consists of numerous long scenes of people driving around in cars. The back half of the movie is not only implausible on its own terms, but retroactively ruins the mystery of the development section by giving it such a clunky explanation.

To spell out what I mean, I’ll have to employ the following radical spoiler: We will eventually learn that Madeleine established her relationship with Scotty, the protagonist, for the sole purpose of luring him to the scene of the crime so he can be an unintentional false witness. This whopper of a Rube Goldberg machine is completely beyond the pale as an act of criminal planning, in which -- or so it has always been my impression -- less is more.

But it gets worse. The fruition of the plan comes when the dastardly Gavin takes his wife up to the top of the tower, breaks her neck, and waits for Madeleine to lure Scotty up the stairs. Now: for that to work, Gavin has to act in confidence that Marguerite will be able to get Scotty to (1) identify a location that she describes as a setting for a dream, then to (2) decide immediately to drive 100 miles to go there, while (3) thinking it’s his own idea, and (4) on a very tight timetable. This is beyond preposterous. What if he didn’t know about the place? What if he’d had, say, a dental appointment that day? What if they’d had a flat? What if any of thousands of other perfectly normal things had happened? Then Gavin would be stuck up there in the tower, clutching his stiffening wife and wishing he’d staged a simple burglary-gone-wrong like a sensible spouse-murderer, that's what.

Now, you can forgive the murder plot as only a overextended contrivance that sets up the final reel of the movie, if you want to, but here we run into more problems. Ebert praises the interesting psychology at work, but he's off base. For cinematic psychology to be interesting, it has to bear some relation to actual human behavior, and the behavior in the second half of Vertigo is all cartoonishly false. This doesn’t make the movie bad, necessarily – most movies are a little dodgy in their portrayal of how humans really tick – but it makes praising Vertigo as an amazing psychological thriller a bit of a stretch.

Also, the ending is so abrupt that’s it’s unintentionally funny.

Plot: Hoo-boy, let's see. Man gets hired to track old friend’s wife, who turns out to be manifesting odd paranormal symptoms. Man falls for old friend’s loony wife. Old friend’s loony wife dies. Man falls for woman who was pretending to be old friend's loony wife.

Visuals: Very sleek and stylish in the best Alfred Hitchcock mode. Excellent use of slightly too-garish period color film. There’s a trippy dream sequence that has Saul Bass written all over it.

Dialog: Surprisingly little for long stretches of the film, when the protagonist is following various people around in his car. Occasional stretches of fairly blunt exposition, especially in the opening scenes and during the inquest.

Prognosis: Certainly not a Great Movie, but a fun entertainment with good performances and a strong first half.  Recommended for anybody who likes Hitchcock, San Francisco, Jimmy Stewart, or the style and fashion of the high 1950s. 

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7

Saturday, November 25, 2017

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

Faceoff #1: Tatlin v. Zoffany

Vladimir Tatlin
1885 - 1953

Tied with Antoni Tàpies in his first shot at Round One.
Lost to Victor Vasarely in Round 1.


Johann Zoffany
1733 - 1810
German; worked in Britain and India

Lost to Anders Zorn in Round 1.

Faceoff #2: Zuccarelli v. Duchamp

Francesco Zuccarelli
1702 - 1788
Florentine; worked in Venice and Britain

Lost to Francisco de Zurbarán in Round 1.


Marcel Duchamp
1887 - 1968

Tied with Raoul Dufy in his first try at the First Round, back in January 2013.
Trounced by Velázquez 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 face-offs is superior to the other is fine, but casting your votes for two artists in the same face-off is not permissible.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament Left Bracket Second-Round Elimination: Nolan v. Tanguy!

Sir Sidney Nolan
1917 - 1992

Yves Tanguy
1890 - 1955

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, November 22, 2017

At the Movies: Princess Mononoke

At the Movies with Michael5000

Princess Mononoke
Hayao Miyazaki, 1997.

imbd: 8.4 (imdb 250: #65)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% Fresh

I wasn't sure if I had watched Princess Mononoke, because I have watched a number of animated features from Japan whose titles don't always stick in my head, except for Howl's Moving Castle, which is the one with the moving castle.  This one is of course the one with Princess Mononoke, but this is confusing because she isn't really a princess (although she is more or less a real mononoke, which is apparently halfway between "spirit" and "monster.")  I had not seen it.

It is a longish epic adventure, with vaguely pious gestures towards environmentalism and quite a lot of what I take to be Japanese mysticism, but this is not always easy to parse from the outside.  Its biggest strength as an epic adventure is that it avoids a simple good-guys and bad-guys structure.  The iron-making human village is despoiling nature and so you'd expect it to be bad, but it is also a fairly happy, prosperous, socially progressive community.  The boars, who are part of nature and so presumably good, are a bunch of vengeful numbskulls.  The apes are... well, I never figured out what they were up to. 

Plot: A demon attacks an isolated village.  The extremely handsome and serious-minded young prince saved the day, but gets infected with demonitis.  The village matriarch tells him that he must therefore go on a quest.  In his adventures, he meets Princess Mononoke, a young human who has been raised by a wolf goddess and will need lots of therapy to sort out her identity issues when she reaches adulthood. He first catches sight of her in the woods, face smeared with blood from tending to the wounds of her wolf-goddess mother, and falls in love on the spot, as what young man wouldn't?  His love for her will motivate most of his actions for the rest of the film right up to the conclusion, when they will perfunctorily decide to be just friends, since he's a human and she's a wolf.  Meanwhile, a lot of action will take place: forces of the Emperor attack the iron-making human village, since iron weapons are powerful and destabilizing!   The village teams up with the Emperor's henchmen to attack the Spirit of the Forest, for no particular reason!  The prince defends the Spirit of the Forest, perhaps in order to impress Princess Mononoke!  The various animal communities talk the talk about defending the Spirit of the Forest, but mostly just bicker and fall into in-fighting!  There's another demon running around!   You lose track of what's going on, but fortunately the cinematography always gives you clues on who you want to win any given battle.

Visuals: Princess Mononoke was an important film in establishing the style of Japanese animation that many, many people think is revolutionary and enchanting.  I am clearly missing something here, for to me it just looks like pretty-darn-good animation.  We saw it on the big screen, where it looked especially pretty-good.

Dialog: We saw the version that was dubbed in English by a talented, all-star cast.  I dislike dubbing in live-action movies, but it works fine in animated films, which after all are dubbed in their original language, too.

Prognosis: With many moments of beauty, violence, cuteness, humor, and suspense, it offers the complete package in terms of entertainment.  It avoids blacks and whites of morality, which is good, but lets you lose track of why people (and deity animals) are doing what they're doing, which is kinda bad.  It feels just a little bit like church, but fortunately it doesn't really have a coherent message to deliver. 

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round 3: Waterhouse v. Van der Weyden!

John William Waterhouse
1849 - 1917

Beat Antoine Watteau decisively in Round 1.
Fended off Carel Weight in Round 2.

Rogier Van der Weyden
1399ish - 1464

Came from behind to beat Benjamin West in Round 1.
Came from way behind to take down Whistler 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.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round Two: Zurbarán v. Velázquez!

Francisco de Zurbarán
1598 - 1664

Beat Francesco Zuccarelli easily in Round 1.

Diego de Silva y Velázquez
1599 - 1660

Tied with Victor Vasarely in his first try at the First Round.
Defeated Marcel Duchamp in the final match of Round 1.

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.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Wallis v. de Vlaminck!

Alfred Wallis
1855 - 1942

Lost to Andy Warhol in Round 1 by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Beat Edward Wadsworth in First Round Elimination.

Maurice de Vlaminck
1876 - 1958

Defeated Simon Vouet in Round 1.
Lost to M.C. Escher 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.