‘America Today’ by Thomas Hart Benton @ The Metropolitan Museum of Art

bentoncity1352564491315Jackson Pollock served as a model for several of the male archetypes featured in Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural, America Today. And Benton, in turn, served as a mentor to Pollock. Given their relationship, one might find it odd that it is Pollock who steals Benton’s thunder via the Metropolitan’s latest exhibit. Benton’s mural, originally crafted for the New School’s International Style Building on West 12th, is both decadent and unique, featuring everything from taxi dancers to racketeers; railroad workers to grain elevators; boom years to lean. And yet, it pales in comparison to several like-minded pieces located in the installation’s anteroom. Along the north wall, Reginald Marsh’s The Bowery, as well as John Steuart Curry’s John Brown. Along the west wall, Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaé. Collectively, these paintings represent an unexpected morsel, like feasting on hors d’oeuvres at the expense of one’s main course. Either way, it’s all worth seeing, and it’s a perfect time of year to do just that.

(America Today continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through 4/19/15. Free with suggested donation, 82nd Street @ 5th Avenue.)

Five More For The Offing:

Richard Dawkins on Getting Something From Nothing (2012)

“It does violate common sense, but – as I said earlier this evening – you can’t go by common sense. If we could do things by common sense, we wouldn’t need physicists. Common sense, of course, comes from what was necessary for our brains to survive in the Pleistocene of Africa. They had to know how to catch a buffalo and find a water hole, and how to climb a tree when being pursued by a lion or something. So our brains were never shaped by natural selection to understand either quantum mechanics – the theory of the very small – or relativity – the theory of the very fast. And it’s actually an astonishing compliment to the human brain that at least some humans are
capable of understanding.”

Excerpted from The Unbelievers

IFB’s Quotations Page, General Index

Why, How & Where FOX’s ‘Gotham’ Pilot Failed

Gotham 2It’s the same old story – someone pitches an intriguing idea for a television pilot, and the next thing you know, a major network’s picked it up. Everything goes downhill from there. We’ve seen it with The Following, The Blacklist and a thousand other projects that had the nuts and bolts to be a contender. In the end these shows have all been ruined, decimated, dashed upon the rocks of network ethics. The goal is to present a highly-sanitized hour that poses little or no threat of offending anyone, or of making the general audience consider anything, for that matter.

Enter Gotham, a fiercely-anticipated drama that trades upon the rich back story of Batman, the twist here being there is no Batman, only a prepubescent Bruce Wayne. And while this could’ve – and probably should’ve – represented an innovative starting point, it inevitably winds up feeling like a letdown, the ultimate failure of which can be divided into quadrants: Continue reading

All About Fincher

937950-Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The“In focus groups people always say – and I have never had this not happen with any movie I have ever made – ‘I really liked it, but I don’t know that I can recommend it to any of my friends.’” So claimed David Fincher during a 2008 interview – a bias that extends beyond the average viewer. For the first 15 years of Fincher’s major directorial career, he faced an uphill battle for financing, opposed by studio backers who could not force him into a box. The release date for Zodiac had to be infamously pushed back (to the cinematic burial ground of March, no less) while Fincher engaged in a massive tug-of-war regarding 20 integral minutes of film.

But this … this is the way it is, the way it always has been whenever art jumps into bed with commerce. People, especially moviegoers, remain overtly aware of what excites them, regardless of whether they can articulate it in a survey. More often than not, what the American public really needs is reassurance … reassurance that whatever it is they’re enjoying, it’s OK. Look no further than Entertainment Weekly, a preening pub so desperate it actually gauges public interest before declaring any project’s legitimacy. Upon Fight Club‘s original release back in 1999, EW gave the movie a “D-”; 15 months before ranking Fincher’s “masculine rage manifesto” No. 1 on its list of 50 Essential DVDs. It’s a conspiracy that leads all the way up to the Academy, which categorically ignored David Fincher until The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie which garnered 13 nominations (and three wins) despite arguably representing Fincher’s least memorable work.

In a recent Playboy interview, Fincher recalled how studio execs were initially excited about Fight Club, primarily because it called for Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) to appear without his clothes on. When Fincher delivered what had become known as “the doorway scene,” which featured Pitt completely naked (save for a beaming yellow work glove), one of those studio execs responded, “You got him with his shirt off, and then you fucked the whole thing up!”

This is what it feels like to be David Fincher, to develop a deeply philosophical treatise that eventually gets co-opted as a buddy picture; to go on record numerous times, renouncing your directorial debut as a project that failed because you worked too hard to keep your backers happy; to be forced into defending your graphic use of sex, despite the fact it’s comparably tame by modern European standards.

Is he going to show it? I hope he shows it. There’s no way he’s going to show it. Oh my God, he showed it! David Fincher is a provocateur, but only in the sense he’s providing you with the one thing you need most. Slow-passing details play like index – a master shot of Detective Somerset’s bureau during Se7en, lined with a handkerchief, a switchblade, a ball-point pen, and a leather case for his eyeglasses. Each movie’s palette appears jaundiced, featuring muted shades of brown and white, meant to suggest a classic sepia feel. Complex tracking serves a function, Zodiac‘s mailbag sequence operating in much the same way Scorsese’s restaurant sequence did during Goodfellas. And then, of course, there are the takes … those miles and miles of endless takes.

Fincher is notorious among directors for massaging every shot until it’s perfect. The opening scene of The Social Network required 99 takes (from four different perspectives). Robert Downey, Jr. referred to the set of Zodiac as a gulag. Robert Duvall jokingly suggested there might’ve been a reason he turned down a role in Se7en. And yet, Stanley Kubrick maintained a very similar approach, for similar reasons, creating similar situations, with very similar results. “It makes you self-conscious,” Fincher explained during a 2010 Vulture interview, “and to get beyond that self-consciousness, I absolutely want people to have their idea of what the scene is about, to have an idea of what their moment is. And then I want to take them through that process to a point where they’ve literally forgotten their own names. I want to take them past the point where they go, ‘But I had it all worked out.’ If it’s still there but you’re doing it a little bit later or doing it a little bit flustered — you know, it’s an interesting thing: It happens very rarely, but invariably, when an actor’s in the middle of a take and they go, ‘Uh, hang on a sec, sorry, my fault, can we start again?’ always it’s the best take. Always the best take before they cry uncle, before they go, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve lost my train of thought.’ And I can show them on the monitor: ‘Look at you here, that is you at your most present, when you’re falling-down ill, like Dudley Moore in Arthur, ass-over-teakettle trying to remember where you were in the thing, that’s when you are stunning and real and amazing.’ Little things happen. There’s this moment at the beginning of [The Social Network] where Rooney Mara interrupts Jesse and says ‘Mark!’ And Jesse did this thing where he leaned forward in a very prodding way and said ‘Erica!’ Oddly condescending. She gets really pissed off — and he’d never done it before. It was kind of great.”

On balance, who could argue? Setting aside a $33 million domestic gross for Zodiac (Fincher’s first motion picture produced in digital, which more than doubled its take overseas), the director’s cost-benefit is astounding. More importantly, his style of cinema sticks with you, enduring not only because it’s viscerally entertaining, but also because there is a rich layer of subtext.

An underground movement that’s forced into the shadows because its male members get off on wrestling with one another in the dark? A treatise on torture so apparent its climax features a ritual beheading … in a dessert … followed by an act of revenge … between a series of high-tension wires? How bout a thriller with ongoing allusions to the trinity, centered upon the one son who ultimately martyrs himself in the name of uncontrollable sin? Flip the switch and Fincher’s got you. One way or another, he has seeped into your world.

Over the years, much has been made of the fact David Fincher grew up in Marin County, California, the son of a LIFE Magazine editor who also happened to enjoy movies; that Fincher’s mother worked at a methadone clinic; that his family lived within a stone’s throw of George Lucas, who Fincher later worked for on Return of the Jedi. Comparably little has been made of the fact that Ceán Chaffin, Fincher’s romantic partner of 18 years, has worked (almost exclusively) as a producer on every one of his films since 1997; that, along with long-time casting director Laray Mayfield, Fincher has elevated virtual newcomers including Rooney Mara, Kristen Stewart and Armie Hammer into A-list stardom; that he has cast veteran actors like Forest Whitaker and (more recently) Tyler Perry against type; that Fincher has been on target with almost all of his major cinematic decisions, and yet certain members of the media still cannot seem to cut the motherfucker a break. “If you have a fucking clue and a passion,” Fincher insisted during a 1999 interview, “people will get out of your way because people want someone to follow.” Perhaps it’s time to stop addressing David Fincher as if he’s just broken a vase, and start appreciating him as if he is one of the most eloquent directors of all-time.

Because he is.

Pauline Kael on Fear of Movies (1978)

“Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art – of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism – people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety, and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision, as if it went without saying that Bloody Sam couldn’t do anything but blow up bodies in slow motion, and with the most squalid commercial intentions.

This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to effect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that’s what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies – and they don’t even have to be first-rate, much less great – can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper – to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they’ve been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they’re not showing higher, more refined taste; they’re just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.”

(Excerpted from The Age of Movies)

IFB’s Quotations Page, General Index

Why ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Has Always Been Extremely Good, But Never Great

boardwalk-empireThere is a rumor, rather prevalent, that David Chase forbid the use of tight shots centered around the back of any actor’s head throughout production on The Sopranos. Too clichéd, Chase believed (with the exception of a minor dream sequence during Season Four). Yet, if one watches the opening credits of either Mad Men or Boardwalk Empireanchored by Chase protégés Matthew Weiner and Terence Winter, respectively – it’s difficult to ignore the prominent use of that shot.

David Chase was correct about so many things, in retrospect, his shadow must prove staggering, especially for Winter, whose follow-up to The Sopranos exists inside a similar universe. Because both Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are period pieces, Weiner and Winter find themselves saddled with the responsibility of remaining true to bygone eras. Weiner has proven exceptional at this, building sets and storylines that are more true to 1960s America than 1960s America originally might have been to itself. Terence Winter, on the other hand, has struggled, in large part because he has taken shortcuts in the service of drama. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Nucky Thompson explains during Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot episode (an adage originally adapted from Mark Twain).

While Matthew Weiner uses exteriors, Terence Winter opts for CGI, suggesting lush, almost-impossible backdrops along a pixelized horizon. Mad Men inserts well-known figures into minor, incidental scenarios (e.g., Don Draper taking meetings with Conrad Hilton during Season Three). Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, runs fast and loose with historical record (e.g., Al Capone engaging in a non-existent mob war alongside Nucky Thompson toward the end of Season Three).

And this … well, this is small potatoes, really.

Continue reading

Moving On: The End

29_C-Estate-Brassa--RMN-GP_jpg_780x1243_q85I was in the living room at my parents’ house when the call came, watching television as I picked up the phone.

“Do you have a minute?” Meghan wondered. A harbinger of ill results.

I had just returned from a weekend at the shore, the final working weekend of September. We were free of it, the two of us, with Meghan settling back inside her dorm room and me eating some Cheez-Its on the floor. I had spoken with Meghan face-to-face three hours prior, had seen her walking with her father on the boards. I had asked if Meghan wanted me to follow her back to Immaculata. No need, Meghan assured me, and she said it in the way that gives old lovers pause.

“I’ve been thinking about the way that things are going,” Meghan told me over the phone. “I’ve been thinking about this whole new world that I’ve just entered, about how I’m doing everything I can to gain control. And I keep on thinking about this horrible guilt that I’ve been feeling, this overwhelming sense I might be stringing you along.”

I attempted to bargain, for a moment, but soon resigned myself to the notion this had all gone on too long. I could hear my own words spinning back to me, and – within a matter of seconds – our two-and-a-half years together had come to a close.

“Are you there?” Meghan asked me.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I quietly replied.

“I think we need to spend some time apart. Are you there?” Meghan asked me.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I quietly replied.

“Please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you. Should the two of us even continue to talk?”

“I suppose it’d best if we didn’t for a while … Please don’t hate me,” Meghan added.

“No, I promise you, I don’t.”

“I love you.”

“Yeah, I love you, too.”

“Please take care.”

Then all was lost.

Day 1,000

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill