Friday, December 31, 2010
Where does inspiration come from? Life? Luck? The Idea Channel? (That's what Art Boy used to say whenever anyone asked him where he got his ideas—until he realized people were rushing home to check their cable listings.) Or is there an element of divine intervention? A deity, an angel, a lyre-strumming muse?
Those of us who toil away in the arts invent all kinds of strategies and/or rituals to keep those creative juices flowing. Especially at this season of the year, devoted to reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future (January, after all, is named for the two-faced god Janus, who looks backwards and forwards), marking the end of the old and the rebirth of the new. What better time to honor the source of creative inspiration—whatever it may be?
On New Year's Eve, just before midnight, Art Boy always burns a painting. No, not in the Farenheit 451, anti-information book-burning sense. It's his annual sacrifice to the art gods, both in gratitude for a productive year and optimism for the future. Sometimes, it’s a more recent painting that he just doesn't thinks worked out, for whatever reason. Sometimes he pulls a vintage piece out of the archive.
Selection is important. He doesn't want to burn a "bad" piece; the whole idea of sacrifice is to give up something of value. He looks for a piece with its own intrinsic soul, maybe a great idea that fell short in the execution, or some quirky, but charmingly rendered piece that just doesn't quite soar. A piece that served its purpose on the evolutionary road toward craft, skill, and style, and now deserves to be celebrated one last time for the lessons it taught along the way. Art Boy dusts it off, we toast it with a glass of champagne, and he puts it on the grate in the fireplace to send it on its new journey. (Fortunately, Art Boy's pieces are small-ish and painted on wood.) At first I thought burning a painting in the fire would be horrible. But in fact, there's something profound and moving and weirdly beautiful about watching a painting turn into ash and smoke and race up the chimney, free at last. It's like actually seeing its spirit heading straight for the art gods.
Of course, I've tried to work this same juju for my writing, over the years, but I've never quite gotten the hang of it. No matter how many juicy manuscript pages I burn, me and the writing gods all know a complete version is still safely tucked away in a Word doc somewhere. Ditto burning an entire bound book; there are plenty more where that came from (just ask my publisher). Burning any kind of tool seems to be out, not to mention a severe eco-hazard, since most writers' tools these days are electronic.
But, come to think of it, maybe I'll try burning a pencil tonight, the tool with which—I kid you not—I wrote the entire original 900-page draft of my first novel. It won't be the exact same pencil, of course, that was worn away to sawdust decades ago. But I always keep a supply on hand, and use them constantly for scribbling in margins and making notes on scrap paper, even while I'm working on the keyboard. Maybe sacrificing this most totemic and beloved tool will create some sympathetic magic, connecting me somehow to that wellspring of creativity I tapped into, once upon a time, when I hammered out 900 pages of fiction in pencil because I just couldn't stop myself.
Because isn't that all any artist can wish for in the New Year? Unbridled creativity and the nerve to use it.
(Top: The Dream of the Poet, or The Kiss of the Muse, by Paul Cezanne, 1859.)
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Top 10 Movies of 2010
Yes, the economy still sucks, and universal health care is still a dream, but in one crucial way, things were looking up in 2010: I had multiple 4-star movies to choose from in compiling my annual Top 10 list. (Unlike last year, when I only saw one movie I considered 4-star-worthy, and that was a cartoon.)
Of course, most of the movies I loved this year were small and independent, demonstrating once again the inverse relationship between gigantic Hollywood budgets and quality. These may not have been the biggest, most influential movies of the year, but they're the ones I loved to pieces, well worth tracking down if you'd like to stage your own personal 2010 Film Retrospective.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
NEVER LET ME GO
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
TOY STORY 3D
'THE GIRL WHO' TRILOGY
THE KING'S SPEECH
THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS
Read all the gory details, including runners-up and honorable mentions, here.
TOP 10 MOVIES of the DECADE
The completion of 2010 also gives a compulsive list-maker like moi another chance to applaud the best movies of the decade, according to the highly exclusive and opinionated Jensen-ometer. Okay, there's plenty we'd like to forget about the past ten years, but at least the era produced some truly unforgettable movies. For those of you keeping score at home, here are my favorites:
THE NEW WORLD (2005) Terrence Malick rescues the founding of Jamestown Colony from musty high-school history textbooks and turns it into a visionary stranger-in-a-strange-land epic that teems with hypnotic grandeur, aria-like interior monologues, simmering suspense, erotic discovery, and awed reverence for the natural world.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) From a pulpy martial arts novel, Ang Lee crafts a moral fable of exquisite beauty and pathos.
THE FALL (2008) Part fairy tale, and part coming-of-age drama, this virtuoso performance from director Tarsem combines stunning visual beauty and a beguiling story in an artful homage to both the early days of moviemaking, and the power of storytelling itself.
TITUS (1999—but I didn't see it until 2000) Nobody who loves movies should miss Julie Taymor's riveting adaptation of Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest tragedy. Taymor blithely mixes eras and genres, anachronisms, violence and unexpected lyricism in a Gothic Moderne visual style that's a feast for the eyes while enhancing the tale's anti-war timelessness.
MEMENTO (2001) Everything you think you know about narrative, chronology and suspense goes out the window in this edgy and audacious neo-noir thriller from Christopher Nolan.
GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (2000) Love, luck and destiny converge in this soulful romantic mood piece from French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, shot in intimate, dazzling black-and-white with wry humor and a touch of magic realism.
RIVERS AND TIDES (2002) Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy's intoxicating, soul-stirring work captured by filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer with all its inspirational grandeur intact. Guaranteed to jump-start your own creative muse.
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ambitious masterpiece tackles the insanity of warfare and the larger, more complex story of the women left behind, in an intricate mosaic of a movie: droll, magical, heartbreaking and profound.
PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006) Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's dark, gripping adult fairy tale, set in the grim aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, is a haunting parable about the transformative power of human imagination.
TOGETHER (2003) Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige is not playing the same old song in this deeply-felt and richly observed coming-of-age tale of love and music in post-Mao China.
GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005)
NOWHERE IN AFRICA (2003)
Performance of the Decade: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (2006)
Sunday, December 26, 2010
No, it's not Santa's eighth reindeer. The R. Blitzer Gallery, over on the west side, is the best-kept art secret in Santa Cruz. Occupying a vast, spacious loft area in part of the old Wrigley Building, this impressive space—less than a year old—is a new resource for local art lovers. Genial proprietor Robert Blitzer originally rented the space as a studio for building his own massive metal sculptures, but in recent months he has generously made it available for public art exhibits. Which is great news for the rest of us in a county bubbling over with artists, yet chronically short of designated art spaces.
Some 34 local artists are represented in the current Blitzer show, Art for Art. Originally scheduled as a weekend show earlier this month to benefit the Santa Cruz Artists' Assistance & Relief Fund (SCAARF), the Art for Art exhibit is held over by popular demand for the rest of this year and on through First Friday (Jan 7) in the new year. Now that the first wave of holiday madness is over, if you have some quality time to spare, I suggest you run right out and see it.
Of course, there are strengths and weaknesses in a show of this size, with so many artists working in a variety of media —painting, glass, sculpture, encaustic, ceramics, photography, assemblage and installation. But there's plenty to love, as well. I was mesmerized by Coeleen Kiebert's series of "Scouts" and "Navigators." In these ceramic sculptures, figures with piquant faces in steampunk goggles and gear-studded helmets float through weirdly organic, distressed Art Nouveau-type structures of flowering tubes in metallic colors (copper; patina green) that might be kelp beds underwater (or in deep space), prison bars, or labyrinths of the mind. These pieces pass the first essential test of successful art—they invite you to keep looking, and you find there's always more to see.
Intriguing too are the playful new figurative paintings of D. Hooker. (That's one of her new images, up top, used to publicize the show.) Best known for her close-up portraits of "real and imagined" subjects, her fresh, cheeky mixed-media paintings on wooden boards and cigar boxes, have plenty of attitude and brio. Jenny Morten shows an array of her evocative, sculptural porcelain bowls with their distinctive pinched or scalloped edges, many incorporating subtle citrus colors (lemon; tangerine) to complement her traditional palette of aqua and pale green.
Color and texture pop in Jim MacKenzie's abstract Graffiti series of photographic images laminated onto board. David Fleming offers a selection of loosely rendered, almost impressionistic new landscapes and cityscapes. Assemblages range from Jack Howe's surreal doll-and-found-object pieces to the precise, formalized, monochromatic work of Victoria May. Large installations are contributed by fabric wizard Kathleen Crocetti and Ned Greene. And this is just a fraction of the show. Plan to spend some time and wander around; there's a lot to see.
This is the third exhibit from Art For Art, an organization co-founded and co-directed by D. Hooker and mixed-media photographer Sara Friedlander to curate shows that raise money for the Santa Cruz arts community. Earlier this year, the group lunched SCAARF, a companion organization set up to assist local artists experiencing a career-threatening emergency by providing grants and resources. 20% of all sales at the Blitzer show go to SCAARF. Donations are also accepted at the gallery, and online. Read all about it here.
Then hie thee off to the Blitzer Gallery and check it out. (Here's the map.) Gallery hours are 10 am to noon, and 2 pm to 5 pm. Mon-Thurs this week (Dec 27–30), and Mon-Fri next week (Jan 3-7). The Closing Night reception will be Friday, Jan 7, from 5-9 pm, but trust me, by then it will be way too packed with artists, patrons, and bonhomie to see anything. So, to paraphrase the immortal words of The Moody Blues, if you wanna see the show, darlin', you better go now!
Friday, December 17, 2010
I don't know about you, but I have an inexhaustible appetite for A Christmas Carol. For one thing, Charles Dickens is probably my favorite author, and I consider Carol to be the perfect story. It's humorous, dramatically punchy, and fiercely moral, ghostly and Gothic, innovative in its use of magic realism, and brilliant in the simplicity of its concept. It even obeys the classical unities of time, place and action. So I was overjoyed last year when Cabrillo Stage inaugurated a winter season with an annual holiday production of "Scrooge."
Dickens' modest little Christmas ghost story has spawned hundreds of versions on stage, film, video, and TV, over the centuries, and I've lapped 'em up like a steaming bowl of punch. There’s hardly anything even a faintly competent adaptation can do to ruin it — except sing.
It's not that I don't love musicals. But "Scrooge" (which opens again tonight for a two-week run) is a stage version of the old 70s movie musical starring Albert Finney, with indifferent songs by Leslie Bricusse. Last year, the stout-hearted Cabrillo players, dancers and chorus poured their hearts into it; Joseph Ribeiro was an excellent Scrooge, and Benjamin Holck a robust and irresistible Ghost of Christmas Present. But there are some properties that simply do not benefit from the addition of show tunes. At least not these tunes, remarkable in how undistinguished they are. Sample titles: "I Hate People." "I Love Life." "I'll Begin Again." Yawn...
If they MUST do the Carol as a musical, why doesn’t some enterprising person adapt the book from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," the musical cartoon version that used to run on TV every Christmas? Sure, you'd probably have to cut out the bracketing story featuring Magoo himself, but the Carol-within-the-cartoon is perfectly viable in its own right. Yes, the vintage-1962 TV animation is cheap and tacky, but THOSE were songs! The Jule Styne/Bob Merrill numbers include the lyrical "Winter Was Warm," (sung by young Scrooge's heartbroken cast-off fiancee;) the hilarious "We're Despicable," sung by a trio of grotesques—the charwoman, the laundress, and the rag-and-bone man—cackling over the late Scrooge's effects (a pivotal scene that isn't even in the Bricusse version); and the haunting "All Alone in the World" sung by the boy Scrooge, left behind after all the other schoolboys go home for the holiday. (I'm in tears just thinking about it. But don't take my word for it: see for yourself.)
These songs really enhance the action, rather than stopping it dead in its tracks.
Cabrillo's "Scrooge" is better than no Carol at all. Last year, I especially liked the festive touch of old-fashioned sweets for sale out in the courtyard and strolling carolers in Victorian dress to sing us inside. But now's the time to start sniffing out the rights to the Magoo version for 2011…
Of course, the godfather of all Christmas Carol adaptations is the 1951 British version starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as the scroogiest possible Scrooge. Shot in brooding black-and-white, it's both an unsettlingly spooky and foreboding ghost story and a dazzling celebration of Dickensian Yuletide revelry. Stream it, TiVo it, or put it in your queue, but don't miss it; Christmas just isn't as merry without it.
Speaking of durable Christmas chestnuts, the good folks over at the Aptos Cinema Weekend Classics series are getting into the spirit with special daily holiday schedules and programming. Starting this weekend, matinees will play every day through New Year's Eve. And after the fabulous Philadelphia Story (Sat-Mon), things get seasonal. Starting Tuesday, it's Miracle on 34th Street. Liberate Santa from the small screen and see him in all his plus-size glory in this 1947 family classic. Jolly old elf Edmund Gwenn stars as a Macy's department store Santa out to convince disbelieving child Natalie Wood (and her disenchanted single working mom, Maureen O'Hara) that he's the real deal. Matinees play through Friday, Dec 24, 11 a.m.
Starting Christmas Day, the venerable White Christmas takes over for a special three-day run. Bing Crosby (crooning you-know-what), Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen star. Yeah, yeah, we've all seen it six dozen times on TV, but hands up, everyone who's ever seen it on a big screen. I thought not! Trust me, 1954-vintage Technicolor makes those velvet reds and spruce greens pop on a giant screen. And that first snowfall in Vermont is truly magical in wide-screen VistaVision —especially for little California kids in the audience who may have never experienced the real thing. Plays Saturday-Monday, Dec 25 through 27, 11 a.m.
Finishing up the series is a less traditional Yuletide story, The Apartment. Jack Lemmon wants to get ahead in business during the holiday season by loaning out his apartment to boss Fred MacMurray for his adulterous trysts with a wistful Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's incisive, Oscar-winning 1960 comedy. It's in from Tuesday, Dec 28 to Friday, Dec 31, 11 a.m.
In the meantime, gather up the little ones and check out an encore holiday performance of Toy Story 3D, this Saturday (Dec 18) at the Del Mar, 10 a.m., a benefit for the Second Harvest Food Bank. I'm not the world's biggest cheerleader for 3D, as you know if you read my recent column, but you might as well experience it as God intended, in the 1936 Art Deco splendor of the Del Mar's Grand Auditorium with its spanking new state-of-the-art 3D equipment. And what better vehicle than the latest Toy Story, where the lovable toy heroes from Andy's room come back as fresh, funny, and irresistible as ever. And here's the best part: admission is FREE with donation of a non-perishable food item. Talk about the holiday spirit!
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
The last time I was in a parade, I won a trophy. I was seven years old, and I won for "Most Original Costume" in the Hawaiian Days Parade in Hermosa Beach, CA. (Actually, my mom should have won the award; she sewed the floral muu-muu I wore, and a matching miniature one for my Shirley Temple doll that I carried in the parade. All I had to do was show up.)
I didn't win any trophies in the downtown Holiday Parade last Saturday, but still, I had the most fun a person can have squashed into the back seat of a vintage Mercedes going one mile-per-hour. My esteemed editor, Greg Archer, invited me and Art Boy to ride in the official Good Times car with him, the aforementioned Merc, recently purchased by GT's Webmaster Jeff, who also drove. Greg sat up on top, perched on the edge of the sun roof, and our intrepid one-man camera crew, Flax Glor, basically trotted alongside, setting up his tripod and shooting, guerrilla-style.
Here's what I love about Santa Cruz: the sheer variety of participants in this hands-on, hometown parade. We had everyone from the little mermaids in this Save Our Shores float to the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, from Cub Scout troupes to the sexy Salsa Rueda dancers, to the KUSP "Geek Speak" brain trust cheerfully broadcasting live from their open truck in the rain, under a plastic tarp. And of course, my personal favorite, the Santa Cruz Public Library Book Truck Drill Team (their book trucks festively painted red for the occasion).
Unfortunately, when you're actually in the parade, you don't get to see much of the other groups, floats and marchers. What we mostly saw from inside the parade car was the crowd outside, lining Pacific Avenue. ("Throw candy!" one little girl yelled eagerly, no doubt mistaking us for a Mardi Gras parade.) And while perfecting my Queen Elizabeth wave, here's what I learned about crowds: if you smile at someone and wave, guess what? They wave back! I'm sure that about 90% of the onlookers (and 100% of the kids) along the parade route had no idea who we were, tucked away in the back seat of the car, but they waved back, nonetheless.
You too can experience our insiders' view of the Holiday Parade in this You Tube video Jeff shot on his phone while driving. (Don't try this at home, kids.) Those are the lovely hoopsters Heather and Mary marching along in front, priming the crowd with their hooping skills. Greg and Flax are also assembling a short film to be posted on GTV before you know it. Check it out if you missed the parade, or if you were one of the bystanders waving at the camera, hoping for your 15 minutes (okay, seconds) of fame.
And speaking of seasonal films, what would the holidays be without a new Disney feature cartoon? In Tangled, an entertaining riff on the Rapunzel tale, the studio is in full "Disney Princess" mode—you know, the line of femme-centric fairy tale movies designed to market Mattel dolls, outfits, and accessories to little girls. A marketing ploy made all the more obvious when the movie is animated via CGI (as Tangled is), and all the characters already look like plastic dolls, with their smooth, unlined skin and dimensional shading.
Since Tangled is a milestone—Disney's 50th cartoon feature—let's take a moment to consider the history of the brand. At least since the revisionist '70s, we've all been yammering on about the evolution of Disney's cartoon heroines, but I think it's interesting to see how they've reflected their times. Snow White was sort of a neutered '30s chorus girl (Betty Boop, without sex), with her bobbed hair and baby-doll voice, pining for her prince to come. Cinderella was the obedient '50s drudge, sublimating her own desires, and Sleeping Beauty was the poster girl for passivity; her most dynamic action was to fall asleep for 100 years.
But since the resurgence of fairy tale princess movies that began in 1989 with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Disney heroines have become more resourceful, spunky, and (oh please, don't make me write "pro-active," but you know what mean) in taking charge of their own lives. (And more ethnically diverse—grudgingly—if you count Mulan and Jasmine from Aladdin, although it took 72 years for Disney to introduce its first black cartoon heroine, Tiana from last year's The Princess and the Frog.)
But now let's take a look at the evolution of the Disney cartoon hero. Seriously, does anyone even remember the bland, boring, cookie-cutter "Prince Charmings" of those earlier films? The first one to distinguish himself from the pack was the magnificent Beast, in 1991, and even he morphed back into a (yawn) prince at the end. But finally, finally, the folks at Disney are starting to perceive that this new breed of plucky heroines deserve better, maybe a male counterpart with, you know, a personality. This sea change first became apparent last year with Frog Prince Naveen, a charming wastrel with a line of corny, yet good-natured patter; unfortunately, he spent most of the movie disguised as a frog.
Which brings us to hero Flynn Rider in Tangled. For the first time in "Disney princess" history, he's not even a prince, but a thief and a rogue (notice how he looks a little like Jake Gyllenhaal) who hides out in Rapunzel's tower while on the lam from the palace guard. Sure, the rascal hero is as old a cliché as the bland prince, and if wisecracking Flynn were a live-action hero, he'd be pretty obnoxious (although good-hearted enough to redeem himself). But as a new kind of Disney hero, fit for a princess, he has his points. Flynn's cheeky narration frames Rapunzel's story, but never overwhelms it; her character is equal to his in grit and chutzpah. And it's interesting to watch as the Disney tale-spinners labor to create more evenly-matched romantic figures, characters who grow and endure trials together, and end up together because they deserve each other, not just because they're the only prince and/or princess in the movie.
Looking for something a little more grown-up at the movies this weekend (or just want to practice your Italian)? Don't forget the Dante Alighieri Society's monthly Italian Neo-Realism series, presented at the VAPA Art History Forum Room 1001 at Cabrillo this Sunday. This month's classic is La Strada, by the great Federico Fellini, a filmmaker more often associated with lush spectacle than gritty realism. But Fellini does Neo-Realism his way in this 1954 allegorical fable, one of the most acclaimed and heartbreaking of his early films. It's set in a circus, where brutish strongman Anthony Quinn buys winsome, simple-minded waif Giuletta Masina to work in his act. But complications arise in the person of clown/trapeze artist Richard Basehart. Presented in Italian with English subtitles. Showtime is 7 pm, Sunday only, and it's free!
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Good grief, it's December already—panic in the streets! And as usual, there's way too much going on in Santa Cruz. As the Red Queen says to Alice, "It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!" Boy, that's the story of my life.
For starters, our monthly First Friday Art Tour returns this week, with art of every description by local artists on view in a staggering variety of venues countywide—cafes, home design shops, beauty salons, a bank, a tattoo parlor, a winery, Loudon Nelson Center, and even a few designated art galleries, like the Santa Cruz Art League, Felix Kulpa, Artisans, and the MAH. (That's "Christmas Tree," by veteran local artist David Fleming, who's showing new work at the Center Street Grill, along with Kathy Cheer.) Get a complete list of exhibits and venues at the First Friday website, and don't forget to bundle up, cuz, baby, it's cold outside!
Speaking of art in frozen climates, the annual Art in the Cellars holiday art show takes place at Bargetto's Winery in Soquel this weekend. Art Boy and I had the pleasure of presenting our wares at this event a few years ago (back when I was making my "Weird Sisters" line of fabric dolls, like my "Infinite Jester" icon over there in the menu column). It was a fun show to do—lots of interesting art tucked into the nooks and crannies between the wine barrels, live holiday music, and plenty of bonhomie. But, ye gads, was it chilly in there!
It has something to do with keeping the vats at a consistent temperature as the wine ferments, and heaven knows no one wants to interfere with the delicate alchemy by which grapes transform into festive libations. But here's a word to the wise: pack a down jacket and mittens as you prepare to go spelunking into the cellar. (It's actually a warehouse adjoining the parking lot, but it might as well be subterranean). Still, local artists like printmaker Liz Lyons Friedman (above), photographer John Gavrilis, and many others are well worth the trip, and whats a little cold, anyway, at this wintry time of year? Nothing that can't be cured with a glass or two of Chaucer's Mead. Drop in Saturday or Sunday, from 11 am to 5 pm.
Still looking to jump-start the holiday spirit? Forget Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Ruby Tuesday, Wingnut Wednesday, or any other artificial, media-contrived shopping frenzy. Instead, how about opting out for a slow, scenic drive up the Slow Coast to Davenport for a Holiday Open House this Sunday at La Sirena Antiques & Gifts?
You'll find an eclectic mix of goodies, with a special emphasis on French country antiques, international textiles, and hand-crafted ethnic beads from around the world. In keeping with the spirit of the season, you'll also find a groaning board of cookies, nibblies, and Yuletide cheer of the bottled variety set up in the courtyard to welcome you in from the cold. Hours are 2-5 pm, Sunday afternoon, at 500 Highway 1.
And as long as you're up there, stop in at the New Davenport Gallery (450 Highway 1) and check out the December "Metal Is Magical" show. This hit parade of local metalworkers includes everything from massive sculptures by Fred Hunnicutt, Jamie Abbott, and Holt Murray to precious metal jewelry by Lynda Watson and Lynn Guenther, to name just a few. That all these creative, talented artists live and work right here in our little corner of the world is enough to put anybody in a holiday mood.
And while we're on the subject of overflowing talent, the Santa Cruz Film Festival is hosting an "Open Projector" event tonight (Thursday, Dec 2), from 5 to 8pm at the Vino Tabi Winery in the Swift Street Courtyard (334 Ingalls St. SC). Aspiring filmmakers are invited to bring your movie in DVD format, 10 minutes or shorter, for a public showing before a discerning crowd of film enthusiasts. First come, first served; no prizes, no pressure. And it's free! What could be more festive?