Reel Trouble in Movie Land: 2014 as an Art Sinkhole


Okay, I know film is digital now and that my title is anachronistic, but you know what I mean. It's a new year and something all culture bloggers are supposed to do is weigh in on the ten best films of the year past. I can't do it. Unless the late-arriving Oscar contenders are absolute dynamite, 2014 will go down as one of the worst years in cinema history. Does this portend the end? Maybe.

I suppose if you live in London or near a little art cinema in Tribeca, you might be able to find ten great films, but these days most of us live in the Land of Limited Options. Art houses have folded like a poker player down to his last buck and that doesn't portend well for the future of cinema.  Low-budget indie films, foreign offerings, and below-the-radar "small" pictures don't get a lot of love from Hollywood, but the latter sucks from their buzz like a blood-deprived leech. What non-industry films have always done is instill a love of movies among those looking for more than a cheap date venue. Hollywood blockbusters lure young folks to mall cinemas, but they don't create lifelong moviegoers. Look around your town. How many flicks are on offer that appeal to someone over the age of 25? In the short-term feeding frenzy known as advanced capitalism that's fine, but I'm not seeing a lot of long-term viability. Hollywood has been riding a baby boomlet that's already crested; very soon, it will run low on 15-25 year olds. Reckoning Day will comes when today's moviegoers –gasp!–turn 30, look at what's playing at the local theater, and announce themselves as disinterested as I felt in 2014.

Here is my very short list of exceptional films for 2014–the ones that make you think movies are art. It includes some that were, technically, 2013 releases–those that opened in New York of LA, but nowhere else until early March of 2014. In order of preference:

Birdman (Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014)

This one takes the piss out of the very Hollywood blockbuster problem noted above. Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a superhero matinee idol too old for the part, bored with its lowbrow caché, and filled with remorse for the muck he's made of his life. He seeks respectability as a Broadway director and seeks to keep his demons at bay long enough to salvage respect. Among his obstacles is a caustic actor (Ed Norton) whose ego and cynicism surpass his own, and a troubled daughter (Emma Stone) who reminds him of his past inequities. Will life again imitate art? Will Riggan achieve an epiphany? Disappear down a magical realism hole? Find redemption? Little is what it seems in this inventive and deliciously weird film.

Locke (Directed by Steven Knight, 2013)

The most taut and anxious 85 minutes imaginable and all that happens is that Ivan Locke (Tim Hardy) takes a nighttime drive from Birmingham to London while chatting incessantly on his car phone. All he has to do in that 85 minutes–filmed in real time–is save a construction project, his marriage, his sense of honor, and calm the hysterical one-night stand about to birth his child. Is Ivan a god-like puppet master, or a knave about to take the fall for the one time in his life in which he strayed from the straight and narrow?

The Great Beauty ("La grande bellezza," Directed by Paulo Sorrentino, 2013)

Beloved playboy journalist Jep (Toni Servillo) has spent decades cavorting among Rome's rich and beautiful in round after round of partying and debauchery. He cleanses his soul by immersing himself in the Eternal City's art and culture. Jep awakes on his 65th birthday to the realization that, even were he not too old to persist in his libertine ways, he is bored by its ephemerality and dull sameness. Can eternal beauty save him? And can he, in turn, save other troubled souls through art? Call this one Fellini for a new generation.

The Past (Directed by Asghar Farhadi, 2013)

This superb telling of William Faulkner's adage that "the past is never dead" takes us to Paris, where an Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosfta), has returned to visit the wife, Marie, and step-child he abandoned four years earlier when he chose to live in theocratic Iran rather than the materialist West. Ahmad is there to grant Marie the divorce she seeks, though in her (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist) he experiences anew all that led him to and away from the West. Moreover, he sees the turmoil swirling around Marie and her daughter and must decide anew whether to act or flee. This is a subtle but powerful tale of what happens to a man of conscience when right and wrong blur.   

That's it, folks. If pressed to add a few also-rans of good-but-flawed films, I'd offer these (in alphabetical order): Captain Phillips; Deceptive Practice: Ricky Jay; Finding Vivian Maier; Ida; Jodorsky's Dune; Life Itself; Theory of Everything; and Tim'sVermeer. Notice how absent Hollywood is from my list?

Rob Weir


Broken Harbour and The Story of Land and Sea: The Skinny on Two Novels

Broken Harbour (Penguin, 452 pp.) is an older mystery (2012), but I decided to read it because I'm bored with Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, and the entire Boston wise guys genre. Thank goodness I ran into the talented Tana French. Broken Harbour is a long novel, but every page is so beautifully written and gripping that I never even tempted to peek to the ending.

Make sure you read this one!
The setting is Brianstown, an instant seaside community hastily and shoddily constructed during Ireland's brief flirtation with prosperity (2001-03). The views are terrific, but it's 45 minutes from Dublin and feels a million miles from nowhere—a place that was supposed to teem with middle class life but collapsed with the Irish economy and is so thinly populated its feel is analogous to the abandoned mall in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. One of its families, though, is the Spains—Pat, Jenny, and two adorable children. Pat and Jenny–always mentioned as a twin set–are such the dream couple that years later childhood and college friends continue to invoke them as all that life and love should be. So when Pat and the kids are brutally murdered and Jenny is left in a pool of blood barely clinging to life, detective Mike Kennedy and novice Richie Curren are off to solve the case. Kennedy's sent because he's the best—he's nicknamed "Scorcher" because of the speed in which he solves difficult cases. This time, though, he has both a rookie sidekick and quite a few personal demons to exorcise, not the least of which is that Brianstown sits on the harbor where his mother drowned herself.

Salon dubbed this novel "suburban Gothic," and that's an excellent handle. Everything about this novel is well done—the forensics, the psychological profiles, the build up, and the pay off. It's one of those books that throws a curve just when you think you've got it parsed. I figured out whodunnit, but French's solution still surprised me. I'll also say that this book made me so nervous about attics that I'm glad my house doesn't have one. And, no, the Celtic Tiger wasn't up there, though metaphorically speaking, it could have been.

You can give this one a miss.
Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel The Story of Land and Sea (2014, Harper, 256 pp.) has garnered high praise, but it gets little love from me. It's set in the region of Beaufort, South Carolina just before and after the American Revolution and revolves around the courtship and marriage of John and Helen. He is an ex-pirate and Revolutionary War soldier, and she the daughter of plantation privilege and a stern religious father.

The Story of Land and Sea is a nicely written book, but for me its taste was treacly   sweet, even when one of the plot's numerous tragedies was being played out. It unfolds out of chronological time and one of my problems with the book is young Helen's relationship with her slave, Molly—one that struck me as more white Southern wish fulfillment than plausible. In similar fashion, John's character seemed too modern—a former privateer turned SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Maybe all of these things resolved and The Story of Land and Sea took a dark turn. I wouldn't know. I lost interest in the book's languid palmetto pacing and gave up half way through. –Rob Weir


Clark Art Institue Renovations a Waste of Space and Money

I first visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA in 1975 and never stopped going back. Until 2011, that is, when the Clark closed most of its galleries to embark upon a three-rear expansion plan. The venerable Clark reopened in July 2014 to showcase its new digs, improved gallery spaces, and astronomical new admission price ($25). The Wall Street Journal raved over the new building, one designed by leading Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and it even won a few prizes. On the other hand, because most of the reviews of the new Clark have been mixed or scathingly negative, I waited until the free admission month of December to check it out.  
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Women of Amphissa

It was exhilarating to see old favorites back in the Clark after a three-year hiatus but, alas, I must concur with the new wing's naysayers–it is awful and inappropriate in just every way bad architecture can be. The Clark certainly needed updating–its main galleries date to 1955, the year the museum opened. Ando's wing increased the Clark's gallery space by 15% and provided a much-needed separate gallery for special exhibits. Also to be praised are improved lighting and internal renovations that add luster to the Clark's luminous treasures.

A little history, though, reveals why everything else about the new wing is a dud. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute houses the couple's private art collection. (Robert) Sterling Clark was among the heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and he began making trips to Paris in 1911 to purchase art. He married Francine Clary in 1919 and, thereafter, the New York power couple maintained a home in Paris to facilitate art buying. Sterling Clark was so deeply conservative that his name surfaces in a 1930s plot to overthrow President Roosevelt, but World War Two shook him to his core. By most accounts he remained conservative, but the war's destruction, the atomic bomb, and Cold War tension led him to fear that a nuclear exchange would destroy his beloved art. Why move it to Williamstown, a village in Massachusetts' northwest corner? Because one could get there from New York, but mostly because prevailing projections claimed that fallout from a nuclear exchange would not harm the area.

The first thing wrong with the Ando reboot is that it is unfaithful to Clark's conservative instincts. Of course, a modern museum cannot remain anchored to one man's 1930s style politics, but it should do things that enhance the collection. Ando has designed space for a contemporary art collections, something the Clark doesn't have and never will. Like the Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting above, the Clark's collection is often playful and sometimes even lustful–such as its sensual Bouguereaus–but nearly all of it reflects the Clarks' haute bourgeois tastes: Old Masters, European Realism, Homer, Remington, Rodin, and one of the finest Impressionist collections in North America. So why build an envelope that, from the outside, is more suggestive of a Holocaust memorial than a Monet water lily? 

I do not exaggerate. One now drives into the Clark past severe unadorned polished granite slabs. One then walks along walls suggestive of Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial sans names, and enters a metal tube and glass foyer that's massive and largely empty:  the main desk, a staircase, and–peeking behind a slab–one of the most barren gift shops I've ever seen in a major museum. Looking for signs to tell you what's downstairs or how to get to the galleries? Keep looking.

A welcoming space, or cafe of the damned?
Downstairs is where one finds the special exhibits gallery and what is being touted as the Clark's first true café, a few tables with a raw reinforced concrete back wall and a fronting wall of glass. Maybe the Clark's board found this innovative, but it's distressingly akin to cafés in the University of Massachusetts Campus Center, a building beloved by no one. The space is underground; hence the glass faces more blank slabs. In the summer, the entryway is silhouetted by shallow reflective ponds, one of which cascades down to café level. That, I suppose, is mildly interesting and the pools lend gravitas to an otherwise boring slice of neo-Brutalism, but let's return to Monet to discuss a more gracious path not taken.

There was no reason to construct ponds because—as anyone who has been to the Clark knows–there is already a lovely natural pond on the premises. At the height of summer it teems with (you guessed it) water lilies. It's easy to envision flattening the sterile and empty entryway, reorienting it, and making the real pond the museum's outdoor centerpiece. Mother Nature nearly always trumps landscaping.

Let me beat the tired horse: the new entry is a waste of space whose spartan voids evoke yawns, not Zen. There's plenty of room to display the missing instructions that one gets to the galleries by traversing the void, making a right, and then walking up a slight incline to get to the second floor of the original 1955 building. That's where the fun really begins. We walk out of Ando's postmodernist boredom and into the twenty galleries housing old friends.  

Drained pools and lots of emptiness.
I'm glad the Clark has more space, I'm thrilled by the gallery upgrades, and I'm glad it's back to full strength. But it will be a while before I renew my membership. The trustees spent $145 million on the renovations and spent it foolishly. They built a space to display Ellsworth Kelly, not Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Need 15% more space so you can do a Kelly loaner show? Do what any sensible contractor would do and add a room off the back. Make it blend and, by all means, don't waste money on empty space. Take the savings and buy some good art to furnish the new addition.  Rob Weir