Look Twice

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In Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Those Winter Sundays,” a man looks back with painful regret on his childhood relationship with his father at a time when he was too young to “know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” The father apparently has died, and it’s too late to tell him what the son now knows. The poem begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The speaker reveals his father’s unacknowledged daily sacrifice and then admits his own coldness toward his hard-working but “austere” father. He shamefully admits “speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished [his] good shoes as well.” It is simply too painful to linger over the details, and through a poetic technique known as enjambment Hayden demonstrates the speaker’s urge to rush past the painful memory, tumbling past the natural line breaks until he deliberately slams on the brakes with the consonant-heavy “banked fires blaze” and a mid-line period. There he forces himself to open his eyes and admit it: “No one ever thanked him.” Even now, as an adult, he can’t bring himself to use the word “I.” Childlike, he finds excuse in numbers: “no one” did.

The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us.

Skilled filmmakers use similar tools to demonstrate the psychological trauma of a protagonist. In the critically acclaimed (but audience-panned) Manchester by the Sea, director Kenneth Lonergan demonstrates the inability of his protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), to face a horrific tragedy in his life. The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us and distracting us by other problems along the way: Lee is working as a janitor and living in a one-room basement apartment when the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) takes him back to his hometown of Manchester. In flashbacks we see that Lee has had wonderful experiences in Manchester with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), his three children, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his boisterous friends. Yet he refuses to return to Manchester to become Patrick’s guardian after Joe’s death.

In this way Lonergan treats the real tragedy almost as a side story, with the characters involved in it barely introduced in the film. Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful. Just as Hayden rushes past his protagonist’s tragedy through enjambment, Lonergan rushes through Lee’s tragedy by revealing the story in snippets and flashbacks that flame up and then retreat again into the darkest reaches of his memory. Nevertheless, the story within the story is always present, always breaking through.

Critics have praised Manchester by the Sea in general and Affleck’s performance, which is indeed raw and real, in particular. But does it deserve 97% approval rating? Audiences find it slow-moving, drawn out, and unsatisfying. The grumbling of unfulfilled audience members surrounded me as the film ended and the lights went up. “That’s it?” I heard more than one person say.

Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful.

I agree with them in part — it is so slow that, the first time I saw it, I actually left after 45 minutes. I decided to give it another try, a couple of weeks later. The second half, after we find out what’s eating at Lee, is emotionally and artistically powerful, with moments that are so unbearably real that we, too, want to rush through them, even though we can’t look away. The film doesn’t give us a happy ending or even “closure,” today’s buzzword for dealing with tragedy in a timely fashion. It’s not a movie for a pleasant Friday night date. But life’s problems aren’t fixed in two hours. Sometimes they can’t be fixed in a lifetime. Closure isn’t available for certain acts that can’t be undone and words that can’t be unsaid. The reality of that level of regret makes Manchester by the Sea intensely satisfying, even though it is agonizingly, stupefyingly slow.


Editor's Note: Review of "Manchester by the Sea," directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon Studios, 2016, 137 minutes.



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The Hamilton Duel

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Experiencing the unexpected is one of the things I love about live theater, so I would love to have been in the audience when the cast of Hamilton decided to explain their position to vice-president-elect Mike Pence the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Although I would not have been happy if it had been my first experience with the play.) I support the right of the cast to exercise their free speech, and I agree with those who say they were respectful and sincere. They even silenced the booing. Sort of.

However, I wish the cast had trusted their art more. Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play. Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful way of expressing a message, because it touches the heart as well as the mind. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about film. And when you add music, the power increases exponentially. The lecture simply wasn’t necessary.

I remember the night I saw Hamiltonshortly after it opened, before I had heard the music or the hype. It was a transformative experience, and I’m glad it wasn’t marred by a post-performance lecture. I stayed at my seat until the last chord of the postlude and applauded one more time. The music stayed with me as I left the theater. The play ends with an epilogue focusing on the women in Hamilton’s life and what they did to preserve his legacy and his writings after his death, and I thought about their contribution to the cause of liberty during the Revolution.

Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play.

As I walked to the train station, I contemplated the rich heritage portrayed in the play, particularly as demonstrated in the casting of ethnic minorities in all the major roles and most of the ensemble. It made me think more deeply about those revolutionaries we usually see depicted in brocade finery and speaking the king’s English, men who were actually more like the Occupy movement of our day. It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before. It also helped me understand the royalists’ position better, and how hard it must have been to give up a way of life that had been comfortable and familiar to them. Would I have been willing to sacrifice all that I have for the ideal of freedom?

In short, I got it, in my mind and in my heart, through the storytelling and the music. The audience who saw the play with Mike Pence also had an unforgettable experience, but I doubt that it was focused on the music or the story.

It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before.

Like the characters they play onstage, the actors took a risk Friday night. It wasn’t a risk to their lives but to their livelihoods. I admire their courage and their sincerity. But they weren’t the only ones at risk that night. I can only imagine the consternation of the Secret Service agents as they tried to move their charge from the crowded theater before the curtain calls were ended, as they are instructed to do. Transitions are always the most dangerous time for a Secret Service agent, so it must have been a nightmare for them when the cast invited the audience to take out their cellphones to record the speech, and everyone reached into their purses and pockets! They put everyone at risk at that moment. Fortunately Secret Service agents have better training than cops, and no one was trigger-happy. I’m sure they surrounded Mr. Pence with their bodies, ready to take a bullet rather than use one. But there could have been a tragic outcome as everyone reached for those phones.

So yes, the cast of Hamilton had every right to say what they said, just as those who argued both sides of the issue that weekend had every right to express their opinions. I just wish the cast had trusted their art to tell the story and convey the message by itself. Perhaps they could have invited Mr. Pence backstage to talk to them about his experience and their hopes in a meaningful way. They knew he was coming, so they could have arranged it ahead of time. Then the news story might have been about Mr. Pence’s response to the play, instead of everyone else’s response to the lecture.




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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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To Praise or to Push?

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“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



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No Regrets

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Every year at about this time, Liberty’s Entertainment Editor, Jo Ann Skousen, produces a film festival in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the big gathering of libertarians and libertarian conservatives known as FreedomFest. Jo Ann is an expert at many things, but she can’t be a producer and a reporter at the same time, so I’ll poach on one of those territories and report on some things I witnessed in connection with this year’s Anthem, which happened on July 9–12.

One was Part 3, the final part, of the Atlas Shrugged movie, which will begin its public, theatrical run on September 12.

My impression was: not bad. Very good in many parts. None of the characters was cast in the way I would have done it; I would have made them look just like the people in the book. But good characters have more elasticity than that. In the tricky role of John Galt we have Kristoffer Polaha, who looks exactly like the dark, hunky, American boy you’d see in a truck commercial. Odd, but it’s possible and he makes it work. He even has a sense of humor. Laura Regan, as Dagny Taggart, is fine when she’s a bossy railroad executive; but when she’s a woman discovering Galt’s Gulch or being in love with John Galt, she’s commonplace, with the irritating whine that many commonplace women put in their voices these days.

These filmmakers don’t believe in just anything; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The screenplay is more than competent, although strong deductions must be made for the overuse of a voiceover telling you what’s been happening to the country while the main characters are having their conversations and love affairs. The device is obviously appropriate for a story of this length and complexity, but I thought I saw more visual effects in Part 1 than in this part, and there need to be more. I wish the budget had provided for them, although I’ve got to say that the torture of John Galt is much more effective in the movie than it is in the book.

What about the Speech? Story consultant David Kelley, who’s a smart guy, noted with some satisfaction that 33,000 words had been cut to 600. How? By “dropping from the speech what wasn’t foreshadowed in the movie.” In other words, by cutting what wasn’t directly relevant to the action. Fine with me.

A very interesting preview. But as interesting to me, for some of the same reasons, were the films on themes of liberty that were entered in the festival by small independent filmmakers. By “small,” I don’t mean “narrow” or “unimportant.” I mean done on small budgets. These filmmakers are important. They are volunteers in the first line of defense of small (i.e., also on small budgets) Americans like you and me.

Here’s Sean Malone, who’s come out with a film called No Vans Land, which is about how commuter vans are illegal in a lot of places. And Drew Tidwell, who has lots of distinguished movie and TV experience and who once made a movie inspired by Leonard E. Read’s famous I, Pencil (the movie’s called by the same name), which is about how everyone who uses even such a simple thing as a pencil should understand how much capitalism is involved in the multitude of processes necessary to make it. Now he’s the producer of a film called Empire State Divide, about people in southern New York who want to enrich the state by extracting natural gas from their land, but aren’t allowed to do so. And a charming couple, Dean and Nicole Greco, who made 100 Signatures, a film about the ways in which various states render it virtually impossible to run for office unless you’re nominated by one of the two major parties.

I asked the Grecos who did what on their film, and Dean replied, “We filmed it, wrote it, edited it, everything.” Fortunately, they finished it in October, because their daughter Andie (who made no comment but seemed happy to be with us) arrived in November. Nicole was once a TV newscaster, directed by Dean, but they decided to go out and make this film “to be helpful to mankind.”

That’s pretty much the story I got from the other moviemakers, too. But it was never the vague, general “I want to help” that becomes so difficult to hear when the community-servers and program-pushers use it. At Anthem the desire to help always had a local habitation and a name. “What keeps you going?” I asked Sean and Drew. Drew answered, “I believe in these projects,” and Sean answered, “I believe in the stories.” Each nodded at the other’s answer. They don’t believe in just anything, or in the vast generalizations that too many libertarians clutch to their bosoms; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs.

One person I spoke with — Kels Goodman, maker of a not so fictional film called The Last Eagle Scout, which is “about how government tries to shut down the Boy Scouts” — saw it as a warning about an imminent future, “a what if?, not 1000 years in the future but the next stage of the political correctness we have now.”

Of course, government has all the resources, and it’s a ratchet effect: the more money and power it takes, the more it has to maneuver us into letting it take more. The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs. And besides the money, there’s the rejection. It has insidious effects. As Nicole said, “it creeps up in weird ways.” You have to believe in a story a lot to keep coming back after being rejected by donors, film festivals, distributors, everyone but yourself. The people I talked to emphasized that. They didn’t like it. But they took it. And they responded by providing even more of their own energy and cleverness, and their money, if they still had any.

One person who had money was John Aglialoro, producer of Atlas Shrugged. When asked about the financing of the movie’s three parts, he said: “Part 1, $10 million, all by me. Part 2, $20 million, five by me. Part 3, $10 million, two-thirds by me.”

It’s a symbol of the libertarian movement. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. Might be fun, though. Nobody expressed any regrets.




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Oscar Shrugs

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Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



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Anthem: Third Year and Growing

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On July 10–13, over 2,500 attendees, 150 speakers, and 100 exhibitors filled the convention hall at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The event was FreedomFest, which the Washington Post has called "the greatest gathering of libertarians in the world." One of the most popular features of FreedomFest is the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, now in its third year and truly growing into its own.

The theater at Planet Hollywood provided the perfect venue for this year’s film festival, with comfortable seating for 250 people. Nevertheless, many of the documentaries hosted standing-room-only crowds as FreedomFest attendees thronged to watch the films. "I could go listen to someone talk about the same subject," one viewer said, "but in a film you can see a wide variety of people talking about the topic, along with music, historical clips, and a great story arc." Many people watched every film at the festival.

First-time filmmaker Cyrus Saidi won the FreedomFest Grand Prize for 2013 with his short narrative L1ttl3 Br0th3r, which tells the story of a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who demonstrates extraordinary courage in order to reveal the evil nature of a totalitarian dictator. Big Brother is watching, we know . . . but, according to this film, so is Little Brother!

"This film is the perfect precursor to our theme for next year, 'Is Big Brother Here?'" said FreedomFest producer Mark Skousen in awarding the $2,500 prize to "L1ttl3 Br0th3r” for demonstrating excellence in filmmaking and libertarian ideals.

An Iranian who immigrated to Canada with his mother when he was 10, Saidi described America as a place of hope as he participated in a panel on free speech at the festival. "This is a very unexpected honor," he admitted in accepting his prize. "As a Canadian-Iranian who really loves America — I will be moving here in about six months — being at this event for the last three days has made me really hopeful about the future of this country and the fact that there are people who really care about what I care about, which is freedom."We expect to see other important works from this fine filmmaker in the future.

Most of Anthem’s documentaries highlighted the unintended consequences of a new kind of war: a war of ideas. Their focus was on the ideas involved in a literalwar between nations (Post Lebanon), a war against business (The Last Week: How Lawsuits Doomed an American Icon, about the demise of the company that manufactured those ubiquitous red gas cans), wars against personal liberty (Exiled from Vanderbilt and Act of Terror), the war against conservatives (Hating Breitbart), and the war against drugs (America’s Longest War). These were some of our strongest documentaries ever. They are insightful — and inciteful.

Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority.

One of my favorite films, Rebel Evolution, directed by Anna Zetchus Smith, interviews half a dozen political activists, including Ted Hayes and Bill Ayers, and traces their evolution from leftist to libertarian (well . . . Bill Ayers doesn't quite make it to libertarian. But we see a much softer, more thoughtful side of him in these interviews). What I loved about this film is how it demonstrates the power of persuasion over force. We all see the same problems in the world; where we differ is in how to solve those problems. I love to see people move from "Somebody oughtta . . ." to "We can fix this ourselves."

One of the most popular films was a seven-minute documentary called I, Pencil, directed by Nick Tucker. It’s based on the pamphlet by the same name, written several decades ago by Leonard Read, creator of the Foundation for Economic Education, the first libertarian thinktank. The pamphlet describes the process of making a pencil and explains that no single indvidual could make something as inexpensive and ubiquitous as a pencil. Through the magic of the free market, however, hundreds of people all over the world cooperate to provide the rubber, graphite, redwood, aluminum, and machinery necessary to create a humble writing instrumentthat can be sold for a quarter. Using gorgeous graphics, the film brings this simple story to life for a new generation. It won the prize for Best Short Documentary.

Libertarians always like to get into the conversation, and Anthem provides that opportunity through Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and formal panels following many of the films. Panels this year included "The Erosion of Free Speech," "Laissez Faire Economics," "Inside the Federal Reserve," "The Unintended Costs of the War on Drugs," "What You Eat Can Cure and Prevent Cancer," and "The Future of Libertarian Filmmaking." Motion Picture Institute Director Adam Guillette provided a detailed, informative panel on "Advice from a Libertarian Film Producer" with MPI fellows Ted Balaker and Naomi Brockwell adding specific suggestions.

Another timely and intelligent film offered a history of the Federal Reserve. Directed by economist Jim Bruce, Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve won the prize for Best Documentary Feature and will be released in select theaters around the country, beginning in September.

What makes a film “libertarian”? It’s not about overthrowing the government, and it’s not about the Tea Party. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist’s personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making one's own life better.

Filmmaker Sean Buttimer said, “Being a libertarian filmmaker comes with its own set of complications, particularly concerning reception. Anthem provides more than just a showcase for niche films . . . it's an outlet for like-minded individuals to network in an industry that is generally dominated by hostile kingmakers."

Bob Bowdon, director of the award-winning “The Cartel,” added, “Many of the people who run traditional film festivals seem to be ideologically hostile to the concepts of free markets, capitalism and individual liberty, even though it's those very principles which have given our country the wealth to afford creative pursuits such as filmmaking. Fortunately, those biases against free enterprise do not exist at the Anthem Film Festival — one reason it's become such a successful event in just a few short years.”

Following the awards ceremony, Anthem celebrants danced to the sounds of the Pink Flamingos, an interactive band specializing in golden oldies and audience interaction, not only with great music but also with beach balls in the air, bubble wrap on the floor, blowup guitars on the stage, and even a volleyball net dividing the dance floor. As one filmmaker said with glee, "Where else can you play beach volleyball with Steve Forbes?" Anthem was the place to be July 10–13. Join us in Las Vegas July 9–13 for Anthem 2014 and another great lineup of libertarian films.


Editor's Note: The author does not mention one of the most interesting events of the Anthem festival, the sneak preview of a documentary "Downwinders," about the effects of above-ground nuclear testing, during the 1950s and 1960s, on the people of several western states. The memory of the bomb tests has almost vanished, except among those who may have been victimized by them. The film tells their story, but it does more: it provides a remarkable view of the astonishing cultural changes that have happened in America during the past half-century. The director of "Downwinders" is Tim Skousen, son of the author. – Ed.



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The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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Artists in the Movies: The Ten Best Films

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I’m not sure why I consider artists so fascinating. Perhaps it is the especially acute way they see the world — vision being for me only a weak sensory modality. Perhaps it is the fact that they use more of the right side of the brain than I typically use in my own work. But whatever the reason, apparently I am not alone in my fascination, since movies about artists are fairly numerous in the history of cinema. In this essay I want to review ten of the best such movies ever made.

I will confine myself to artists in the narrow sense of painters, as opposed to creative writers, photographers, or musicians. I will even put aside sculptors, even though that rules out reviewing such interesting films as Camille Claudel (1988), the good if depressing bioflick about the sculptress who worked with and was the mistress of Auguste Rodin.

I will also confine myself to standard movies, as opposed to documentaries. There are many fine documentaries about individual artists and artistic movements. One particularly worth noting is My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), a film that honestly explores the brief career of four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who caused a sensation when her abstract paintings caught the attention of the media and the public, and started selling them for many thousands of dollars each. After an expose on CBS News, the public began to wonder if she had really produced her own work. That is the fascinating question the film investigates, but in the background is another, equally fascinating question — whether abstract art has any intrinsic quality, or whether it is all a matter of the perception of the critics.

But to return. One other restriction I will adopt is to consider feature films only, as opposed to TV series. This causes me some grief, since one of my favorite portrayals of painters on screen will have to be skipped — the delightful three-part BBC miniseries The Impressionists (2006). This series is TV at its finest. It is a historically accurate portrayal of the French impressionist school of painters (Manet, Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Degas, and Cézanne) that is compelling and entertaining story telling. It is structured as a series of memory flashbacks that occur to Claude Monet as he is interviewed late in his life by a journalist about the artistic movement he and his circle created.

In theory, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to produce a decent movie about a painter than about any other subject, but in practice, there are many possible pitfalls.

But what does a good movie about an artist include? Such a film can take many forms. It can be a straight bioflick recounting a person’s life and achievements — as in Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Seraphine. It can explore a controversy, such as the merit of abstract art (Local Color). It can explore some of the ways artists interact with other artists — competition or romantic involvement (Modigliani, Frida, and Lust for Life again). It can examine the interaction between artists and mentors (Local Color), or patrons or art critics (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Girl with a Pearl Earring), or other intellectuals (Little Ashes). It can dramatize relationships between artists and family members (Lust for Life, Moulin Rouge). It can try to meaningfully convey the inspiration for or the process of artistic creation (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Rembrandt, Girl with a Pearl Earring). Finally, it can analyze the personality of an artist (The Moon and Sixpence, Moulin Rouge, Seraphine).

My criteria for ranking these movies are not much different from those I use to judge any other movies: quality of ideas, story, acting, dialogue, and cinematography. In theory, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to produce a decent movie about a painter than about any other subject, but in practice, there are pitfalls that can ensnare you.

In particular, it seems that many directors, in trying to make a movie about art, try to make the movie artsy. One thinks of the disastrously bad film Klimt (2007), an internationally produced bioflick about the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), played by John Malkovich. The flick is tedious and hard to follow, with numerous hallucinatory scenes interspersed in the action. Malkovich gives a listless performance, portraying the artist as bereft of any charm. The result is risible.

I expect art, not artsiness. And I will mention one other thing I look for in movies about painters: if it accords with the story line, I like to see the artist’s work displayed. If a person is supposed to be great about doing something, one naturally wants to see the evidence.

To build suspense, I’ll present the movies that made my top ten in reverse order of my judgments of their importance and quality.

Number ten on the list is The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). This lavishly produced film is based Irving Stone’s best seller of the same title, but actually just focusing on part of the story — Michelangelo (1475–1564, portrayed by Charlton Heston) painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the prodding of his patron, Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). The eminent director Carol Reed directed the movie, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including those for cinematography, art direction, and score. In each of those areas the film is indeed excellent. Especially effective is the scene in which Michelangelo gets his key inspiration for his ceiling mural from observing the beauty of the clouds. The interesting idea explored in the movie is the way in which influence of a patron can help even a highly individual artist elevate the artistic level of his work. The pope insisted that Michelangelo do the job, even though he initially demurred, viewing himself primarily as a sculptor.

Many directors, in trying to make a movie about art, try to make the movie artsy. One thinks of the disastrously bad film Klimt.

The acting in this film isn’t as good as one would expect of the two leads. Heston and Harrison, both recipients of the Oscar for best actor in other movies, seem somehow miscast in their roles. But the movie transcends this weakness; the glory of Michelangelo’s art is on full display in a beautiful color production.

Number nine is Frida (2002), directed by Julie Traynor and starring Selma Hayek (who also coproduced the movie). This is an unvarnished look at the life of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), focusing on the accident that made her a semi-invalid and caused her lifelong pain, and on her tempestuous marriage to the painter Diego Rivera. Rivera was already famous when they met, and her career grew alongside his. His numerous adulterous affairs are not hidden, nor are her affairs with other women (as well as Leon Trotsky). Both Rivera and Kahlo were devout socialists, as the movie emphasizes.

Selma Hayek’s performance is extraordinary — it is obvious she was completely devoted to the project. She convincingly conveys the physical suffering Kahlo endured, along with the mental anguish caused by Rivera’s endless philandering. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Alfred Molina is excellent as Diego Rivera, and Edward Norton gives a nice performance as Nelson Rockefeller (who, ironically, commissioned Rivera to do a mural for him), as does Antonio Banderas (playing the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros). The cinematography is also excellent, and we get to see quite a few of the artist’s paintings. Traynor does a good job of integrating the history of the times with the story line.

Number eight is Local Color (2006). Written and directed by George Gallo, it is a fictionalized account of his friendship with the landscape painter George Cherepov (1909–1987), an artist he met while he was hoping to pursue art, before turning in his twenties to screenwriting and directing. Gallo’s earliest success was writing the screenplay for “Midnight Run.”

In the movie, the Gallo figure John Talia Jr. (Trevor Morgan) is thinking about what to do after high school. His father (perfectly played by Ray Liotta) hopes he will get a regular job, but young John wants to be a painter. He manages to gain the friendship of a crusty, profane, but gifted older Russian painter, here called Nicoli Seroff (played brilliantly by Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seroff invites John to spend the summer at his house, much to the worry of John’s father, who is concerned that Seroff is gay and will “take advantage” of his son. After some tension between the two, Seroff finally breaks down and shows John how to paint.

Besides being a nice meditation on the role a mentor can play in an artist’s life, the movie has as a subtext an exploration of two related and important questions about contemporary art: is there great artistic merit in abstract art, and should art divide the elites from the ordinary public? This subtext plays out in the exchanges between the prickly Seroff and a pompous local art critic Curtis Sunday (played exquisitely by Ron Perlman, of Hellboy and Beauty and the Beast). Their dispute culminates in a hilarious scene in which Seroff shows Sunday a painting produced by an emotionally disturbed child with whom Seroff has worked. Seroff shows Sunday the painting without revealing who made it, and asks for Sunday’s opinion about the artist. Sunday then begins to talk earnestly about the virtues of the artist, thinking he must be a contemporary painter. When Seroff tells Sunday the truth, Sunday storms off to the howls of Seroff’s laughter. The movie has excellent cinematography — which gathers interest from the fact that all the oil paintings shown in the film were painted by Gallo himself.

In the film Frida, Diego Rivera's numerous adulterous affairs are not hidden, nor are Kahlo's affairs with other women — as well as with Leon Trotsky.

Number seven on my list will be a surprise. It is The Moon and Sixpence (1942). The movie is a superb adaption of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant short novel of the same name. The story is about a fictional painter, Charles Strickland, and is loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Strickland (well played by the underrated actor George Sanders, who could play the cad well) is a stockbroker who suddenly and unexpectedly leaves his wife and family in midlife to pursue his vision of beauty — his painting. He is followed by a family friend, Geoffrey Wolfe (a character I suspect Maugham based on himself, and beautifully portrayed by Herbert Marshall), who narrates as he tries to make sense of Strickland’s ethical worldview.

What we see is a man who is an egotist to the core, but we realize that this is an egotism driven by a desire to create. A key scene in this regard is the one in which Strickland explains to Wolfe that he doesn’t choose to paint, but he has to paint. Maugham doesn’t make it easy on us by portraying Strickland as also driven to flee civilization — by, for instance, a bad marriage or family. In fact, the title seems to indicate that in the end he himself fails to appreciate Strickland’s choice: it comes from a Cockney phrase about somebody who is so struck by the moon that he steps over sixpence: by focusing on something abstract — such as artistic beauty—one misses out on something that may be more worthwhile, such as rich human relationships.

But what makes this film powerful is its exploration of the idea that a person can be an egoist—even immoral by conventional standards — but still be a creative genius. Indeed, I recommend this film in my ethical theory classes as an example of Nietzsche’s brand of egoism.

Number six is Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), a tale from the historical novel by Tracy Chevalier about the life of Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). It imagines the story of a young woman, Griet, who comes to the Vermeer household as a maid. Griet’s father was a painter, but went blind, forcing her to support herself by working as a domestic servant. The Vermeer household is dominated by his all-too-fecund and extremely jealous (not to say shrewish) wife Catharina, along with her mother Maria Thins.

Griet is fascinated by Vermeer’s work, the colors and composition. Noticing her interest, Vermeer befriends her, letting her mix his paints in the morning. The viewer suspects that this friendship involves a romantic interest, at least on his part. He is careful to keep the friendship from Catharina’s notice. While shopping with the chief maid, Griet meets the butcher’s son Pieter, who is very attracted to her, and we suspect that the feeling is mutual.

As if this incipient romantic triangle weren’t enough excitement for poor Griet, Vermeer’s concupiscent patron Van Ruijven sees her and pushes Vermeer to let her work in his house. Faced with Vermeer’s refusal, Van Ruijven commissions him to paint her, which Vermeer agrees to do. Van Ruijven, obviously, isn’t motivated by art so much as by lust — he even attempts to rape Griet. All this culminates, however, in her becoming the model for Vermeer’s most famous masterpiece, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The earring, which is one of a pair borrowed from Catharina, making her extremely jealous, goes with Griet as she leaves Vermeer’s household, ending her adventure with an interesting memento.

What we see is a man who is an egotist to the core, but we realize that this is an egotism driven by a desire to create.

The art direction is superb. It is executed in colors reminiscent of the painter’s method (dark background with vivid tones in the key objects). Appropriately, the film received Oscar nominations for both best art direction and best cinematography. The acting was almost entirely excellent, with Essie Davis playing a very irascible Catharina, Tom Wilkinson a randy Van Ruijven, Judy Parfitt a practical Maria, and Cillian Murphy a supportive Pieter. Especially outstanding is Scarlett Johannson as a very self-contained Griet. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the girl in the actual painting. The sole disappointment is Colin Firth as Vermeer. He plays the role in a very inexpressive way — more constipated than contemplative, to put it bluntly.

Number five is a film about the life and work of a controversial modern artist, Pollock (2000).

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) was a major figure in the abstract art scene in post-WWII America. He grew up in Arizona and California, was expelled from a couple of high schools in the 1920s, and studied in the early 1930s at the Art Students League of New York. From 1935 to 1943 he did work for the WPA Federal Art Project. During this period, as throughout his life, he was also battling alcoholism.

Receiving favorable notice in the early 1940s, in 1945, he married another abstract artist, Lee Krasner. Using money lent to them by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought what is now called the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs (Long Island), New York. Pollock turned a nearby barn into his studio and started a period of painting that lasted 11 years. It was here he developed his technique of letting paint drip onto the canvas. As he put it, “I continue to get further away from the usual painters’ tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives, and dripping fluid paint or heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.” He would typically have the canvas on the floor and walk around it, dripping or flicking paint.

In 1950, Pollock allowed the photographer Hans Namuth to photograph him at work. In the same year he was the subject of a four-page article in Life, making him a celebrity. During the peak of his popularity (1950–1955), buyers who were pressing him for more paintings, making demands that may have intensified his alcoholism.

He stopped painting in 1956, and his marriage broke up (he was running around with a younger girlfriend, Ruth Kligman). On August 11, 1956, he had an accident while driving drunk that killed both him and a friend of Ruth, and severely injured her. But after his death, Krasner managed his estate and worked to promote his art. She and he are buried side by side in Springs.

Critics have been divided over Pollock’s work. Clement Greenberg praised him as the ultimate phase in the evolution of art, moving from painting full of historical content to pure form. But Craig Brown said that he was astonished that “decorative wallpaper” could gain a place in art history. However one might view Pollock’s work, it has commanded high prices. In 2006, one of his paintings sold for $140 million.

The movie tracks the history fairly closely, starting in the early 1940s, when Pollock attracted the attention of Krasner and Guggenheim, and moving through his marriage to Krasner, his pinnacle as the center of the abstract art world, and the unraveling of his personal life. Throughout, we see him angry, sullen, and inarticulate, whether drunk or sober.

Ed Harris, who directed the film and played the lead, is fascinating (if depressing) to watch. He plays a generally narcissistic Pollock, with the problem of alcoholism featured prominently. He was nominated for a best actor award for this role. Especially good is Marcia Gay Hardin as Lee Krasner, who won a best actress Oscar for her performance. The main defect of the movie is that it gives us no idea why Pollock was angry and alcoholic. Was it lack of respect for his own work? Did he feel it wasn’t really worthy of the praise it received? We get no clue.

Number four is a piece of classic British cinema, “Rembrandt” (1936), meaning, of course, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), who is generally held to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age (an era that included Vermeer, his younger contemporary). Rembrandt achieved great success fairly early in life with his portrait painting, then expanded to self-portraits, paintings about important contemporaries, and paintings of Biblical stories. In the latter, his work was informed by a profound knowledge of the Bible.

But his mature years were characterized by personal tragedy: a first marriage in which three of his four children died young, followed by the death of his wife Saskia. A second relationship with his housekeeper Geertje ended bitterly; and a third, common law, marriage to his greatest love, Hendrickje Stoffels, ended with her death. Finally, Titus, his only child to have reached adulthood, died. Despite his early success, Rembrandt’s later years were characterized by economic hardship, including a bankruptcy in which he was forced to sell his house and most of his paintings. The cause appears to have been his imprudence in investing in collectables, including other artists’ work.

Rembrandt’s painting was more lively and his subjects more varied than was common at the time, when it was common to paint extremely flattering portraits of successful people. One of his pieces proved especially provocative: “The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq,” often called “The Night Watch,”an unconventional rendition of a civic militia, showing its members preparing for action, rather than standing elegantly in a formal line up. Later stories had it that the men who commissioned the piece felt themselves to have been pictured disrespectfully, though these stories appear to be apocryphal.

The main defect of Pollock is that it gives us no idea why he was angry and alcoholic. Was it lack of respect for his own work? Did he feel it wasn’t really worthy of the praise it received? We get no clue.

The movie is fairly faithful to historical reality, except that it doesn’t explore Rembrandt’s financial imprudence, attributing his later poverty to his painting of “The Night Watch as an exercise in truth-telling. The movie shows him painting these middle-class poseurs for what they were, and their outrage then leading to a cessation of high-price commissions from other burghers. The direction is excellent, as one would expect from Alexander Korda, one of the finest directors Britain ever had. The support acting is first rate, especially Elsa Lanchester as Rembrandt’s last wife Hendrickje, Gertrude Lawrence as the scheming housekeeper and lover Geertje, and John Bryning as the son Titus. Charles Laughton’s performance as Rembrandt is masterful. There are great actors, and then there are legends, and he was both. Unlike his loud and dominating performances in such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty, his role in this film is that of a wise and decent man, devoted to his art and his family, and he makes it even more interesting. The main flaw in the film is that we don’t see much of the artist painting or of his paintings, but that is a comparatively minor flaw in an otherwise great film.

Number three is the great Moulin Rouge (1952), based on the life of Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864–1901). Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family. At an early age he lived in Paris with his mother, and showed promise as an artist. But also early in his life he showed an infirmity. At ages 13 and 14 he broke first one leg than the other, and they both failed to heal properly. As an adult, he had the torso of a man and the legs of a boy, and he was barely 5 feet tall. A lonely and deformed adolescent, he threw himself into art.

He spent most of his adult life in the Montmartre area of Paris, during a time when it was a center of bohemian and artistic life. He moved there in the early 1880s to study art, meeting van Gogh and Emile Bernard at about this time. After his studies ended in 1887, he started exhibiting in Paris and elsewhere (with one exhibition featuring his works along with van Gogh’s).

He focused on painting Paris on the wild side, including portraits of prostitutes and cabaret dancers. In the late 1880s, the famous cabaret Moulin Rouge opened (it is still in Montmartre to this day), and commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to do its posters. These brought him to public attention and notoriety, and won him a reserved table at the cabaret, which also displayed his paintings prominently. Many of his best known paintings are of the entertainers he met there, such as Jane Avril and La Goulue (who created the can-can).

By the 1890s, however, his alcoholism was taking its toll on him, as was, apparently, syphilis (not unknown among artists of the time). He died before his 37th birthday, at his parent’s estate. In a brief 20 years, he had created an enormous amount of art — over seven hundred canvases and five thousand drawings.

The movie, directed (and co-written) by John Huston, was a lavish production fairly true to history. It should not be confused with the grotesque 2001 musical of the same name. The cinematography and art direction are superb, showing us scenes of the Moulin Rouge in particular and Paris in general, as captured by the artist. The film won the Oscar for best art direction and best costume design.

The directing and acting are tremendous. (Huston was nominated for best director, and his film for best picture.) Zsa Zsa Gabor is great as Jane Avril, as are Katherine Kath as La Goulue and Claude Nollier as Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother. And Colette Marchand is perfect as Marie Charlet, the prostitute with whom Toulouse-Lautrec becomes involved. She wa nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress, and won the Golden Globe, for her performance. But most amazing is the work of the lead, Joses Ferrer, who plays both Toulouse-Lautrec père and fils. Playing Toulouse-Lautrec the artist required Ferrer (always a compelling actor) to stand on his knees. His was a bravura performance, making the artist both admirable and pitiable. Ferrer was nominated for an award as best actor, but unfortunately did not win.

If there is one flaw in the film, it is an unneeded sentimentality, well illustrated by the final scene. With Henri on his deathbed, his father cries to him that he finally appreciates his art, while figures from Henri’s memory bid him goodbye. Huston, one of the greatest directors in the history of film, especially adept at coldly realistic film noir (e.g., “The Maltese Falcon”), should have toned this down. My suspicion is that the studio wanted something emotionally “epic,” and Huston obliged.

Number two on my list is a small independent flick, Modigliani (2004). The story explores the art scene in Paris just after WWI, with artists such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Chaim Soutine, Henri Matisse, Marie Vorobyev-Stebeslka, and Maurice Utrillo living in the Montparnasse district.

We meet Modigliani as he enters the café Rotonde, stepping from tabletop to tabletop as the patrons applaud.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) was born into a poor Jewish family in Italy. He grew up sickly, contracting tuberculosis when he was 16. He showed interest and talent in art at an early age, and went to art school, first at his hometown of Livorno, then later in Florence and Venice. He was fairly well read, especially in the writings of Nietzsche. He moved to Paris in 1906, settling in Montmartre. Here he met Picasso, and spent a lot of time with Utrillo and Soutine. He also rapidly became an alcoholic and drug addict, especially fond of absinthe and hashish (beloved by many artists then). He adapted rapidly to the Bohemian lifestyle, indulging in numerous affairs and spending many wild nights at local bars. Yet he managed to work a lot, sketching constantly. He was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne but soon developed his own style (including his distinctive figures with very elongated heads). After a brief return home to Italy in 1909 for rest, he returned to Paris, this time moving to Montparnasse. He is said to have had a brief affair with Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova in 1910, and worked in sculpture until the outbreak of WWI. He then focused on painting, among other things painting portraits of any of other artists.

In 1916, he was introduced to a beautiful young art student, Jeanne Hebuterne. They fell in love, and she moved in with him, much to the anger of her parents, who were conservative Catholics, not fond of the fact their daughter was involved with a poor, drunken, struggling Jewish artist.

And struggle they did. While Modigliani sold a fair number of pieces, the prices he got were very low. He often traded paintings for meals just to survive. In January 1920, Modigliani was found by a neighbor delirious, clutching his pregnant wife. He died form tubercular meningitis, no doubt exacerbated by alcoholism, overwork, and poor nourishment.

His funeral attracted a gathering of artists from Paris’ two centers of art (Montmartre and Montparnasse). It was all very Nietzschean: brilliant young man does art his way, defies all slave moral conventions, and dies in poverty. The genius is spurned by hoi polloi too addled by slave morality to appreciate the works of the übermensch. Jeanne died two days later by throwing herself out a window at her parents’ house, killing herself and her unborn child. It was only in 1930 that the family allowed her to be reburied by his side.

The movie takes place in the pivotal year 1919. We meet Modigliani as he enters the café Rotonde, stepping from tabletop to tabletop as the patrons applaud. He winds up at Picasso’s table, where he kisses Picasso. This bravura entry invites us to focus where we should — on the relationship between these two artists, both important in a new era of art. The relationship is complex. On the one hand, they are obviously friends — and friends of a sort that Aristotle would have approved: their friendship is based on appreciation of each other’s intellectual virtue, their art. But there is a darker side to it: they are also rivals, competitors for the crown of king of the new artists.

Modigliani and Jeanne are struggling to pay rent, and Jeanne’s father has sent their little girl away to a convent to be raised. Modigliani sees a chance to get his child back, and provide for Jeanne. He will enter a work in the annual Paris art competition, one that, so far, he and his circle have scorned. Picasso, feeling challenged, enters also, with other members of the circle joining him. Modigliani knows that the competition will be tough, so by force of will he works to produce a masterpiece. This challenges Picasso as well, and we see the artists vying to see who will win.

But the denouement is tragic. Modigliani finishes, and asks Picasso to take his piece to the show. He goes to City Hall to marry Jeanne. After leaving late, he stops at a bar for a drink. And that foolish act leads to an ending whose bittersweet drama I don’t want to spoil.

The acting is excellent throughout. Hippolyte Girardot is notable as Maurice Utrillo, and Elsa Zylberstein is superb as Jeanne. But the best support is given by Omid Djalili as a smoldering, intense Picasso, who succeeds where Modigliani fails, but understands that his success did not result from greater genius. The amazing Andy Garcia gives a fabulous performance as Modigliani.

It was all very Nietzschean: brilliant young man does art his way, defies all slave moral conventions, and dies in poverty. The genius is spurned by hoi polloi too addled by slave morality to appreciate the works of the übermensch.

The critics panned this movie mercilessly, and it has some flaws — most importantly, you cannot appreciate the film without a knowledge of Modigliani’s biography, because it focuses only on his last year. (It also takes some liberties with the facts.) But the film powerfully conveys a unique friendship and rivalry, and explores an artist’s self-destructiveness. Very instructive, though not the makings of a box office bonanza.

And now — drum roll please! — coming in as number one on my list is a classic that holds up well, more than a generation after its making: Lust for Life (1956).

Like The Agony and the Ecstasy, this movie was based on a best-selling novel by Irving Stone. The director was the brilliant Vincente Minnelli. The film tells the tragic story of the life of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), with lavish attention to the man’s magnificent art. It follows the life of van Gogh from his youth, during which he his struggled to find a place as a missionary, to his mature years, during which he struggled to find a place as an artist. (The van Gogh family lineage was full of both artists and ministers.) Van Gogh is usually categorized with Gauguin, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec as the great post-impressionists.

Van Gogh is played by Kirk Douglas, who was primarily known as an action lead — adept at playing the tough guy outlaw or soldier (helped by his buff physique and chiseled handsome face). This was a casting gamble, but it paid off, with Douglas giving one of the best performances of his career, if not the best performance. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and won the Golden Globe for playing the mentally tormented van Gogh with credibility.

The support acting just doesn’t get any better. Most notable is Anthony Quinn as a young, egoistic, and arrogant Paul Gauguin, who for a brief time was van Gogh’s roommate, but couldn’t handle van Gogh’s emotional intensity and instability. Quinn rightly received an Oscar for best supporting acting. Also excellent is James Donald as van Gogh’s loyal brother Theo.

The story development and dialogue are first rate (the screenwriter Norman Corwin was nominated for an Oscar), as is the art direction (also nominated for an Oscar).

The movie showcases many of van Gogh’s paintings. It also explores the crucial role his brother played in keeping him painting, supporting him financially as well as emotionally. If it were not for Theo van Gogh, the world would likely have never known Vincent. The contrast with Moulin Rouge is stark: Toulouse-Lautrec never got the support of his father until it was too late.

Five films that did not make my list deserve honorable mention. The first must be of a picture I have reviewed for Liberty (October 2009), Seraphine (2009). It is a wonderfully filmed, historically accurate bioflick of the French “Naïve” painter Seraphine Louis (1864–1942). She was discovered by an art critic, flourished for a brief period after World War I, but with the Depression her career ended, and she was eventually confined to an asylum. The relatively unknown actress Yolande Moreau is simply wonderful in the lead role.

The second honorable mention is Convicts 4 (1962), which tells the true story of artist John Resko. Resko was condemned to death after he robbed and unintentionally killed a pawnshop owner while attempting to steal a stuffed toy for a Christmas gift for his daughter. He was given a reprieve shortly before his scheduled execution, and with the help of some fellow inmates adapted to prison life. In prison, he learned to paint, and came to the notice of art critic Carl Calmer, who fought for — and eventually, with the help of the family of the man Resko killed won Resko’s release. Ben Gazzara is outstanding as Resko, and Vincent Price (in real life an art critic and a major art collector) convincing as Calmer.

If the producers had wished to fictionalize the story, they should have done so, and changed the names.

Third honorable mention goes to the television movie Georgia O’Keeffe (2009). Again, since I recently reviewed this movie for Liberty (August 2010), I will be brief. The film gives a nice account of one of the first American artists to win international acclaim, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). It focuses on her most important romantic and professional relationship, the one with Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer and art impresario. O’Keefe (played superlatively by Joan Allen) was hurt by Stieglitz’s philandering, but they remained mutually supportive professionally, even after a painful parting. Jeremy Irons is superb as Stieglitz.

As I noted in my review, at the end of the movie, one is left to wonder why Stieglitz was so callous in his treatment of O’Keeffe (in flouting his adultery, and in one scene bragging about his new paramour’s having his child to O’Keeffe, with whom he had earlier angrily dismissed the idea of having children). Was this merely the blindness of narcissism, or was there an undercurrent of profound envy at his wife’s success as an artist — one greater than his?

Fourth honorable mention is Artemisia (1998), based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656). She was one of the earliest women painters to win widespread acclaim, being the first woman artist accepted into Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno. The film is gorgeously produced, with a first-rate performance by Valentina Cervi as Artemisia and Miki Manojlovic as Agostino Tassi. Its major flaw is its historical inaccuracy, portraying Tassi as Artemisia’s chosen lover, while in fact he was her rapist. If the producers had wished to fictionalize the story, they should have done so, and changed the names. Stretching or selectively omitting history in a bioflick can make sense, but a total inversion of a pivotal event is a major flaw.

Watching a large number of movies about artists over a short period of time can be a recipe for depression.

The fifth film receiving honorable mention is Basquiat (1996), a good movie about the sad life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), who was one of the earliest African-Americans to become an internationally known artist. He was born in Brooklyn, and despite his aptitude for art and evident intelligence (including fluency in several languages and widespread reading in poetry and history), he dropped out of high school. He survived on the street by selling t-shirts and postcards, and got his earliest notice as a graffiti artist using the moniker “SAMO.” In the late 1970s, he was a member of the band Gray. In the early 1980s his paintings began to attract notice, especially when he became part of Andy Warhol’s circle. In the mid-1980s, he became extremely successful, but also got more caught up in drugs, which led to his early demise from a heroin overdose. Jeffrey Wright is superb as Basquiat, as are David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper as the international art dealer and gallerist Bruno Bischofberger. Also compelling is Gary Oldman as artist Albert Milo, a fictionalized version of the director Julian Schnabel.

Watching a large number of movies about artists over a short period of time can be a recipe for depression, given the amount of tragedy and pain on display. Often this pain was caused by a lack of public and critical recognition or support, leading great painters to experience genuine deprivation and what must have been the torment of self-doubt. Worse, the pain was sometimes self-inflicted or inflicted on others, because of the narcissism or lack of self-control that made such messy lives for so many artists.

But watching these films is intellectually as well as visually rewarding. You see the triumph of creative will over unfavorable conditions and outright opposition — and the beauty that unique individuals have contributed to the world.




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