Archive for the 'Documentary' Category


Parting a curtain, a landscape is revealed seen from an incredible height. It’s a city built on water where classical architecture mingles with the most fantastic: sky needles and skyscrapers, a hollow cube that looks like an ode to the toy models of molecular structures. It’s a World Fair built to last, viewed seemingly with approval and a sense of ownership from the man at the window. All this can too be yours is the unspoken pitch from a broker no doubt waiting nearby for the vista to work its magic.
The inverse of Wizard of Oz revelation, in the prints from Liu Gang’s Paper Dream (2008) series, what lies behind the curtain, or off in the distance, is betrayed by the surface details which proclaim the artifice. Streaks of light mar the figure of the man at the high window, tell-tale crinkles of the glossy advertisements which form the source material for the prints. A bank of what looks like a rolled up carpet that the man stands astride is a bunched up fold of paper testifying to the essential two-dimensionality of the urban dreamscape.

In other works, rows of gilt edged books redolent of the library of the well-read and well-bred sag as if an unfaithful tack has come loose, exposing them as nothing more than an image painted on a tarp or tapestry. In a print where a jockey poses atop his horse in the foreground, the eye strays toward an impressive array of multi-story buildings of concrete and glass peeking above the tree line. A second glance confirms that the same buildings appear more than once and in the same sequence.

My favorite of the lot was a racetrack receding into the distance, to one side the spectator stands filled with party confetti-colored motes and on the other, a row of wobbly looking apartments. It’s so packed with empty promises that it’s embarrassing how giddy it makes you feel staring at the image. Not only is the future waiting for you if you can close the distance, you’ll be racing toward it as the crowds cheer you on (the expressways in Heaven are all forty lanes across and empty of traffic). The pavement, blown up from the original is a mass of scattered halftone the color of red clay. But although the lines of the road converge at the horizon, we know that parallel lines will never meet. And the towering apartment buildings to your right will pass by lap after lap, always out of reach.
Curator David Spalding has paired Paper Dream with Living Elsewhere, (1997-1999) a video projection by Wang Jianwei (together they make up the complete billing of the SF Camerawork show, dubbed Even in Arcadia…). The documentary follows the plight of a group of people in Sichuan Province who have taken up residence in deserted buildings that were or were intended to be upscale housing complexes. Where manicured front yards would have stood, they carve holes in the crumbly dirt in the hopes of bringing forth a subsistence crop. Inside the villas, wall-sized holes are open to the air, convenient for emptying foul water from a pot, but also indicative that they would have required mammoth sheets of window glass to cover the space. Doors propped with bricks form makeshift tables. No narrative is forced upon the residents: the director is content with following them and letting them tell their story, or watching them trying to eke out a living in a setting built for opulence but repurposed by necessity.

Language Without Reply

language1After work last night I headed over to CCA to catch the latest film in the Paul McCarthy curated exhibition Low Life Slow Life, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The film is a fairly straightforward explication of Debord’s critique of capitalism’s superstructure, in which the artificial becomes more real than what it is presumed to represent. The perceived distance between ourselves and all aspects of the spectacle, be it body image, sex, status, family life, even our attitudes toward the system itself, drives the never-ending pursuit of commodities. Judged against the hyper-real allure of life as depicted in film and advertising for example, even personal histories are deemed inadequate and are superseded and realigned to resemble “pseudo-history.”

Whereas most of the imagery is selected to complement the film in a completely literal fashion (an explication of the banality of tourism is accompanied by the expected clips of holiday-makers traveling en masse in crowded busses and river boats), there are some inspired selections from cinema. The Shanghai Gesture especially resonated since I saw it recently and regarded it with complete incredulity. We are after all, expected to accept that that Victor Mature is Egyptian and that Ona Munson and Clyde Fillmore are Chinese, and yet von Sternberg never stoops to having any of the bit players of legitimate Chinese descent speak in broken English: only white characters mockingly adopt offensive pidgin dialect. When Gene Tierney as Poppy enthuses over Mother Gin Sling’s gambling den as a luxuriantly satisfying hive of depravity and evil, a “place where anything could happen” you could almost believe Debord was handing her lines. Mature’s lubricious come-ons also seem like observations on the spectacle itself: when he metaphorically claims that he and Poppy have been alone since the first time they’ve met, there is more than a little truth to it. Within the frame of the camera lens, the pair dominate the visual space, their characters literally larger than life. Even incidental scenes in the film are startling in their appositeness. Late in the film, woman are suspended above the streets in cages, ostensibly to be raffled off as slave chattel based on their allure. But Mother Gin Sling explains that the practice has been long abandoned and this is but a sop for the tourists.

There is plenty of footage from war films here; cavalry charges ad nauseum. As one would expect from a doctrine that sprung in part from Marxist theory, there is plenty of footage from propaganda cinema of the Soviet era as well as that of actual street protests. In the face of the domination of a culture by commodities, Debord’s answer was proletarian uprising (guided by the wise hand of intellectuals) and to be honest there is a kind of fetishism here too in the loving presentation of riot police and students meeting head on in a flurry of batons, tear gas and hurled cobblestones. My enthusiasm for Debord’s stunning assessment of the spectacle in all its particulars waned a bit by the time we reach Hegel, whom he dismisses outright for his dialectic (synthesis = collaboration). Although Debord mentions in passing that the only other tendency in humanity besides outright buying into the spectacle would be a longing for metaphoric sleep, from what I can tell it also inspires an opposite appetite for destruction.

Interesting stuff all around and now I’m excited to dig through my bookshelves and read more about Situationism again. The audience for such a presentation was pretty spotty as you can imagine and a lot of people left early. I think maybe some of the attendees in the theater began to question whether Debord’s barrage of imagery of nude women was entirely in service of a stoic appraisal of exploitation. It was freezing outside when I left and it’s a long walk back to my little corner of the Mission. Luckily there were plenty of sights and sounds to distract me on the walk: liquor store workers pulling down their gates for the night, distracted walkers jabbering on their cels. Hey, what’s that up there?

“We’re Only Talking About Some Pictures Here”

You can imagine the confluence of emotions that Boston Herald journalist Tom Mashberg must have felt when, after a late night trip to a darkened warehouse he was given a glimpse by flashlight of what could very well have been Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee: elation, surprise, fear. It was the closest that anyone (legitimate) has come to one of the missing pieces of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

That’s assuming that it was the genuine article. One thing you pick up on very quickly in Rebecca Dreyfus’ documentary Stolen is that there are as many uncertainties, as many people willing to obfuscate or exploit the crime for their own reasons that truth seems hopelessly obscured. This is great grist for the mill for a documentary filmmaker however, and Dreyfus gives just enough of a taste of many of the eccentric players and rival conspiracy theories to make an impression of just how tough it’s been for investigative journalists like Mashberg, local law enforcement and the F.B.I. to know just what trail to follow.
While Mashberg’s story has been the most dramatic in a long string of hopeful leads and blind alleys, she doesn’t linger on it for long. Enlisting the help of an investigator of stolen art, the film quickly changes course into a full-on attempt to recover the missing paintings. This proves a wise (if incredibly optimistic) approach: a good documentary really succeeds on the basis of the participants, and she found a winner in Harold Smith (he passed away in 2005, a year before the film’s release). Both dapper and roguish with his eyepatch and bowler hat, he seems like a character straight out of the best mystery novel. He is joined by characters with monnikers like “the Turbochaser,” who makes it a point to explain that his rapid delivery is not the result of drugs. When Smith asks a former art thief about whether two of the people the latter claims were involved in the case died of natural causes, the ex-felon pauses for a long moment. “Not exactly,” he states blankly. It’s that pause, captured on camera, that makes documentaries so fascinating. Smith’s unflappability in the face of every fresh wild assertion or offer of recovery is the perfect stand-in for the viewer trying to make sense of the interweaving muddle of potential culprits: everyone from the Boston mob to the I.R.A.

There are some cursory forays into art appreciation as Dreyfus trots out a succession of people who extol Vermeer’s The Concert, lips aquiver. The Concert fairly dominates the imaginations of all involved seemingly, very little is said about the artistic value of the other missing paintings (for the record, Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black, a self portrait and the aforementioned Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Flink’s Landscape with Obelisk; Manet’s Chez Tortoni; and Degas’ La Sortie du Pelage, Cortege aux Environs de Florence, Three Mounted Jockeys, and two charcoal works both referred to as Program for an Artistic Soiree). We learn quite a bit about Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, from letters to her agent in Europe busy snatching up the works that would end up in the collection, biographer Douglass Shand-Tucci and Frank Dimaria, a gallery attendant at the museum (a character himself). “Mrs. Gardner was a very plain looking woman,” we are told, “who had a magnificent figure and cultivated her figure as some sort of redress for being rather plain looking.” It is even suggested that Sargent “rather fudges her face” in his portrait of her. Ahem.
While I spent the past year doing my best to ignore the buzz in the art world over auctioned items going for outrageous prices, we get some sense from Gardner’s letters of the mania for acquisition. I couldn’t help thinking as we hear her alternately gushing over a new possession and entreating her agent Bernard Berenson not to let it be known that she was a collector as he brokered a new deal, that her scramble for paintings was occurring roughly within the same period described in the novel The Jungle. Congratulating herself that she could now see these works any time she liked, she wrote: “There’s richness for you.” No doubt.

What’s missing, strangely enough, is a detailed recreation of the events of the robbery itself. A good one can be found, incidentally, on The Boston Globe’s website. There is also no mention that as a result of the robbery, the museum received a boost in attendance, nor that the museum was uninsured for theft, and that the paint chips provided to Tom Mashberg as proof of possession of the paintings were fakes, part of an scam to get two art felons released from jail. It’s interesting that even now, after the statue of limitations has run out, and with a $5 million dollar reward still standing, the recovery of the stolen art seems no closer to reality than when the documentary was released. In fact, a rather telling omission in nearly every account I’ve read is that also taken during the theft was a Chinese Bronze Beaker. And this is where Dreyfus’ film proves itself such a valuable exploration I think, despite the fact that it did not achieve its laudable attempt to crack the case. After the wild auctions and excesses of last year, Gardner’s obsession seems strangely contemporary, as does its reminder that to some money is no object. Because although the author Katharine Weber states that until it is returned, the crime is that Vermeer’s The Concert is “missing from the world,” to others, the purloined items are viewed very differently. To some they are a bargaining chip. To others they are an invitation to a scam. To a Boston U.S. Attorney, they are not worth more than a criminal prosecution. To the thieves they are items worth unbelievable amounts of money. As William Youngworth, just one of the people Harold Smith interviews in the belief that he may have had some role in the crime reminds us, “We’re only talking about some pictures here.”

Heaven Sent

“Punk enabled you to say, ‘Fuck you…’ But sooner or later someone was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you.’ Someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked.'” That observation, from Rob Dickinson, formerly of the Catherine Wheel, does more to explain the mystery of what occurred in Manchester in the Eighties than anything I’ve ever heard or read. Because without a doubt there was something about the Sex Pistols’ shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July of 1976 that served as some kind of catalyst. Among the attendees were people like Morrissey, Bernard Sumner and Mark E. Smith as well as members of the Buzzcocks (who opened for the Sex Pistols’ in the second show). The list of attendees of the first show sounds like something impossible and apocryphal, a page out of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. The unlikeliness of such a gathering and the dubious nature of the claims of some to have attended is pointed out to great comic effect in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant film 24 Hour Party People. But even more unreal are the kinds of bands that develop in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ visit: The Smiths, Joy Division, The Fall. These are all bands who in wildly disparate ways develop their own way of saying “I’m fucked” in language clear, articulate and distinctive. If many bands started out trying to wail like Johnny Rotten and took pride in their inability to play their instruments, they soon developed their own sound that could never be confused with another’s.

It was a special issue of Mojo released in 2006 that got me really interested in Joy Division again. I adored Winterbottom’s film, and the magazine dedicated to “Morrissey and The Story of Manchester” read like the movie’s liner notes. After pouring through it over and over again for months I eventually mailed it to my friend Eric in Michigan. Although my love for The Smiths knows no bounds, it was the story of Joy Division that really grabbed me. Given the attention devoted in the magazine to the band’s debut album Unknown Pleasures, one might become convinced that their success was in some ways a fluke: the result of their lucky collaboration with mad, mad producer Martin Hannett. This proves not to be the case, but given the band’s memorable if brief appearance in 24 Hour Party People, I was absolutely thrilled when I heard that an Ian Curtis biopic was being released directed by Anton Corbijn.

Control stretches the drama told in mere minutes in Winterbottom’s film into an unenlightening and familiar sounding two hour episode of Behind the Music. See, it turns out that Curtis was the real genius, not Hannett. In the film, super cool and brilliant front man (but tortured, tortured) teams with a collection of zeroes who can play instruments but know when to fade into the background, until evil mistress arrives on the scene and brings it all crashing down. It was hard to be disappointed however, considering the trailer and marketing for the film had pretty much tipped me off to what I was in for. That’s when my friend Eric paid back the gift of the tattered magazine by recommending the documentary on the band by Grant Gee.

Joy Division proved to be everything that Control isn’t and is all the better for it. Although Gee attempts to frame the film as the story of a city and how it essentially rebuilds itself, miraculously, from within, the real success of the documentary is that it tackles, seemingly without meaning to, many of the questions that revolve around the band, including many that are probably unanswerable. In doing so it underlines the fact that trying to pin down musical genius is a fool’s errand, yet one that proves an enlightening exercise nonetheless.

For instance, there is no sign of the brooding, pose-striking Ian Curtis of Control here. Although that film’s poster seems designed with the specific purpose of furnishing dorm rooms with wall decoration, Joy Division reminds us of a different image, one that appeared as an NME cover image taken by photographer Kevin Cummins. Instead of the recipe for cool affectation of staring off into space (cool is after all, disinterest, specifically, disinterest in you) Curtis is dragging on a cigarette and looking directly into the camera. Indeed the documentary paints a picture of the most unlikely front man you can imagine: one who was intensely interested in other people (the explanation that She’s Lost Control was inspired by the fatal seizure of a woman who he knew from the Job Centre where he was employed is followed by observations that he seemed to genuinely care about the people he attempted to place in employment). As the band’s success began to take off, rather than claiming that he had a monopoly on the lion’s share of the talent, Curtis worried that he was dragging the band down and wasn’t up to the challenge (which suggests that he thought his band mates were). While the NME cover pic is a telling artifact, Cummins points out that the most recognizable image of the band is indeed, one of the entire band, during an amazing sequence where the photographer walks us through the photo shoot that culminates in that iconic shot. It is the band from afar, on a bridge in the distance in the snow, taken as they huddle in their coats for warmth. Taken because they personified cool no doubt? Just the opposite. What prompted the photographer to snap the picture was, as he describes in voice over, the fact that the scene looked “so bleak,” the band “so un-rock-n-roll-like.”
The sequence detailing Martin Hannett’s collaboration that culminated in Unknown Pleasures ends up making the band’s creativity even more mysterious rather than explaining it away. The surviving band members seem to be in agreement that they hate the album, and it’s clear that in many ways it is a demonstration of Hannett’s genius. During an interview Hannett calls them “heaven sent” for basically being a bunch of clueless kids, malleable, open to experiment in any way Hannett saw fit since they didn’t know any better. But any of the live performances included in the film are confirmation that the band was amazing. Pleasures just happens to be the result of a talented partnership. In any case the influence of the digital and electronic is evident in later work by the band members: they will eventually explore its possibilities exhaustively as New Order.

“Because Joy Division ends, because it all ends with a jolt, the jolt of a rope,” intones Gee near the close of the film, “there’s a tendency to end the story there. I think the important thing is not to end the story there.” While Gee ignores the tendency, he does not do so for very long. But the point is made, without the Ian Curtis of Control how on Earth do you explain New Order? Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook, while admitting that often they didn’t even pay attention to Curtis’ lyrics, seem befuddled that anyone would suggest that they stop. Whereas most bands collapse without their front man, New Order went on to dizzying levels of success. While Control sells us again the same story of the introverted moody genius, singular and inexplicable, separate from the common herd, Joy Division reveals four young men who liked to have a laugh, have a drink; who are pretty much guys you could meet anywhere and yet how you (and apparently practically everyone interviewed) wonder could produce something so dark.

Fever to Tell

The exhibition of work from the recipients of the 2008 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts has come and gone, but I arrived in time to snap some pics before it vanished. The show filled the small gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness, a venue that housed Meat Show a few years back. I seem to have no knack for hitting the performance pieces. I missed the functioning hot dog stand at Meat Show, and this time around I wasn’t able to attend any of the performance/discussions held on Anthony Marcellini’s stage installation called A Grass Mound (With Kind Regards to Utopia). That said, Meat Show still remains one of my all-time favorite SF gallery experiences and I have a feeling that the pieces on display at Immediate Future will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Annie Vought’s Scatter, 2007 presented words pinned like lepidopterist specimens to the wall.

All by its lonesome to the extreme right you can find “hope.”

I came back to this piece a few times while wandering through the exhibit. Untitled (plane), 2008 captures the fragility behind many of the things in the modern world in which we have a misplaced feeling of security. There is more to it than the simple jitters of travelers or the world’s collective memory of a horrifying attack. With the price of oil skyrocketing and the world tottering on the brink of economic meltdown, the idea of air travel as leisure activity is less than secure. The image itself is a springboard for any number of conceptual shifts that are occurring as we reevaluate the legacies of industrialization and First World economic hegemony. Claire Jackel’s paper sculpture is simple and haunting in its delicateness.

The more jaded might find this one rather frivolous, but I kind of adore this love letter synechdoche-style. Including furry paens to My Dad, David Crosby, My Muse, and My first true love, collectively Gina Tuzzi’s Beards of Paradise have a kind of Burger King crown charm to them. Peter the Great and other misopogons need not apply.

Dollar Heroes, 2008 are the result of a unique barter system that Elisheva Biernoff set up whereby the responses of those who received her art paid back inspiration in turn. The initial set of hand painted images represented someone the artist respected. As she passed them off a day at a time to people she admired for “their small acts of heroism or common decency,” the recipients offered up their own figure to be represented on a replacement.

The piece is accompanied by a record of the transactions, with descriptions like “May 20, 2008. Ned and Michael were playing a banjo and guitar in Café Trieste. I gave Ned the Gregory Pincus dollar. His hero was Samuel Gompers, American labor union leader.” The hand painting over the mass produced, the act of giving away what is deemed something of fixed value, the exchange of stories: all the elements add up to an exercise in rewriting human experience over the bureaucratic and systematized.

A great unwritten chapter in Art History is that of the exhibit in the tiny, dark, booth-like alcove of a museum or gallery. Even arcades forced those in search of private entertainment to indulge in it while bumping shoulders with the rest of the hoi polloi. But seclusion is the name of the game if you want to endure a few minutes of Paul McCarthy’s Clown Torture. Tucked away around a corner near storage is April Grayson’s looping video Another Word for Family, 2007. The short film is an exploration of the filmmaker’s hometown in Mississippi. Personal stories relate how the experience of racism seared the lives of residents. One woman describes the memory of burning crosses on the front lawn. Another attempts to reconcile his memories of an idyllic childhood with the fact that people from other parts of the country view his state with unconcealed scorn.

Jeff Ray’s Heterotopia: Sauna with video and sound installation, 2008 took me back to another Paul McCarthy exhibit, wherein I found myself dressed like a reindeer sitting inside a little wooden shack with a similarly clad Japanese businessman watching a video of a swearing elf covering herself with chocolate. Ray’s exhibit is all about how a space can be infused with the personal, less a haunting than a habitation. Reading the accompanying plaque and sitting within the wooden shelter, it becomes clear that transplanting a small building within a gallery is not an act of eccentricity but a necessity. There are two stories playing in projection inside. I watched the one about the Swedish woman relating her still vivid memories from childhood of her family’s sauna. The work, according to the wall signage, was inspired by the artist’s intention to erect a shelter at his mother’s home in response to her “battle with cancer caused by the toxicity of her home.” The effectiveness of the finished work for me is its ability to capture experience through the tactile and through the interaction of the visitor who “moves into” an environment suffused with personal emotions.

What at first glance look like row upon row of crayola crayons are actually replicas of M16 shells made from plastic.

Take a few steps back and the picture of George W. comes into focus. WARHEAD, 2008 by Moses Nornberg demonstrates that less is more, in every possible sense of the term.

S Patricia Patterson’s watercolor Curtain, 2008. The self assured expression of the eldest along with her relaxed posture contrasts so beautifully with the unreadable nothings radiating out from her siblings.

I can’t remember the last time I encountered works as daunting as Jina Valentine’s Consumption II(a), 2008 Marx vs. Foucault and Consumption II(b), 2008 Kaprow vs. Nietzche.

Tiny scrawled writing occupies every available inch of the twinned dry erase boards on display.

Try not to give in to the inevitable feeling of intense guilt at not reading every bit of it. Of course, once that starts, you begin to think: do I have to read the whole thing to be able to comment on it intelligently? Perhaps I can look at it conceptually, the fact that she is using a medium that screams impermanence or the fact that the labor involved in something that is ultimately perishable says something about the folly of creating “for the ages.” Perhaps if I throw in a bit of text, that’ll somehow give the illusion that I read it start to finish: “Contemporary art production is a multi-valent and self-perpetuating creation circuit. At the most fundamental level, art objects demand that we form words about them/ and the words formed about these objects inspire the creation of other art objects.” Oy vey. That’s only line one.

Even if it points out the limits of patience (i.e. laziness) of today’s viewer faced with a work painstakingly inscribed and displayed for viewing or even if it’s an elaborate joke masquerading as message, I liked it if nothing else because its impenetrability is linked directly to your input.

While it would be overreaching to read into the works collected as indicative of some kind of impending trend, I found it heartening that so many of them seem to place so much of an emphasis on narrative. The replacement of the impersonal dollar with the personal story and subjective determinations of heroism, the word cloud of Annie Vought, the posture of a charred paper plane as the limp body of a dead swan, a tiny shack with memories on playback, indeed all the works mentioned here have a desperation to them, the need to explain, to relate. Damien Hirst’s works are zipping through the auctions right now, but so are many works by Chinese artists, where themes of history and memory collide. In the face of globalization, the leavening of the subjective in lieu of the official, the brand, the franchise, these are anxious attempts to speak us back into existence.

The Shy Quiet Type

Clicking on your Fonts drop down menu in Word or Excel will give you a little preview of the back stories to be found in the documentary Helvetica. We get a look at the origins not just of the title typeface but background on such favorites as Georgia, Gotham, Verdana, even the seldom used but always good for a laugh Zapf Dingbats.

The producers use the staple documentary approach of giving the story an emotional arch, but they go further in practically presenting Helvetica as a persona. We begin the film with testimonials celebrating the appearance of this clean cut individual who breathed fresh air into layouts. Eventually voices of dissent start to trickle in and the resistance moves into action. It reminded me surprisingly of the progression of Errol Morris’ film Mr. Death and less surprisingly of the “but they were headed for a fall” style of VH1’s Behind the Music.

Just as art movements react to their forebears before becoming the establishment to be toppled in their turn, typographers eventually began to read all kinds of nasty associations into Helvetica, the ubiquitous type of commerce and municipal signage. What is interesting is that so much of the film is taken up by typographers describing all the meanings that are inherent in the design of the letters, frozen signals that radiate calm, casual friendliness. They stress the ways that meaning can be embedded in the design itself that sends a particular message regardless of its eventual use.

Yet it’s clear that they often become victims of their own creations, that the font begins to be absorbed into its context and like a phosphorescent species of flora digesting chemicals in its environment to produce light, emits suggestions based on its associations rather than its design. Interestingly, the typographers reaction to the font varies largely based on when they encountered it. It’s as if all of us carry along with us understandings embedded in a specific time frame that we carry along with us through our lives.

The film also tries to emphasize the ubiquity of Helvetica and certainly after watching this film your eyes will tend to gravitate toward city and commercial signage more than you are probably accustomed to doing. I spent the following week pointedly examining all of the store fronts on my morning bus ride and if anything I was surprised at how little of it was Helvetica. San Francisco still hearts the serif. The observation that it is a particularly “urban” typeface seems to be pretty well borne out however. I saw it most often present in big brand name advertising, street signs and public transit lettering.

Having taken more than a few Roman Archaeology classes in college, I’m surprised to discover that there is very little familial relationship between Helvetica and Latin inscriptions. My imperfect judgment and memory considered that engraving would necessitate the most unadorned of font styles. Chisels be damned, the Romans preferred the serif!

Revolutions in type, like revolutions in art tend to follow the American model. They do not so much overturn as they do supplant. There is always the chance that someone will come along to view them with a fresh eye, to restore the figurative in the face of the proliferation of abstract expressionism for example, to make the old seem new again.

Walk Softly and Carry a Tune

If your reaction to the Friday night presidential debate was lukewarm, do yourself a favor and check out Please Vote For Me. Running just under an hour, the documentary nevertheless makes the most of its slim running time as it recounts the battle for the democratically elected position of Class Monitor at a primary school in Wuhan China.

Things get ugly quick as Cheng Cheng convinces one of his classmates to heckle Xu Xiaofei’s talent show presentation, leaving her in tears. Cheng Cheng is a fascinating kid to watch, a smooth operator who seems born for politics. He’s constantly pulling one of his classmates aside, putting a comradely arm around their shoulder and then setting to work, cajoling them to change their vote, offering them positions in his new regime or spreading rumors that an opponent is dropping out of the race. When the cameraman asks one of the students who they plan to vote for, Cheng Cheng pulls him aside and tells him to ask again when he’s not around, lest his presence influence their declaration. Although all three of the children are coached heavily by their parents, they seem to have a canny sense of how to play the game. After their teacher Mrs. Zhang berates the kids for joining in on the interruption of Xu Xiaofei’s music recital, Cheng Cheng shows up to apologize. Not for himself of course, but on behalf of the other candidate Luo Lei.

The debates are a highlight, especially because they are carried on in a manner that seems utterly fantastic to those we’re used to. The candidates point out a weakness in their fellow student, and then the latter actually responds directly to that accusation!

Cheng Cheng: You lack confidence. You cried during the talent show. How can you control the class when you’re so delicate?

Xu Xiaofei: I didn’t cry when I was supervising the class. I don’t cry that much anymore, since Third Grade.

In a wonderful piece of rhetoric, Cheng Cheng accuses Xu Xiaofei of eating too slow, the result of which will be an unmonitored class. “I didn’t get that,” she admits with a laugh.

It’s these little bits of jarring familiarity, national elections in miniature, that make this film such a gem (remember when Hilary Clinton took so much heat for shedding a few tears?). As the kids dance around the room as the results are tabulated, one of the losing candidates mutters under his breath that they’ll come to regret their decision soon enough when their sporting event-like reaction subsides. This is a small film whose clever choice of subject matter really resonates.


Many people forget that the final screen appearance of the late Heath Ledger will not be The Dark Knight but rather Terry Gilliam’s upcoming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Faced with the loss of his lead actor and the prospect of a lengthy and expensive reshoot, Gilliam creatively opted to preserve Ledger’s scenes but work in performances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell who take on the same role each time the main character steps through a magic mirror.

It’s the kind of clever improvisation that you would expect from a director who has met adversity so many times in the course of his career and still kept his integrity. But there was one outing where Gilliam had seemingly met his match. Brilliantly related in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, the director’s attempt to film a script inspired by Cervante’s novel Don Quixote met with disasters that came so thick, fast and varied that it seemed as if judgement of Biblical proportions had been levied on the production. The initial fighter jet flybys that disrupt location filming are followed by flash floods, actor no-shows and actor injuries, money troubles and unusable sound stages. You find yourself in awe of the persistence of bedevilment and eventually rooting for what, in the back of your mind, you realize is a lost cause.

But perhaps even Acts of God cannot stop Terry Gilliam. The Independent released an article last week with a triumphant Gilliam announcing that he has reclaimed legal ownership of script and even better, is set to roll as soon as Johnny Depp’s schedule allows. I can only hope that the eventual DVD is chock full of goodies from the original production and that the extremely likeable gentlemen he cast as giants in his first attempt finally get their moment to shine.

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