Monday, May 27, 2019

What Makes a Movie Artsy?

What Makes a Movie Artsy? A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding What Separates "Blue Velvet" from "Blue Crush"

What Makes a Movie Artsy? A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding What Separates "Blue Velvet" from "Blue Crush"
Still from The Tree of Life. Image via Youtube.
If you were shocked when MoMA added Harmony Korine’s feature film Spring Breakers (2013) to its permanent collection because you felt like the fleshy thriller was nothing more than James Franco waving a gun around, you’re not alone. While some hailed the film’s social commentary “genius,” many couldn’t figure out what Spring Breakers was trying to say—evident in the polarized Metacritic reviews.  
Still from Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2013). Image via Vulture. 
What makes a film, for lack of a better term, "artsy" isn't easily defined. Somewhere on a spectrum between blockbuster action flicks on one end and Nam June Paik video art installations on the other, "artsy" films are typically independently produced, premiered and judged in festivals like Cannes or Sundance, and screened in select art house theaters. Because independent (or "indie") films typically entertain a niche audience, their producers can assume they won't be the cash cows that Hollywood-produced mainstream movies are. Instead, operating on shoe-string budgets, indie films often tap emerging talent rather than expensive big-name celebs, avoid CGI and special effects, and keep set locations to a minimum. Indie films rely on captivating their audiences through their "artsy" storytelling techniques. But what are those techniques, you ask? Here are a few:

Narrative Structure
Conventional films generally have a straightforward, cause-and-effect style plots that follow a standard formula: a set-up that sets the stage and introduces the lead, an opportunity for the main character that motivates them to take a certain course of action, a conflict or complication that poses a problem and raises the stakes, the climax wherein the character realizes her goal, and the final aftermath that reinforces a feeling of satisfaction and completion.
Conversely, artsy or experimental films typically go out of their way to break the formula to create more unexpected narratives. These narratives are not always linear (think Christopher Nolan's Memento), or they may follow multiple storylines and characters simultaneously. For example, Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa—who’s revered as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema—won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for his debut film Rashomon (1950) that examined the nature of truth and justice through telling a story from multiple perspectives. This film created a groundbreaking narrative device now known as “The Rashomon Effect,” which many films continue to implement. (Fun fact: Kurosawa was actually a painter before entering the film industry, and he storyboarded his films as full-scale paintings.) A more contemporary example of a non-linear film is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (2011), which one the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Staring Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain, the story is told via flashbacks, punctuated by long scenes devoid of any and all characters or plot developments.
Akira Kurosawa. Image via 

Cinematography, or the art of motion-picture photography, is one of the most powerful elements in movie making. Great cinematography doesn’t necessarily record reality as is. Instead, it visually interprets the scene to help communicate mood. Camera angles, movement, composition, lighting, and color are all aspects of cinematography that work together to create a cohesive look and feel.
While conventional films are now typically shot via digital video due to it's relative low cost compared to film, some indie films splurge on using real film, which can pick up a broader spectrum of light than video, meaning colors are richer and scenes with large contrasts in lighting can be quite detailed. For the 2018 film Suspiria, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom used 35mm film stock and a Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 camera without correction filters. Basically, in laymen's terms, this means that the resulting film felt like a '70s film, further emphasized by Mukdeeprom's use of slow zooms (typical of the time period), and dark, gray, "winterish" color pallets. The result is an atmosphere that is eerie, chilling, and unsettling—exactly what the filmmakers wanted given the film is a supernatural horror piece set in Berlin on the verge of a civil war in 1977.  
Still from Suspiria (2018). Image via Bloody Disgusting.

Film editing happens post-production, meaning after the movie has been filmed. The editor is responsible for the pacing of the film, and combines the visuals, dialogue, and soundtrack into a cohesive piece. It's often said that "good" editing is editing that you don't notice; in other words, it's seamless and doesn't distract the viewer from the world it's building on screen. On the other hand, experimenting with how a film is cut can be used to intentionally draw the viewer's attention to how the film is made. The 1959 film Breathless, by French New Wave godfather Jean-Luc Godard, is cited in film theory 101 classes across the globe as an innovator in editing. The use of jump cuts, wherein two sequential shots of the same subject are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly if at all, intentionally induce a feeling of unease or discomfort within the viewer, who is forced to acknowledge the cinematic devices used to manipulate her. (Read up on Godard here.)

Another key category in film is sound mixing and editing. Most of the sounds you hear in a film are created in a studio by technicians. The 2018 film A Quiet Place heightened tension throughout the movie by creating an almost completely silent film where any slight noise was detrimental to the cast. Films can also create artistic juxtaposition through sound that can become iconic—like in Apocalypse Now (1979) when Richard Wagner's classical song "Ride of the Valkyries" blasts in the background during a war-torn scene.  

While many art films possess the above qualities, there ultimately isn’t a clear-cut checklist to distinguish what makes a film a true work of art, because at the end of the day, art is subjective and its definition is ever changing. When Andy Warhol’s film Blue Movie (1969) was initially released, the audience reception was highly controversial. The movie was the first widely released film to explicitly depict sexual intercourse, and many labeled the film pornography. The staff of the New Andy Warhol Garrick Theatre was even arrested for showing the film in 1969. Today, the film elicits an extremely different reaction, and in 2016 Blue Movie was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a space that culturally confirms the film's artistic standing. Evidently, art films are not highbrow works entirely removed from popular culture, and blurring the line between “high” and “low” culture was something that Warhol was far too good at.    
Also like art, many of the themes and movements in film overlap with art history. Movies can be abstract, postmodern, camp, realist, surrealist and more. The surrealist master Salvador Dalí even made movies. He co-directed the 1929 silent surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou and later wrote the surrealist film L’Age d’Or (1930). Other notable film movements that defined cinema include French Impressionism (1918–1930), German Expressionism (1919–1926), Italian Neorealism (1942–1951), and British New Wave (late 1950s – late 1960s).
Still from Andy Warhol's Blue Movie (1968). Image via 
Sometimes movies that bomb at first, actually become cult classics years later, and eventually garner art status. In his 2013 article entitled "Should Gloriously Terrible Movies Like The Room Be Considered 'Outsider Art'?" The Atlantic’s Adam Rosen argues that the 2003 American drama The Room, which is written, directed, produced by and stars Tommy Wiseau—and is often hailed the worst movie ever made—is in fact outsider art. Rosen writes, "The label [of outsider art] has traditionally applied to painters and sculptors... but it's hard to see why it couldn't also refer to Wiseau or any other thwarted, un-self-aware filmmaker." Since the definition of art is messy, and something not everyone agrees on, perhaps the greatest rule to remember is to keep an open mind and never entirely dismiss a movie as inartistic.

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Eduardo Souto De Moura | 2019 Architecture Awards


American Academy of Arts and Letters announces 2019 Architecture Awards

Paula Rego Museum designed by Eduardo Souto De Moura (Marco Verch/Via Flickr)
Last night the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded its 2019 Architecture Awards to five teams and people. Selected by jurors Annabelle Selldorf (chair), Henry N. Cobb, Kenneth Frampton, Steven Holl, Thom Mayne, Laurie Olin, James Polshek, Billie Tsien, and Tod Williams from 33 nominees, four winners will receive a $10,000 award from the Academy, and Eduardo Souto De Moura will receive $20,000 for the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize. The winners are:
The director of Sci-Arc and principal of Xefirotarch, Alonso was recognized by juror Thom Mayne as occupying “a pivotal position from which to influence the future of architecture,” through his educational involvement. Mayne also praised Alonso’s combination of animation, architecture, and design that results in “a dark and aesthetic edge.” His proposal for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Patagonia received the AR+D Award for Emerging Architecture and a Progressive Architecture Award in 2013, and he has also worked on product design, collaborating with Alessi and others.
Mario Gooden and Mabel O. Wilson
Co-directors of the Global Africa Lab at Columbia University, the duo has focused on the history and complicated politics of placemaking through their work and writings. Juror Billie Tsien said that the work of the Lab “reminds us that architecture and design can and should be a participant in the struggle for a just world.” Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity and Begin With the Past were published by Gooden and Wilson, respectively, in 2016, exploring the intersections of African American identity and architecture, and the history and complexities that surround the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The principals of the firm Höweler + Yoon have created “some of the most formally innovative and beautifully crafted work today,” according to juror Tod Williams. Shadow Play, a pedestrian-focused public space project, and the Collier Memorial both received an American Architecture Prize in 2016, with Shadow Play tacking on a 2018 AIA Small Project Award as well. Williams called the memorial “a tour de force, integrating innovative structure, form, and meaning.”
Anne Rieselbach
The program director for the Architectural League of New York has “dedicated her life to architecture,” as said by juror Steven Holl. Rieselbach encourages engagement and architectural discourse through the Current Work lecture series and has overseen the Emerging Voices program for over three decades. “She has continuously advocated for the exploration of new ideas in urban design and architecture,” Holl said.
The recipient of the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, de Moura will receive $20,000 as the architect honored for advancing the practice of architecture as an art. Juror Annabelle Selldorf cited the “distinct sense of materiality” inherent in his works, like the Paula Rego museum in Portugal and his 2005 Serpentine Gallery, designed in partnership with Alvaro Siza. His architecture “feels inevitable,” said Annabelle Selldorf, and has “a timeless and profoundly humanist quality.”

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Landmark Conference on Collecting Land Art

‘We Shouldn’t Own These Things’: 5 Takeaways From a Landmark Conference on Collecting Land Art

The event at the Frick Collection in New York was full of revelations.
Michael Heizer Levitated Mass (2012). Courtesy of Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.
Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass (2012). Courtesy of Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.
In the 1970s, Land artists like Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson had a vision: not only to create artworks at monumental public scales, but also to break free from the gallery-collector business model and what they deemed to be an overactive art market. They wanted to make artworks no one person could truly own.
And yet, throughout the history of Land art, there were financiers and supporters who funded their expensive and elaborate projects, including dealers like Virginia Dwan and collectors like Robert Scull. 
So how, exactly, did those relationships work? That was the topic of discussion at a one-day symposium organized by the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection in New York last week.
Participants at the conference, titled Collecting the ‘Uncollectible’: Earth and Site-Specific Sculpture,” included Dia Art Foundation director Jessica Morgan, artist Michelle Stuart, National Gallery of Art curator James Meyer, mega-collector and ex-Dia chairman Leonard Riggio, and his fellow collector and ex-NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, who offered the event’s choicest quote: “We shouldn’t own these things.”
Here are 5 takeaways from the event.
Jessica Morgan, director of the Dia Art Foundation, in conversation with collectors Jarl Mohn and Leonard Riggio at the Center for the History of Collecting's Land art symposium. Photo: George Koelle.
Jessica Morgan, director of the Dia Art Foundation, in conversation with collectors Jarl Mohn and Leonard Riggio at the Center for the History of Collecting’s Land art symposium. Photo: George Koelle.

What Is Now Coveted Was Once Unwanted

In his lively presentation, James Meyer (who curated the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971“) framed dealer and patron Virginia Dwan as a devoted supporter of avant-garde art—up to a point.
The 3M heiress had the first bi-coastal gallery (in Los Angeles from 1959–67 and in New York from 1965–71), and showed tons of now-blue-chip artists: Franz KlinePhilip GustonYves KleinRobert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.
But nothing sold, as Meyer pointed out, and the wealthy Dwan’s business became so unsustainable that she was forced to close the gallery in 1971.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Land Art Penetrated the Cultural Consciousness Even When It Was New

New Yorker cartoonist Warren Miller was hip to Land art and its patrons when it was still an avant-garde form, art historian Suzaan Boettger pointed out in her talk.
In 1972, Miller published a cartoon of a businessman in a suit, seated in a booth with a wary-looking woman, delivering a punch line that updated a familiar trope: “How’s about you and me flying out to Utah and taking a gander at some of the earthworks I’ve financed?”
In another cartoon, from 1979, Miller acknowledges the fraught state of collecting Land art, as an irate office worker points to a heap of soil piled up against a colleague’s wall and says, “You call this a mere bagatelle?”
Nancy Holt's <em>Sun Tunnels</em>, 1973-76, in the Great Basin Desert in Northwestern Utah, about four miles southwest of Lucin and nine miles east of the Nevada border. © Estate of Nancy Holt/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy the Estate of Nancy Holt.
Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) in the Great Basin Desert in Northwestern Utah. © Estate of Nancy Holt/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy the Estate of Nancy Holt.

By Nature, Land Art Is Vulnerable

Art vandalism goes back centuries—just visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur to see some ancient names scrawled by heedless visitors. But Land art, away from the watchful eyes of museum guards, is especially open to abuse, conservator Rosa Lowinger stressed.
Roy Lichtenstein’s public sculpture Mermaid, on the lawn of the Fillmore at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami, includes a pool of water in which homeless people are known to bathe. Meanwhile, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Dropped Bowl With Scattered Slices and Peels (also in Miami) is sometimes used as a skateboarding ramp.
And while you can fix some things, there are others you just have to live with.
People fire guns into Nancy Holt’s masterwork Sun Tunnels in the Utah desert, Lowinger said, pointing out that the traces cannot be removed because they are literally molten metal. 
Ethel Scull and Robert Scull. Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images.
Ethel Scull and Robert Scull. Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images.

Men Often Got Patronage From Collectors, but Women Had to Scramble for Grants

Then, even more so than now, women fought an uphill battle to get support to create anything near the scale of Smithson’s or Heizer’s projects, said Kelly Kivland, an associate curator at Dia. 
Michelle Stuart noted that even when she got Guggenheim, NEA, and state arts grants to support her work, the amounts were often measly. In the 1970s, she received just $2,000 from the Portland Center for the Visual Arts to create Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns (1979) in East Columbia Gorge, Oregon.
But when Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, needed support for Michael Heizer’s mammoth Levitated Mass, he went back to Jarl Mohn so many times, Mohn said, that when he finally wrote a check, it was on the condition that Govan not call him again for two years.
And sometimes, such requests created friction between collectors and artists.
Dia curator Alexis Lowry noted that collector Robert Scull underwrote projects by Heizer with the promise that the artist would give him a leather-bound book about his massive Nine Nevada Depressions. Scull gave the artist $17,000, but in the end, the artist found the book project so contrary to the spirit of his work that he took it back and destroyed it. 
James Turrell's Roden Crater (ongoing). ©2017 Skystone Foundation, © James Turrell.
James Turrell’s Roden Crater (ongoing). © 2017 Skystone Foundation. © James Turrell.

Jarl Mohn Has One Final Project on His Mind

Asked whether he had a dream project that he would support if money were no object, Mohn said he would install Marcia Hafif’s 1973 work An Extended Gray Scale (which consists of 106 22-inch-wide paintings) in a single row, not in a grid, as it has often been displayed.

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