Archive for the Category Culture/arts


Films of 2017

Let’s hope my life finally hit rock bottom in 2017. (At age 62, fat chance!) I’m looking forward to wrapping up my two book projects by mid-2018, and then starting to actually live again.  Reading books, buying CDs, figuring out how to watch films on the internet.  (BTW, is Netflix as awful as it looks, or am I missing something?  Their selection of good films seems virtually nil.  Where are the good films on the internet?)

Ross Douthat is a brilliant essayist who has a blind spot when it comes to sex.  His newest piece is titled:

Let’s Ban Porn

I’m trying to visualize how this would be implemented.  Perhaps Jeff Sessions will sit in a room all day, screening X-rated art films from France, Italy and Japan, trying to determine whether they are pornographic.  (I say yes, but in a good way.)  What would Jeffrey make of In the Realm of the Senses? There’s an amusing Atom Egoyan film that gets at the internal contradictions of censorship.  If watching porn really does turn us into bad people, as Douthat seems to think, then under his proposed regime the actual censorship decisions will be made by moral degenerates.

Despite the fact that the proposal is silly on many levels, it would not surprise me at all if Douthat wins in the long run.  The US is going downhill in so many different ways—why should this be any different?  [I’m striking a blow against the New Puritanism by topping my list with a film I was not allowed to see.  I liked the previews, and was really looking forward to it.]

In fairness to Douthat, I do see one silver lining in his proposal.  There was a time, way back in the 1960s, when lots of Americans did go to see foreign films.  Especially foreign art films.  That brief golden age occurred at the point in time when we’d liberalized enough to allow in “erotic” Swedish and France films, but not so much as to allow “porn” (Which I define as erotic art films for the working class. Yes, there’s a lot of class snobbery in the new puritanism.)  Once Americans were given access to their own home grown porn in the 1970s, they stopped going to see films by Godard, Bergman and Antonioni.  Wouldn’t it be funny if Douthat got his way, and Americans were once again forced to watch long boring art films, just to catch a glimpse of skin!

2017 Films

I Love You, Daddy.  (US)  4.0  I’m hoping this will be what Woody Allen films should be, but aren’t.  Something a bit more Kubrick-like.

Stalker (Russia, 1979) 4.0 Not just my favorite Tarkovsky, my all-time favorite European film. Geoff Dyer said it best:

it’s not enough to say that Stalker is a great film – it is the reason cinema was invented.

Twin Peaks Part II (US) 3.9 Not as good as part one, but then that was the best TV show of all time. Reminds me of “In the Mood For Love” in the way the director used the posture of actresses in a very evocative way. Check out the scene where Lynch and the two FBI women are out on the porch having a cigarette. Nothing is said for about 2 minutes, and it plays no role in the plot. But it’s stupendous filmmaking—an example of what makes cinema magical. And let’s not even talk about Naomi Watts, who is brilliant throughout the series.

I searched online and found someone else who liked the scene on the porch as much as I did:

The series is also a critique of the anti-cigarette hysteria on the rise in America.

Thelma (Norway) 3.7 A very enjoyable Norwegian film, very skillfully directed. Doesn’t break any new ground, but I was engrossed throughout the entire 2 hours.

After the Storm (Japan) 3.7 Another gem from Kore-eda, my favorite living Japanese director. This one is probably worth seeing twice, as there’s a lot going on right below the surface.

Sweet Bean (Japan, 2015) 3.6 Directed by Naomi Kawase, another great Japanese director that I had somehow overlooked. Reminds me a little bit of the style of Kore-eda. A beautiful understated film; the polar opposite of what gets produced in Hollywood these days. Now I need to find her earlier films.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (US) 3.6 The best Star Wars film since the first two. They finally found a director who is more than just a corporate clone. It still fell short of what it might have been—Mark Hamill is not a good actor and the depictions of alien planets continue to be quite unimaginative.

Intimacies (Japan, 2012) 3.6 A nearly 4½ hour film by the director of Happy Hour. The first half shows people putting together a theatrical production and is pretty slow going. After intermission we see the play itself, which becomes increasingly engrossing. I have no interest in theatre, but I enjoy seeing filmed plays. This is a director to watch.

Full Metal Jacket (US, 1989) 3.6 This uneven Kubrick film is saved by the intense final battle.

The Square (Swedish) 3.6 A film that is full of ideas, and lots of sharp observation, although it doesn’t have the sustained artistic vision of something by Lars von Trier, Kubrick, Haneke, etc. It’s a tweener, but a pretty engrossing 2 ½ hours. In its defense, the satire of the art world and liberalism more broadly is not always as obvious as it might seem. Strongly recommended for people who (unlike me) like their cinema mixed with social commentary.

Brimstone and Glory (Mexican) 3.6 Documentary about a small town in Mexico that puts on a stupendous fireworks festival each year. Imagine the running of the bulls in Spain, except at night with dazzling fireworks.   Soon after the film was completed, many people in this town died in a fireworks accident.

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (Korea) 3.5 A charming Korean crowd pleaser, which I found myself enjoying more than I expected. The director (Tae-hwa Eom) is someone to watch.

Columbus (US) 3.5 I’m tempted to say that this film is not for people who have short attention spans. But then maybe it’s not about attention spans at all, but rather a question of interest—more specifically it’s for people with an interest in architecture. (The character I stole this line from was the most interesting person in the film, but he only had a small role.)

Blade Runner 2049 (US) 3.5 This is an outstanding film in many ways, especially the visual effects. So why do I rate it slightly below the original? I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s just a question of originality—the first one had a fresh (and sublime) vision, and this one just recycled that vision. Originality seems especially important in sci-fi. Or perhaps it tried to do too much. The last half hour dragged on, and seemed somewhat pointless.

Lolita (US, 1962) 3.5 This uneven Kubrick film is saved by Peter Seller’s inspired performance. (A warm-up for Strangelove.)   It’s probably unfair to compare the film to the book. Kubrick and Nabokov are very different artists, and hence the film should not be anything like the book. And it isn’t.

David Lynch: The Art Life (US) 3.5 A very interesting documentary about David Lynch. He did not direct the film, but there are moments when it feels like he did. Lots of glimpses of his graphic art.

Blade of the Immortal (Japan) 3.4 The 100th film by Takashi Miike. I’ve only seen two, which leaves 98 to go. Not my favorite genre (lots of blood) but it’s nice to see a real craftsman at work.

Youth (China) 3.3 The sort of film Spielberg would make if he had been born in China. Tries to do too much, but it’s fairly engrossing.  If I were Chinese I’d rate this lower–too emotionally manipulative.

March of Fools (Korea, 1975) 3.2 Interesting coming of age film from a director I had not seen before.

La La Land (US) 3.0 With all the talent in Hollywood, do they really have to rely on so many clichés? Her dream is living in Paris? Even Chinese directors use Prague.

Your Name (Japan) 3.0 This animated feature was a smash hit in Japan. It’s good, but I found it to be somewhat derivative.

The Swindlers (Korea) 2.9 This entertaining film is full of twists and double crosses, but in the end it didn’t make much sense (at least to me.)

Woman of Fire (Korea, 1971) 2.8 At times it’s one of those campy “so bad it’s good” films, at other times it’s somewhat engrossing. And sometimes it’s just bad. Might be of some interest to Tarantino fans.

Baby Driver (US) 2.8 Mildly entertaining, but also rather silly. I would have given it 3.0 rating if the film had ended with Dave Edmunds’ 1970s pop classic “Deborah” playing over the credits. (The two stars kept trying to think of a great pop song with “Deborah” in the title.)

Dreams That Money Can Buy (US, 1947) 2.5 Not very good, but interesting in what it tells us about progress in the cinema. While certain types of films (comedy, drama, noir, etc.) have made almost no progress since the 1940s, visionary film-making improved dramatically between 1947 and 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out (not to mention Tarkovsky). Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Dreams That Money Can Buy is a 1947 experimental feature color film written, produced, and directed by surrealist artist and dada film-theorist Hans Richter.

The film was produced by Kenneth Macpherson and Peggy Guggenheim.

Collaborators included Max ErnstMarcel DuchampMan RayAlexander CalderDarius Milhaud and Fernand Léger. The film won the Award for the Best Original Contribution to the Progress of Cinematography at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

Saint Terrorist (Japan, 1980) 2.2 Nihilistic punk filmmaking from Japan. Not my cup of tea.

Ideologies follow the tribe

Here we have conservatives defending a guy who molests teens:

A group of 53 Alabama pastors signed onto a letter pledging their support for alleged child molester and Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Update:  The Newsweek story may be fake news, as elsewhere it’s reported the letter was from months ago.

And here we have a conservative at the National Review who is uneasy with left wing attempts to censor art:

HBO is at this moment streaming Hacksaw Ridge, a film by Mel Gibson, who in 2011 pleaded no contest to a charge of battery against an ex-girlfriend who had alleged that he had assaulted her so viciously that she was left with a black eye and two broken teeth. HBO has no policy, as far as I know, against distributing movies starring Christian Slater, who once served 59 days in jail after pleading no contest to assaulting a girlfriend. The films of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roman Polanski remain ubiquitous. Hollywood history is rife with personalities who have done much worse things than C.K. and whose films have not been subsequently suppressed.

So what’s going on?  Weren’t conservative pastors supposed to be the sort of people who condemn this type of behavior?  And isn’t it people on the left who used to strongly defend artists from censorship?  (Corporate or government)

Here’s one possibility.  Conservatism is moving away from religion and toward the cult of the strong.  Conservatives take increasingly pleasure in mocking the left as a bunch of sensitive snowflakes.  Sexual harassment is seen as a “feminist” issue.  Conservatives are increasing drawn to “alpha male” leaders, even if they have a history of abusing women.  When I was younger, that sort of man (Kennedy, Clinton, etc.) was usually thought more likely to be a Democrat.  Republicans were seen as nerdy types.  Now a major GOP presidential candidate brags about the size of his . . . er . . .  “hands” during a debate, and a Senate GOP candidate brandishes guns at campaign rallies.  A House candidates assaults a reporter, and is still elected.

On the left it’s a different set of issues.  The left once liked intellectual types who were unconventional, and didn’t want to live according to boring suburban morality.  Now people like Woody Allen and Louis CK are reframed as powerful white men who take advantage of less powerful women.  It’s a point I make repeatedly—there are no fixed definitions of left and right; ideologies evolve over time, and will continue do so in the future.  Who knows, maybe liberals will once again embrace eugenics.

You might say that the 53 pastors are not representative of conservatism, and the liberals who want to ban films are not representative of the left.  Maybe so.  But I recall just a few years ago hearing about a fuss over Halloween costumes at Yale, and thinking it one of the most bizarre stories I had ever read.  Now (just a few years later) hysteria about “cultural appropriation” is widespread on the left, and indeed is being taught in public schools all across the country.

Never assume that just because something seems outlandish it won’t eventually become conventional wisdom.  And history shows that it’s the outlandish ideas on the left that are most likely to persist.  The right generally loses these cultural battles, at least in the long run.  Which ought to cause some soul searching on the right.

Why don’t you like modern art?

I’ve done a couple of posts on modern art over at Econlog, so I thought I’d try to avoid wearing out my welcome by doing the third over here.  It seems to me that people in the comment section object to modern art for two reasons; it’s ugly and it’s difficult.  Actually, lots of modern art is not ugly, but they especially don’t like the ugly stuff.

I tried to defend modern art, although even I don’t like most of it.  Recall that all art was once modern art, and most of the art from any period has not stood the test of time.  Museums are full of mediocre baroque history paintings and bland 18th century portraits.  Heck, former President Bush’s recent portraits of soldiers are better than half the portraits of colonial aristocrats you see in American museums.  And Bush’s work is somewhat “modern“. (Is Bush also a pretentious cosmopolitan phony?)

I’m going to try to get you to avoid being turned off by ugly and difficult.  Let’s start with two paintings that I regard as somewhat ugly.  Here’s Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas”:

Almost everyone, regardless of their views on modern art, would regard Titian as one of the all-time greatest painters.  And this painting, showing someone being skinned alive, is one of his very best works.  But I don’t think anyone would say it’s a pretty picture.

Nor is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon:

Also note that Picasso’s painting is an example of the “ugly” modern art that people dislike, whereas Titian’s is an “old master”.  The average philistine may not want the Titian hanging in their bedroom (and even I’d prefer one of his nudes), but they’d show a grudging respect.  But if you are going to reject works that are ugly, why is the Titian not equally objectionable as the Picasso?

OK, so let’s say that great works of art can be ugly, and move on to “difficult”.  The Picasso is in some ways more difficult than the Titian, and that difficulty is in part do to stylistic innovations that can be traced back to Cezanne.  Here’s a picture I took of a Cezanne that hangs over the fireplace in my bedroom), which is anything but “ugly”:

On the other hand, this picture by Thomas Kinkade is even prettier:

So why do I have a Cezanne in my bedroom, and not a Kinkade?  Let’s use an analogy from music, which most people understand better than painting (I’m the reverse.)  The Kinkade is like that catchy by annoyingly manipulative and sentimental pop song that you can’t get out of your head, perhaps sung by Celine Dion.  The Cezanne is like a tune by Radiohead, which seems difficult to follow, but grows with repeated listening.

Here’s the problem. Most people walk into a modern art museum, spend 10 seconds looking at each work (or even less) and then never again revisit these paintings. They think that a painting can be grasped in a quick glance, whereas music requires sustain concentration, but this is an illusion.

You may say that you “like” the Cezanne but don’t “like” abstract art like this Kandinsky:

Actually, if you don’t like abstract art then it’s very unlikely that you truly appreciate what makes the Cezanne so much greater than the Kinkade.  Indeed you probably don’t fully appreciate even old masters like Titian.  Don’t feel bad, I find even the greatest works of classical music, say the Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, to be exceedingly difficult.  You can almost certainly appreciate them better than I can.  But my failure to fully appreciate these masterpieces doesn’t in any way make me think that those who do are simply being pretentious.

I’m not saying you should try to appreciate modern art.  Rather I’m saying you should try to appreciate people who appreciate modern art.

PS.  Technological progress in art reproduction has been impressive.  The Cezanne might sell for $200 million at auction, and I bought a very good reproduction and had it shipped from the UK for a little over $200 (half of which was shipping). I feel like a billionaire!  It uses giclee printing to achieve pretty good color fidelity, and is printed on canvas and then put in a tasteful and simple black wood frame.  (My photo doesn’t do justice to the reproduction’s quality.) When I was younger the available paper reproductions of paintings were so bad that it was pointless to put that sort of print on your wall.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Here’s Brendan O’Neill of the National Review:

Not content with harassing white people who wear their hair in cornrows and branding as “cultural appropriation” everything from college cafés serving sushi to Beyoncé donning a sari, now the new racial purists are coming for film director Kathryn Bigelow. Her crime? She’s a white woman. More specifically, she’s a white woman who dared to tell the story of the 1967 Detroit riots in her latest movie. It’s wrong for whites to tell black stories, apparently, because they can never truly understand those stories. It’s a profoundly philistine argument that exposes the misanthropy of the racial thinking that passes for radical commentary these days.

He’s right, but I think even he concedes too much:

A Variety cover story asked: “How could Bigelow — a white woman raised just outside San Francisco by middle-class parents and educated at Columbia University — understand and illuminate [this] kind of raw experience?” This movie speaks to “the problem with watching black pain through a white lens,” said a writer for the Huffington Post, as if Bigelow were reducible to her whiteness; as if she turned up to work on Detroit every morning thinking and behaving as a white woman, a racial creature, rather than as a storyteller. This is a “white filmmaker [using] the spectacle of black pain as an educational tool,” says the HuffPost, which is bizarre, since Detroit doesn’t feel educational at all: It invites both emotional and intellectual responses, but it never once feels like a lecture.

At Slate, Dana Stevens argues that film directors — and surely by extension, all artists — cannot escape their origins when telling stories: “The people behind the camera . . . will create a different film from a different perspective depending on the lives they’ve led and the bodies they inhabit.” Bodies — here we get to the ironically dehumanizing element of PC racial thinking, where people are mere skin, driven, sometimes without realizing it, by their bodies, their biology. “The fact of the filmmakers’ whiteness can’t help but inflect their depiction [of racial history],” says Stevens. Can’t help. This resuscitates the very fatalism that lay at the heart of older varieties of racial thinking — namely, that we are prisoners of race, that our racial origins shape how we view and act in the world.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a black or a woman, but I also have no idea what it’s like to be a white male—or more specifically a white male other than myself. For instance, I can’t even imagine what’s it’s like to be Donald Trump.  I have no idea what thoughts go through his mind.  I have no idea what aspects of my inner consciousness are general “white male experiences” and which aspects are specifically “Scott Sumner experiences”.

The key mistake of these philistines is to assume that a work of art is in some sense “about” the characters being depicted. In my view it makes no sense to talk about a work of art being about anything.  But if one insists, then I’d rather say it’s about the artist.  Consider these two paintings, both widely viewed as supreme masterpieces of the art form:

The smarter people who worry about cultural appropriation would say that Velasquez should not have done this painting, as he can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a black man.  The dumber people who worry about cultural appropriation would say the painting is OK, because unlike film, painting is not about the inner lives of its characters.

In fact, this painting is not a black man.  If anything, it is a Velasquez.

Similarly, the smarter foes of cultural appropriation would say that Velasquez has no idea what it’s like to be a woman:

People on the left sneer at the lack of cultural sophistication of many Trump supporters.  Then they concoct an ideology that looks at art with all the sophistication of a 8-year old. They would look at Magritte’s famous painting and not get the joke.

PS.  Maybe I was being too solipsistic in my previous remarks.  But if we can imagine what it’s like to be another person, I’d be far more comfortable putting myself in the mind of a (black) writer like Teju Cole, than I would trying to imagine being Donald Trump.  At least with Cole I find his expressed thoughts to be intelligible. I often feel the same way. Indeed compared to Trump, even Barack Obama has a sensibility closer to my own perspective on the world.

The Canadian Taliban

Here’s the New York Times:

The controversy began when Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Canadian Writers’ Union, penned an editorial defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds. Within days, a social media backlash forced him to resign. The Writers’ Union issued an apology for an article that its Equity Task Force claimed “re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions” held about art.

Another editor, Jonathan Kay, of The Walrus magazine, was also compelled to step down after tweeting his support for Mr. Niedzviecki. Meanwhile, the broadcaster CBC moved Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of its flagship news program The National, to a different post, similarly for an “unacceptable tweet” about the controversy.

It’s not just editors who have to tread carefully. Last year, the novelist Lionel Shriver generated a worldwide storm after defending cultural appropriation in an address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Ms. Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.

Other works of art have been destroyed. The sculptor Sam Durant’s piece “Scaffold,” honoring 38 Native Americans executed in 1862 in Minneapolis, was recently being assembled in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. But after protests from indigenous activists that Mr. Durant was appropriating their history, the artist dismantled his own work, and made its wood available to be burned in a Dakota Sioux ceremony.

I wonder if this is just a sign of old age.  If I were to graph the fraction of the articles I read each day that seem indistinguishable from an Onion parody, it would have risen from under 1% in 2000 to perhaps 5% today.  At this rate what will things look like in 20 years?  Is anyone else seeing an increase?

The Nazis burned books and paintings and the Red Guard destroyed monasteries. The Taliban destroyed a couple big statues in Afghanistan:

ISIS is destroying architectural sites all over the Muslim world.  But the Canadians? Perhaps Trump needs to redirect our drone strikes away from Yemen and towards Toronto.

I consider libertarianism a sort on inoculation against this madness. Throughout history, these bouts of insanity have infected both the left and right, at various times.  But if you start with the principle that everyone should be free to produce whatever sort of art they like, and if you don’t like it then don’t buy it, then you are less likely to buy into this sort of craziness.

PS.  I would not have even done this post if the story was not in a respectable outlet like the NYT.  I am well aware that the internet is full of reports of outrages, which on close inspection are actually less outrageous than they appear.  But I have to assume the editors of the Times checked the facts, and these events actually occurred.  Am I wrong?  Is this fake news?

PPS.  In all of human history, has anyone ever produced a work of art that does not involve cultural appropriation?  Just asking.