Waste Land

Waste Land 01One man’s trash another man’s art?  One man’s human scum another man’s hero?

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz works with “natural materials” such as sugar and garbage.  He has been so successful that he has relocated his studio to New York, but in 2005, he decides it is time to give something back to the country where he grew up poor.  He picks as his subject the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, an island just outside Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of humans comb through the newly arrived trash.

At first, his main concern is for his own welfare.  Would it be safe to work there?

When he arrives at Jardim Gramacho, he is quite surprised that the pickers.turn out to be the perfect subjects for his art.  Far from being abject poor, struggling to live off of the garbage, they are honest workers collecting plastic and metal to recycle and earning $20 to $25 a day for their labor.  Most of them found their way there through unemployment.  Although it took a “while to get used to the smell,” most of them don’t even notice after a while and Muniz goes through the same process.

In fact, their occupation is not only honest, it provides decent livings for most of them in this impoverished land, and it contributes environmentally as well.  Followed by documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker, Vik spends a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know the catadores, choosing seven men and women to work with specifically as his subjects, including a man named Tiao who has organized the workers into an association.  As representative of the catadores, he lobbies the government to make sure that they are provided for and that laws enacted for the improvement of their neighborhoods are carried out.  A friend of his picks up books from the dump and they are collecting them to form a community library.

Waste Land 02Posing Tiao as Jean Paul Marat, in an abandoned bathtub found at the dump, Muniz shoots photographs, then he systematically goes through the catadores that he has selected and puts them in famous poses.  Hiring them away from the dump, he brings them a warehouse where their photos are projected from a height onto the floor.  The workers then select garbage and use it to create the picture over the projection.  Muniz then takes photographs of the picture made of garbage.

Flying Tiao to Berlin, he watches as the photograph is sold at auction for an astounding price and all of the money goes back to the association to help the catadores to expand their center, buy computers and begin teaching adults and children how to build a better life for themselves.  Sale of the art raises over $250,000 for the catadores.

The experience is transformative for all of the workers as they try to make better lives for themselves and their children.  The association expands into a major recycling player in Brazil.

Walker does a masterful job of assembling this film, creating a work that is in itself transformative.  What started out as a film about a socially conscious artist turns out to be about a people who learn, grow and make better lives for themselves.

This is a truly powerful film that accumulates emotional punch as it develops until by the end, the viewer is pulled deeply into the lives of the catadores.  Sometimes all it takes is one person who cares deeply about something to make the world a better place and in this regard both Vik Muniz and Lucy Walker elevate the world around them, using as their tools human beings, cast-offs from society, and their art.

To enjoy more, please visit Artsy’s Vik Muniz page: https://www.artsy.net/artist/vik-muniz.

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures Clive-Owen Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches writing at Croyden, a high end  preparatory school in Maine.  A professional writer himself, Jack is flirting with losing his job because of functional alcoholism and a lapse of productivity, having failed to publish in quite a few years.  In addition, the school literary magazine which he edits has gone downhill, producing flat, uninspired writing and nothing original from him.  His principal, Rashid (Navid Negahban), confers with head of the governing board, Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) about Jack’s conduct and they give him a warning that his status will be reviewed at the next meeting.

Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheThe new Honors Art teacher, well-known painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the aid of a cane, challenges her students to go beyond themselves to create better art.  Using the old phrase “a picture is worth a thousands words” she tells her students that words are cheap and useless, thus fueling the “war” between the two arts at the school and inspiring the students to achieve more.

Drinking heavily and fighting to keep his job, Jack tries to write something new and inspiring, but all he can create is insipid, so he steals a poem that his son wrote and publishes it in the literary magazine as his own.  It is so good that Dina uses it to inspire her students to make drawings and painting based on it.  Three students figure prominently in this battle of the arts: Emily (Valerie Tian) an Asian painter, Cole (Josh Ssettuba) an African-American graphic artist, and Swint (Adam DiMarco), a writer and would-be cartoonist.  Swint, a show-off has a crush on shy Emily and he begins to harass her, eventually going so far as to distribute an obscene cartoon of her throughout the school.  Jack has defended Swint, but when he discovers the cartoon in Swint’s sketchbook, he turns the boy in and Swint is expelled.

When Dina gives terrific testimony of Jack’s behalf at the board meeting, his job is saved.  He brings her flowers and they consummate their simmering love, but Jack gets up in the night, finds a bottle of vodka in her refrigerator and proceeds to get drunk.  He tells her about plagiarizing the poem from his son and then, losing his balance, he falls into Dina’s most important painting, smearing it.  She throws him out and Jack must begin to confront his own problems for the first time, facing his alcoholism and trying to redeem his own spirit.

Obviously, in a movie like this, the writing is paramount and I give extremely high marks to Gerald DiPego for his literate and organic script.  Director Fred Schepisi thought his words were important enough that he was kept on the set during the filming in order to make changes himself, rather than bringing in any other writers.  But even though writing is important, this film also stands or falls based on its art and Juliette Binoche, doing her own painting, brought a sense of legitimacy by creating terrific paintings and drawings all her own.

Of course, there is no real battle between art and literature.  They are two completely different and equally valid arts.  On the surface, they would appear to be complete opposites, but, as with all creation, the goal should be the same: to touch the human heart.  This movie does that, in part, due to the organic nature of the writing and the painting that fills it.  When I say that a work of art is organic, I mean that it grows naturally out of its components.  The story in Words and Pictures has more to do with Jack’s own frailty and his dependence on alcohol.  It is that dependence that brings his life into complete disarray, despite his other endearing qualities, and it is his control of that weakness that allows him to become a complete person again.  The same is true of Delsanto’s art.  Like, Jack, she has floundered for many years, not because of a lack of inspiration, but because her own degenerating body has had her full attention.  She needed something to wake her up and Jack’s challenge is what brings her back to life creatively.  Her art grows beyond her own injured body to become something beyond what she had been capable of.

Writing an organic script that is completely natural is not an easy process, but DiPego has created a real beauty here.

Clive Owen drives the film with his performance.  The center of the film, he is realistic in every way as an American teacher.  His control of the language, his phrasing, and his maniacal love of good writing is infectious and he seems to be a terrific teacher.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance as Delsanto, nuanced, layered, and impressive.

This film has a strange, emotional power that elevates in the same way that Stand and Deliver moves one to aspire.  Immensely satisfying! I highly recommend this movie!

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies

Grace Tamar and LaszloGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, the 2009 Wales Book of the Year, is officially listed as a book of short stories by the acclaimed Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies, but it is much, much more than that.  In fact, I struggle to use the term “book of short stories” because the connection of the stories featuring the sisters Grace and Tamar is so tight and integrated that I am inclined to call it a novel.  This is a mature and powerful work of art intended for adult readers.

The first story, “Stirrups,” actually begins with their mother on the event of Tamar’s birth, showing how the woman’s fragile mind tries to deal with the baby girl who is Grace’s younger sister by two years.  She struggles to give her love to more than one person at a time, missing Grace and wondering if she can ever relate to this new child.  The next story, “Point,” finds Grace at the age of six already somewhat ethereal and hating her four year old sister, Tamar, for being so feral.  It is a relationship newly formed, but one that will be a part of their lives until they are adults.

From one story to the next, told in chronological order, the relationship between the two sisters dominates the book as the point of view weaves back and forth.  As a child, Tamar spends most of her time alone, creating strange games for herself, becoming fascinated with the weird neighbors, pushing her sister Grace to exasperation.  Grace lives in a world where she was the only child.  She can barely stand Tamar, yet there is a bond between them that is extremely tight.  Grace pushes Tamar from a tree, Tamar beats on Grace, they push each other back and forth and stand united in only two things: first, their amusement that their mother seems to be going insane (“Radio Baby” is a powerful reminder that their mother’s hold on reality is tenuous at best) and second, the great common dream that they share of being together as adults with their own baby.

As they grow up, Tamar’s perversity is intensified by an incident with a brutal pedophile in “Whinberries” that turns out much different than one would expect in the follow-up story “Stones.”  That perversity comes back out in her childish sexual display to her bedridden grandfather in “Fun and Games.”  Grace’s reaction is to pull back away, growing more and more distant.  In her adolescence, she seems to have difficulty understanding the banal, meaningless action of the boys around her, especially so in “Laszlo the Beautiful,” a story about her first crush.  Tamar also has difficulty relating to boys, but she is far more open sexually.  Grace acts out her sexuality in “Kissing Nina,” “Thong,” “Negligee,” and “Grace and the Basset Hound” while maintaining a strange distance from it.  She becomes engaged, gets married and divorced and seems untouched by the whole cycle.  Tamar reaches out for life in “Thong,” “Whatever,” and “Wood.” 

There is a stark parallel to Grace’s retreat from the world and Tamar’s reach to embrace it.  The importance of Tamar’s dream of the baby comes full circle in the final story, “Cords,” a taut, emotional reach between the two adult sister.

The writing throughout is beautiful, a real pleasure to read.  Lean and well-constructed, the stories are each absolutely compelling portraits of two sisters adrift in the world.  The sentences are spare, concerned only with what is most important.  Sometimes they drift, like the sisters, but they drift with a singular intensity that always reaches back to the heart of the book.

And that’s really what makes me think of this is a novel.

In a novel, one looks to see a compelling story arc, from one place to another from the beginning to the end, with an integrated theme throughout the book.  Even though Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful jerks from one story to another, I see a very powerful, overarching story arc that binds the stories together into one, long cohesive tale that stands up to the highest scrutiny.

The jacket contains the following epithet:  “moving, hilarious and terrifying.”  I found the book to be less hilarious and more moving, but, yes, at times it is also terrifying.  I found it to be one of the more emotionally disturbing and satisfying books that I’ve read over the last twenty years.  The combination of such beautiful, powerful writing with such original, distinctive characters is quite unusual.  In fact, after I finished reading the book, I found myself drawn back to one story or another just to lose myself in the prose.  I haven’t had that feeling since I first read Salman Rushdie.

This is a great book that I highly recommend to all adult readers.