Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens 01This story of a simple-minded mother and daughter, born into privilege and unable to generate the income necessary for basic survival, forces us to ask dangerous questions about social responsibility.  HBO Films enlisted two extraordinary actors, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, to create this compelling movie, that deserves a much wider audience than what the cable channel can generate.

Grey Gardens 02Based on historical events, this film tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Lange), aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy/Onasis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter, also named Edith (Barrymore).  For simplicity, I’ll use the film’s reference of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to distinguish the two characters.  Most of the movie takes place in 1975, when two filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, filmed a documentary, called Grey Gardens, the name of the East Hampton estate, on Long Island, where the two women lived, but there are also flashbacks through their lives leading up to that time, beginning in 1936.

Big Edie (Edith Bouvier, sister of John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline’s father) was a lady of high society who married New York businessman Phelan Beale (Ken Howard).  They settled on the Long Island estate of Grey Gardens and had several children, Little Edie being the oldest.  In 1936, as a young woman, Edie decides that she wants to become an actress and singer.  Although not overly talented, her energetic, bubbly personality could have carried her quite far, but both her father and mother prevented it from happening.  Phelan, quite aware of her simple-minded personality, thinks that she should marry a wealthy man who can take care of her, while Big Edie wants to keep her at home at Grey Gardens, where she can help to entertain their endless parties.  Big Edie is herself a singer and wants nothing more than to sip champagne, sing, and entertain.

Frustrated with the way his wife throws away their money, and struggling himself in the Depression era economy, Phelan takes Little Edie to New York City, where he tries to get her to stay within her allowance and find a husband.  She is more concerned with getting an audition, but falls in love with a married man, tycoon Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin).  When Phelan learns of this relationship, he forces Little Edie to return to Grey Gardens.  With a big audition coming up, she drives back into the city and tries to see Julius, who becomes enraged that she might ruin his marriage.

Utterly dejected, she returns to take care of her mother at Grey Gardens.  Suffering from a nervous disease, exasperated by seeing her life fall apart, Little Edie loses all of her hair and takes to covering her head in scarves and blouses, creating her own unique look.  Ultimately, Phelan can no longer support their lifestyle.  He is disgusted by the continual round of parties and he divorces Big Edie.  When he dies, he leaves her the Grey Gardens estate and a limited trust for the survival of his ex-wife and daughter.  Gradually, all of their servants and friends leave until they are completely alone.

The older sons urge Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens so that she and Little Edie will have enough money to live on once the trust expires, but she feels that estate is her home, all she has left, and she refuses to sell.  With no one to maintain it, the estate begins to fall apart.  Big Edie adopts lots of cats and raccoons wander the house picking through the trash.  At last, the trust expires and there is no longer any income.  Scrounging for food and without heat, the two women barely survive the harsh New York winters, listening on a little radio as Jacqueline marries John F. Kennedy, survives his assassination, and marries Aristotle Onasis.

Neighbors complain about the stink emanating from the property and eventually city inspectors come to condemn the property, but the women carry on in spite of it.  The attention of the city brings a photographer to the house and Little Edie invites him in to take their pictures and when the word gets out that Jacqueline’s family is living in complete poverty and filth, she comes to visit them.  Fondly remembering the gay days of her aunt and cousin, she contributes the money to enable them to survive, hiring local contractors to clean up the house, fix broken windows, haul out their rusting old car, and provide for them going into the future.

When the Maysles show up with the idea of doing a documentary, Little Edie embraces it as an opportunity to showcase her talents to the world.  In the film, she sings and dances, argues with her mother, shows them around the property and sees a future in which she can finally escape Grey Gardens for good.  Big Edie, who has depended on her daughter so long, allows Little Edie to go to the premier and finally accepts that her daughter will have to go out into the world.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and written by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, the script takes a great deal from the real lives of the two women, but especially from Little Edie.  Her surviving letters and journals were used by the director to flesh out the details of her life and used very successfully in the movie.  The camera is non-intrusive in the storytelling and fragments of the documentary have been recreated to great effect, intercut with the regular action.

Jessica Lange is terrific as Big Edie, showing a great range as we see the character grow from a woman of around forty into her old age.  A consistent and marvelous performance.

However, Drew Barrymore really steals the movie.  Her Little Edie, although every bit as simple-minded as her mother, is given an amazing degree of nuance that allows her to touch us with her own tragedy, yet soar with her indomitable spirit.  If anyone ever doubts that Barrymore is not one of the best female actors working today, please refer them to this movie, because she carries with a brilliant performance.

Nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, it won Outstanding Television Movie, Lange won for Best Actress, Howard for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning for art direction, hair, and make-up.

Both a tragedy and a comedy, this is an emotionally engaged, beautifully written and acted movie.  I highly recommend it!

Advertisements

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.

Rivers and Tides Andy Goldsworthy: Working with Time

Goldsworthy 01The violent colors of autumn leaves, an iron-rich rock that turns water blood red, blackened stalks, great slabs of ice, thorns, chipped rocks: these are the materials that Andy Goldsworthy uses to create his ephemeral art.

One of the most creative artists in the world, Goldsworthy purposely creates beauty from nature that nature herself will destroy sooner or later and mostly sooner.  He is also a photographer, which is essential to document the works of art that sometimes last only moments and sometimes years before they are gone.  Working from his home base in Penpont, Scotland, he travels the world interacting with water, stone, and growth to form both small and massive creations that inspire and delight.

Goldsworthy 02This beautiful documentation of his work was lovingly created by German writer, director, and cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer for Mediopolis and Fernsehproduktion Gmbh with incredible music by Fred Frith.

Beginning on the isolated shores of Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy acclimatizes himself by building a twisting line from icicles, bending and shaping them into what appears to be the lazy oxbow of a river, gleaming white in the sun as it slips into and out of a rock on the shoreline, waiting only for the sun to melt it.  Riedelsheimer’s camera lingers on the swirls as a river rushes into the sea and the tide moves in to smother it.  On another day, Goldsworthy builds a gigantic pine cone from rocks along the shore, but the balance is so delicate that it keeps falling apart and he must start over again.  The tide is out, but it will come back in by 3:00 PM so he must work fast to get it finished.  There is not enough time, so he must give up.  He explains that as he works with the rocks, he gets to know them, to understand how they fit together.  On the third day, his giant pine cone stands on the shore and he watches as the tide comes in, completely covering it with sea water, but when the tide goes back out, it is revealed again, still standing.  Gathering driftwood, he creates a hemisphere of sticks on the rocks, building and coming together with a perfectly round hole in the top.  A man wanders by and the two of the watch as the tide rises, swirling the wood back out into the sea that threw it up on the shore in the first place.

Goldsworthy 03At home, in Penpont, he works on a hillside, among the long-haired oxen, pulling reeds from the ground and arranging them on the hill with brilliant bronze points flowing away from a jet black circle in the center.  Using thorns, he tacks sticks to the branch of a tree, intersecting them until they form a perfect center in the middle.  He wraps leaves tightly around themselves to create a gigantic snail.

Working on a commission at Storm King Arts Center in Mountainville, N.Y., Goldsworthy directs workers in the creation of a wall that snakes like a river through the trees, disappearing down into a pond and re-emerging on the other side to continue on.  Splashing through a stream, he finds red rocks with a high iron content and breaks them down into dust.  He either mixes the dust with water that pools in holes in rocks, creating a blood red circle, or he tosses a ball of the dust into the river, making large, bright red splotches in the stream.  Using thorns, he connects a train of leaves that unwinds in the river like a large, green snake.

Standfoto RIVERS AND TIDESRiedelsheimer’s camera follows him as he makes a huge volume of art, most of it destined for immediate destruction by the world from which it is created.  Along the way, Goldsworthy talks about the philosophy of his art and the nature of time and existence.  Creation and destruction are obviously at the heart of his work, but the two acts work within a given time.  For example, creating his gigantic cone of rocks on the beach before the tide comes in to cover it or listening to the wind as he works on his tree sculpture, knowing that in the space of minute the delicate structure can fall.  Nature itself is in a constant rhythm of creation and destruction.  Goldsworthy looks at the example of his iron rock, how it solidified over the eons, how it even now contains the water that runs through everything and how, once pulverized, he can return it to the river as dust, knowing that it will again coalesce in the riverbed.

Time is like the images of the river that are a recurring motif in Goldsworthy’s work.  It swirls around us constantly from moment to moment, pulling in something here, discarding something there.  Existence, like Goldsworthy’s creations, is ephemeral.

Goldsworthy 05We are like the river that passes through it.

I admit that documentaries have never been my favorite form of film, but recently, due to the influence of my friend, Harlan Heald, I have begun to watch more and more of them, especially films about artists–and this is one of the best, because it is not just about art, but it exists as a work of art in itself.  It is a film that I can watch over and over and every time it makes me feel more a part of the natural universe I inhabit.  It is a creation of great beauty.

The DVD contains two disks.  Disk 1 contains the film, plus a number of short films about some of the individual projects, as well as information about Goldsworthy, Riedelsheimer, and the production company.  Disk 2 contains a very interesting film about a project where Goldsworthy created 13 gigantic snowballs, each containing a different texture (one contained pine cones and another contained cow hair) that were deposited on various streets throughout London at mid-summer, to melt during the longest day of the year.  Riedelsheimer followed the process as well as filming the reaction of a great many Londoners to finding this monstrosities on their streets.  It also contains an in-depth interview with Riedelsheimer.

Goldsworthy 06This is a DVD that could easily be a part of anyone’s collection as it can be viewed over and over again with enjoyment.  The colors a beautiful, the cinematography is wonderful, and the philosophy is very enlightening.

I highly recommend Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy (Working with Time).

H

Her Phoenix and AdamsHer

What would happen if cell phone addiction was carried one step further?  It’s a common sight now.  In public, it is not uncommon to see people isolated in a crowd, lost in their own little world, playing with their cell phone.  What if this phenomenon was almost universal?  In Her, the 2013 film written and directed by Spike Jonze, these questions are answered and it is both funny and scary.


 ray johnson how to draw a bunnyHow to Draw a Bunny

This 2002 documentary on the elusive, enigmatic artist Ray Johnson really gives us a lot more than it promises.  Almost from the beginning, it is suggests that “no one really knew Ray Johnson” and then, through interviews and close-ups of his art, the film proceeds to give us one insight after another into the man’s genius.


Hunger Games 03The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  By teaming up director Gary Ross with Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, adding Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland and a bunch motivated, beautiful teens, the producers of this movie created a magic gumbo and a film that will long lead all of the Young Adult Dystopian movie franchises.

The Dust Bowl PBS A Ken Burns Film

Dust Bowl 02In 2012, PBS aired this four part miniseries by famed documentary director Ken Burns that looks at the ecological catastrophe that occurred in America’s Great Plains between approximately 1931 and 1938. Written by Dayton Duncan and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film combines still photographs and film from the period with color film shot specifically for the program, interviews with survivors of the calamity, and voice-overs of writing from various victims.

The first part of the film, “The Great Plow-Up” looks at the land before the disaster, showing how the tough area survived the incessant wind and drought by evolving the sturdy buffalo grass that grew deep into the soil for hundreds of miles from Canada to the Texas panhandle. Native Americans were ideally suited as inhabitants because they did not depend on agriculture, but rather on the buffalo who roamed this great, free expanse of prairie.

When Indians were routed onto reservations, Anglos first used the grazing land for cattle, but the frequent droughts, long and difficult transportation to markets, and division of the land into individual, fenced parcels were but a few of the obstacles to successful ranching. The true changes in the land began to occur when Oklahoma was opened to homesteading settlers and immigrants and poor tenant farmers spilled into the territory on the promise of owning their own property. The wheat boom prior to and during World War I spurred further settlement. The tough buffalo grass was torn out by plows and wheat was planted in its stead. “Suitcase farmers” streamed in from cities, present only long enough to plow and sow before returning to cities and wait for the rain to grow the wheat before returning to harvest it. This “great plow-up” was aided by one of the wettest decades the Great Plains ever saw, during the 1920s. The boom carried through the stock market crash of 1929 and beyond as millions of acres were plowed up for cash crops.

“Dust to Eat” then chronicles the Great Depression’s effects on the wheat market as prices fell due to the excess of wheat and millions of tons filled grain elevators or were strewn out rotting on the prairie. At the same time, a periodic drought assaulted the land and the constant winds picked up the topsoil and circulated it in the sky. Beginning in 1931, simple dust storms escalated into gigantic billows of earth, born by the winds across the plains and dumped back onto the land as loose, dry pellets mixed with sand. As the 30’s continued, more and more of these storms assaulted the farmers, blossoming into deadly concentrations of tiny particles that worked their way into the lungs of human beings. “Dust pneumonia” became a common cause of death. These storms reached their apex on “Black Sunday,” April 14, 1935 when a wall of concentrated dirty air two hundred miles wide and ten thousand feet high swept across “No Man’s Land.”

The effects of this “end of the world” storm fell in Chicago, then Washington D.C. and New York, finally dumping the last of its dust over the Atlantic Ocean. Springing into action, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt started the work that would eventually reclaim the Great Plains, but it would take a long time.

The third installment of the series, “Reaping the Whirlwind” details the continued catastrophe through the late ’30’s and the final installment, “The Hardy Ones” covers the mass exodus to California and the farmers who stayed and eventually saw the land regenerate through improved farming techniques, such as terracing, planting of wind-break trees, and so forth.

Overall, the film is totally captivating and at its best deeply moving. Photographs by Dorothea Lange and other photographers who memorialized the face of the ecological disaster are stunning and deeply evocative, as are the voices of those who were only children when the dust clouds descended on them. The stature of the Black Sunday storm is fully realized in Burns’ beautiful camera movement and Duncan’s terrific script.

This film should be seen by all mid-westerners and most certainly by farmers and anyone intimately connected to the land. This catastrophe was not forced on us by nature, but we brought it about ourselves through excessive greed, lack of forethought, and our tampering with an ecosystem that was perfectly evolved to survive and continue on its own. This was mankind’s mistake.

It was a mistake whose lessons we should take to heart. Near the end of the film, as we see the effect of irrigation on miles of fields, we are reminded that the water comes directly from the Oglala Aquifer, whose capacity is dwindling, year by year, as we extract millions of gallons to dump on our crops.

What will happen to us when it is gone and our Bread Basket reverts to the windswept prairie of our past?