Smile Politely

Art and the tiny screen

Gas jumps up to $2.39 one day, $2.49 the next, and my heart leaps up as I behold, like Wordsworth, not a rainbow in the sky, but skyrocketing gas prices, because my income is partially based on mileage and, with the efficiency of my four-year-old Prius, this means money in the bank.  Not that money should make my heart leap, but sometimes, it just does.

I am driving through Homer, typical day, this kid driving a pickup truck down Main Street is blaring out Relapse, the new Eminem album, which I recognize, because I myself have been blaring it for the last couple of days, ever since my generous son gave me a downloaded copy, pre-release, and professional critic that I am, I had to listen, which is my excuse. 

Relapse is a horror movie, a paean to serial killers, with direct quotes from Silence of the Lambs and some graphic (and yet amusing, and self-conscious, and even poignant) references to the endlessly recurring themes of Em’s own sad life story, and I find myself singing along: “I guess it’s time for you to hate me again.”

In the end, Relapse strikes me more as a Firesign Theatre album, for those old enough to recall that group’s densely configured aural landscape commentary, than actual music, although it is as infectious as a sneeze of swine flu, excuse me H1N1, and compares somewhat unexpectedly with the new Bob Dylan album, Together Through Life, which at first listen sounds like New Orleans Tex Mex barstool meanderings with very little visionary imagery, unlike the cinematic cacophony of poetry pictures he gave back in the subterranean days, days we now sometimes get homesick to recall.  Ah, yes.

If both artists might be considered past their prime with their new albums, Dylan’s elegiac collection of songs, all but one written by the Grateful Dead’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, who gave us such poetry and mystical truths as “Box of Rain,” features Dylan looking ahead to the end (“Beyond Here Lies Nothing”) with a begrudged contentment, and to the degree that his and Hunter’s tongues are in their cheeks to write and sing “It’s All Good” at album’s end…  Well, all the wind’s blown out of their sails and the answer isn’t blowin’ in the wind any more; the times they have changed. 

I suppose I have been addicted to popular culture all my life.  Even as I write this, I am watching from the corner of my eye Paul Blart: Mall Cop.  I can’t decide if this hit movie is actually funny or if I just like watching people ride Segways.  It doesn’t matter.  It is, however, the 158th movie I have watched so far this year, since January 1. 

For me, the Tuesday a movie gets released on DVD constitutes the true premiere of that film; everything before the DVD, including the theatrical release and critical reception, is just promotion, mere hype. 

Anti-big screen sentiment is growing. Screen size isn’t all that. In fact, it often works against a movie. In the current issue of Film Comment,  critic Nathan Lee upsets the conventional wisdom. He squirmed through a big screen press screening for Steven Soderberg’s Solaris and only when, at the insistence of a colleague, he revisited the film on a “minuscule” screen, “the intimacy of setting and lack of distraction” opened up the movie to him as an “extraordinary, beautiful gamble.”

I am very selective about which movies I want to see on the big screen.  I wanted to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on the big screen – I truly admire director David Fincher’s visual style – but the night I chose to see it at the Virginia, the Cinemascope projectors were being repaired and the screening was cancelled.

Mishaps are much more common in movie theaters than at home.  Show of hands for those who have had to exit the theater to complain about mis-projection (and missed a good chunk of the movie in the process)?  See?

Ebertfest screenings at the Virginia are not immune.  The projection of Hamlet last year was hampered by a sound problem that caused many to complain they could not understand the words. If you can’t hear the words in Shakespeare, what’s the point? I watched the newly-released DVD at home that same week and the crisp digital image and the perfect sound were ideal. And repeatable. 

Visual arts have been turning toward video for decades now. The last two Biennial shows I attended at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York prominently featured video installations. The current hot video director getting all the reviews at the Younger than Jesus show in Manhattan is Ryan Trecartin.  His work is handled by the prestigious Saatchi Gallery in London, but – instead of paying six figures for his work, you can watch it on YouTube, where he posts it himself.  He gives it away, essentially.  Search for his feature-length movies, A Family Finds Entertainment or I-BE Area.

The Dutch artist Aernout Mik, currently with a show at MOMA, also posts on YouTube,  although the megafamous Matthew Barney, also knows as Bjork’s husband, usually shows his video works only in galleries and museums, when he’s not busy covering the entire inside of the Guggenheim Museum or a Japanese whaling vessel in Vasoline petroleum jelly.

OK, then, in the time it has taken me to write this, I’ve watched several more movies, including the utterly preposterous Frantic, yet another example of the value of waiting for the DVD.

When Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard said, “It’s the pictures that got small,” she probably wasn’t referring to the size of the screen, but she was prophetic just the same.

What Warhol said years ago about art – that it is anything you can get away with – is true today about the movies as well.  The flurry of excitement at Cannes this year is for a zombie movie – told from the viewpoint of the zombie herself – made for a mere $70 budget total.  And in the case of Eminem, he seems to be making movies without any projected image at all, just a blistering soundtrack that is no more or less adolescent that the vast majority of movies on the big screen today.

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