On The Art Of Francis Bacon

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Art Of Francis Bacon Daniela Grapa

Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Painting by Daniela Grapa.

In many ways, the art of Francis Bacon was merely the technical side of a far deeper movement, probably in development ever since the first human beings decide to ‘create’ something — anything, really — and wondered of their own compulsion. This is the idea (from the 1800s onward) that art is not there to simply ‘look good,’ or to edify didactically, or to praise God, reject God, be social, be political, or any other singular thing that would get so often demanded of it. Instead, the idea was that art is here to communicate, which is really the most expansive definition of all, incorporating many of the old, bias-ridden requirements all the while forging wholly new ones. Van Gogh was already doing this in his landscapes, given, as they were, to colors and techniques that were less beautiful than evocative; Walt Whitman was busy opening up poetry in the same direction, being full of seemingly ‘rough’ declaratives that must have sounded quite alarming to classically-trained ears; and Pablo Picasso hyper-developed the idea well into the 20th century, to the point that it became abused by AbEx painters who’d confuse ‘communication’ with literally an infinity (as opposed to a multiplicity) of meanings. Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.

One of Bacon’s most famous paintings is Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X (1953), part of the so-called ‘Screaming Popes’ series (of which there are close to 50 paintings). It takes Diego Velazquez’s portrait of the arch-conservative Pope — in fact, one of the most famous portraits in history, replete with light refracting off of his chest, the determined look, the curious stifling the almost small-‘A’ abstract backdrop — and gives it an entirely new context. In it, the figure is being closed in (by the outer portion of a skeletal chair?) with Innocent’s once-refracting chest moved about a foot down, all the way to the waist, so that mere coloration has the effect of making this personage seem disembodied. On top, Innocent’s calm — simmering, in Velazquez — is changed into a scream, with the rain-like colors either intensifying or recapitulating its effect.

Art Of Francis Bacon Study Velazquez Portrait Pope Innocent X

No, it’s not a great painting, for like most of Francis Bacon’s art, it points to little but its own self. Yet one must take note of what it does well. There is, for instance, the way it plays with its own influences, for Bacon did not arbitrarily choose Diego Velazquez as his model: he saw (or thought he saw) what might have been underneath Innocent X’s glance, and deduced from this … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

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Secret Sunshine Lee Chang-dong Jeon Do-yeon Korean Film Review

The great ending to Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine…or rather, what would have been the ending proper.

Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.

And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.

As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give … Continue reading →

8 Great Passages From Loren Eiseley’s “The Firmament Of Time”

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Loren Eiseley's The Firmament Of Time

Loren Eiseley’s The Firmament Of Time

As of this writing, the science writer/philosopher Loren Eiseley is one of the 3 or 4 biggest influences on my style of fiction. He was ‘there’ when, as a college student, I first discovered what makes good prose good, and what, by contrast, is mere subterfuge. He was there when, running out of large, over-the-top subjects to discuss, I first noticed what might happen when the discussion turns inward, and upon things that don’t ordinarily get illumined. And, of course, he was there when I was writing my first two novels, as I’d hunt for words, phrasings, and sentences to re-fashion into my own, and will continue to be there for subsequent books as I continue to work on what Loren Eiseley had started.

This is because Loren Eiseley was one of the first writers to hit upon and solve an ancient dilemma, a dilemma that’s implicit human progress: namely, how do you write on things that matter now, in a field — science — that is always going out-of-date, yet still remain relevant for centuries, way past said field’s natural expiration? The answer was simple, really. You transcend the genre, and push against the boundaries that have held things still by mere tradition. In this way, essays can become bigger, richer, more expansive; poetry and prose can morph and meld; things like ‘narrative’ can come apply to the world at large, as opposed to smaller texts. Of course, all this got Eiseley into trouble by scientists who did not buy into his approach, preferring, as they did, pure information over wisdom, and Eiseley had to juggle ‘standard’ research (he was a paleontologist, after all) and physical discovery with deeper observations, often straying from pure science into artistic and philosophic realms.

Yet time doesn’t really give a damn about science-drones, because, despite their importance, there are millions of them, most are doing the same exact thing, and if one scientist or theoretician dies, there’s another to take his place with near-identical ideas. It is a menial, mostly thankless job, and it is unfair, I guess, that only its communicators — the people who can transmute this information into wisdom — can get fame. But this is simply the mind’s own blueprint, not a social ill, and an expression of the specifics of human cares.

Last week, Dan Schneider conducted a 2½ hour video interview with the Loren Eiseley Society. Bing Chen (president) and Tom Lynch (vice president) discussed the man’s work and historical import, while Schneider, as per his style, prodded the men for answers for deeper queries. And, in celebration of this dialogue, I’ve decided to type out some of my favorite passages from one of Loren Eiseley’s lesser books: The Firmament Of Time. Yet as Eiseley goes on to show, even his lesser books have greatness in them, with much that is memorable, quotable, and representative of his work as a whole. Just look at how … Continue reading →

Dan Slevin (Rancho Notorious Podcast) on “Woody Allen: Reel To Real”

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Dan Slevin Woody Allen Reel To Real Alex Sheremet Rancho Notorious FishHead Magazine

Dan Slevin’s Rancho Notorious Podcast.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by Dan Slevin — editor of FishHead Magazine — for his Rancho Notorious Podcast, on my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. The interview focuses on Woody Allen’s film work, my reactions to it, as well as the e-book process.

According to Slevin, the book is “a massive undertaking, and one of the most significant pieces of film archaeology you could come across.”

You can listen to the interview here, a little past the 1 hour mark.… Continue reading →

Review Of John Sayles’s “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984)

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John Sayles's The Brother From Another Planet Train

A great shot from John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Near the end of John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the film’s unnamed protagonist (Joe Morton) looks out of a train’s back-window as it pulls away, thus leaving him to reflect on things the viewer can never really know. Now, this may be an issue to some, but to those that get the fundaments of art, Morton’s ‘what’ is immaterial, perhaps even a distraction. This is because the film spends so much time showing Morton in bewildering situations, as well as his silent (albeit quite legible) reactions to them, that this particular scene is merely an extension of the same: poetic shots, familiar images cast anew, and elided (not ‘omitted’) details that help the viewer imbue their own perspectives into the film’s narrative. It helps, too, that Morton doesn’t budge, but merely stays there, in a shot that doesn’t linger too long, content as it is to simply capture the man’s recession and all that it makes him think.

And don’t let the film’s premise fool you: Morton is, at film’s end, a ‘man’ in the deeper sense of the word, for he does precisely what men must do. He re-considers his life, he weighs again his options, and comes to deal with the compulsory fallout. No, none of this is probed very deeply, and The Brother From Another Planet is not even close to broaching the sort of greatness that John Sayles’s later films would, but it’s technically well-wrought, and manages to anthropomorphize a being that is neither human, nor ever given the opportunity to speak. The latter is the more important vis-a-vis the artistic arc, for it ensures the film’s demands must be picked up by Morton, himself, through his emotive glances, subtle gestures, as well as Sayle’s occasionally brilliant writing. And this brilliance (sporadic as it is) comes through in many places: from the choice to have Morton’s character first appear in a nigh-abandoned building with a dark, extraterrestrial feel, to Virgil’s ‘tour of the night,’ which could have so easily devolved to mere political posturing, yet exposes, instead, the sort of intellectual fraud that nips at the credibility of black communities, and even in the film’s depiction (one of the first and deepest in art, really) of a videogame otaku, whose addiction is given an oddly effective philosophic thrust. These are the sorts of ideas the film touches upon, satirizing white people, black people, and the personages from ALL camps that claim to be each other’s intermediaries.

The film’s basic thrust is this. An extraterrestrial (Joe Morton) crash-lands on Earth, takes on (or already has?) the appearance of a black man, finds himself in what appears to be a noisy, unfathomable landscape, and must learn to become a resident of Harlem all the while lacking the ability to speak. He has, naturally, a few alien features: 3 toes, an ability to heal wounds, fix broken machinery, … Continue reading →