Saturday, August 28, 2010

The presence of the artist in the art - developing talent versus promoting it (Exhibits - Matisse: Radical Invention & Film - A Single Man)

I just stared and stared at this painting at the stunning show currently on at MoMa - Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917. Exploring its pleasures intertwined with the experience of the film I watched two night ago - A Single Man - to reveal to me something essential about my aesthetic taste. I like it when the act of creation shows (by design) in the work of art. Perhaps that is just because I made art myself for such a long time and because creative process is an obsession of mine. Perhaps the relationship goes the other way round - maybe I became obsessed with process because I have always been drawn to this kind of work. Whatever the case, this was very much evident in Matisse's work of this period. As he developed these paintings he adjusted the placement of figures as well as their form, he obscured details that he had earlier spent much effort in representing, and what's radical is that he leaves evidence of these changes rather than covering them up. It is a practice which creates a conversation between the subject of the art and the mode of its making, something I find interesting as well as inspiring. It is also a way for the artist to develop their talents, as awareness of technique progresses in parallel with the making of art, not separately from it. The simultaneous dialogue of the two is the artists' daily reality. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will always produce satisfying art, nor does it necessarily mean that this dialogue will be of interest to every member of the audience, but it is of great interest to me.

Matisse: Radical Invention is thoughtfully curated - it has a narrow thematic focus and therefore it is not too big (a pet peeve of mine with museum shows), it brings together different works of Matisse, not just the greatest hits, it creates a thoughtful narrative in tracing its theme of interest - a period of creative transformation in Matisse's art - seen against the backdrop of cubism in the art world and World War I in the world-at-large.

This experience was very much in contrast to that of watching A Single Man, photographer Tom Ford's feature film debut as both writer and director, adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood. I had heard a few interviews with Ford and his lead actor Colin Firth on the radio and was hoping for something better. The story concerns the last day in the life of a gay college professor in the 1960s who decides to commit suicide because of the sudden and devastating death of his partner of 16 years, and the unusual perspective that gives him on the things commonly around him in his daily life.

Ford, a visual artist, seems to have been captured by the notion of a unique perspective on the ordinary and perhaps felt his vision would express the lead character's heightened experience of the day. This was the film's defining feature, but the lack of access to other techniques was also its downfall. Every person in the film was beautiful - ridiculously so. Nicholas Hoult as the young student who becomes obsessed with his professor, was an expensive haircut draped in a pink mohair sweater that was glowed like cotton candy against his California tan. In fact, desserts are a good metaphor for the little visions of sweetness that Ford made of everyone George encountered, but there was no meal to accompany them. One could call this the heightened reality called for by the story, but I experienced it creating only an icy remove that destroyed any emotional impact this film could have had, despite Firth's intelligence, deep investment, and subtle portrayal. While this aspect of George's experience is important, it seems to me one should also be moved and this film's attempt at visual perfection held everything at arm's length.

One choice I particularly appreciated in this film was the lack of attention called to the sexuality of the lead character. Although his relationship was with another man and created interesting conflicts in the relationship between him and Charley (the female friend played by Julianne Moore), Colin Firth simply played George's circumstances and character qualities but did nothing to telegraph his gayness. He was middle aged, fastidious if a bit controlling, and was masculine. No limp wrist, no lisp. Thank you, Colin. Together the two of them captured that wonderful kind of friendship possible between a straight woman and a gay man that is full of intimacy but not sex and can be sustaining but can sometimes tip over into frustration for the woman if it is her primary intimate relationship, she is attracted to the man, and it cannot be consummated.

The actors were on their own (that or Ford could express his insight into the lead character but no other). The result was a beautiful performance from Firth but Julianne Moore's performance suffered for it. I find Moore a glimmering but delicate talent. Capable of flights of transparent vulnerability, she also reads to me across her body of work as wildly insecure. When she collaborates with a good director it is a joy to watch her. Here, while she communicated some of Charley's desperation to the screen it was too decorous. Her character is at the point where she can no longer control herself yet Moore's performance reeked of the kind of control exercised by an actor who is afraid to be unattractive. This coupled with Ford's own repressive control, motivated by his strictly visual talents, did not allow Charley the rawness a director like John Cassavetes and actress like Gena Rowlands might have brought to this part and this story. That, in my estimation, is what this film lacked. I wanted to feel the artistry, as with Matisse's painting, but not the artiness. I wanted to see the actor and film maker work together to make this story. I wanted to witness the beauty of the little accidents of human behavior, see her eye makeup smudge, see her nose run a little, not look at a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. The limits of Ford's filmmaking were also evident in his use of music. With two composers, a music advisor, and a music consultant listed in the credits I felt as though too many cooks may have spoilt the sound track. The result was a hodgepodge of unspecific but superficially arty choices. I thought the choice of the aria "Ebben? Ne andro lontana" from the opera La Wally a particularly misguided choice, so associated is it with another high style film (and one I happen to love) - Diva. Similarly self-conscious choices visual choices also clouded the integrity of this film. The slow-motion sequences of waving children seen from a moving vehicle seemed to be straight out of Blue Velvet.

The 'making of' extra provided on the DVD was particularly embarrassing - self-aggrandizing and affected, with Ford's narrative scripted to death, interviews with each of the actors edited down to nothing but glib praises of Ford's filmmaking talents. Me thought the ladies did protest too much. It read like an advertisement - over controlled and pretentious - exactly the same problems as with the film itself. There is a difference between leaving elements of the creative process present in the work so it becomes a discussion between the artistic content and the art-making, and using the work of art to showcase one's talents at the expense of the content. Ford doesn't yet have the talent to recognize the difference.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

Very interesting take on Single Man. Your knowledge of film goes well beyond mine. The extent of my film reviewing skills usually only extends to railing on how bad most Hollywood films are. Having said that, I just saw Single Man for the first time and quite liked it. I felt it had a spare quality that I found was similar to the book. I also found parts of it deeply emotional. And, I liked all the pretty people. Call me superficial but they were all a pleasure to watch.

Ted said...

Hi Thomas - Long live different tastes! I'm always thinking as I'm criticizing something 'I hope there are people who liked this.' And so there are. I haven't read the novel but I'm curious to. Did you enjoy it?

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Yes, I did enjoy it. Perhaps not as much as other Isherwood novels but I did like it.

Criticlasm said...

I wish I could see the Matisse. Love him.

I agree with most of what you said on A Single Man. Ford made it aboiut himself, and he's obsessed with surface, so it became a movie about surface. I loved Firth's performance, but I would have loved to see the movie with Anthony Hopkins, or someone closer to the 62 that George is in the book, and without that suicide attempt. I think Isherwood's book is wonderful and challenging to bring to the screen - I think he got a little diverted by the art direction, as would make sense for him.

I disagree with your assesment of Moore's needing to be attractive, as evidenced in "The Kids Are All Right". I read that more as that character's need - she has a particular talent for playing women who are a little too needy - but I don't get the sense that she is at all insecure about her own beauty or acts with it - I feel more that way about Jennifer Connolly. Anyhow, I agree with your take on the film somewhat. I liked it, but it didn't capture what the book was for me, which is much more difficult, stark and brave.

Anne Camille said...

I, too, stared at this particular Matisse when I saw the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. I liked the exhibit even more in the weeks after I saw it. I wish I had a chance to see it again before it went to MOMA. (but now I can go back to AIC and see the Cartier-Bresson exhibit again.).

Thanks for mentioning Diva. I haven't thought about it in years. Heading off to Netflix now to put it in my queue.

Unknown said...

The line at the Moma on the free Friday night was so long that I did not venture inside. It wend around four city blocks and wasn't moving quickly either. Not even for Matisse would I brave such a line in the summer heat. So I missed this show.

But I loved reading what you say about it here. In fact, this review was fantastic. I've not seen Single Man yet but I did re-read it earlier this year and loved it again. I will get to the movie sooner or later, too.

Ted said...

C-clasm - I haven't seen Moore in that film yet. I admire her talent, I just don't think that she easily goes to that place, she needs a good collaborator in her director which, in this case, she didn't have.

Cam - Lucky you. I missed the Cartier-Bresson altogether - rats. My mom went 3 times!

CB - Too bad you couldn't get in. I'm lucky in my school having a special relationship w/ MOMA that gets me in for free as their entrance fee is rather steep. Thanks for the compliment!