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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Poetry Moment: Museum Piece by Richard Wilbur

Museum Piece

The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one upon the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.

Richard Wilbur

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Architecture moment: Town Hall, Leuven, Belgium

Flanders was the wealthiest and most populous area of Europe in the late Middle Ages. Leuven was a very prosperous small city, due to it’s hosting of the hottest newer university of the era. Even though the University of Leuven was many centuries younger than the more august institutions of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Cambridge or Padua, the new university (founded 1425) attracted many of the brightest academic stars: Erasmus, Thomas More, Mercator, Lipsius and numerous other great minds flocked to the university in the late 15th and the 16th century. The university was much favored by the Popes (including Adrian IV, who was the chair of theology there before ascending to the papacy) as well as the Hapsburgs. Appropriately, the burghers of Leuven announced their prosperity by building perhaps the finest town hall of all the middle ages.

There was a great deal of building during the 14th-16th century in Flanders, much of it elaborate, due to the great wealth of the region. However, the churches of late medieval Flanders closely imitated those of France (rather than the more interesting architecture of Germany to the east or England to the west), and largely are uninteresting. The secular architecture of Flanders has considerably more interest – the towns of Flanders wished to announce their wealth and status by building extremely fine town halls, guildhouses, hospitals, belfries and other structures. These structures were also designed to host the court of the nominal prince over the region – the dukes of Burgundy, with whom the leading towns often had very strained relations. Thus, these structures were partially designed to impress upon the ducal court that the towns were well organized and well provisioned to fight against him, if need be. The ducal court of Burgundy (and various neighboring lesser princes closely imitated them) had extremely fine artistic taste – it was the patron of such artists as Van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden, the composer Dufay, the sculptor Claus Sluter, the historian Froissart and many others, it’s only rival the most fine princely courts of Italy for artistic patronage. Later, the towns had similar relations with the Hapsburgs, who were great patrons of the arts as well. Leuven in particular was often visited by such dignitaries.

The Leuven Town Hall is a lush and extreme example of these town halls. Four stories high of sandstone, the exterior is literally dripping with 236 statues and elaborate decorations. These statues represent a highly complex scheme of religious and political history (as befitting a university town): political figures from the town’s history, saints, historic feudal overlords and religious scenes are all depicted on the town hall walls. Note: most of the actual statues are from the late Nineteenth century, but follow along the lines of the original scheme.

The town hall was constructed from 1448-1469 by the prominent architect Matheus de Layens, who also designed Leuven’s town fortifications, the principal church of Leuven, a number of other churches in Flanders and later the very fine but more spare town hall of Mons.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Meandering Film Noir Thoughts

my meandering collected commentary from Girish Shambu's discussion of an interview between Fujiwara / Roberts ( view Girish Shambu's blog for the full on version)

I'm more annoyed with too much focus on film noir:

Not that I don't like the actual films, I do, and sometimes very much so. But I think we over-emphasize noir in our current depiction of American film history. I think the over-emphasis on noir gives a falsely positive impression about what our film history actually was. Noir allows us to pretend that the Hollywood studios allowed more ideological and artistic freedom than they really did allow. Also, noir gives us in the present too much freedom to seperate the good crime/gangster films of that time from the many more numerous bad ones. During the heyday of noir, the viewing public didn't see these movies as individual art works, but more like we view crime dramas on TV (which is in fact where noir went).

There's too little critical reflection (except perhaps from Naremore) on why noir literature and film died so abruptly just after both forms were achieving their second highpoint in the mid-Fifties. Lastly, there's not enough contemplation on how noir was a part of a worldwide phenonmenon (Simenon's roman durs being just one example, but many others worldwide: Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, for just one) that continues as a literary force largely OUTSIDE the US today (Hans Werner Kettenbach, Massimo Carlotto, Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo and many others).
"Why only noir and why not all the other richly deserving genres/periods/filmmakers that are languishing for lack of attention?"It was and is a useful version of history for much of the 1970s film-maker generation (Scorcese, Coppola, Friedkin, De Palma, etc)and those who are too wedded to them. It gave them this secret heroic, manly past (even if that past was mythical). Most of these guys couldn't really do great work outside of the crime / gangster / thriller / war genres. Ignoring everything outside of those genres allowed them to seem greater than they are. See Scorcese's history of American movies, where everything outside of noir and Westerns is close to entirely ignored (Allan Dwan captures more of Scorcese's time than Chaplin and Lubitsch combined).

I.E., most of these guys thought they learned the lessons of neorealism and Cassavetes, but their life works prove that they never had a clue.

If we see American film history with noir being a massive aspect (which, during it's historical moment, it simply wasn't) then that makes these guys look very good because they do make good (and sometimes great) thriller or crime pics. If we see American film history as much more diverse, then many of them look limited artistically. When you have an American film history that more accurately highlights big budget literary items, musicals, drawing room comedies, Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin and so on, then you also have a film history where Elaine May, Mark Rappaport and Albert Brooks are the true geniuses of the 1970s and Richard Linklater is the voice of the 1990s/2000s, as opposed to Tarantino.

"And thanks for those Euro-noir names, none of which I know."

Remember that the concept of noir was first established by the French publishing house Gallimard's long series (now over 50 years old) Serie Noire, which published both American noir literature in translation and French contributions as a seperate genre of writing - which was not how it was viewed in the US (in the US it was called hard-boiled crime/mystery and wasn't really viewed as anything intrinsically worthwhile). So the genre is really as much (or more) European as it is American even very early - Simenon's roman durs predate much of American noir. The Euro noir movies, besides Carne and Renoir (who made the first Simenon adaptation with Night at the Crossroads) are extremely extensive. As I've argued before, noir influenced Europe more than the US.

Some things to meditate upon include:
1. the French polar, a continuing genre of French cinema (usually likened to a US police procedural, except that the polar is usually vastly more dark and cynical than the average US version).
2. JP Melville - Samourai, Red Circle, Un Flic, Second Breath, Flambeur
3. Clouzet
4. Germany's Christian Petzold (Wolfsburg, Something to Remind Me)
5. Corneau's Serie noire - an adaptation of Thompson's A Hell of a Woman
6. Tavernier's Coup de torchon - adapting Thompson's Pop. 1280
7. Three largely unknown later American noirs: Murder by Contract, Blast of Silence, Burt Kennedy's The Killer Inside Me (1979).
8. Claude Chabrol as noir film-maker (see The Ceremony)
9. Godard and Truffaut's relationship with David Goodis