Art and Cliché

My musing on high art and popular culture earlier in my trip came to a new twist as I visited the Louvre. I just couldn’t help but wonder: Can art be too popular? When does art turn from a form of aesthetics into a subject of parody? Will mass popularity reduce an objet d’art into a cultural cliché?

Here’s what prompted my query:


Even more fascinating is this view twenty feet away:


And in comparison, here’s another gallery in the Louvre displaying lesser known works:



When does art become a cliché?  In our case, the Mona Lisa…

When you see her in comics, or paint-by-number sets in dollar stores, or morph into Alfred E. Neuman on Mad Magazine’s cover, or into Monica Lewinsky on the New Yorker, or find her on The Far Side Gallery, or in The Simpsons, or a Pantene commercial showing off her revitalized curly hair, or when you find 450 parodies of her image on a single website. According to an image tracking source, the Mona Lisa is the most used and abused image in advertising.

I know, other artists had created altered versions of Mona Lisa from early on. Eugene Bataille (Sapeck) painted her smoking a pipe, Marcel Duchamp added a moustache and goatee, Salvadore Dali fused himself into her image.

Poor girl, she didn’t even know what hit her, or how her one time, private sitting for da Vinci had generated so many imaginative renditions centuries down the road, as people are still using, or abusing, her image for private gains. She should have bargained for residual payments.

Are we more comfortable now that the barrier of ‘high art’ has been broken?  Are we enjoying the legacy and freedom the Dada Movement and the Surrealists had claimed for us?  I must declare outright, I’m not particularly a fan of the Mona Lisa, but I’m just a bit annoyed seeing other similar misuse, like Michelangelo’s David in boxers, or Venus de Milo wearing sunglasses.

Other vulnerable examples are not hard to find. Think of this magnificent piece of painting in the Sistine Chapel… another easy target for cliché and parody:

Or this self portrait of a tormented soul:


Or take these beginning haunting notes from a brilliant symphony, they have become an expression of suspense not much deeper than the tune in Final Jeopardy:


The opening chorus of this masterpiece has now been reduced to a punctuation mark in our vernacular, an exclamation used for scenarios from finding your lost keys to losing 10 pounds:

Isn’t the advertising industry supposed to be the flagship of creativity?  And, when it comes to the creative process, aren’t we supposed to flee from clichés and produce fresh expressions? Isn’t originality a goal to strive for anymore? Or, has parody become the new genre and proof of ingenuity in our time?

And I’m just too tired to go into all the zombie and vampire versions of Jane Austen’s novels…

The Merchant Ivory Dialogues

Re-watching The White Countess (2005) has prompted me to savor other Merchant Ivory films .  I love their sumptuous period set design, stunning cinematography and exceptional acting.  Some of them have garnered Oscar accolades, and since become classics, creating a genre of their own.

Long before Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire, there was Ismail Merchant, born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, in 1936.  He later went to New York to further his education, and started making movies in 1960.  On his way to the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 representing the U.S. with his nominated short, he met American director James Ivory.  The two formed a production company that same year, and the rest is history.

Before producer Ismail Merchant passed away in 2005, the Merchant Ivory Productions had created timeless masterpieces, most notably, adaptations from the work of E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Kazuo Ishiguro.  Together with German/Polish screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they have turned literary satires and portrayal of class-conscious Edwardian and Victorian English society into accessible popular movies, interpreting the humor and wit with a mark of their own.  Ironically, none of the three are English.  Maybe it does take an outsider to see clearly.   A short list of their impressive productions includes  A Room With A View (1985),  Howards End (1992),  The Remains of the Day (1993),  and The Golden Bowl (2000).



But here in this post, I must present to you The Merchant Ivory Dialogues.  Oh that’s not how it’s titled.  But Arti just named it so.  In the 2005 Criterion Merchant Ivory Collection DVD of Howards End (1992, 9 Oscar nominations, 3 wins) I found in the Special Features this amusing interview with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.  The conversation between the two are so whimsical that they could almost form a comedic duo.




Here are some excerpts:

On the idea of creating Howards End the movie:

 M: Howards End started with Ruth (screenwriter) telling me and I think gave Jim the novel to read.                                     

I: Well hold on. I’d read it.

M:    Oh, You’ve read it.  I see.

I: I’d read it in fact twice.   Ruth always sort of not exactly dangled the book in front of us after A Room with a View and Maurice.  But she saw it  as a really ambitious, and to her would be most, most rewarding project for us and for her.

M: Anyway, it was slow going for me.




On Jim Ivory’s favorite scene

I: For me … from the first time, if I remember anything about it, except this scene where Margaret jumps out of the car when they run over a cat.  Charles Wilcox doesn’t want to go back and a little girl runs into the road and starts crying and Margaret leaps out of the car…

M: We had to go to this incredible preparation, real cat and the artificial cat and the dead cat…

 I: There’s no real cat.

M: And so I said no I don’t want to do it, you know.  But he insisted because it was his favorite scene, and it is not in the film.  So you should listen to the producer first.

 I: That’s all I can really remember about the book the first time I read it was that scene,  which I thought is incredibly dramatic…

M: That’s your favorite scene which is not in the film.

I: Which we shot and cut out of the film. Anyway…




On Forster the Social Critic:

M: Howards End is about the class system, and what Forster said about the inheritance of England. This beautiful house, a metaphor for England,  will be inherited by the lower class. That is what happens here. This beautiful house is inherited by the clerk’s illegitimate son. Well anyway, this is an interpretation of mine.

I: I don’t think Forster had all that great love for the working classes …

M: Not love for the working class but…

I (voice covering M): He had an ideal, which was, people should be able to mingle from whatever their background, whatever their class, they all ought to be able to in a civilized and happy world. And in the good England everyone ought to be able to mix together if only the different kinds and types of people could make a connection. Then it would be for the betterment of all.




On American Funding (or the lack of)

M: Howards End was an ambitious film at that time, eight million dollars, the budget. We could not get eight million dollars from anybody, you know, it’s just not possible because Americans never saw the possibility of this film being successful as they never see anything of consequence or civilized film to be successful. They have blinkers on their eyes, they never see anything beyond, you know, the form …

I (moving about in his seat, almost rolling his eyes): All Americans?

M: All Americans

I (raises his eyebrows just enough to show his disagreement):   All Americans.

M: All American film companies… with the exception… there are some sensible people like Sony Classics, they were at that time with Orion pictures….they were very excited but they only gave us a very small sum of money…of course, their enthusiasm and support were greatly appreciated but we had to raise 85% of the money outside…





On Getting Vanessa Redgrave on Board

I: And then there was the casting of Vanessa Redgrave, who all along, from the very beginning I had wanted in that part. I thought she was the actress to play the first Mrs. Wilcox. And we kept sending her scripts, and this is the way it’s always is with Vanessa… You’re not sure she’s got the script, you’re not quite sure she’s read it, whether she likes it, whether she’ll do it…

M: I’ll tell you the story. Jim’s heart was set on Vanessa, and so was mine. So we sent this script and then we went to tea at Waldorf  Hotel. And so we were sitting there and she said she had four, five months all planned… and the money you offer is not enough. So I said what would you like.  She said if you could double that amount, I would do it. So I said ok, that’s it, you said it, now it’s double your salary. She couldn’t believe it was instantly, spontaneously done, because knowing that we had a small budget and we had to struggle for every penny. This was like giving whatever you want.

I: A very bad precedent.

M: Sorry?

I: A very bad precedent.

M: No it’s not a bad precedent at all. And for her I would do anything, you know. If she said get me the moon, I would get the moon for her. And it’s not possible for people to get the moon, but I would do it.



Ah… the creative process, the self and the collaboration, the art and the business, the part and the whole… just fascinating.


Photos:  James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Ismail Merchant received BAFTA Fellowship Award (2002);  Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End,

Too Much Jane?


Andrew Davis pondering

The Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway once made a controversial remark criticising film versions of literary work as mere “illustrated books”.  Regarding Jane Austen’s work, he said:

Cinema is predicated on the 19th century novel.  We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels–there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world.

What a waste of time.

Click here for the Wales news article containing the above quote.

To the discomfort of Mr. Greenaway, there have been more Austen adaptations made since he spoke.  As recent as just two weeks ago, BBC has announced that a four-episode production of Emma will be launched this fall.  The award-winning writer Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, 2006, TV; Our Mutual Friend, 1998, TV) is working on the new script, with actors pending.

Why do we need another Austen adaptation?  Do we need another “illustrated book” as Greenaway has argued?

I was surprised to hear such remarks from Mr. Greenaway, himself an art house filmmaker.  He certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of the power of the visual.  I have expressed my stance against his argument in a previous post entitled ‘Vision not Illustration’.  But as more Austen adaptations appear, laying ratings and profits aside, I still believe there is an artistic merit in turning book into film.

The visual has an immense power in bringing out the essence of the literary.  An image can elicit deep and hidden thoughts, stir up emotions of past experiences, point to new insights, and unleash multiple responses in just a short lapse of time.  The cliché  “A picture speaks a thousand words” has its application in this visually driven generation.  Not that I do not treasure the classics, or the literary tradition.  Far from it.  I think a good film adaptation can, at best, enhance our enjoyment of the literary, and if it fails, can only help us appreciate the original genius even more.

If Bach, over 300 years ago, could invent Theme and Variations, why can’t we in this post-modern age, where multiple narratives are cherished, create adaptations to a recognized original?  Of course, the key is held by the filmmakers. It takes the insightful and  interpretive lens of a good writer, director, and cinematographer to craft a fresh perspective, one that can evoke a new vision and yet still remain true to the spirit of the original.

Kate Harwood of BBC explains why another adaptation of Emma is ensued:

In Emma, Austen has created an intriguing heroine, and our four-hour canvas allows us to explore this multi-faceted character in detail.  Emma was Austen’s last novel, written when she was at the height of her craft, and we are delighted that such an esteemed writer as Sandy Welch is bringing her vision to this appealing story.

How appropriate it is for Harwood to see film as a canvas for visual exploration, and the writer’s vision as a crucial element in the creative process.

I say, bring on more Austen adaptations.  Jane would be most pleased… belatedly.


The above posted article has since been published in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine, where you can read more about Jane and her world.  Click here to go there.   

Click here to read my review of Part 1 and Part 2 of Sense and Sensibility, broadcast on PBS Masterpiece Classic Feb. 1 and 8.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005) DVD

“You can look anywhere and find inspiration.”

—- Frank Gehry

The past couple of months I’ve been tied down with previewing films for an upcoming International Film Festival that I haven’t time to watch films of my own choosing.  The past weekend I decided to cease the dry spell and watched the DVD I’ve purchased for a long while but haven’t the chance to view.  My only regret: Why did I wait so long?

This is a documentary about and made by two of my favorite artists:  Architect Frank Gehry and film director Sydney Pollack (Best Director 1985, Out of Africa), whom I sadly miss upon his untimely passing on May 26.  (To read my tribute to Sydney Pollack, click here.) Pollack worked on this film, his first documentary, over weekends
for about five years.  An official selection at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Sketches of Frank Gehry is his last directorial work.

Pollack has taken a simple and casual approach to present his long time friend Frank Gehry to the viewer, and that’s what impresses me.  The low-key yet artistic design of the film is a modest portrait of the architect whose body of work is often associated with rule-defying, bold and striking structures around the world.

Born 1929 in Toronto, Canada, Gehry moved to the United States with his family in 1947. His career spans four decades, establishing himself with renowned projects such as the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (1997), the Vitra Design Museum, Germany (1989), and more recently the Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. (2004). The personal and unpretentious portrayal of the architect brings out the mild and human side behind these massive physical structures.

Through informal dialogues, the filmmaker effectively captured the essence of artistic pursuit: the self-doubt during the creative process, the incubation and collaboration of ideas, the uncertainty of the soundness and appeal, and the ultimate exhilaration of the successful completion and reception of the work. Interestingly, the film works like a double-edged sword.  It explores the creative process of both the subject and the filmmaker.  And it is such revelation that makes the documentary so appealing.

In the beginning was the void:

Sydney:  Is starting hard?

Frank:  You know it is… I’m always scared that I’m not gonna know what to do.  It’s a terrifying moment.  And then when I start, I’m always amazed, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.”

The veteran director had his uncertainties as well:

Sydney:  Several people approached him with the idea of making a documentary about him.  And when he asked me if I’d do it, I thought he was crazy.  Not just that I didn’t know anything about making documentaries, I don’t know anything about architecture.

“That’s why you’re perfect,” he said.

Maybe all our training and experience that we hang on to so dearly are impediments to a fresh, new perspective.

The film gives us the insider view of the Gehry creative process.  It is a collaborative effort involving inputs from design partners mulling over paper models and computer expertise transferring concepts to 3D digital mode. Despite the elaborate and sometimes long incubation period, every piece of work begins with the architect’s own signature squiggles on a blank piece of paper.

We see Pollack using a hand-held digital camera to capture more agile and personal shots. As the title suggests, the filmmaker interviewed and chatted with various artists, architects, critic, and even Gehry’s therapist to gain different perspectives into the heart and mind of the architect.  He was able to elicit some insightful comments.

Writer and curator Mildred Friedman has this to say about Gehry:

He’s an architect who’s also an artist.  He takes so many risks.  And that’s what artists do.  Artists take risks to do something new that no one has seen before.

Gehry’s therapist Milton Wexler:

A great many people come to me hoping they can change themselves, settle their anxieties, their problems, their marriage or whatever…  When an artist comes to me, he wants to know how to change the world.

And from Pollack, when talking about the epic and mythical Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain:

He sees that the whole reason for being an artist is that moment in somebody’s eyes when you reach him.

The nay-sayer is represented by Hal Foster, Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, who criticizes Gehry of making a spectacle of his work.  We also see montage of printed words from the media, such as “ugly”, and even “perverse”.

Responding to criticisms about Gehry’s galleries and museums competing with the very exhibits they showcase, Julian Schnabel, artist and filmmaker (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007), defends Gehry’s design with this audacious sum up:

I feel very comfortable in his spaces.  He understands scale.  And if it does compete with the art, maybe that art isn’t good enough.

Such thought-provoking comments are just some ideas one can mull over long after the film.

I must also mention the original score composed by Sorman and Nystrom.  Like a soothing balm, it is pure delight looking at Gehry’s fluid designs with the equally flowing and meditative musical rendering.

The special features on the DVD include a bonus 35 minutes interview and audience Q & A with Sydney Pollack at the L. A. Premiere of the film.  The icing on the cake, this feature offers Pollack’s reminiscence of the production and more thoughts on the creative process.  A valuable DVD to keep for anyone interested in the artistic expression of the human mind.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

A note on the photos:  Arti has the pleasure of visiting two of Frank Gehry’s work.  The above photos are taken by Arti in October 2007 and February, 2008. The first two are the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A.  The last two are different views of The Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  All Rights Reserved.

The source for the squiggles image:  Maclean’s Magazine.