‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.

Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.

As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.

The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.

Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.


At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.

Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.  

Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”

Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.

Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.  

Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.

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A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.

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An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.

Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.

Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.

A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.

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‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history. Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of … Continue reading ‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

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‘Shirkers’ Could Well Kick Off Another #Movement

Writer-director Sandi Tan’s bio reads like an anime heroine. Born in Singapore, where chewing gum is outlawed and family expectations confining, teenager Sandi led a subversive life immersed in the rad, forbidden culture of Singapore. At the prodigious age of 14, she wrote for “Big O”, a magazine of Singapore’s underground rock scene. At 16, she started her own zine “The Exploding Cat” with best friend Jasmine Ng. It attracted a cult following; they received fan letters from New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, even from prisons. But that’s not the exciting part. At the ripe old age of 19, Sandi made the first indie road movie of Singapore, with a few devoted cinephiles and curious onlookers.

Sandi Tan in Shirkers

It all began when an enigmatic American expat called Georges Cardona arriving in Singapore and started a film class attended by mostly 18 and 19 year-old girls. Sandi started Georges’ class with great aspirations. He took her and a few other gals under his wings, went on night drives after class and introduced them to the French New Wave.

In the summer of 1992, energized by youthful zeal, Sandi made a movie called “Shirkers” with people from her filmmaking class, a remarkable feat. She wrote the script and played the main role, a 16 years-old assassin called “S”. Her best friend Jasmine was editor; another friend Sophie Siddique was producer, and Georges, the director. Sophie as executive producer wrote a letter to Kodak and received all film supplies free. How they rounded up supporting actors and extras, location scouts, sound and techs was an endeavour only youthful verve would attempt.

After the completion of the filming, Sandi and her friends left Singapore for University; she went to England, Jasmine to New York, and Sophie to L.A. Georges remained in Singapore. And that was when the girls lost contact with him. None of them had seen any of the footage, and Jasmine had all the intention to return after school term to do editing work. Georges had disappeared without a trace and taken with him all the 16mm reels of their “Shirkers” film. A large chunk of the girls’ life had gone missing, especially Sandi’s, who had put her heart and soul into the venture, and who, on her own, had gone on a road trip in America with Georges, by then her best friend, a man twice her age with a wife and kid.

With Georges’s mysterious exit, the filmmaking dream of the clan had all but vanished into thin air. After finishing university in England, Sandi went back to Singapore and wrote for Singapore’s Straits Times as a film critic, apparently a dream detoured. Yet life went on. A few years later she proceeded to NYC for film school at Columbia University and later settled in the U.S. She had since made a couple of short films and written a novel, The Black Isle (Hachette USA), which was well received. But at the back of her mind, she could not forget “Shirkers”. Then, twenty-five years later, that fateful day arrived.

Without giving out spoilers, somehow events led to the recovery of the complete “Shirkers” in its original condition in 70 canisters of 16mm film, together with storyboards, scripts, mementos and props used in the production. An amazing turn.

The present documentary is not only about the creative process in filmmaking by a group of young enthusiasts, but also a chronicle of a period in Singapore’s social and cinematic history. What’s more, Sandi Tan’s feature could well kick off something like the #MeToo Movement, not about sexual advantage taken by the powerful, but about adults in mentoring positions toying with the hopes and dreams of their protégé, about the betrayal of trust and the robbing of rightful ownership of creative endeavours. But of course, Georges could well be just a deeply disturbed soul shirking from real life challenges and responsibilities.

Shirkers the documentary is a cinematic collage of 16mm film, digital, Super 8, slides, animations, hand-drawn illustrations and writing, a visual cacophony of creative expressions. Cinematographer Iris Ng (The Apology, Stories We Tell) has done a realistic capture of old friends reuniting with the Jasmine and Sophie interviews plus those of other personnel associated with the original production. Jasmine is now a filmmaker and Sophie faculty of Film at Vassar.

The editing in bridging the 25-year-gap is seamless, the mood personal and quirky. Notable also are the sound mixing and the original score. Shirkers is more than just a chronicle of a mysterious lost-and-found, but a narrative that transcends grievances to situate personal experience in a larger social and cultural context.

Shirkers premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January where Sandi Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. The film was later acquired by Netflix and released October 26 via the streaming service.

Latest news is that Shirkers is among the 166 entries for Best Documentary Feature in the coming Oscars. Nominations for the short-list will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Academy Awards show will be broadcast live on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Update Nov. 16: Shirkers has just been nominated for Best Documentary Independent Spirit Award.

Munch 150: The Works Still Scream

This captivating documentary is the second installment of the ‘Exhibition: Great Art On Screen’ series with host Tim Marlow. An ‘event film’, the term refers to this kind of doc focusing on a special occasion, here, the 150th year of the renowned Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch’s birthday (1863-1944). To celebrate, a comprehensive exhibition of Munch’s works is being held in two venues in Oslo from June to October, 2013, the National Museum and the Munch Museum. The film captures the highlights of this exhibition.

I soon learned too that the theatre charged more for the experience. However, the $17 ticket is acceptable. Short of seeing the actual paintings at the two venues and being free to walk around, I’ve saved a hefty plane ticket to Oslo, and I get to see the works magnified clearly on the big screen and hear expert commentary so I can appreciate even the minute brushstrokes up close. Sure, I can always wear a headphone, if it’s available, to hear the commentary while walking through the exhibition. But it’s a refreshing experience to look at the paintings enlarged on a giant screen, hearing in-depth analysis juxtaposed with dramatized biopic vignettes as I sit back and eat popcorn in a dark, air-conditioned theatre on a hot summer day.

The film Munch 150 has aptly taken advantage of the medium of the cinema. Unlike the previous film in this series, Manet: Portraying Life, which ironically, is devoid of life, Munch 150 has presented to the viewer what such a medium can best do. The camera as a guide and magnifying glass, projecting onto the big screen images larger than life, accompanied by insights from curators and host Tim Marlow, an audio-visual experience. Yes, I’ve mentioned ‘big screen’ several times. That is essentially the benefit that the TV screen or your computer monitor would not suffice.

Edvard Munch (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈmuŋk], in English, something like ‘Moonk’ with a glottal sound on the ‘n’) was born in 1863 in a small Norwegian village. His family moved to Kristiania (now Oslo) the next year. From an early age, Munch was haunted by death and illness. He first saw his mother die of tuberculosis when he was five, and later, his beloved older sister Sophie tormented and died of the same illness when he was fourteen. He himself was plagued by frequent sickness, and at one time was near death with tuberculosis. Physically struggling with poor health, inwardly, Munch was often stricken by desires and guilt. Nihilistic thoughts added burning fuel to an already troubled soul. These all led to alcoholism, depression and breakdown later in life.

Writing and painting became his outlets. Journals allowed him to spill his thoughts, and the canvas was the visceral medium for him to release deep, psychological turmoils. His fears and anguish, all angst and pains found expression in his art.

The Sick Child

I was particularly impressed by his early work The Sick Child (1885-86), depicting the trauma he had experienced as he watched his beloved, ailing sister Sophie lay in bed frail with tuberculosis. A grieving woman holding her hand, head bowed in sorrow. It was a disturbing scene, and yet I’d appreciated the colours and brushstrokes that seemed as if they were just rendered in a free and haphazard way. From the commentary, I felt the poignancy.

The Sick ChildThe camera and commentator guided me to see the scratches left on the canvas, most noticeably on the pillow near Sophie’s face, something which I wouldn’t have noticed if I just walked by it in the museum. These scratches were troubling to look at, probably made by a pallette knife, or a hard brush. They were marks of anguish and frustration, the outburst of emotions during what must have been a painful process. Munch always left ‘blemishes’ on his paintings. Here, the scratches and patchy layers of paints on paints showed raw emotions unleashed. That was the reason the work was met with criticisms and rejections in his day. It was not pretty and neat as his predecessors had done. He was, literally, painting outside the lines.

The Frieze of Life

Many of Munch’s more well known works are in the series called The Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death. The Munch Museum in Oslo exhibits the paintings as a series on four white walls in a room — and here’s the unconventional — without frames. The curator commented that this was what Munch would have intended. Without the distractions of the frames, the paintings speak out loud and clear. In The Frieze of Life, Munch explored the very essence of being human, the frameless, existential experience that is universal.

The Scream (1893)

The_ScreamThe Scream is in the section of The Frieze of Life categorized as ‘Angst’. It is the most well-known of Munch’s paintings. A deathlike skull-face devoid of gender, hands covering the ears and screaming out into the void. Munch painted this after an actual experience while he was walking in the woods, hearing a huge scream inside him. He was overcome with fear. After that episode, he painted The Scream. In it is a figure that has since become the epitome of existential angst. I’d appreciated the comment in the film stating that ‘it’s an icon, not a cliché.’

The Scream made history just last May. It had set an auction record for a piece of art work, fetching $119.9 million (£74m) at Sotheby’s in New York. Almost seventy years after his death, Munch’s works still scream.

The Girls on the Bridge (1901)

The Girls on the BridgeA more delightful painting, The Girls on the Bridge is fresh, bright, and colourful, exuding a summer spirit. But even in this work, Munch depicted the struggles between innocence (white dress) and desire (red). And while we see the green clump of a tree, full of life, we also see its ominous, dark reflection on the water. In the midst of life, we are in death. Munch seemed like a party pooper, but maybe that’s why he needed to scream. Or else we wouldn’t have heard him.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The next and last installment in the series is Vermeer and Music.

Sources of images: Wikipedia

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Related Posts:

Art and Cliché

Arles: In the Steps of Van Gogh

Inspired by Vermeer

Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

In December 1994, a small team of cave explorers came upon a cave near the valley of the Ardèche River in southern France. They were awestruck as they went inside. Since named after the team leader Jean-Marie Chauvet, the Chauvet Cave had provided the natural canvas for prehistoric paintings dating back 32,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic period, twice as old as those previously found in Lascaux. These are the earliest paintings ever discovered.

The Chauvet Cave is located near the natural limestone bridge over the Ardèche River, the Pont d’Arc, which has been noted to be half a million years old:

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The acclaimed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog was granted special permission endorsed by the French Ministry of Culture to go into the Chauvet Cave to film the rock paintings in situ. The result is this mesmerizing documentary.

Following a restricted 2-foot wide pathway, and limited only to a film crew of four, with no heat-emitting lights and only hand-held camera, Herzog made a spellbinding document of epic historical significance. A team of archeologist, paleontologist, art historian and geologist formed the quiet, unobtrusive entourage into this pristine trove of treasures.

Surrounded by pink calcite columns like icicles with glittering crystals, the rock paintings depict a myriad of animals including cave bears, ibexes, deers, owls, mammoths…

Action-packed panels of bisons, horses, and rhinos locking horns:

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Lions hunting bisons:

A panther and hyenna surprisingly in friendly mood:

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From the film, archeologists and an art historian inform us that a single artist created most of these works. He had a crooked little finger, and his palm prints could be seen from crouching position to a height of 6 ft.  They are now the oldest human handprints:

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There are animal fossils but no human remains in the cave, suggesting that it was not used for human dwelling but maybe just for painting. A prehistoric art studio? The artist had utilized the curvatures and ridges of the rocks to create fascinating renderings of animals charged with life and energy.

This is where I’d wholeheartedly endorse the 3D technology. Director Herzog, after some hesitations, decided to use a 3D camera to capture the vivid renderings. With the 3D advantage, we can see how the artist utilized the contours of the rocks to depict the animals in a most realistic way.

In the film, we also see multi-legged bisons, like those in cartoon strips or frames in animated films, suggesting movements.

Many of the animals are depicted in perspectives:

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and in layered renderings like this showing lions without manes:

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A few of the paintings are dated to some 5,000 years later, about 27,000 to 25,000 ago, indicating another period of artistic activities there. But since that newer date, no human traces were left. The cave had remained untouched until the recent discovery in 1994.

In the vicinity of the cave, remnants of musical instruments are found, evidence of another form of artistic pursuit. In the film, we hear one of the researcher playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on what looks like a tiny twig with equally-spaced holes. It would be another extraordinary find if we could discover the pop tunes of the day.

Now, a note about watching this film in 3D. I admit as someone with an acute built-in motion sensor, I had to leave the theatre half way through the film when I first saw it in 3D. The roving camera plus the 3D effects had proven to be worse than being tossed at sea.

But I’m fortunate to be given a second chance. The film is now screened in another theatre without the 3D technology. I knew I must see the rest of it, so I returned for a second viewing. And this time, I stayed till the end.

A must-see documentary for all.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Man On Wire (2008, DVD): Romancing the Towers

man-on-wire1When the idea of building the World Trade Center Twin Towers began to germinate in NYC, on the other side of the globe, a young man in France started to weave a dream.  He wanted to walk across the top of the Towers on a wire after they were built.  Six years later, with the Towers nearing completion, Philippe Petit fulfilled his dream a few days short of his 25th birthday.  On August 7, 1974, he stepped on a wire strung across the roof top of the then tallest buildings in the world.  Hailed as ‘The Artistic Crime of the Century’, Philippe Petit’s breathtaking, and illegal, high wire act is the ultimate test of the human spirit, pushing the limit of audacity and strength.

Based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds,  Man On Wire has won over 20 film awards only a few short months after its release, ultimately receiving the Oscar Best Documentary for 2008.  Director James Marsh chronicles the extraordinary endeavor of Philippe Petit by means of interviews, dramatic re-creation, and archival footage.  Before the WTC, Petit had walked across the two steeples of the Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The WTC Towers meant the summit of his aspirations.  In a Sundance Film Festival interview, he described his act as ‘marrying the Towers’.

 Director James Marsh has chosen a very human angle to present his subject, such that we’re not just watching an extraordinary circus feat.  The documentary reveals a child growing up with unusual physical talents.  It vividly depicts the fearlessness of youth, the weaving of a fairy tale, the bond of friendship without which Philippe could not have achieved, and finally the euphoria of a dream fulfilled.  The smile on Philippe’s face while on the wire says it all.

The interviews in the film have also brought some very personal elements into this enthralling event.  We see Philippe’s childhood friend and accomplice Jean-Louis overcome with emotion, now more than 30 years later, as he recalls and is still moved by the immensity of the experience.

It’s a crime, no doubt, but it’s team work of the highest level of difficulty.  That they had to haul hundreds of pounds of wire and equipment up to the roof top, shoot the wire across, anchor it safe, all without detection was itself an incredible feat.  Once that was done, the rest was easy for Philippe, he just needed to walk on the wire suspended 1,350 feet above ground.

And that is when the artful part comes in.  Philippe had not just walked on tightrope, but performed with grace and serenity, movements conjuring up images of ballet on air.  For 45 minutes, he slow-danced across the Towers eight times, lay, knelt, and sat on the wire to the amazement of the awestruck crowd on the ground.  There was unspeakable beauty in his magnificent boldness.

Police had to threaten him with a helicopter to get him off.  He and his friends were immediately handcuffed, taken to jail, and Phillipe undergone a psychiatric examination.  He was later released and given a life-time pass to the Towers.  When asked why he did it, he answered:

“There’s no why… Life should be lived on the edge.”

Excellent special features that come with the DVD include Philippe Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbour Bridge Crossing, exclusive interview with Philippe Petit, and an animated short film based on the children book by Mordicai Gerstein “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers”, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Further,  in this post 9/11 world, the DVD is even more significant in that it chronicles someone who had taken the arduous steps to appreciate and to relate to the Towers in a most memorable way.

And then there’s the music.  I admit it’s the music that has enthralled me from the start, yes, even with just the menu.  While Michael Nyman has written some fantastic original score for the documentary, it’s French composer Eric Satie’s pieces that so captivate me.   Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 is the music that augments the beauty of Philippe’s poetic walk on wire.

While most of us would rather watch life being lived on the edge from the comfort of our living room, we would be inspired nonetheless to venture out of our couch for a little more excitement, and motivated to take just a bit more risks with our life.  For us ordinary folks, maybe living life to the fullest is an aspiration challenging enough.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

  “If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.”      — Neil Simon 

 

Philippe Petit and James Marsh Interviews:

Click here for the  NPR’s Studio 360 Interview

Click here for the Sundance Film Festival Interview on YouTube

 

 

Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey (2002, TV)

 For two months, I had to stay away from home while my house underwent a major renovation.  After sequestered from TV watching for the whole summer, that was one of the first things I delved into as soon as I moved back last week.  A couple of days ago, in between re-runs of Olympics events, I was most gratified to watch this CBC/National Film Board documentary.  What a breath of fresh air and what an invigorating luxury I have been deprived of all summer!  Only on CBC.

The legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) visited the Soviet Union in 1957, at the age of 24, the first concert pianist from North America to be extended and accepted an invitation to play behind the Iron Curtain.  Stalin died just four years ago.  The Cold War was at its climax.  Very few had heard of a Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould, what more, very few had heard Bach since the composer was banned by the totalitarian regime for the religiosity of his work. 

This 56 minutes documentary, which won the Grand Prize of the 2003 Montreal International Festival of Films on Art, is packed with valuable archival footage of the actual Gould concerts, meditative shots of the lone pianist against the grand Russian architectural backdrop, as well as some of Gould’s own reminiscence of the historic journey. Interspersed are interviews with significant personalities within the Soviet arts and music circles, sharing their life-changing Gould experiences.  Among them are prominent musicians such as the renowned pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and dissident cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who sheltered the writer Solzhenitsyn and resulted in the Soviet government banning his performances.

Tatiana Selikman, a pianist and teacher at the Russian Academy of Music, recalls the day of Gould’s first concert in May, 1957.  She saw the poster and was curious about a pianist from Canada, playing The Art of the Fugue, which nobody ever played in Communist Soviet Union.  The Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory was sparsely seated.  Then the pale faced pianist came on stage, sat on a low chair, and unleashed a magical performance that mesmerized his small audience.  During the intermission, those in the concert hall dashed out to phone their friends, urging them to come right away.  As the concert resumed for the second half, the hall was packed to overflow.

And the rest is history…

What Gould brought to the Russian audience was not just Bach, or the intricacies of the Fugue, or the beguiling Goldberg Variations, but a new perspective.  Gould’s performance embodied the liberating effect of music, the freedom of artistic expression and the bold exhibition of individualism.  The audience was emancipated to a new found freedom that was not sanctioned under totalitarian rule.  Using the words of some of the musicians interviewed in the film, the Berlin Wall of music came down, warming the Cold War by a few degrees. For the first time, they were applauding something that was not Soviet.  And they were exhilarated.

The recent passing of the Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the events taking place in Georgia, or even the Olympics, have whirled up sentiments in me that I thought was long gone… the pathos of hearing the muffled cries of the oppressed, be it political, social, or artistic. 

There are those who are indignant about the Canadian government subsidizing the Glenn Gould trip, arguing it was a waste of taxpayers’ money.  If a lone pianist can inspire the masses, and if music can soften the hearts of man, enhance international goodwill, and reiterate the ideals of humanity, I am all for it.  Would it not cost more to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the front line?

 ~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

The documentary has been posted on YouTube in six parts.  Here is the beginning.  However, nothing compares to the big screen especially with Glenn Gould playing Bach:

                                     

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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.