Volume 1 Issue No. 2

 
May/June 2012

Masthead

PUBLISHED BY: Public Art Squad Project

PUBLISHER: Scotto Mycklebust, Artist

MANAGING EDITOR: Katie Cercone

CONTRIBTING WRITERS: Dan Callahan, Linda Digusta, David Hales, Richard Wyndbourne Kline, Richard Leslie, Rob Reed, Suzanne Schultz, Matthew Schultz,
Lena Vazifdar

CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Scotto Mycklebust

ART & DESIGN: Joli Latini, Lauren Stec

ART PHOTOGRAPHER: Elisa Garcis de la Huerta

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IN THIS ISSUE:

- The R List
- The Gallery View
- Urban Chic
- Art Attack, The Occupy  Museum Movement
- The Hip Hop Feminist Manifesto
- Biennial Clap Back
- The Literary View
- Cinema Review
- Biting The Hand That Feeds
- The Pink Ghetto
- The Invisible Artist
- The Revolt Takes Boston
- Make it Graphic
- Art and Economics
- The OWS Poetry Anthology
- Strawberry
- Françoise Gilot


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BY DAN CALLAHAN

CASTA DIVA:Werner Schroeter at The Museum of Modern Art


During May and June, The Museum of Modern Art is presenting a near-complete retrospective of the films of Werner Schroeter, the most underground and perhaps the most influential of all the German New Wave directors of the 1970s. Though he is still largely unknown to film audiences in America, he had a profound effect on certain artists in Europe, especially his German compatriots Wim Wenders, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Werner Herzog (Schroeter staged the opera sequences in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo {1982}).


In 1977, fellow German New Waver Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote about Schroeter's status as "constrained, repressed, and at the same time ruthlessly exploited. His films received the quite useful 'underground' pedigree, which rendered them in a flash as beautiful, but nonetheless exotic plants, ones so far away which blossom in such a strange manner that one in the end could not really deal with them." Fassbinder posited that Syberberg's career, in particular, was essentially a rip-off of Schroeter's work, but then he himself grabbed a project away from Schroeter, a film version of Jean Genet's Querelle (1982), and he used many of the tropes of Schroeter's style in that movie, which turned out to be his last.


At the age of five, Schroeter declared that he wanted to be a film director, and when he was 13, he heard Maria Callas sing on the radio, which engendered a lifelong obsession with that diva and other operatic examples. At 19, he worked as a male prostitute and went to film school for only a few weeks before starting to make his own highly idiosyncratic movies. He died in 2010, and he has held his position as a film director whose work has been little seen and little discussed even though it radically influenced many of the better-known artists working around him. That may begin to change with this MoMa retrospective, but surely his lush visuals and his sometimes-obscure concerns are too defiantly marginal, too rich, too unsettlingly eclectic to ever admit him into any respectable pantheon. I've seen some of his many shorts, most of them on YouTube, including his poetically edited 8mm 1968 portrait collage of his idol Callas, plus snippets of many of his other films, and one whole feature, The Death of Maria Malibran (1971), which stars Andy Warhol superstar Candy Darling.


The Death of Maria Malibran is based loosely (very loosely!) on the life and early death of the great nineteenth century opera star Malibran, who is said to have essentially sung herself to death by the age of 28. Schroeter sets up profoundly luscious juxtapositions of faces, usually two women side by side, as opera and sometimes pop music plays on the soundtrack. Some of the compositions suggest Renaissance paintings, while others uncannily recreate the look of films from the 1920s and 30s; we see 1920s "vamps" in heavy make-up and then Darling, with her flawlessly '30s look of platinum hair and penciled eyebrows, posing in 1930s-like drawing rooms shot in grey, pearly light. In the film's most startling sequence, Darling is done up in cocoa-light blackface and sings "St. Louis Woman" in the exact, slightly whining tones of Billie Holiday, and she gets away with it due to her sheer intensity and her status as another beautiful outcast, paying tribute to a legend.


In Maria Malibran, Schroeter mixes tones and styles wildly, and there's a disconnect between his overwhelmingly sophisticated and learned compositional sense and the (deliberate?) amateurishness of his jerky camera movements, yet the images themselves exert such a hypnotic quality that it's easy to get lost in them without thoughts of what they might mean. Maria Malibran also features Schroeter's favorite filmic muse, a staring lady named Magdalena Montezuma, who would go on to star in most of his movies, notably as the mother in his homoerotic The Rose King (1986). After Montezuma's death, Schroeter found another muse in the adventurous Isabelle Huppert, who starred in three of Schroeter's films, including Two (2002), where she played twin sisters. Schroeter also worked extensively in the theater and in opera, and in 2008, when he was honored by the Venice Film Festival, he called his own The Death of Maria Malibran "a work of genius." Perhaps he's right, though it might be a genius that only speaks to a select few, like French philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote that, "what Schroeter does with a face, a cheekbone, the lips, the expression of the eyes...is a multiplying and burgeoning of the body, an exultation."


WAITING FOR WHIT:DAMSELS IN DISTRESS


Whit Stillman made three very unusual films in the 1990s: Metropolitan (1990), an insider's stylized look at upper crust young people, Barcelona (1994), a deceptively small, rigorously worked-out rumination on love and friendship, and The Last Days of Disco (1998), an analysis of early 1980s club mores which cost a fair amount and wasn't a financial success. Stillman was inactive in movies for fourteen years until Tiny Furniture (2010) wunderkind Lena Dunham provided some crucial contacts and encouragement so that he could make a new film, Damsels in Distress, which stars the erstwhile queen of the mid-aughts micro-budget mumblecore movement, Greta Gerwig. After years of watching Gerwig mutter the most brain-deadening chatter in Joe Swanberg joints, it's a truly restorative tonic to see her wrap both her charm and her wits around Stillman's delightfully articulate verbal propriety.


Looking again at Metropolitan and Barcelona, it seems a real shame to me that Stillman was unable to make a steady stream of small moral comedies in the manner of French auteur Eric Rohmer (Stillman spent a good part of those lost fourteen years in France), for his is a sensibility unlike any other in American or world cinema. He is conservative, to a degree, and his characters often espouse ideas that seem to come from the 1950s, when being "ordinary" was thought of as a natural inclination and goal, yet in many ways there's something wild about Stillman, something almost freakish in the intellectual dexterity of his characters. Metropolitan is very much a freak film, unlike any other, and in the first ten or so minutes, it takes a radical adjustment to get used to the way his people talk in cool, precise, yet often digressive full sentences. This dialogue demands a specific kind of playing, and an actor can solve the Stillman dialogue puzzle by hitting all of the ideas with great urgency, which is what Stillman muse Chris Eigeman did in the director's first three movies. Eigeman had a way of getting overly wrought up over the pettiest points of etiquette, and the effect was often ticklishly unpredictable. Gerwig in Damsels takes the opposite approach, playing her quietly domineering, often misguided but good-hearted college girl Violet on a dreamy, almost deadpan note of semi-demented serenity.


In a crucial piece of information that has not been noted much in reviews so far, we learn that Violet as a small girl had obsessive-compulsive tendencies; she would set herself tasks to accomplish, and if she did not accomplish them correctly, she felt that there would be consequences. Her imperious friend Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) imparts the fact that Violet used to run her finger over her forehead a certain number of times without ever touching her hairline or eyebrows; she felt that if she touched her hairline or eyebrows her parents would die. And the thing is, Rose relates, Violet's parents did both die, not long after this game Violet used to play. Violet's name, we learn from Rose, isn't even really Violet. She has invented a persona, and she wants to try to help people on campus; she has very specific ideas about the proper ways of doing things, and these ideas make up both the form and the content of the film. The Stillman dialogue itself is entirely self-sufficient, as a group sound, as a series of questionable ideas, as wings to lift us out of our seats.


This is a very funny movie, and in some ways a dirty movie, in the old Ernst Lubitsch sense of innuendoes standing in for outright sex talk. But it is also a movie about the ways we seek to ameliorate sadness and aloneness. Violet wants to start an international dance craze, The Sambola, and Damsels in Distress ends with instructions on how to perform this dance, which looks neither complicated nor easy. Stillman uses dance to end his film because he is seeking, in this fourth movie, to offer us a kind of utopia, the utopia of Jacques Demy, of Josef Von Sternberg, of Astaire and Rogers. It's a cheering goal, and Damsels in Distress is a cheering movie, as off-kilter as a girl wearing a large and unexpected hat, as ironic and winningly dry as Irene Dunne touching the tip of her tongue to her palette.

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