Die Hard with Action/Spectacle Cinema

July 27, 2012 · Print This Article

I was late to the Action movie genre. Really late. In fact maybe all of the 90s was wasted on me. It was only a few years ago during a particularly stressful time that my partner said, You know what you need? A good action movie. Then we proceeded to watch Die Hard (1988), Die Harder (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2005). And guess what? After weekend of watching John McClane vanquish bad guys, both foreign and domestic, I felt a lot better. I mean what did I have to worry about? I didn’t have to run barefoot through broken glass to save my wife and everyone in her office from terrorists—on Christmas Eve, no less. So when I saw Action/Spectacle Cinema by Jose Arroyo on the “new” shelf at the library, I snapped it right up.

Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader, is a collection of writings from The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, a smart and not too academic magazine. Instead of being organized chronologically, Arroyo divided the book into thematic sections: Big, Loud Action Movie; A John Woo Interlude; Comics, TV, SFX, and ‘the Ride” at the Movies; Indie Pulp and Neo-noir; Serial Killer in ’90s Hollywood; Critical Perspectives on a Mode; and Action/Spectacle in Review. But my favorite section is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Spectacle in Action.

This section, as you can imagine takes, Schwarzenegger as its subject, or if not the subject, then the vehicle by which the authors discuss their ideas. J. Hoberman’s essay “Nietzsche’s Boy” examines the trajectory of Arnold’s career and the shift from total bloody body count to that of benevolent action savior. This is best demonstrated by the difference between The Terminator and Terminator 2. The thing that struck me so much about these essays were that they were written in the ’90s, at a time when Schwarzenegger’s career as a politician was just beginning. This chapter foreshadows the man we would see as governor of California . This section, like the others, ends with reviews.

Although the essays are for the most part excellent, the real meat is in the reviews. Let’s be honest. Action movies are meant to entertain. There’s a car/train/plane chase. Shit blows up. The good guy wins. He gets the girl. I never thought much past that, and if I do read a review for an action movie, it’s only to see if it’s worth my $10.50. Action/Spectacle Cinema contains dozens of reviews and it was great fun to read them and see these films through a new, much more critical and loving lens than that which I am used to viewing action movies. Reading these sometimes twenty year-old reviews reminded me of films I’d completely forgotten about and loved, like The Long Kiss Goodnight. I also learned a lot about my viewing habits. As someone who somehow missed both Avatar and Titanic, I was surprised to find I am a James Cameron fan. Who knew?

Action/Spectacle Cinema is a good time. It’s not the kind of book most people would read cover-to-cover, nor is it must have for every library. Despite being on the library’s “new” shelf, it turns out that Action/Spectacle Cinema is not so new—it was published in 2000. But because this is an anthology of  ’90s film writing, it doesn’t feel dated, but instead like a snapshot of an exciting time in action film history.


Not Ready to Make Nice

June 22, 2012 · Print This Article

I had no intention of reviewing The Guerrilla Girls’ new catalog Not Ready to Make Nice: In the Artworld and Beyond. I mean it’s such a slim volume and I figured I knew everything there was to know about The Guerrilla Girls. Besides, I had practically emptied the library of the art books from the “New” section. Still, when I got home, put those big hardcover art books on the coffee table, it was the little Guerrilla Girls book that I brought to bed with me that night.

Not Ready to Make Nice is a straightforward catalog from the Columbia College A+D Gallery where the Guerrilla Girls were artists in residence this spring. (Bad at Sports is currently in residence, so stop on by.) The body of this 36-page book is a retrospective of the Guerrilla Girls’ last ten years. What I found surprising, sadly surprising, is that it seems the inclusion of women and people of color in our major institutions hasn’t improved much since they started. One of the most illuminating pieces is Chicago Museums: Time for Gender Reassignment! The facts in this work state “even the solo shows at the MCA since 2010 have been 80 percent male.” When I read that, I thought, Wow, that’s way more than I expected. Then my heart sank a little. Really, twenty percent? Remember that line from Rocky Horror where Magenta says to Frank, “I ask for nothing, Master,” and he responds, “and you shall receive it, in abundance.” Yeah, just like that.

The catalog also contains three contextualizing essays and a forward by Jane M. Saks, the executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College. The first essay by Neysa Page-Lieberman gives a succinct overview of the history of the Guerrilla Girls. The second essay by Joanna Gardner-Huggett considers the Guerrilla Girls through the lens of the feminist movement. Lastly, the catalog closes with an essay by Kymberly N. Pinder that places the Guerrilla Girls within context of  ’80s-era culture jamming and street art. Taken together, Not Ready to Make nice is a tidy overview of the Guerrilla Girls’ career and their influence on contemporary arts culture.

This last paragraph is where I usually talk about how much the book costs and where you can buy it. I got mine at the library, which seems like a good place to get a book. But when I started looking for purchase information, I couldn’t find any. It seems the only reasonable way to come by this catalog is to check it out or read it for free online. I love this idea. Catalogs can be crazy expensive and hard to come by, so the idea of posting it for free seems both intellectually and financially respectful. Go ahead, read this book. It’s interesting and it won’t cost you a thing.


Periodically Google

May 25, 2012 · Print This Article

At the risk of sounding like a shill for Google, I will dedicate this post to Google Books. Actually, it’s now

Don't expect to find Artforum on Google Books.

called Google Play, but I’m old and find this concept confusing, so I’m going to ignore it. I suggest you do too. It is possible to purchase contemporary titles from Google Books and read them on your device, but so what? Everyone sells digital books. You can even check them out from the library. What I find most compelling about Google Books is the access to periodicals, old ones that I’d never encounter on my own. Admittedly, I’m pretty infatuated with old magazines. I bought 54 years of Gourmet off eBay, co-edited the New Art Examiner anthology, and interviewed Bad at Sportser Meg Onli for Art 21’s Centerfield post. Onli is currently working on a project about Black World/Negro Digest. She’s accessing all of her material through Google Books. I realize people use Google Books all the time, but I want to reframe it from just another place on the interweb trying to part me from my money, to an invaluable tool for artists.

Google calls all text, books, even magazines, even pamphlets, so keep that in mind. A simple search on “art” and restricting the results to free, yields only 47 titles, but what interesting titles they are. The first hit is The Art of the Moving Picture…: Being the 1922 Revision of the Book First Issued in 1915. Well, there’s just so many curious things about this book, I hardly know where to begin. The Art of the Moving Picture makes some excellent assertions, that still ring true. For instance that the pace of the “action photoplay” leaves no room for “full grown personal passion” (12). Think Die Hard or Con Air. Some things have not quite stayed the same. For instance “when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy” (207). I wonder what the author Vachel Lindsay would think of today’s upscale brew and views?

Because it’s Google, you are able to search within individual titles. Starting with magazines, restricting results to free, and searching “art” brings crazy random articles like this one from Vegetarian Times, called “Vegetarianism in Art.”  There are more popular periodicals as well–hundreds of issues of Life. A browse of December 28, 1936, reveals a story about the first panda coming to the US and workers for the WPA’s Chicago theatrical arts project striking at the Merchandise Mart. The American Art Directory Volume IX (1911) has advertisements for art galleries on its forepages, is lousy with statistics, and names of artists and curators of the moment. And in case you didn’t know, back then all the high-end Chicago galleries were on South Michigan and admission to The Art Institute was twenty-five cents.

Besides book and magazines, you can also find other, more sundry reading material. There are many museum and exhibition catalogues, gallery brochures, bulletins from art organizations, but these charmers are a little more shy and require quite a bit of coaxing. Perhaps a bottle of rose and a bouquet of peonies would help.

Obviously, there is little contemporary art represented here, at least not for free. “Modern” in Google Book world lingers somewhere around 1912, which is kind of fun because searching a word like “sculptress” yields dozens of hits. Be warned, there are serious issues with meta data. Clicking on “Magazines” does not bring you to all of their magazines, it brings you to items scanned as individual issues. Most of what I read comes from bound volumes, that although look quite bookish, aren’t. Most of these are classified as books, though they’re still just magazines. Don’t expect the date Google gives you be correct, because it often isn’t. Read the title page. Even with these limitations, I still recommend spending some time on Google Books and exploring what these old magazines and books have to offer.

AIDS Demo Graphics

April 27, 2012 · Print This Article

One night in the mid-80s, my friends and I were walking along Capitol Hill, and there on the lawn of Seattle Community College was a group of men holding a candlelight vigil. There were only four or five of them. We asked them what the vigil was about. One man gave me a pamphlet and said that gay men and junkies were dying of a new disease. He told me that with the way this mysterious illness was spreading, soon everyone would have it. I didn’t believe him. But over the course of the next ten years, what he said turned out to be true, or at least to many of us felt true.

For that long decade, Americans struggled to make sense of HIV-AIDS and what it meant to us, not just as individuals, but also to our communities. We saw conceptual art enter the national consciousness, exemplified through the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who took as his subject matter grief and loss. Cleve Jones’ Names Project, is a robust example of memorial art, that is as powerful today as it was when it was first displayed in 1987. Here at the 30th anniversary of the start of the AIDS crisis, it is not surprising to me that both Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are experiencing successful revivals. Of course, we are also seeing exhibitions, like the one at the MCA, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s, that reconsiders the work of artists and activists of the time.

The way I best come to understand a historic period is to look at the cultural production of the time. AIDS Demo Graphics by Douglas Crimp, with Adam Rolston set out to document the graphic protests of the time–mostly through the work of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Gran Fury. In the introduction, the editors position the book itself as a direct action, which at first seemed to be an overstatement, but as I read, I came to agree with. The book opens with ACT UP’s first direct action, a demonstration on Wall Street. In the photograph a young man, dressed in a suit is being hauled off by the cops. Called “No More Business as Usual,” this action protested the US government’s cozy and deadly relationship with the drug manufacturer Burroughs Welcome. “The target: BUSINESS. BIG BUSINESS. BUSINESS AS USUAL.”

Undoubtedly, ACT UP in particular  changed what American protest looks like. While the 60s and 70s offered homemade political signs, ACT UP’s imagery resembled an exhibition poster, or more accurately, a United Colors of Benetton ad. The book is organized chronologically and by the time I reached the middle, Gran Fury (the design arm of ACT UP) is producing compelling posters of protest, that are visually compelling and convey information about the spread of HIV that at the time, the public did not have access to. You can see one of Gran Fury’s famous ads, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do,” as part of the This Will Have Been advertisement on the Red Line around the Belmont stop.

Only three years passed between that first action and the publication of AIDS Demo Graphics in 1990. Even without the privilege of hindsight, the book serves as a snapshot of the graphic history of protest around the spread of HIV/AIDS. Each protest and its direct action is detailed, so that by the end of the book you have an understanding of the trajectory of both the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and US government policy. I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in a succinct history of the AIDS crisis, and also to those who have an interest in the role design plays in social movements.

AIDS Demo Graphics
Douglas Crimp, with Adam Rolston
Bay Press. Seattle. 1990.
142 pp.
Out of print. Widely available on the interwebs for about $5, or from the Chicago Public Library for free.

Not Really a Review of Pina

February 24, 2012 · Print This Article

To tell you the truth, I was late to the whole 3-D movie thing. I’m not philosophically opposed as some of my filmmaking friends are. It’s just that until very recently there were no 3-D movies that seemed interesting to me. Much of what is being produced appears to be fantasy children’s stories, filled with magical characters and inanimate objects imbued with supernatural powers, or mindless special-effect heavy action flicks. Now, don’t infer that I’m action adverse. I mean how cool would Die Hard have been in 3-D? Luckily for me and maybe for you things on the three-dimensional front seem to be changing.

I’ve been kicking myself for more than a year since I missed my chance to see Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In a rare instance, Herzog is permitted to take his team and 3-D cameras into the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in  southern France. By virtue of an avalanche, this cave was sealed from both the grubby hands of humankind and the grievous effects of time until it was discovered in 1994. For 30 thousand years dozens of beautiful cave paintings were preserved just as they were when the artist created them. Herzog believed that 3-D was a way to bring a sort of tactile reality to a marvel that is closed to the public. Did he succeed? I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t get to see it in 3-D.

Last weekend I saw my first 3-D movie, Wim Wender’s documentary Pina. Pina Bausch was a German choreographer most known for her modern dance works. Sadly, she died right before filming began. Instead of being a tribute, Pina became a memorial. But of course I didn’t know this when I walked into the theater. I just knew I was going to see a 3-D modern dance film by Wenders, and that was enough. The film was everything I could have hoped it would be. Pina presents non-contiguously four works by Bausch. Within the film, the works don’t exist as discrete pieces unto themselves. Instead, Wenders edits these works into a sort of narrative that becomes surprisingly emotional by the end. Although the film contains traditional elements of a biographical documentary (history, interviews, old film footage) Pina doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. Instead the film itself feels vibrant and alive as if the members of Tanztheater Wuppertal were performing the pieces right in front of me.

On the train ride home, I thought about what I’d just seen. I felt as if I’d seen something completely new, perhaps even a new medium. High-end theaters no longer show just films. They host live group meetings. Last year A Prairie Home Companion lured its listeners away from the dulcet voices of NPR and into movie houses across the country, where the show was broadcast live into theaters. The Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6 is currently hosting the Metropolitan Opera in High Definition, live! Imagine what that might be like in 3-D. It could be like being there. Maybe even better. It would mean that any town with a mall could also have an opera or a symphony, or an experimental German modern dance troupe. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a live performance, I know that. Wenders toyed with the idea of filming Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 3-D but it fell through. Too bad, perhaps that would have been the perfect marriage of art, action, and magic.