I’m often pegged as a cynic, but I’ll have you know that I can appreciate some fine art as much as the next guy. Just the other day I was watching Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (2008), and I found myself thinking about the nature of art, creative processes, how folks regard items of beauty . . . all that kind of stuff. In a nutshell, the film follows three siblings as they attempt to find a mutually-accommodating way to manage a rather extensive art collection left to them by their recently deceased mother. That’s the gist of Assayas’s script, however through his characters he addresses themes such as how artwork should be used and displayed, its worth across generations, and the differences between old-timey and newfangled what have yous. Thinking of these things caused me to recollect some of my favorite films depicting creative types doing and making stuff that generally makes me happy. Here goes nothing ...
The Red Shoes (1948): To begin, an admission: I approached this film fearing that my position as a dude might interfere with my ability to truly appreciate a story about a ballerina given a set of magical shoes. However, I was not only completely won over by the film; I was left with a desire to maybe attend a ballet someday ... maybe. The story is one of those “story within a story” thingies that the director types are so fond of. Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger, collectively known as “the Archers,” used Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name to craft a story set in 1940s Europe about a ballet director named Boris Lermontov that discovers an incredible talent in the character of Vicky Page, portrayed by Moira Shearer. Incidentally, viewing this film left me with a huge old movie crush on Shearer; she’s really something else here. Lermontov places Page under his tutelage just before beginning production of a ballet rendition of Andersen’s tale. Eventually Page falls in love with a young piano composer also working on the ballet. This sets up the film’s primary conflict: how the desire to purely devote one’s self to an art form can make it a real pain in the neck to keep your sweetheart happy. Not only is the film wonderful throughout in normal movie ways, the Archers went to the trouble to create their own ballet company for the film and as a result, viewers are treated to an extended, I don’t know ... like twenty-minute dance sequence sans any dialogue. Shearer’s dancing is remarkable here, but you should also be aware of the amazing cinematography by Technicolor guru Jack Cardiff. Cardiff was also responsible for Powell and Pressburger’s equally beautiful Black Narcissus (1940), a stirring film about a nunnery gone awry that I heartedly recommend. And finally, get this ... thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and other noted movie geeks, The Red Shoes has been treated to a complete restoration and is set to open in Kansas City on July 23rd! See it again, for the first ... ugh, never mind.
The Joy of Painting (1983-1995): Omnipresent within my television-infused adolescence was the gentle figure of Bob Ross. I can recall many a Saturday afternoon lying on the floor of the family room watching his program with my father sitting on the couch behind me waxing poetic about the steady clip at which Ross could crank out one bucolic landscape after another. True, the old man was no great connoisseur of the arts, but I’ll say this for him, he knew what he liked and ruthless efficiency definitely made the shortlist. Now, it should also be known that I fancied myself an aspiring artist in my youth. Specifically, I liked to draw cartoons and comic-type characters, typically paramilitary-looking soldiers of fortune, armed to the teeth with multiple guns a’ blazing . . . which alas, somehow seemed culturally significant at the time. Needless to say I desperately wanted to improve my craft, but can recall often feeling confounded when trying to learn new techniques. Essentially I was looking for an instruction manual or someone who definitively knew how to articulate spent bullet casings in a more precise manner and would just show me the steps already. Yet, as we all know, art is something often lacking in precise instructions. I mean, how does one precisely communicate the subtleties and nuances of visual expression? How do you instruct someone to create expressions of beauty? Well, if one were to ask Bob Ross, I think he might suggest that you quit your belly-aching, hold your fan brush just so, and get about painting some lovely pine trees . . . or fully-automatic machine guns, whatever floats your boat.
Crumb (1994): I can recall seeing Crumb during its original theatrical run and thinking to my adolescent self, “This R. Crumb guy seems like he’s really got things figured out. He’s crazy as a loon, a complete jerk to anyone that he doesn’t like, and has somehow found a way to channel these characteristics into a successful career in comics” (see The Complete Crumb (1987), available at your local public library). However, after a refresher viewing last week, I was left with pretty much the opposite impression. I mean, he still seemed completely socially maladjusted and for the most part acted like a jerk to anyone he isn’t either directly related to or romantically interested in, but I didn’t really admire him for these attributes this go around. Mostly I felt sad for him. I mean, all he seemed interested in doing was complaining about everything he encountered throughout the film. To provide a sense of contrast, the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff, also introduces us to Crumb’s more eccentric, more somber, and generally more depressed brothers. Viewers are left with the impression that even with his often off-putting quirks, at the very least Crumb has discovered that the act of drawing prevents him from sinking into the kind of despair that seems to dominate his two brothers’ existence . . . which given their overall mood is no small achievement. I’ll spare the particular details because I do still think Crumb is a wonderful little film that merits an unspoiled viewing, but I suppose that one of the big overall points worth mentioning is that it’s important to have something in your life that not only gets you from day to day, but also somehow makes you less of a jerk than you might be otherwise.
American Movie (1999): No matter how many times I see this film, my affection for it never seems to wane. Rather, I am consistently touched by its simultaneous inspirational and heartbreaking nature. Mark Borchardt desperately wants to make the great American movie, but is continually bewildered by finances, personal relationships, and the smalltime jobs he must keep to stay afloat. Because of this it’s very easy for viewers to relate to Borchardt’s struggle. I mean, who hasn’t experienced at one point or another during his or her life the pain caused when one’s aspirations are seemingly made impossible by particular life circumstances? Something that continually amazes me about the film is that these kinds of circumstances certainly take their toll on Borchardt, at several points during the film causing him to abandon his dreams outright. However, he somehow always musters the courage to come back again and again in a new scene with fresh resolve and renewed vigor. Because of this, in my mind Borchardt has earned a position right aside the likes of Rocky Balboa within the pantheon of pigheaded determination. And wouldn’t you know it? You’re in luck. American Movie has been included by Roger Ebert amongst other films as part of our Off-the-Wall Film Series this summer. The film will screen free to the public at 8:45 p.m. on July 16, 2010 on the Central Library’s rooftop terrace. Come on down and enjoy a lovely summer evening with the incorrigible Mike Schank.
In the Realms of the Unreal—The Mystery of Henry Darger (2005): To those surrounding him, Henry Darger seemed to live a simple, albeit isolated life. He worked for much of his adult life as a custodian at a Chicago church. In 1973 Darger passed away at 81 years of age. Shortly thereafter it was discovered that Darger had painstakingly over the course of many years created a 15,000+ page epic work of graphic fiction, hence the mystery. His magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion consists of several hundred watercolor paintings of pixyish children fighting for their freedom and the triumph of Christianity in a fantasy realm created entirely by Darger. Since Darger left so few traces of his personal life, the film’s director, Jessica Yu, instead focuses upon the contents of his epic story, using quasi-animation and narration by Dakota Fanning to bring his artwork to life on screen ... you know, a little something for you youngsters out there, tweens or whatever it is you’re called. Of course, the film itself does a much better job at explaining all of this. What I think is truly incredible is that Darger kept his life’s work a secret from everyone around him. I mean, can you even imagine creating a 15,000 page anything and not at the very least mentioning it to a coworker or a friend just once? I mean sure, modesty’s all well and good, but I don’t believe that Darger even told the folks around him that he liked to paint. For me, a lot of the mystery of Darger is derived not from the sheer magnitude or goofballishness of his creative output, but through this single trait, a clear-minded and apparently hard as pig iron commitment not to fish for compliments amongst his peers. Gives me something to work towards.
We Jam Econo—The Story of the Minutemen (2006): A friend of mine introduced me to this documentary by suggesting that viewing it made her feel proud to be a part of DIY culture and while I’ve always been too great a fan of printed instructions and the wisdom of established authority figures to ever dive headfirst into DIYism, the film certainly left me feeling that even a person of my modest talents can just up and do something wonderful someday given sufficient gall. The Minutemen were, of course, a prominent 1980s punk band that met with an unfortunate end following the untimely demise of one of its members. This aspect of the their story is heartbreaking to say the least, but one can also find inspiration from the multitude of stories recounted by the famous talking heads assembled for the film. For example, Flea of Suburbia (1983) fame recounts how during the Minutemen’s early days, the self-taught musicians of the band were under the impression that guitar stings need only be adjusted to suit the preferred level of “tightness” particular to a given musician. Who could have guessed that the Mike Watt that we all know and love today would emerge from such ill-tuned beginnings? In the end, it’s simply splendid to observe a group of folks that pretty much stumbled into exactly what they’re supposed to do in life. Because this documentary successfully captures this feeling on film, I don’t even think you necessarily need be an underground music fan in order to enjoy We Jam Econo, although I’ll allow that it might help get you through the many scenes of Watt driving around Los Angeles in his van carrying on about old Black Flag shows and the like. Despite this, however, I think that this film can be of tremendous value to anyone who’s ever desperately wanted to do something creative yet felt bogged down by the pressure to be original. After all, sometimes it’s just best to get your strings plenty tight and dive on in.
Michael Wells is a Technical Assistant at the Kansas City Public Library. He is adept at baking cookies, following directions, awkward silences, and falling over from perfectly stable positions. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in history from UMKC and is currently working on a Master's Degree in secondary-level social studies education. Michael describes his taste in film as "other" on good days and "none of the above" on bad.