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31 August 2008

Movie Review: "Alice Neel" or When Motherhood Takes the Backseat to Artistic Expression

What is the price of pursuing one's dream? What is the real price of art?

This documentary on portrait painter Alice Neel attempts to answer those questions. From the very beginning, Alice Neel's role as both artist and mother are brought sharply into focus.

We see her son, Hartley, and he tells the camera, "People want stability; that's human nature." He then asks a very basic question. "Why does somebody create an image of anything. Why?"

His half-brother, Richard, then states, "I don't like bohemian culture. I consider that a lot of people were hurt by it. I was hurt by it."

Before we know much about the artist, we know this: her children suffered. Richard explains, "We always had this dream that she'd be recognized and we'd able to get some money by her work. It really didn't work out that way when we were children."

An artist friend of mine once made a series about why there weren't more women artist, at least more well known women artists. They were too often caught up in the drudgery of motherhood and wifely activities--cooking, cleaning and mending clothes and wounded bodies and souls. Yet not all women allowed their motherhood to get in the way of art.

Alice Neel (1900-1984) was not so well known in her younger years when she was on welfare, having children by different men and painting in an impressionistic style that was not fashionable. It was a time for abstract expressionism and pop art. Yet later in life, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective, a vindication of a messy life and neglecting motherhood.

The documentary was written and directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel, and fortunately isn't always flattering but also doesn't quite have the distance that might give a more balanced objective view. Neel includes interviews with her two surviving sons. They, Richard Neel and Hartley Neel, are middle-aged and do not give entirely glowing accounts of their childhoods although not all of it is negative. There is a heated moment between father (Hartley) and son (Andrew) that could have been avoided if a third-party had been involved.

Alice Neel also lost two children--one to an early death and another was taken from her care. From this she drew inspiration or perhaps a better word is she became obsessed with certain subject matter and yet she did have children in her care.

Alice did appear in a film, Allen Ginsberg's Beatnik movie, Pull My Daisy, and in this documentary we see her in archival black and white footage. She is a solid gray-hair woman by then and not the impetuous woman who threw herself into destructive affairs, marriage and political involvements.

Her work uses line, color and form expressively. The background seems to be a second thought. Yet the result is the figures pop out, alive, vibrant with personality.

Of course, if you're not up on history, art and otherwise, or old enough to remember, there was a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that questioned where were all the women artists. In the 1980s, there were the Guerrilla Girls who questions "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" There was also a "weenie" count--naked men versus naked women. Americans are still a bit hesitant to show full-frontal male nudity although female nudity is more widespread than ever. Hollywood and Los Angeles being where Hugh Hefner has his Playboy mansion and where Larry Flynt publishes.

These acts of feminist protest aren't part of the documentary, but it is clearly stated that had Alice Neel been everything people thought women should be, she would not have been able to create her art. There is some question about her painting nudes of children, if it were proper, if she took into consideration how the child might feel later in life and Alice Neel is not the only example of this gray area between art, pornography and exploitation.

The feminist movement is credited by some in causing art historians to cast Alice Neel's work in a better light, when someone realized that women could be artists as well as muses.

One might consider it a bit sexist to question the Alice Neel's neglect of her children in favor of her art. I remember being shocked to learn, outside of my art history class, that Paul Gauguin has deserted his wife and five children. In that respect, questions about childhood seem out of place in this documentary, but perhaps the problem is rather that we need to take better account of how male artists dealt with fatherhood.

This documentary is a fascinating look at one woman artist who put art before motherhood. It has a cluttered feeling--too much left in, too much left unsaid, too many buried feelings not adequately expressed. What is the real price of art? And should we evaluate both male and female artist in the same manner?

Movie Review: Save Me Gives a Sensitive Look at a Timely Issue

For those that haven't heard the battle for gay rights is heating up in sunny California over gay marriage. There are those who can't live and let live and many of these are from the religious right.

Robert Desiderio has written a screenplay from a story by Craig Chester and Alan Hines. Under the direction of Robert Cary is has become a 2007 movie, elevated only slightly over a movie of the week, if TV allowed for less sap and more evenhanded portrayals.

The story is about a gay man, Mark (Chad Allen), who is troubled in many ways. He is addicted to drugs and perhaps to sex. His family won't take him in after his latest suicide attempt, but he finds refuge in a Christian-run ministry run by a husband (Stephen Lang) and wife (Judith Light with a mousy brown dyed hair), Ted and Gayle.

This ministry, Genesis House, is about changing broken men and helping them recover from being gay through a 12-step program of faith.

Mark attract special attention from Gayle whose son by her first marriage committed suicide, but he also develops that friendship with another resident, Scott (Robert Gant). Predictably, this friendship deepens into a romantic love, very different from the casual encounters we know Mark had originally indulged in.

The question of if Gayle is wrong or if the gay men are misguided is not tilted either way and Gayle is neither a rigid zealot nor enlightened at the end.

Produced by the gay-focused production company Mythgarden, there is no doubt of a bias toward gay rights, however, this movie gives a sympathetic portrayal to both sides. Religious faith isn't seen as necessarily a bad thing and some of the damning biblical quotations against homosexuality are aired as well as ones that we'd rather ignore. If faith has guided Mark to give up drugs and lust for love, then how could religion be all bad, too?

Of course, here in Pasadena, CA, there is a church that has taken up gay rights and does have a liberal ministry with a long history of defending many socio-political issues. This kind of movie fits well with this church's more open-minded stance and reminds us that religion can have a place in the movement to defend the rights of minorities.

Movie Review: A Troubling Tale about Beauty in Trouble

Beauty can, at least temporarily, overcome the boundaries of class and economics and in this case, the beauty in question in the 2006 Czech film, Beauty in Trouble (Kráska v nesnázích) is Marcela (Anna Geislerová).

She is married to Jarda (Roman Luknár) and her troubles began long ago, but the current problem are the economic woes resulting from the 2002 flood in Prague. Her house is ruined and Jarda is now reduced to working for a chop shop. They still have a healthy and passionate sex life and in their current tight quarters, her children can hear their lovemaking. Jarda is arrested for car theft and Marcela meets a much older richer man, Evzen Benes (Josef Abrham) at the police station. It is his car that Jarda stole.

Alone and with only her income, she finds herself back with her mother (Jana Brejchová) and her stepfather, Uncle Richie (Jirí Schmitzer).

Evzen had immigrated to Italy and become a vintner and has returned now that the post-communist government recognizes his claim to the family house. He begins to court Marcela and offers her a place to stay.

Uncle Richie is more than a little creepy, offering to expose himself to Marcela's oldest child, Lucina (Michaela Mrvikova). He's more tolerable to the asthmatic Kuba (Adam Misik) but neither really like him. Yet eventually, Marcela moves in with Evzen although it is she that finally decides to begin a sexual relationship with him.

The title comes from a Robert Graves poem that was later adapted into a Czech song and in this movie is performed by a folk singer, Raduza. The line is "Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel/On whom she can rely."

This film by director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky has some creepy, unresolved aspects. We learn that Marcela's oldest child is not Jarda's. He took her in when she left home, young, jobless and pregnant. There's a suggestion that Uncle Richie might even be the father. With her children to think of, Marcela makes an economic decision, one that is easier because Evzen as portrayed by Abrham is essentially a good and patient man. If Marcela doesn't still love Jarda, we know that she lusts for him, but who wouldn't want a better life--not only for oneself, but for one's children.

Perhaps, given time, a widowed Marcela will be re-united with Jarda. Still the creepier aspects of Uncle Richie are ignored, dropped after Marcela flees her mother's apartment.

Well-acted, this movie reminds us of the realities of flooded cities and as New Orleans and other places are evacuated or declared disaster areas, that Americans have more in common with other places than perhaps we realize.

30 August 2008

Life and Crime in Poland - Retrieval (Z Odzysku)

This 2006 movie written by Slawomir Fabicki, Denijal Hasanovic and Marek Pruchniewski and directed by Fabicki is a dark and depressing tale about 19-year-old Wojtek's (Antoni Pawlicki) attempt to rise out of poverty in a small Polish town. Working in a dangerous cement pit, Wojtek also boxes to earn extra money. The boss of a local disco (Jacek Braciak) offers him a safer job: working as a bouncer at his disco, but his boss also runs a loan shark business and his bouncers provide the muscle.

In love with an older woman, an illegal Ukrainian immigrant Katja (Natalya Vdovina) who has a son Andryi (Dimitri Melnichuk), Wojtek want to find a bigger better apartment. He does find a nice place, but slowly sheds his charm as he's forced to make hard decisions and hurt people in his new line of business. One way his boss teaches him heartlessness is a target practice exercise involving dogs. As Wojtek becomes increasingly alienated from his conscience and numbed to violence, his behavior changes. Eventually, Katja leaves him and finds refuge with Wojtek's family who also reject him.

This isn't, of course, a new story. Fabicki doesn't have the big budget of a Hollywood movie and his film isn't as slick or well filmed. The indoor lighting has a yellow or greenish cast at times and it doesn't seem intentional. Yet this is a reminder that poverty and desperation aren't an American problem nor is it a problem of the past. Here race isn't an issue with Latino or African American gangs and drug dealers.

Yet this movie portrays the gangster culture as not culturally entrenched as cool. Andryi becomes the target of derision and gets in a fight with when other neighborhood kids tell him Wojtek is a gangster. Perhaps America was there, once upon a time when gangsta-style wasn't fashionable or glamorous.