April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
November 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Against this backdrop of national cuteness, Hello Kitty’s debut in 1974 was not earthshaking news. In fact, because my family had moved to the United States two years earlier, I didn’t see the pink sensation until my first trip back in 1980. “I don’t think this is going to catch on in America,” I remember saying. I soon knew better. But it wasn’t until early 90s, when I noticed a grown woman in the next car gripping a Hello Kitty steering wheel, that I realized how wrong I’d been.
In the years since, Hello Kitty’s reach has extended around the world and into the air. As part of Sanrio’s 40th anniversary celebration, EVA Airlines is flying to Paris in planes painted with Hello Kitty. Inside, everything is Hello Kitty-shaped or marked: food, soaps, pillows, headrest covers, and toilet paper. Another part of the 40th anniversary celebration was last week’s Hello Kitty Con, which I wouldn’t have missed. Held at the Geffen Contemporary, it was a completely sold-out four-day convention of all things Kitty: exhibits, merchandise, official and unofficial mascots, and even a live show against a filmed backdrop (above).
Next door at the Japanese-American National Museum, I toured a more subdued but even more fascinating show (which runs until April 24th) featuring Sanrio’s artifacts as well as Hello Kitty representations in fine art and fashion.
Which brings me to the perplexing news that Hello Kitty is not a cat. According to Christine Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific in an interview in the LA Times:
Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature.”
As if that weren’t enough, Kitty White is a British third-grader who lives with her twin sister, parents and grandparents outside London. She loves Paris–hence the EVA flights.
Nevertheless, Hello Kitty could only have sprung from Japan, the land of kawaii. As the JANM exhibit points out, the word kawaii (cute) is derived from kawaisoo, which means pitiable. It’s the powerful combination of cuteness, pity and the color pink that gives Hello Kitty her universal appeal.
August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last week, between seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney and visiting Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker” topiary sculpture at Rockefeller Center, I attended a performance of “Sex With Strangers” at the Second Stage Theater. Written by Laura Eason and starring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, the play explores art, media and success, both the old-fashioned and new, Internet-oriented kind. The title is taken from a fantastically successful blog (and subsequent best-selling books) whose author, a hyperactive young writer and roue named Ethan Strange (nee Kane), arrives at a rural writer’s retreat during a snowstorm. There he barges in on the only other resident, a talented but obscure writer named Olivia Lago, who is putting the finishing touches on her second novel.
Olivia’s first novel was badly marketed as chick lit and sold poorly, but it attracted its share of fans, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author named Ahmet, a friend of both Olivia’s and Ethan’s. Olivia soon learns that Ethan’s reason for coming to the retreat is not his own looming deadline for a screenplay but meeting her, the author of the novel he loves. In short order, Ethan convinces Olivia to reissue it under a pseudonym and as an e-book, about which he creates an instant buzz via Twitter. He then sets about selling her new novel by providing an introduction to his literary agent. Ethan also quickly embarks on an affair with Olivia, who despite qualms about him and his past (both sexual and literary) is bowled over by his powers (both sexual and literary).
Who could blame her? Ethan is an immature jerk but a Jedi Master of the Internet. He knows how to get his work in the hands of readers, since his half-million Twitter followers hang on his every word. Applying his special brand of salesmanship to Olivia’s literary novel, Ethan launches a spectacular new career that is not only beyond her abilities but her imagination. Before Ethan, Olivia is like Emily Dickinson, destined (in the best-case scenario) for posthumous fame; after Ethan, she’s like Jonathan Franzen, widely read and financially successful but still literary.
Having gone to “Sex With Strangers” mainly to see Anna Gunn, I had deliberately avoided learning the plot beforehand and was more than a little disturbed by the parallels to my own life. I’m finishing a novel that I have little idea of how to sell, though so far no Ethan Strange has to come to my rescue. As the play makes clear, the old publishing model is dead: ebooks and marketing via social media are the new reality. Then there’s the Janus-faced Internet, which makes it possible for me to find historical materials for my documentaries, publicize them and (lately) sell and rent them to viewers. Yet it also cheapens my ebooks and documentaries, just as it has devalued music. Now that art is “content,” the perception is that it should be free. The sole difference between the real online world versus that of “Sex With Strangers” is that in reality, no one wants to pay for anything.
During intermission, I struck up a conversation about these topics with my seat mate, who told me he was a painter. When I asked what kind, he said, “Fine art. I work for Jeff Koons.” What a coincidence! I confessed that the Whitney retrospective had left me liking Koons’ art less rather than more, and asked what he thought of it. “I’m not a fan,” he said flatly. Though he praised Koons as an employer and a man and said that he enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the studio, he agreed that having assistants do all the sculpting and painting was unprecedented. When I compared Koons to Willie Wonka–“He has a chocolate factory but he’s not making the chocolate”–he offered, “Some people say he’s a charlatan.” He then showed me photos of his own paintings, which were technically and artistically superior to anything in the Koons oeuvre, and so different that I could hardly imagine the same artist creating both.
Seeing “Split-Rocker” in Rockefeller Plaza the next day, I felt some of my old delight in Jeff Koons’ work. But the parallels between him and Ethan Strange, and between me, my seat mate and Olivia, gnawed at me. Perhaps the real test of art comes after the artist’s death, when the Emily Dickinsons of the world rise up to reign supreme. But in the earthly realm, artists have to eat.
August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York lately, which has been a welcome change from my usual summers in Los Angeles. My last trip in June was very theater-centric: four plays in seven days. This time, my visit was devoted to visual art: two days at MOMA, one at the Whitney and one at Dia Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley.
My first stop was the Whitney’s huge Jeff Koons retrospective, a mid-career exhibition that took up four floors and the sculpture garden. I went in hopes of overcoming my love-hate reaction to Koons’ work, but emerged hours later feeling lukewarm to cold about all of it. Nevertheless, seeing the sculptures and paintings at close range increased my admiration for their meticulous craftmanship: it’s obvious that a great deal of skilled labor went into each one. My negative reaction was aimed at the conceptual level–significant because concept is all that Koons does at this point. Regardless of medium, all his works are created not by him but by a team of artists, who (along with support staff) currently number 140.
For years I’ve delighted in the balloon dogs and suspended basketballs of Koons’ early career, as well as the giant topiaries (“Puppy,” “Split-Rocker”) of the past twelve years. But at the Whitney, in rooms of lighted vitrines full of vacuum cleaners, sculpted blow-up toys, giant Play-Doh sculpture and large format photo paintings, the charm of Koons’ work faded. “Play-Doh,” a monumental and life-sized colored rendering that took a decade to make because of technological difficulties, was a particularly vivid example. Standing before it, my only thought was why? Similarly, his porcelain sculptures–such as “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”–were both technical marvels and conceptual blanks. Looking at them, I could glean no greater meaning than what appeared on their shiny surfaces.
The permanent collection acted as a palate cleanser for the Koons exhibit. I found solace in a room full of Agnes Martins (“The Islands”) and a wall of Ed Ruschas. Even the Warhol Brillo boxes seemed masterful in comparison to the Koons Play-Doh and pool toys. And Jean Michel Basquiat’s painting “Hollywood Africans”–regarded as a daring example of street art when it was new–seemed rigorously formal thirty years later, or perhaps just in contrast to the Koons retrospective.
I had a better experience with “Split-Rocker,” (top) Koons’ topiary in Rockefeller Center. Even more than “Puppy,” “Split-Rocker” is a multi-faceted delight: not only because of its dual pony/dinosaur face but because it looks radically different at different distances. It’s a grey-green monolith from a great distance, a huge flowering toy from middle distance, and a fascinating collection of flowering plants close up. There’s even a ribbon of mirror that reflects viewers.
It’s a given that Koons is the most commercially successful fine artist of his generation. The question is whether his work will be well-regarded, or even remembered, beyond his lifetime. Will he be another Marcel Duchamp or another Paul De Longpre, whose paintings were all the rage during his lifetime and instantly forgotten after his death? Questions of art, commercial success and posterity were very much on my mind when I had an illuminating encounter a couple of days later. More about it in Part II.
June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
I spent the last week in New York, on a much-needed break from Los Angeles in general and Beachwood Canyon in particular. Or so I thought. On Day 1, riding the subway downtown, I found myself sitting next to a young woman having a cell phone conversation about her teaching job in Culver City. Later that same day, I sat in a Chinatown restaurant listening to three twenty-somethings discussing Burning Man and Coachella. It was as if Los Angeles had followed me to New York. But my biggest LA moment was deliberate: having learned of a new Ed Ruscha commission on the High Line, I hoofed it over to West Chelsea for a look. Entering the park at W. 23rd Street, I initially walked by the work because of its size: I didn’t realize it took up the entire side of a building. A word painting on a hot pink background, it reads, “Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today”–an LA sentiment if ever there was one. It was appreciated by a crowd of passersby as well as a steady audience on the bleacher-like seating across from it.
Although today Ed Ruscha is an international star whose work can be seen in museums and collections worldwide, when I first became a fan of his work, in the early 90s, he was still considered a “California artist” by the New York art world, relegated by geography to a secondary tier. (Disclosure: I met him briefly during that time, along with Billy Al Bengston, though only I would remember.) The fact that his most famous paintings, including “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire,” depict Los Angeles didn’t ingratiate him with New York critics. Nor did the fact that he never lived in New York, having come directly to Los Angeles from his native Nebraska to attend what is now CalArts. (Born in 1937, Ruscha is probably unique among his Pop Art contemporaries in bypassing the NYC rite of passage.) His word paintings, “Another One of them Bikini and Chainsaw Movies” and “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped,” don’t exactly bring to mind Manhattan. Neither does his famous photography collection, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”
But instead of attempting a shift in subject matter, as another artist might have, Ruscha continued along his chosen path, creating images of the Hollywood Sign, palm trees and LACMA. (His iconic “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” is owned–in a delicious bit of irony–by the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) As an artist Ruscha has always been his own man, resolute in his methods and subject matter. But along the way something interesting happened: the New York art world embraced him, and on his terms. His work was prominently displayed in the 2012 Met show “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” a blockbuster that probably influenced the High Line commission. Now a blue chip artist with a worldwide following, Ruscha hardly needs my promotion. But the High Line painting will be up until May, 2015 and is well worth a visit.
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
It was written by Fallon Fox, a transgender Mixed Martial Arts fighter who believes roles should go only to people who essentially are their characters, rather than to actors capable of becoming their characters. Skill counts for nothing to Fox, who believes any trans actor could have rendered Rayon better than Leto, simply by virtue of being transgender. (By that measure, Matthew McConaughey shouldn’t have snagged the lead, since he is not a sexually promiscuous bullrider/electrician, but Fox makes no mention of him.) At the heart of Fox’s thesis are two assumptions: that shared experience equals authenticity, and that for specific roles, the transgendered, disabled, etc.–should be “just given a chance” to “become stars.” But the latter would render the acting profession an equal-opportunity reality show, while the former is simply untrue.
Far from being an asset, an actor’s close similarity to his character reduces objectivity, the quality essential to the creation of a three-dimensional character. As a non-female, non-transgender actor, Leto had to dig deep within himself to play Rayon. It shows: far being a man in drag (see Lemmon and Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” Hoffman in “Tootsie,” and any number of Monty Python sketches), Rayon is fully realized. If she is an invention, she appears to be her own invention, not that of the actor.
Rayon has no parallels in western theater or film, but I immediately recognized her counterpart in Kabuki, where all roles are played by men. Onnagata, the actors who play only female roles, are the most celebrated of Kabuki actors, and for good reason. Like Rayon, they are not men imitating women. Rather, they are stylized, idealized females who are brought to life by men. Tamasaburo Bando, the greatest living onnagata, is neither young nor female, yet he provides a mesmerizing example of a young girl in “The Heron Maiden:”
A comparable alchemy exists in Cubism–specifically, in Picasso’s paintings of women. Figures are deconstructed and rearranged until they are radically changed, yet their femininity emerges in full force. The geometry of Cubism shows figures in greater complexity than in realistic painting, with its single viewpoint. There are also messages encoded in Picasso’s shifting angles and planes. In “La Reve,” below, the fact that Marie-Therese Walter’s face forms a heart speaks volumes about Picasso’s love for her, while the triangle of her hands points to her pubis–a scandalous detail that was missed by no one when the painting was new.
Deconstruction requires distance, which brings me back to Rayon. It is Leto’s remove from the character that allows him to explore her in archeological detail, something a transgender actor drawing on her own experience could not. The resulting character is profound, a human being that Leto embodies to stunning result. Like Tamasaburo Bando and Picasso, Leto never stoops to imitation; instead, he unlocks Rayon’s essence and reveals it to the world.
December 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
On my recent trip to England I spent a weekend in Margate, a lovely old seaside resort on the southeast coast. (I was invited there by the playwright Heath Woodward, whose musical about Peg Entwistle “Goodnight September” was in rehearsals, one of which I attended and greatly enjoyed.) Margate is famous for several reasons, the most important of them having to do with art. The great landscape painter J. M. W. Turner painted in Margate throughout his life, producing about 100 canvases there. Many of them are seascapes whose dramatic clouds I thought were exaggerated until I saw them for myself and realized that Turner took no liberties.
Then there’s the T.S. Eliot connection. Readers of “The Wasteland” will remember the passage in Part III: On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing. Perhaps the most moving expression of alienation in modern poetry, it was written in Margate when Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1921. While staying at the stylish Albermarle Hotel in Margate’s Cliftonville district, Eliot worked on his masterpiece at the Nayland Rock Shelter, a three-sided glass pavilion on the Promenade. But the Margate Sands were already famous: while other English resorts have pebbled shorelines, Margate’s beaches boast the kind of golden sand associated with Italy and Spain.
The Albermarle is long gone, but the Walpole Bay Hotel, where I stayed, is a worthy successor. A graceful Victorian-era landmark just off the Promenade, the Walpole Bay features cream teas, Sunday lunches and a museum of Victorian and Edwardian artifacts collected by its charming owner, Jane Bishop.
There’s also a gallery of artwork drawn on the hotel’s linen, a tradition begun when a guest started sketching on his napkin in the dining room. One of the contributors to the Napery is the Turner Prize-nominated conceptual artist, recent CBE and all-around badass Tracey Emin, a Margate native who stays at the hotel during her visits, but most aren’t as famous, or even necessarily visual artists. I found the collection fascinating, and when Jane presented me with a napkin at the end of my stay I knew exactly what I would do. The result is pictured above: the view of the Hollywood Sign from my upstairs window, painted with acrylics.