Monday, February 26, 2024

BOOK BRIEF: An American Original

True West: Sam Shepard's Life, Work, and Times by Robert Greenfield. Crown 2013. 448 pages.

Monday, February 19, 2024

FILM FIND: "All That Jazz"—Those First Six Minutes

Countless times I have seen those first six minutes of All That Jazz, the surreal 1979 Bob Fosse  masterpiece film. Most of the opening shows more than a hundred dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical accompanied by George Benson's version of "On Broadway," yet so much happens in the first 80 seconds preceding the audition scene. 

The first 22 seconds displays a multi-angle view of the film title formed in stage lights with a jazzy orchestra setting up what would seem to be a traditional, glitzy tribute to the Broadway musical. 

The next 38 seconds shows something entirely different, alerting the audience that this will not be a typical paean to the intersection of Broadway and Hollywood. We see musical director Joe Gideon, the central character amazingly performed by Roy Scheider, turn on his tape player to hear Vivaldi's "Concerto alla rustica" as he showers and ingests Dexedrine to start his day.

The next 20 seconds features the first line uttered by Gideon to his angel of death played by Jessica Lange. As we watch an acrobat on a wire, perhaps Gideon himself, Gideon says, "To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting," before the acrobat falls from the wire. We are now prepared for a drug-fueled artist about to expose his life. We then return to Gideon's bathroom, where, well supplied by his amphetamines, he looks in the mirror and matter-of-factly says, "It's showtime folks," offering a sharp contrast between musical comedy and personal tragedy that Fosse explores throughout the next two hours. 

The next four-plus minutes shows what Fosse himself in an interview called a "cattle call" in documentary style" to"show an audience exactly what happens" during auditions and in Gideon's life as a Broadway power broker. The Benson song is a natural accompaniment to the work and drive and disappointment that come with the curse of wanting to be a dancer/singer/actor. Those rejected fail at achieving their goal, at least temporarily. And those selected are in for more painstaking, physically demanding work than they can possibly expect.

Monday, February 12, 2024

FILM FIND: "Pollock" Studies Five Serious, Convergent Issues

Last night I saw on TCM the Ed Harris 2000 film, Pollock, for the second time. I first viewed it 24 years ago, the year it premiered. I remember thinking of the film as an outstanding directorial maiden voyage for Harris, who portrays the American artist Jackson PollockI was pleased when he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and Marcia Gay Harden won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her interpretation of Lee Krasner, Pollock's wife and, in my view, an equally talented artist.  On this viewing of Pollock, I realized how much I had missed the first time. This biopic tracing Pollock's life and artistic times simultaneously examines five vital issues concerning the human condition: the history of American art, which always reflects its times; the business of art, which determines what is art and what is not; the creative process, which rarely has been covered so brilliantly as here in any medium; mental illness, with all its psychological and social manifestations; and matrimonial conflict, inevitable in all marriages but compounded by mental illness. This singular achievement belongs to the screenwriting genius of Barbara Turner and Susan Ermshwiller, as well as the superlative, pensive direction of Harris. 

The film starts in 1941, during World War II, when Picasso reigned as the supreme global artist, and social realism clashed with surrealism, profoundly affecting what and how American artists produced their work. Although the term abstract expressionism was not coined until 1946, Pollock reveals events leading up to it and beyond, when this movement brought worldwide attention to American artists.

Art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim and art critic Clement Greenberg play key roles in the film as Pollock's professional supporters and confidants. (Amy Madigan and Jeffrey Tambor radiantly deliver these roles.) Throughout the movie are several dialogues about what constitutes twentieth century art and how the public acquires its aesthetic taste in the modern world. These dialogues run in tandem with Pollock's decades-long physical and emotional decline. 

The creative process is at center stage whenever we see Pollock at work, or even when he is thinking about working. His breakthrough drip method of painting gets a visually stunning introduction, and the stunning visual contrast of Pollock's gritty New York City and idyllic East Hampton residences by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler is pure art in itself.

Pollock suffered from reclusiveness, personality disorder, and alcoholism throughout his life. Harris shows how these maladies gradually destroyed the artist and the man, estranging him from his family members, closest friends, and eventually his wife. It also contributed to his death behind the wheel with two other passengers, one of whom died. The film shows his inner circle of collaborators shrinking as his conditions worsen and surface more frequently, profound effects of mental illness.

The real fireworks in Pollock are in its depiction of the artists' marriage. Krasner is unconditionally encouraging and supportive of Pollock, who is lost in his own world, unable to relate to people on any level other than art. During certain moments of the story, it's hard to draw the line between where Krasner was a champion of her husband's work or an enabler of his bad behavior. Ambiguity always promises great drama, and Pollock overflows with the mystery of being as well as the perplexity of human relationships.   

A movie as important nearly a quarter century after it was released is one worth watching. Pollock is a must-see for viewers interested in learning something about themselves and their world.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Excellent Case Study on AI

For a captivating case study on using AI to write successfully, read "Confessions of a Viral AI Writer," a fascinating, detailed essay by Vauhini Vara in the October 2023 issue of Wired Magazine. The author explains how refining her prompts in ChatGPT enabled her to write a published story in 2021 that "quickly went viral." 

Vara does not end there. She discusses the downside of the turgid, politically correct "AP English" and "corporate style" that AI programs generate when it comes to poetry and fiction. Her concluding thoughts on the impact of AI on writing, reading, culture, and society. This 4,600-word article shows that AI is a revolutionary and inevitable way of writing.