Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

Paint


Art for art’s sake.

(2020) Comedy (GravitasJosh Caras, Olivia Luccardi, Paul Cooper, Comfort Clinton, Amy Hargreaves, François Arnaud, Vince Nappo, Kaliswa Brewster, Daniel Bellomy, Lizzy DeClement, Phil Burke, Austin Pendleton, Kate Stone, Victor Verhaeghe, Emrhys Cooper, Stella Kammel, John Wolfman, Roger Netzer, Nick Neon, Anthony Edward Curry, Jon Valde. Directed by Michael Walker

 

I don’t know if any of you have ever met an art school graduate. My sister went to Cal Arts so I knew quite a few. Most of them were people just like thee and me, with a particular talent for creativity and artistic technique. A handful of them were pretentious blowhards who thought they could take a crap on a piece of canvas and it would be amazingly insightful.

The latter is the sort that inhabits the latest from New York indie filmmaker Michael Walker. Three mostly-affluent graduates from art school – frustrated Dan (Caras), his best friend Quinn (Cooper), a photographer who lives in his own studio; and lovely Kelsey (Luccardi) who works menial jobs while trying to find herself as an artist.

Dan is frustrated at the hoops he has to jump through to break through the high-falutin’ New York arts scene. His distracted father (Verhaeghe) encourages his son’s chosen career, introducing him to gallery owners and scene makers who tell Dan that his art “isn’t dark enough.” So, he does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – he asks his mom (Hargreaves) to pose nude for him.

She is understandably reluctant, but Dan sidesteps the obviously creepy Oedipal overtones by suggesting that Quinn take nude pictures of mommy dearest and Dan will paint based on these. Mom consents to this, but as it turns out, the session gets out of hand and one thing leads to another….

Speaking of inappropriate relationships, Kelsey has sex with an important painter three times her age who is currently homeless, who promptly takes one of her paintings that is heavily influenced by his own work and sells it as his own. So she does what any self-respecting art student in the same situation would do – she blackmails the art gallery owner (Arnaud) to take on her career as a manager.

In the meantime, Dan finds out about what happened with Quinn and his mom, which doesn’t sit well with him at all, although he himself is having an affair with a married woman (Clinton). The three friends are forced to re-evaluate their values and their preconceptions about who they really are.

Walker, who also wrote the film, has a good ear for dialogue and that might just be the most distinctive thing about the film. It’s a shame that the characters speaking those lines are for the most part, pretentious self-absorbed twats. I get the sense that Parker was poking a hole in the façade of the New York art scene, which elevates the above-mentioned traits to god-like heights, but the humor here is more in the deranged nature of the situations. At one point, you wonder if actual human beings would do the things that the characters are doing in the movie. I would like to say they wouldn’t, although given that this is 2020, I may be overly generous with my assessment of human beings.

After a year in which it has become readily apparent that Americans have a self-serving streak wider than any river and a tribal identification taller than any mountain, I suppose my tolerance for spending time with characters I find no common morality with is pretty low. If you are in the same boat that I’m in, you might have the same reaction. But if your threshold for arseholes is relatively high, you might find this entertaining particularly if you enjoy the skewering of pretentious art snobs.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious and preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a 2018 short of the same name  featuring the same characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Velvet Buzzsaw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
GetAWAY

Midnight in Paris


Midnight in Paris

Ahh, the romance and magic of Paris!

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Kurt Fuller, Lea Seydoux, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni, Tom Cordier, Adrien de Van, Gad Elmaleh, Daniel Lundh, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo. Directed by Woody Allen

Paris is a place that embodies romance. When we think of the city, that is one of the first adjectives that springs to mind. Paris – City of Light, city of love. There is an ineffable magic to Paris; it is the city once prowled by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Victor Hugo, Gaugin, Matisse, Luis Brunel, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington. It is the home of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs d’Elysee. It is a city made to enchant and ensnare the visitor.

Gil (Wilson) feels their presences quite keenly. He is a Hollywood hack writer, known for successful but ultimately empty screenplays that have made him rich but haven’t fed his soul. He is in Paris vacationing with his fiancée Inez (McAdams) and her Tea Party parents John (Fuller) and Helen (Kennedy). There they run into Paul (Sheen), a former beau of Inez, a know-it-all who like many of that sort generally know nothing. He precedes nearly every thought with “If I’m not mistaken…” which, as we all know invariably means they are.

The others are tourists in a place that they have no emotional connection to; Gil loves Paris, particularly the Paris of a bygone age. He pictures it after dark, a soft rain falling. He goes for midnight strolls around the streets of the city. After one, he is resting on some marble steps near the Pantheon, not quite sure where his hotel is when an antique car pulls up alongside him and a young couple gesture for him to join them. That’s where the magic and romance truly begins.

I’m being deliberately vague about the rest because I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the movie. This isn’t your typical Woody Allen movie – there are no neurotic New Yorkers to be found here. Instead, this is more akin to movies like Purple Rose of Cairo and Play It Again, Sam – movies that have an element of fantasy and romance to them.

Woody Allen, despite all his jokes to the contrary, is deeply romantic at heart. He believes in magic and destiny, points that are made in nearly every one of his movies. He also requires a certain amount of literary awareness of his audiences and the references here are many and varied; from the manliness of Hemingway, to the rough-around-the-edges kindness of Gertrude Stein to the self-promoting whimsy of Dali.

He has some comments for the cultural insensitivity of Americans, and the tendency for us to wish we lived in a Golden Age when Things Were Better. He makes the point that those who lived in that time were in all likelihood thinking that things might have been perfect at some previous era to that. Maybe cavemen thought wistfully that things were so much simpler back when they were Cro-Magnon.

 Wilson makes a nice surrogate Woody, having naturally some of the inflections and cadences of Allen at the peak of his game in the 70s. He has always been an amiable sort onscreen and that easygoing charm serves him well here. Cotillard, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses working today, plays a love interest in the movie that catches Gil’s eye. Also of note is the French first lady who plays a tour guide at the Rodin sculpture garden (where she runs afoul of know-it-all Paul) and Brody who plays a famous Spanish artist with over-the-top panache.

I’m not a big Woody Allen fan, particularly lately when his movies have been extremely uneven in quality. This is by far his best movie in decades, clearly one of the best movies he’s ever made. I don’t know if it is the change in location that has inspired him but if so, let’s see him do some movies in Tokyo, New Orleans, Montreal and Barcelona. He’s definitely an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired – until now. I will admit that my view is colored by the fact that in less than two weeks my wife and I will be taking a vacation in Paris so seeing the places we’ll soon be haunting ourselves gave us a special thrill. Nonetheless, this is wonderful filmmaking, bringing back the magic and romance that movies used to bring us in massive doses – and seems to be so rare and precious today.

REASONS TO GO: As charming a movie as you’ll ever see. Perfectly captures the romance and magic of Paris. Allen’s best in decades, maybe ever.

REASONS TO STAY: You’re a big Woody Allen fan and you think Play It Again, Sam and The Purple Rose of Cairo were his worst films.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and quite a bit of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The flea market scenes were filmed at the market on the days it was normally closed with crew members and extras dressing the stalls for filming, then restoring the market to its normal appearance when filming was done.

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen in a darkened theater with a big tub of popcorn and a soda; the magic of Paris combined with the magic of the movies.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: And Soon the Darkness

Avenue Montaigne


Avenue Montaigne

Jessica is a tourist in Paris and in life.

(THINKfilm) Cecilie de France, Valerie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel, Sydney Pollack, Claude Brasseur, Christopher Thompson, Dani, Laura Morante, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Danielle Thompson

Life imitates art, it is often said but the reverse isn’t always true. From time to time, art – and the artists who make it – is completely at odds with reality.

Jessica (de France) is a wide-eyed innocent who was orphaned at age four and was raised by her delightful grandmother (Flon), who had a taste for luxury but unfortunately not the pocketbook for it. She contented herself by being a ladies room attendant at the Ritz Hotel, able to rub elbows with the very rich at least indirectly.

Now on her own, Jessica comes to Paris looking for a job but without much experience. She talks her way into a job as a waitress at a café on the Avenue Montaigne, a center of the arts in Paris. At the Bistro, the famous and the lowly come to eat from the stagehands and ushers to the stars of the theater and the concert hall across the street.

Three events are taking place three days from her first day; a recital by Jean-Francois Lefort, a world-famous classical pianist (Dupontel) who has grown weary of his lifestyle and yearns to play for a less discerning audience, despite the fact that his adoring wife and agent (Morante) has him booked for the next six years. There is also an art auction as a businessman and connoisseur named Jacques Grunberg (Brasseur) is selling off the contents of his former life, which irritates his estranged son Frederic (Thompson, the son of the director) who sees his father dating a much younger woman he once had an affair with (unbeknownst to the father) and leaving the legacy of his mother behind.

Finally, there is the performance of a farce at the theater starring Catherine (Lemercier), a star on a wildly popular soap who yearns for more substantial roles. She hopes she might get one in a biography of Simone de Beauvoir that an American director (Pollack) is putting together. Although the casting director for the film hates her, she still hopes she can win the director over.

Jessica moves in an out of their lives like a sprite, befriending the elderly concierge (Dani) who is retiring after the performances. With no place to live and knowing nobody, Jessica sleeps in the dressing room of the concert hall and befriends the performances so guilelessly that they can’t help but feel comfortable with her. But as things move towards the night of the performances, each performer feels the weight of their demons moving in. Can the show go on when the showman doesn’t have the will to perform any longer?

Director Thompson (Jet Lag) has crafted a typically charming slice of life in the French capital as it relates to the arts on the Avenue. This is not a love letter to Paris – although the beauty of the city is well on display, the movie takes it more as a matter of fact that you love Paris. And who wouldn’t? Even the neuroses are charming.

De France carries the movie effortlessly, a pixie in a sidewalk café who flits from situation to situation with enough pluck to make her adorable. Lemercier also captures the neurotic television star with the right mix of frenetic kinesis, nervous tics, self-loathing and blind ambition to make her believable, but with enough heart to make her worth caring about. Dupontel is also solid as a pianist who is a prisoner of his own talent and fame.

The one drawback is that it is hard to feel much sympathy for people who are so successful, so famous, so wealthy. Not that people with success, fame and wealth are without problems, but one must take them with a grain of salt.

There is also a subtext about the relationship between the young and the elderly, starting with Jessica and her grandmother but also including Jacques and his son and Jessica and the concierge. I actually kind of liked it; too often we dismiss the wisdom of our elders because of our own arrogance. The fact is we don’t freakin’ know it all.

Any movie that takes place in a French café had better be prepared to charm the pants off of you, and Avenue Montaigne accomplishes that. This isn’t something that is going to give you remarkable insight; rather it is a fluffy entertainment, a meringue if you will. Nothing wrong with that, so if you like your movies light and charming this just might be your ticket.

 WHY RENT THIS: A delightful slice of Parisian life in the arts as seen by a wide-eyed innocent from the provinces. Some timely themes about ageism and class distinctions.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is occasionally hard to feel sympathy for people who are successful and adored but are miserable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and some salty language but otherwise fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Suzanne Flon passed away shortly after filming was completed. As the end credits begin, we see a tribute page to her with the actress, offscreen, repeating a line from earlier in the film stating that she had a good life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Frozen River