Ed Ruscha, Woody, and the World’s Hottest Pepper

October 31, 2012

As you may have read, this weekend we held our second annual Art+Film Gala, at which we paid tribute to Ed Ruscha and Stanley Kubrick. This is a major event for LACMA that raises funds to support LACMA’s initiative to make film more central to the museum’s curatorial programming, while also funding LACMA’s broader mission. We’re happy to see that the event, sponsored by Gucci, raised more than $3.5 million for the museum.

As part of the tribute to Ruscha—who also has an exhibition currently on view at LACMA—filmmaker Lance Acord created a short film, Ed Ruscha, Woody, and the World’s Hottest Pepper, produced by Park Pictures and LACMA. We liked it so much we wanted to share it with you. (While you’re at it, check out last year’s film about John Baldessari , narrated by Tom Waits and directed by Henry Joost and Rel Schulman.)

Scott Tennent

Muse Costume Ball: Daedelus + Archimedes

October 30, 2012

I have the strange distinction of having Halloween as my birthday, a day that casts off long shadows and candy wrappers. And usually sensible people seem to let loose just that little bit extra, and it’s always interesting to watch it happen in degrees or full immersion. The wild ones who’ve waited all year for this time, they commit to their characters as ever.

So back when LACMA approached me about taking time this Wednesday to DJ the 2012 Muse Costume Ball and to celebrate Mr. Kubrick’s life and Halloween, I really couldn’t resist. I began to try to think on a grand scale and hope I could live up to the bar these previous Muse events have set.

I enlisted help from the UK and summoned a device I’ve been using rarely (as it is a bit more of a spectacle then a typical venue can rightly hold). We’ve taken to calling it Archimedes, in honor of the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, because it uses mirrors (less to set things on fire, but kind of—sort of—a similar idea).

Archimedes (the light show) was first developed to take the stage at the 2011 Coachella festival. When so many other stage shows have already been touted and triumphed as huge acts, I had the opportunity to try to do something different, but without huge major label backing. Such a difficult mandate, but luckily those previously mentioned UK friends are very clever and we worked out an idea to use mechanized mirrors on a frame of steel that move in response to user control.

Now we’ve kept developing, refining, and indeed practicing with it, but with the exception of a few choice festivals since (Barcelona’s Sonar 2012, Camp Bisco, and scant others) it hasn’t been used much. This will be a Los Angeles debut. I couldn’t be more excited than on a birthday, this Halloween, and with you. For this event Archimedes will be one part monolith (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) to honor Mr. Kubrick, another part light show, but then mostly a reflection of the audience’s outfit and LACMA’s awesome architecture.


Elvis Mitchell on the Art and Myth of Stanley Kubrick

October 29, 2012

Opening November 1 (members can see it now), Stanley Kubrick is the first major retrospective in the United States of the notoriously scrupulous filmmaker’s work. Featuring annotated scripts, production photography, lenses, costumes, and props, exhibition spans the breadth of Kubrick’s practice and offers viewers insight into the uncompromising vision of one of cinema’s greatest directors. Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell reflects on Stanley Kubrick as filmmaker, photographer, and myth.

I may be alone in this, but I think of Stanley Kubrick as an editor. Probably no one who has ever watched Barry Lyndon or The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut can read that sentence with a straight face. But to me, Kubrick was an editor in part because most of his films were adapted from other sources, from which he then mercilessly sliced away material that didn’t lend itself to the motion picture medium.

Stanley Kubrick in the interior of the space ship Discovery, 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1965–68, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I primarily think of Kubrick as an editor, however, because he was also a photographer, and the best photographers—from Mary Ellen Mark to James Van Der Zee to Robert Capa—are artists who function both as directors and cutters: each shot is basically an entire movie tailored into a single frame. For me, then, Kubrick is first and foremost a photographer, like them, and almost any still from his monochromatic movies tells a complete story. That’s what comes to mind when I see Kubrick’s black-and-white films: they’re “pictures” in both senses of the word (think of how Martin Scorsese, who acknowledges Kubrick as a de facto mentor, uses the directing credit “A Martin Scorsese Picture”). They have the finesse of a finely honed visual presentation but also the head over heels tumble that a moving picture provides.

I find that I have a special affinity for Stanley Kubrick’s black-and-white films. There’s an unspoken carnality to them, possibly because they have the silvery shimmer of gelatin prints, luminescent and hot, and the actors give off a satiny glow that’s less painterly and far more vivid than in Kubrick’s color work. The luscious women, in particular, all of whom suggest cigarette girls or dancers, have a comprehension of their power that’s almost precognitive. You can easily go from one of the young women in Kubrick’s early photographs for Look magazine, which helped establish his name, to Sue Lyons’s simmering performance as the title character in Lolita—it’s a natural progression.

Matthew Modine as Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket (still), directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Part of that carnality comes from Kubrick’s undeniable love of the photochemical process. He treated emulsion as a character. (Nowhere is that passion for the tactile qualities of film more evident than in Full Metal Jacket, where you can almost read the emulsion in the print.) His feel for photo stocks led Kubrick to treat them as if he were searching for just the right ensemble to clothe his actors. As a result, the actors in his black-and-white features never seem as languid as they sometimes appear in his color films. In Full Metal Jacket, for example, after the Marines are browbeaten into a pack of grunts during the boot-camp prologue, Kubrick leeches the color from the film. The rest of the movie takes on a heady quality, as the soldiers wander through a Southeast Asia that looks more like Sheffield with palm trees than the jungles of Hué—a dislocated drift owing in part to Kubrick’s refusal to shoot in Asian locations.

All of Kubrick’s color films have the same trippy, distended quality, in which every minute seems to last ninety seconds. (No wonder so much of the 2001: A Space Odyssey fandom ran their tongues across acres of acid before diving into the film during its original 1968 theatrical release.) We wallow in Kubrick’s disregard for time as it weighs on the perquisites of story; minutes cease to matter as the protagonists are tossed about from one disaster to another. In The Shining, especially, Kubrick has no use for the temporal world. We enter the Land that Time Forgot—not in the standard When-Dinosaurs-Walked-the-Earth fashion, but a Time that simply neglected to include the happenings at the Overlook Hotel.

Lobby of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey (still), directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1965–68, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The stubbornness required of a filmmaker when he moves into the manufacturing of epics often makes him lose track of time. Intent on expanding scale, he instead sacrifices the clarity that keeping a film compact demands, and the bloat blurs the film’s aim. For Kubrick, it’s an entirely different thing. He may have been the only director who turned to making bigger movies without losing the over-deliberate acuity of his meticulously worked smaller films. With the color films, that obsession led him into another dimension, since he seemed to feel a need to overcompensate. One reason is that he didn’t deepen the emotional spectrum of his longer, color works. Often, when a director capable of superlative emotional intimacy literally changes the size of the screen, he wants us to see all of the cinematic brushstrokes he never had the money to provide. He’s as overwhelmed as we are in his effort to show every inch the camera travels on the tracks—so much so that we begin to wonder if the cinematographer was being paid by the mile. That never happens with Kubrick; we’re simply aware that time is another element at his disposal. There’s not a single frame that escapes his attention.

In Kubrick’s black-and-white movies—what connects them to his early magazine photography, in fact—the opposite holds true: The director’s artistic confidence registers as a full-tilt sprint. How we perceive time is the line of demarcation that separates the color films from the express-train alacrity of the black-and-whites. There’s not a heartbeat to lose when color isn’t a consideration.

In Lolita, Kubrick’s initial descent into the adolescent sexual obsession that underlies so much of Eyes Wide Shut time is indeed of the essence. Humbert Humbert, played with a masterly succumbing-to-vanity by James Mason, has to act on his churlish hunger for the object of his desire before she becomes . . . well, a woman. And that’s where the awful comedy comes from: Humbert’s comprehension of how horrible his plan is, and then his following through on it anyway. But Humbert’s pride is at stake, and for the characters in Kubrick’s black-and-white films pride is an Old Testament deficit that invariably goeth before destruction.

Sue Lyon as Dolores “Lolita” Haze, Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1960–62, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., photo by Bert Stern

That same pride, however, is part of the compact Kubrick made with the subjects of his Look magazine photographs. Each real-life model radiates it, and Kubrick’s appreciation of that quality—it’s the kinship he shares with them—makes it impossible for him to turn the tables on them, as he generally did with his film protagonists. He shows the instincts of an artist in those pictures by surrendering himself to something bigger than he could possibly contain. Stars in their own right, the models took authorship of their lives in his pictures. Kubrick obviously admired their poise, the way they controlled the moment, but it’s the sense we get of partaking in their pleasure that adds a note of voluptuousness to the work.

The even-tempered calculation in Kubrick’s early photographs is shattering for one so young. He was effectively converting single images into short films of overwhelming emotional sophistication: visual poetry that resonates because of what we don’t see. The careful handling Kubrick gave to the subjects in those photos—or, rather, his inability to achieve the same effects—could be what led him to scuttle his debut feature film, Fear and Desire, whose anxious, slightly jittery qualities are nowhere to be found in the perfectly realized noirs Kubrick would later make, in which every narrative dart is launched hard into the films’ bull’s-eyes. The same can be said of the street photographs, with their imagined, unspoken dialogues, where each nuance in each face feels pulled from some larger schematic in Kubrick’s head, evidence of lurid, sweaty secrets. The still images have a terse vivacity that Kubrick discovered how to realize in movies only with The Killers and Killer’s Kiss.

Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

When I first saw The Usual Suspects, it suddenly hit me who the real Keyser Söze was: Stanley Kubrick. A figure enveloped in mystery and carefully constructed anecdote, someone about whom everyone has a different story, but all of which end in submission. There is probably no other American filmmaker of his generation who so thoroughly dramatized cruelty, and Kubrick’s whims—his playful malice—have become an integral part of his legend.

Like Söze, the near mythical ur-gangster at the heart of The Usual Suspects, Kubrick was a master manipulator who could bend people to his will and then place them exactly where he wanted them. When it is said in the film that Söze was the one to gather a group of extras and march them into certain death, I was reminded of Kubrick’s ability to extract the ultimate commitment from his collaborators. He was one of the last working directors to exist, like Söze, as a living myth

Stanley Kubrick during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1965–68, GB/United States, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Kubrick’s sly willfulness, his willingness to use actors as objects, brings to mind the bastardization of Baudelaire that Verbal Kint, the limping petty criminal played to perfection by Kevin Spacey, carefully intones about Söze, his alter ego: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” People tend to speak about Stanley Kubrick in such rapt terms, even as he exploited them for his own artistic gains. In Kubrick, screenwriter Michael Herr’s memoir about his psychological tour of duty with the director, he writes, “When I met him in 1980, I was not just a subscriber to the Stanley Legend, I was frankly susceptible to it.” In other words, Herr entered a working relationship with Kubrick with eyes wide shut. Kubrick ended their first, lengthy phone conversation with, “Oh, and Michael . . . do me a favor, will you? . . . Don’t tell anybody what we’ve been talking about.” You can almost hear the nervous chuckle from Herr as he hangs up the phone, realizing that he’s just happily extended a femur into Kubrick’s snare. A few years of such phone conversations passed before Herr started working with the director on what became the screenplay of Full Metal Jacket. “By then,” Herr later remarked, “I knew I’d been working for Stanley the moment I met him.”

Elvis Mitchell, Curator, Film Independent at LACMA

This Weekend at LACMA: Early Closure on Saturday, Stanley Kubrick Member Previews Start Sunday, and More

October 26, 2012

Tonight, award-winning vocalist Sara Gazarek shares songs from her album Blossom & Bee for Jazz at LACMA. (Note, this weekend Jazz at LACMA will take place on the Los Angeles Times Central Court, outside of our Chinese and Korean art galleries.)

Heads up for anyone planning a visit to LACMA on Saturday: the museum is closing at 3pm due to a special event.

It’s not just any special event—it’s our annual Art+Film Gala, an important fundraiser for the museum that will also honor Ed Ruscha and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom have exhibitions on view at LACMA this fall. Ed Ruscha: Standard is on view now and presents numerous iconic prints and paintings by the artist from throughout his long career.

Ed Ruscha, Hollywood, 1968, Museum Acquisition Fund, © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

You may have already started to see some articles on Stanley Kubrick (like in the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter, among others). The exhibition opens to the public next week, on November 1. However, there are two ways to see it even sooner. First—become a member! Only members can see the exhibition starting this Sunday. And don’t forget: Stanley Kubrick will be a specially ticketed exhibition, but members get two free tickets. Likewise, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy opens November 11 and is also specially ticketed—members get free tickets and early previews for that, too. It just makes sense to join now. Or, here’s another way to see Kubrick early: come to the annual Muse Costume Ball on Wednesday! The party will have a definite Kubrickian vibe, and guests will have the chance to see the exhibition while enjoying the festivities.

The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980; GB/United States). The daughters of former caretaker Grady (Lisa and Louise Burns). © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

On Saturday afternoon, in advance of the opening of Stanley Kubrick, Elvis Mitchell will be in conversation with Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s longtime executive producer, about the legacy of the great filmmaker. Following the conversation, Harlan will screen his documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.

There’s plenty to see and do beyond Kubrick. The stunning Drawing Surrealism just opened last week, as did Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ. Also on view are exhibitions for Ken Price, Michael Heizer, and Walter De Maria, as well as French ceramics, expressionist cinema, and more.

Drawing Surrealism, installation view, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Bring the kids on Sunday for free art-making activities during Andell Family Sundays, or enjoy the free Sundays Live concert in the evening, this weekend featuring pianist Jason Cutmore performing pieces by Haydn, Liszt, and more.

Scott Tennent

The Abiding Wonder of Alien Eyes

October 25, 2012

The Unveiling of Femininity in Indian Painting and Photography, a small but poignant exhibition on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building, strikes a seemingly eternal chord of the “male gaze” and the “exotic other” in the confluence of cultures.

Radha and Confidante Covertly Viewing a Painting, Folio from a Raskapriya, India, Rajasthan, Bundi, circa 1675, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

In the nineteenth-century photos of William Willoughby Hooper, we must time travel and find ourselves at the height of the colonial British Raj in India. Queen Victoria was on the throne and the predominant mood was of moral and cultural superiority. In the British colonial view, it was more than a business and a fashion; it was an adventure to the Other—one which possibly conceived whole new sciences, such as ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology. In spite of the perceived sophistication, the Indian world was still a mystery to these British aliens. It was an exotic, sensuous puzzle that surely must have played on their Victorian, frock-clad imaginations.

William Willoughby Hooper, Two Nautch Girls on a Bed, c. 1870, Collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

As one male’s gaze attempts to sense another, I imagined myself seeing through this British male’s Victorian eyes. And inadequate as that may be (and certainly not to impugn the gentleman), I must assume that like me, he was also mesmerized by these nautch girl dancers—unique, dark beauties clothed and wrapped in silk saris in deep tones of ruby, scarlet, or ochre trimmed in braids of gold. Jewels flow from their noses and foreheads. Earrings clang with gold tasseled bells on their fingers, all blending with the heavy beat of the music.

The intent of the works of Hooper and his photographer-contemporary Charles Shepard may have been to demystify by creating a documentarian reality. Or dare I say, slightly fetishized feminine images. But the mere idea of this Indian, female-centric world was something outside their understanding, and so their works seem only to enrich the women’s very “otherness”—an Orientalist fantasy for the lens.

Perhaps with very little irony we can imagine the Indian male in a somewhat  similar position to his British counterpart—he, too, is fascinated by the veiled Other. His male gaze, however, would be deeply rooted in a profound reverence, which must pass through the power of the “ur myth,” the notion of the “mother goddess” on one side and the wrathful, dark Kali on the other. The very concept of the androgynous god Shiva, half woman and half man, compounds the mystery of the female.

These Indian painters imagined life in the zenana (the noble women’s quarters), a world which only the prince was allowed to see, by presenting a voyeur’s idealized reality based on visions from romantic literature and poetry.

Krishna’s Fluting Causes the Palace Women to Swoon, India, Himachal Pradesh, Hindur (?), circa 1830-1840, gift of the Joseph B. and Ann S. Koepfli Trust in honor of Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Imagine Indian noblemen looking upon albums with images of these intimate encounters. The god Vishnu’s avatar Krishna, the divine lover, and the romantic heroine Radh illustrate love. Or they peer into the image of swooning women of the palace listening to Krishna’s fluting, or witness a mere mural of Krishna bestowing wonder on the women who gaze upon his divine image. And as if to ground the pictures, the artist painted the almost realistic yogini, the female ascetic. For the Indian nobleman, such scenes of female intimacy would suggest a secret world that would inhabit his imagination.

Female Ascetic (detail), India, Karnataka, Bijapur, c. 1600, Bequest of Edwin Binney, 3rd, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

As in Persian paintings, the figures would be bordered in flowers or outdoor scenes of lush vegetation. Bright saris in a variety of colors cast their own spell of paradise. The rich, labyrinthine symbolism of the “feminine principle” depicted—the Shalabhanjika, a beautiful, voluptuous woman whose mere touch makes flowers and fruit bloom; Devi, the female aspect of the divine; or the mother of the universe, Durga, who wages epic battles with the demon king Mahishasur—suggests how strongly this idealized female presence informs even these small, charismatic “unveilings.”

These romantic paintings sit at the source of the Indian male’s almost basic need to gaze upon a hidden treasure—a treasure, ironically, imagined by his own gender.

Hylan Booker

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