When you click Delete All

Because of a dire lack of nutrients, I was in the mood to remove random posts from this blog on a Friday spring fever afternoon.  Next time you try this on a WordPress blog, you might think of doing a SQL backup.  Luckily I am so word-tied that I have only posted seven articles (of dubious value) in the past three years.  These are the ones I blithely dismissed with one click of the mouse.

Google to the rescue!

Turns out that Google (and probably the Wayback Machine for that matter) is so efficient at caching the web, that I was able to retrieve all these posts, and the images and hyperlinks contained in them.  A few searches with “site:bipedsmonitor.com” and I have them downloaded to my hard disk.  So fear not, gentle reader, the posts will restored this weekend.

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Total art: Saura and Storaro

Belen Maya, in Saura's Flamenco

While I generally prefer films which are messy, with loose ends and imperfections that show that the filmmaker is trying to do more than he dare, occasionally I see one whose conception from start to finish could not posssibly be improved on.

Tonight I put Carlos Saura’s Flamenco on the wide screen–I had been trying to get a copy of his film about Bunuel and Garcia Lorca, but Flamenco was the one that Netflix had in stock.  It goes without saying that the subject of flamenco culture could not fail to be fascinating if handled by someone with Saura’s compassion, but this film, gloriously lit and photographed by Vittorio Storaro in his preferred “Univision” 2:1 aspect ratio, takes a mesmerizing exploration of flamenco’s wide spectrum of styles (”palos”) and raises it to such a heightened visual experience that the audience feels it is immersed in every scene.

After 10 or 20 minutes of watching, you begin to understand that Storaro is showing us everything in his astounding palette of technical mastery:  light, shadow, motion, framing (I especially like the light-dark, ying-yang effect he pulls off when the backdrop of his 2:1 canvas is perfectly bisected into two squares of color), composition, the human face, the subtle emotional effect of carefully calibrated hues (developed by his longtime association with the lighting gel manufacturer Rosco–he and Saura often show us the lighting grids in the frame).  All through this spectacular exhibition (which takes place in an art gallery-like space), you get flashbacks from some of the most powerful images of color cinema: the effortless dolly work from Last Tango in Paris, the stunning close-up interviews in Reds, the pale blue of The Sheltering Sky, the fireworks and dark moods of Apocalypse Now, and the formal compositions of The Last Emperor.

Check out Solea (scene 12) to get the entire picture.  It begins with a static presentation–the group like caryatids in a temple of sorrow around the cantante.  The dancer (we don’t know it yet) in Mayan profile in the foreground of the group.  Then the dancer rises, the light goes to a dark grey, and you see her flesh, black hair, her striking pink and green dress, the pink shoes, the only light beaming upward from the solear (hot spot) on the floor, like footlights in the 19th century.

Or scene 15 (Tangos).  The pale blue lighting makes it feel as though this performance is happening at the end of an all-nighter with the dawn just beginning to break on the troupe.  This time, three women singers in turn are lit directly from above, heads and shoulders glowing with energy to match the intensity of their jealous pleas (”If you want to come, then come/and if not, tell me to go”).  All of a sudden, without warning, the camera is spinning full circle as if in a trance.

As a flamenco novice, I can only assume that the marvelous performances are by the finest Andalucian artists; by cutting from one side-lit close-up of pain and sorrow in a singer’s face to another, then pulling back to show us the barely-lit silhouettes of a dancer in green against the subtly tinted light panels, then revolving slowly around the ensemble, the spectator is literally lost in the moment time and time again.

I remember reading about the choices Carl Sagan had to make in compiling an audio time capsule (the “Golden Record”) that was put on the Voyager spacecraft to take a few tokens of human civilization to any beings who might find it between here and alpha Centauri.  I can only imagine that had the capsule been made 30 years later, a DVD of Saura’s Flamenco would have made his cut.

Tiriti tran tran tran…

Road movies: the Salles view

The Passenger (Antonioni)

The New York Times Magazine today published a reflection on the road movie genre by Walter Salles, who has directed three of the best. He mentions Hopper, Kiarostami, Antonioni, Wenders, Winterbottom, John Ford and others as masters who have pushed the genre to explore the movements of culture as well as characters. Now I have to find a copy of Iracema, the Amazonian road movie of the 70s he mentions as the “one of the most extraoardinary cinematic experiences” he has ever had. See a previous post on this site for my feelings about the road movie.

Maybe Jaman could put it up? They have a copy of Salles’ Terra Estrangeira available for rent or purchase–highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of Fernanda Torres.

Reality bites


If you go to the movies today, you are usually looking to have to
endure 150 minutes of flashy, overbudget, effects-heavy gimmicks
produced by the Hollywood machine. This unpleasant experience extends
even to “groundbreaking” movies, like those made by the Mexican
new-wavers Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro, all vying for 2006 Oscars.
Yes, they all have interesting stories to tell, leave you with things
to think about, and moments that take your breath away, but after a
while you really start longing for the simple tale told well that
perfectly describes something about a human condition without beating
you over the head.

So it was that I was recently knocked out by two very different
fables made in 2003, one from each side of the Atlantic: Ricky Gervais’
“The Office” and David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls”. As Robert
Altman proved in his most compelling works, the effect of an ensemble
cast is so much greater than that of an individual or couple, and both
these stories (even though they are made to appeal to completely
different audiences, and use different techniques) explore what happens
when you observe the give and take of a group of strangers (in the case
of “The Office”) or long-time friends (”Real Girls”) as life goes on.
Meantime the viewer is inexorably drawn in, reflecting on one’s own
experiences.

For once, listening to the “extra features” on the DVDs of these two
pieces does reveal something about why they are both so effective. They
are labors of love, not made to make box office records (surprisingly,
“The Office” did become a huge success), but because the film-makers
were smart enough to stay small.

Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant (mentalist!) found a way
to channel Gervais’ obsessive need to entertain and place it within the
drab, low-cost setting of our everyday work lives. With brilliant
casting and exquisite art direction (probably the most striking aspect
of the show to me was the perfect framing of the office location
shots–made to look haphazard, there is always a dead plant in the
corner or a monkey on the coat-rack just out of focus), Gervais and
Merchant wear us down so that we must emphasize even with the boss from
hell.


Green’s ensemble is composed of film school friends from the North
Carolina School of the Arts, and as he and lead actor Paul Schneider
explain on the commentary, they approach every scene in “All the Real
Girls” with an open mind. You can believe from the gentle way that the
film unwinds that comments and ideas from the guy holding the mic boom
were accepted by the cast and director, and that just as in Gervais’
case, they were not going to settle for anything other than the best
they could do. Zooey Deschanel rises to the occasion (when she wants
to, she can give us incredibly powerful performances–see also “The Good
Girl”) and the other actors win us over.

Zaha a Roma

Still under construction, this will be an extremely interesting
building for a number of reasons: the architecture, the concept (hey,
this IS the 21st century), and what it will do to a very backwater
neighborhood of Rome. There will now be an axis between MAXXI and Parco
della Musica (that includes the poor old Palazzeto dello Sport); who
will cut in for the next dance?

The pay as you go future

Sometimes, even comfortable Brits can shake us out of our complacency. I just got around to seeing Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, which was first screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2003.

Shanghai, from Code 46

The screenplay, a cooperation between Winterbottom and his longtime writer associate, Frank Cottrell Boyce, hits on all the right cylinders: the cordoning off of the power centers of world cities even as the the rythyms and languages of India, China, Latin America and the third world overtake the anglo culture, pervasive privacy intrusions by quasi-governmental investigators (I love the firm name they chose, “Westerfields”), and ethical dilemmas resulting from easy human genetic engineering, to name a few of the topics that enmesh a simplistic love story.

Winterbottom chose to wing across the axes of population and the growing centers of world power: Shanghai, Dubai, and Rajasthan. The division of this not-so-future world between the cities and the fuera outside the checkpoints is where we are going. Maybe what was not so clear in the film is the police state required to keep the majority of the world’s population fuori le mura. What is clear is that everywhere you want to go, you have to present proof that you belong to the first world. Little holographic papeles show that you have “cover”. Without them, you might as well be Tsotsi.

All the details are telling: Tim Robbins’ P.I. character who flies from his oh-so-tidy Seattle home (wife, genetically engineered perfect child) to practice his powers of ESP on suspects in Shanghai and tells his mate, “I’ll be back in 24 hours.”

For the doomed lovers, the only escape from their inside lives is to venture out. The trip is to Jebel Ali (can anyone say “Dubai Ports World”? John Hagel can). From there, you have to go without “cover”, without the protective cocoon of technology, to make a connection with your past and with the human race. But you’re not really fuera. If you slip off the road, the helicopters and SUV’s of the state are on the accident scene in a matter of seconds to make sure that your memory is erased and your dissident lover is disappeared. Lo siento, but it’s verdad.

The mother of all snowstorms

Upper east side, 2/12/2006 Palermo "Annunziata" at the Met

It was the best of times, even though, or possibly due to the fact that, life itself (as well as all the trains, boats and planes) was running at half speed. The only depressing note in this otherwise
strange world (strange in that it was almost identical to the feel of the Chronicles of Narnia movie) had nothing to do with the snow.

If you travel anywhere in this country, you had better rent a car or pay for a room in a hotel, because you are not going to be able to leave your bag anywhere else in the city. Forget trying to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Forget the quaint notions of “cloak rooms”, or “deposito bagagli”. These niceties have long since been eliminated due to the one in a million chance of someone putting a malevolent device inside a rolling suitcase. Maybe Bloomberg’s ultra-efficient 21st century New York could afford to put bomb-proof concrete baggage checks every 20 blocks or so up and down Manhattan, now that they have been systematically scoured from the important places of our culture (the places that tourists like me must visit, trundling roller bags over the snowdrifts that barricaded the corners of the Upper East Side almost as high as the fortified walls of Palermo).

Finally, I was able to find someone to take pity on me in my quest to see six paintings by Antonello da Messina. A Madison Avenue shopkeeper with a heart of gold whose identity will be withheld from the authorities reading this blog accepted my bag for 90 minutes so that I could share the mystical combination of quiet contemplation of a renaissance room in a quiet city with my son.