Archive for June, 2010

Doctor Who and Vincent van Gogh



When the forces of popular culture meets the immovable object that is art history, the latter always loses and accuracy is often a causality.  Those of us in the art history community, especially the classicists among us, have not forgotten the whitewashing of what was an actually a very colorful ancient Rome in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  Leaving aside the over-dramatized and over-romanticized movies, such as Lust for Life, some quite good films have been made about artists.  Surviving Picasso was marginal, Pollock was better, and Basquiat was quite good…give and take some dramatic license.  I am more comfortable with creating a story arc—-the rise and fall of the tragic artist—-as phony as it is, than with unnecessary historical inaccuracies.  Such was the case this weekend (in L. A.) on Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor.”

Touring Paris, Doctor Who and Amy Pond visited the Musée d’Orsay, home of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, once rejected and now revered by the French.  The guest star of the week was the wonderful Bill Nighy, playing a stuffy art lecturer to the English-speaking art audience.  I was hoping he would have been given a larger role, but that was not to be.  Examining one of van Gogh’s paintings, the Doctor and Amy spotted a monster in the window of  The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise (1890), one of his last paintings.  A monster in the window of a church, a church that Vincent painted as a writhing distorted contorted expression of the mystery that is Gothic—great concept, yes?  So where did the Doctor and Amy go to find the artist before he painted the church in Auvers?  Arles.

The couple found van Gogh (Tony Curren) in Arles at the  famous café, a place he painted twice, always at night: Pavement: The Café at Night and the more famous, The Night Café.  The artist is engaged in an argument over the money he owed the café, a chronic problem for the artist who lived on an allowance from his brother, Théo van Gogh, a well-known art dealer.  The physical resemblance between the actor and the artist was quite well done but the choice of accent was not the best.  Granted it would have been difficult to replicate van Gogh’s accent—-he spoke English with a Dutch accent and French with a Dutch accent—-but does he have to have a slight Cockney accent, the signifier of the lower class? That said, the actor did a very nice job with van Gogh, who, at this period in his life, was in one his quite times.  The crazy frantic bursts of emotion and the self-mutilation would come later in December.  If the accent is a bit off, the chronology of the paintings was seriously out of whack.

These paintings of the café were done before the artist had his breakdown and sliced his ear, placing the entry of the Doctor and Amy in the month of September 1888, just before the artist Paul Gauguin arrived in October.  When the Doctor and Amy go the “The Yellow House,” they find the house full of Vincent’s paintings.   However, there are many paintings that were done later or earlier or in Saint-Remy and in Auvers.  For example, the painting of Vincent’s bedroom (the interior of which was nicely produced for the show) was already hanging on the wall but it wasn’t done until October.  The Irises, now at the Getty and The Starry Night were both done while Vincent was recovering at the asylum.  La Berceuse, also in the house, wasn’t painted until January of 1889, after he had returned briefly to Arles.  No one in Arles threw stones at Vincent until that winter, when he was minus one ear and was fresh from his stay in the asylum.   And Doctor Who would have it that the artist did not paint sunflowers until he met Amy.  Sunflowers are a summer flower and van Gogh had already begun his many paintings of the bright yellow blossoms.

These mistakes with the art are easily avoidable.  There are thousands of books on van Gogh that can be referenced.  One can only assume that the set directors, prop masters, and the fact checkers decided that the audience needed to see all of the famous paintings in one room for the neglected genius of van Gogh to be fully signified.  The plot itself, about an invisible lost monster, which had been abandoned by its own kind on Earth and was flailing about, desperate and blind, was not too bad.  The trick was that Vincent could see and hear the monster and no one else could and he became, by default, a fighter of monsters.  The monster met its doom, poked to death by an easel.  Very nice.   It is always fun on Doctor Who to travel through time and watch him have adventures with famous people.  The conceit of the artist as being a visionary whose vision surpassed that of those all around him, including the Doctor, was a clever one.  One would like to think that the monster was a manifestation of Vincent’s depression and despair.   Of course the monster was real and of course it was vanquished; it was only a McGuffin.  The real story was the affection the time travelers had for the doomed artist who was in despair that no one appreciated his work.

The ending was quite lovely, because the Doctor and Amy took Vincent forward in time to the Musée d’Orsay and showed him a room full of his paintings.  The “room,” or the gallery, was not real, of course, as there were works that belonged to other museums on the wall, such as the Irises, dislocated from the Getty here in Los Angeles.  But never mind.  The fun was to see the artist moved to tears at the sight of his art in a museum. I felt that the writers missed an opportunity for Vincent to see paintings he had not yet done—-like the Starry Night and Crows in the Wheatfields and feel hope for his future as an artist.  Bill Nighy turned up again, still in the museum, but it would have been nice if he had been taken along for the ride back in time to Arles.  When the Doctor asked him what he thought of van Gogh, Nighy proclaimed Vincent van Gogh a great artist in what was actually a very nice little speech.  Van Gogh embraced the startled lecturer, who, of course, would never know that he had met his idol.  A sort of “what if God was one of us?” moment.  Answer—-we wouldn’t recognize her.

However, to conclude my concerns as an art historian: the conflation of Arles with Auvers was strange and unnecessary.  Nighy had been very precise with the Doctor: the painting of the church was done in early June of 1890, not long before the artist died.  But the TARDIS went to Arles in September of 1888.  But here’s an idea.  Surely the monster could have been relocated to a painting Vincent had done in Arles, maybe hiding out in The Night Café, a place the artist himself explained as horrifying:

I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime.  So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop…and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace of pale sulphur….

Calling Richard Curtis, the writer of Doctor Who, you should come to me the next time you try using an artist in one of your plots. If  I were a monster, I would hide out in The Night Café.


The jury is still out on the New Doctor.  I like Amy Pond (Pond, Amy Pond) but her relationship with the Doctor is yet to be fully resolved.  Rose and the Doctor were in love, Martha was in love with the Doctor but he couldn’t love her back, the Doctor and Donna were the Odd Couple, friends who made each other better people, but Amy and the Doctor…..?   Still in mourning for Rory, she doesn’t seem to be as dazzled as his previous partners and treats him with disclaimers.  Part of the problem is one of imbalance.  Amy, I think, is fully realized character, completely inhabited by Karen Gillan, but I am still waiting for Matt Smith to find his inner Doctor.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

I am Love (2010)


I am Love could just as well be titled “I am Heavy-Breathing Melodrama” or “I am an Italian Soap Opera.”  Here we have the rich behaving badly and stupidly, throwing away position and trampling on privilege in the headlong pursuit of passion and losing everything in the process.  The story is Phaedre (1962) plus Damage (1992) in which the final moral is that old people should leave young people alone.  As a Greek myth, Phaedra was played like a tragedy, brought on by the fatal flaws of humans who could not control themselves—a favorite Greek theme.  Damage reversed the gender of the older lover but made the young woman into an adventurer with a predatory streak.   I am Love also begins with a predatory young male lover who destroys a family that is sunk in complacency and is ripe for destruction.

The setting is Milan and the family business of the Recchi family is textiles.  The family is wealthy and close-knit, impenetrable to outsiders. However, the son, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) and heir brought an outsider into the family, his Russian wife, renamed “Emma.” (Tilda Swinton)  Emma has done her Catholic familial duty, giving up her identity, becoming Italian, producing two sons and one daughter and enduring the passive aggressive slights of her mother in law, an almost unrecognizable Marisa Berenson, transformed by plastic surgery.  “Emma” and “Edoardo” are at that married-but-estranged state, common after three decades of familiarity.   And there are other signs that all is not well among the males, who are jousting for position as the head of the family is coming to the end of his long reign.   At a Christmas dinner, his grandson, Edoardo, Jr. brings home a somewhat unsuitable young woman and the bad news that he has lost a contest to, of all people, a chef—a working class man.  Obviously, the grandson and heir is not worthy of all that should be coming to him.

Enter the snake into this suave Garden of Eden.  The “chef,” “Antonio,” courts the son, bringing a cake as a consolation prize to “Edoardo” and spies an even bigger prize, his mother, “Emma.”  “Emma” is beautiful, polished and bottled up, and so, like “Lady Chatterley” meeting the “gamekeeper,” she picks up on the young man’s interest.  All coiled up and hissing inside a box, the cake is the signifier of temptation, but it takes a while to get to the apple biting. The plot unfolds with glacial slowness, the frozen sexuality of “Emma” telegraphed to us by the thin layer of winter snow.  The patriarch of the family dies and leaves the business to his son and immature grandson.  The grandson, Edoardo, Jr. needs to prove himself and the chef sees his chance and draws the young man into financing and sponsoring his new restaurant.  “Antonio” is talented but needs useless rich people to back him, just as “Emma” needed “Edoardo, Sr.” to take her out of Russia.  Both should know better than to upset the social balance: they are dependent upon the rich, but they pursue each other.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been a favorite story ever since D. H. Lawrence wrote the scandalous novel of class differences and steaming sex scenes, which was banned in America and made into a half dozen films.  While Lady Chatterley is excused by her husband’s physical ailments, there is no excuse for “Emma’s” behavior.  The signifier of corruption is an art book “Emma” steals in an absent minded moment of passion.  “Antonio” finds her in the bookstore and takes her away in his pickup truck to the site of his future restaurant.  As an art historian, stealing an art book bothered me, but never mind, for the two lovers were off in the Springtime of their Love to the sunny top of the chef’s mountain lair. By this time (Spring, Summer, sometime warm), the colors are more intense and, if the audience hasn’t caught onto “Emma’s” sexual awakening, her orange pants provide a vital clue.  On this verdant site where  “Emma’s” son will invest in a restaurant, the doomed couple frolic in the grass, which springs to erect attention in a field full of blooming flowers penetrated by bees who will also like the ripe swollen raspberries jostling nearby.  There are lots of ants who crawl around the fuzzy close ups of writhing bodies and the equally overripe music of John Adams.  Adams, we are told is a contemporary of Philip Glass, a designation that obscures the fact that Adams composes music that “sounds like Philip Glass,” to quote a famous phrase.  The viewer is dragged through a linear progress of grass waving and flower shaking and violin scrapings, which warn, all the while, that the wages of sin are death.  But whose?

The elaborate plot meanders to include a pregnancy for “Edouard Jr.’s” girlfriend, “Eva,” who knows how to tie her man down, while the daughter, “Betta,” (Alba Rohrwacher) deviates off the marriage path, cuts her hair, dons masculine attire and acquires a female lover.  Hair cutting becomes a symbol of the freeing of female sexuality.  “Antonio cuts “Emma’s” long blond hair” perhaps because he did not like her prim Kim Novak chignon. The family politely ignores such developments—the suspicious short hair, the pregnancy, because they do not upset the order of things, and the lesbian in the family lives in London.   However, two events occur which do upset young Edoardo. First, his father sells the business he was supposed to one day inherit, depriving him of his future; and second, “Emma,” who was instructed to give the chef, “Antonio” the menu for a family dinner, provides him with the recipe for a beloved childhood soup.  The occasion is a celebration of the sale of the business to a global enterprise, so the poor young man is already upset. As soon as the soup is served, Edoardo immediately leaps to the conclusion that his mother has been having an affair with the chef.  The clue: Edoardo, who apparently had the eyes of an eagle, spotted a few strands of his mother’s cut hair at the site of the future restaurant.  Hair+recipe=affair.

The young man storms out of the dinner party—very unprofessional and immature—and retreats to the family swimming pool for a good sulk.  Unwisely his mother follows, they quarrel and he trips over something or other and hits his head on the concrete and falls into the pool and dies unnecessarily. The young man is dead because of his mother’s bad behavior (but no one knows that…yet). The chef summarily disappears from the stage.  The family mourns its dead. The father, Edoardo, Sr. attempts to restore family order, implicitly signaling his willingness to overlook her possible transgressions, but “Emma” announces she “loves Antonio.”  Of course she is immediately ordered out of existence; the family, including her other two children, close ranks against her; and she runs off, surrounded by over-dramatic music.   End of movie.

The stunned and bewildered audience has to supply its own resolution.   “Antonio,” of course, has lost his restaurant, and goes off to find another mark.  Edoardo, Sr. remarries someone one-third his age and tried again to produce a satisfactory son.  We can imagine “Emma,” if we chose, getting a large divorce settlement from her husband and living happily ever after on her well-deserved alimony.  And we warn her to stay away from opportunistic young men…or to please remember that the operative word in “boy toy” is “toy.”

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Remember when Will Smith could be counted on to open the summer with a blockbuster?  From Independence Day to Men in Black, Will Smith always delivered.  Move over daddy, it’s the turn of another Smith for this summer. The Karate Kid defeated all opponents in its first weekend in the theaters, entertaining an audience that included the parents who remembered the original and their children.  In a summer in which the film industry has attempted to shovel mediocrity at the American public, there is finally a hit, featuring the appealing team of the always great, Jackie Chan, as the “master,” Mr. Han, and the very talented little Jaden Smith, as the “Kid.”  Although I had never seen the original, because I preferred the serious purity of Bruce Lee, I took my nephew, Nick, to this new version of The Karate Kid. This is a nice movie, thoroughly enjoyable for parents and children alike.  As my brother, who accompanied us, pointed out, The Karate Kid is essentially an adult revenge fantasy.  Who does not vividly recall all those schoolyard bullies who tormented us as soon as the teachers turned their backs?   Who does not still have to deal with adult bullies in the work place?  Revenge is sweet and victory is good and that is the message that The Karate Kid gives all of us, regardless of age.

However, I would like to suggest that parents be prepared.  The film takes place in China, which is great for scenic side trips but much of the dialogue is in Chinese, also great for a global perspective.  However, for the small child, the subtitles move on and off the screen too quickly for the little ones to read.  Also, the Chinese people in the film conveniently speak English with an accent.  For those of us who live on the Pacific Rim, an Asian accent is very familiar and we have no trouble with it.  For people in other parts of the country, particularly children, the accents may be difficult to follow.  While I applaud the decision of the Smiths to shift the site of the film to China, fully half the film’s plot is told through subtitles and accents.  Parents need to be alert and prepared to quietly help the young children keep up with the plot, which includes a lot more dialogue that action.

Like many other reviewers, I, too, had trouble with the slight frame of Jaden Smith.  While he may grow up to be as tall has his famous father, he now is petit, like his mother, Jada Pinkett.  Although the film stated that “Dre Parker” was twelve, Jaden Smith is actually eleven, a child still. The boys who played the bullies are at least three to four years older than the “twelve year old” and are much bigger and stronger adolescents, outweighing him by at least twenty pounds.   Even his love interest, “Meiying” (Wenwen Han), is much larger than he, as girls often are at this age.  I know nothing about how Karate tournaments are conducted in Beijing, but I would assume that there are categories, such as age, weight, belt color, and so on.  It is difficult to imagine that a very small twelve year old would be allowed to fight much older and much heavier boys in any kind of official contest.  It would have made more sense for the final encounter between “Parker” and “Cheng”(Zhenwei Wang) to take place where the fight began, in the schoolyard.

Unlike other reviewers, I have other issues: There were many “plot holes” in the script. Why did we have to take field trips to the Great Wall and to the Forbidden City, instead of taking the time to show “Dre” struggling in a Chinese school?  He began the film by refusing to speak Chinese and everyone around him is forced to speak English until he finally reads a letter in Chinese to Meiying’s parents.  It would have reinforced the open minded and global approach of the film to show the main character learning Chinese language and customs.  Women are also given short shift in this movie.  Did the film ever tell us whether or not “Meiying” got into the music academy?  We saw the audition, where “Dre” mistakenly disgraced her family by clapping for her performance; we saw the long interval when her parents would not allow her to speak to “Dre;” we saw “Dre” apologize to the family.  But, unless I missed it, the movie totally dropped the story line about the accomplishments of the little girl in favor of following the victory of the little boy. Which brings me to another point: outsourcing American jobs is seen in a totally positive light, but we never see “Dre’s mother at her work in the “automobile factory.”  Surely she must have performed a very vital function in the industry which had to be imported from Detroit, but we have no idea what she did for her job.  The last plot hole is the mystery of “Mr. Han.”  Did the back story of Jackie Chan also wind up on the cutting room floor?  We are told only that he killed his wife and child in a car crash and every year he builds and destroys a car in their memory.  But where does martial arts fit into his life?  Why is he a “handyman?”  Inquiring minds want to know.

Suspend your reality, leap over the plot holes, and stick around for the improbable victory, featuring the famous crane kick.  The Karate Kid is a great summer revenge film.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger




Orange Country Museum of Art

Newport Beach

May 2 – September 19, 2010

“In the future,” Andy Warhol predicted, ‘everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Then a few years later he said, “I’m bored with that line.  I never use it anymore.  My new line is “in fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”

It is rare that prophecies come true with such a vengeance.  In the Twenty-first century, “fame” is surveillance. Under the watchful eye of CCTV, we are all famous all the time.  We stop at the red light, mindful of the camera perched above, staring down at us, we walk in and out of a department store, watching ourselves on the television screen overhead, we enter a bank and we are seen.  We are all treated as criminals and potential terrorists.  If being famous means being photographed, at any given moment every day, we are famous.  The goal of the exhibition at the Orange County Museum is not to investigate what photography means after September 11th, but to look at the connection between fame and photography.  We, the common people, “know” famous people through photographs.  Andy Warhol, the original modern voyeur, photographed every person who entered the Factory.  According to legend, he asked all the men to drop their trousers for the Polaroid camera.  Some of these images became the basis of his silkscreened portraits of the rich and famous.   Although there is little of Warhol’s actual art in this exhibition, some of these Polaroids are on view, and  his spirit hangs over the proceedings.  Warhol, himself, was supremely uninterested in ordinary people, and tellingly, the curator, Karen Moss has also kept within the confines of the museum’s collection of famous photographs made by famous photographers.

The exhibition features many old friends, such as Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, interspersed with a few rarely seen gems, namely Margaret Bourke-White’s portrait of Stalin’s mother and world-famous images, such as Korda’s hagiographic portrait of Che.  Although much smaller that LACMA’s recent show of Vanity Fair portraits, this show elicits the same pleasure of recognition at the sight of Einstein, by Johann Hagemeyer, or the very young artists, Betye Saar, Charles Arnoldi and Larry Bell by Arnold Chain.  Moss stretches the word “portrait,” from a faceless abstracted nude by Weston to the nameless women stalked by Garry Winnogrand and includes Harry Callahan’s iconic “Eleanor,” his muse and wife.  Also included, perhaps more under the sobriquet “famous,” is a selection from Larry Clark’s hard-to-look-at Tulsa, and a group of John Coplans’ studies of his crumpled hoary body. Indeed the whole exhibition juxtaposes the anonymous with the well-known and illustrate how the unnamed subject of the camera lens can become “famous.”  We would recognize Clark’s drug addicts anywhere and we know Winnogrand’s laughing woman with the ice cream cone as an old friend.

Far and away the greatest delight of the exhibition is a group of celebrity portraits by movie star photographer, Lawrence Schiller. Schiller’s trick photograph of Tippi Hedren is the leitmotif of the show. Hedren, Alfred Hitchcock’s successor to Grace Kelly, was his idea cold-hot blond.  Schiller posed Hedren, blond hair blowing in the wind, driving her Ford convertible down the wide-open highway.  And just as he popped up in all his movies, there is Alfred Hitchcock, round face framed in the rear view mirror.   On the same wall of photographs, “the man with no name,” Clint Eastwood squints and grips his cigar between this teeth, a young and beautiful Barbra Streisand is profiled near a Schiele drawing, “Butch and Sundance,” aka the late Paul Newman and environmental activist Robert Redford, pose in sepia. But most touching of all are Schiller’ inspired photographs of a luminous Marilyn Monroe, taken a few months before her death on the set of a film she would never finish, Let’s Make Love.  These are some of the best photographs ever taken of Marilyn, capturing her at her zenith, before the lights went out.  Glowing in the dark, bathed in artificial light,  the screen goddess splashes about in a swimming pool, a doomed and radiant mermaid, famous forever.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger