Saturday, March 28, 2015

Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture

by Drew Martin
It is not every day you come across an hour and a half long film about one sculpture so I recently relished watching Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture.

Heizer received formal lessons at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1960's but the paintings he produced became more about sculpture and his sculptures became more about the world beyond the walls of galleries and museums. Heizer brought heavy construction to art with big earth-moving machines. A few of his pieces are about negative space, such as Double Negative, which he made in 1969 by carving out two swaths of sandstone rock about the size of the Empire State Building (on its side).

Levitated Mass is an enormous quarried rock that now sits on a trench outside of LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The documentary is of course about the installed piece and Heizer's vision but the movie celebrates the engineering behind the logistics of transporting something so big and setting it in its place.

For much of the documentary we follow the moving crew as they hauled the rock with a specially designed rig, which was the size of a football field so that the load could be distributed over a large area; essential for when it was driven on overpasses.

The travel distance from the quarry to LACMA was more than 100 miles, and many of the crew walked along side the rock. The best part of the documentary were the candid interviews with the locals who came out to watch the procession. One man even used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend. And everyone had something different to say: from religious references and epiphanies to disbelief and suspicion. One woman even thought that it was military secret and offered that the form might just be styrofoam that encased some device.

What I liked learning the most about was that Heizer's father was an anthropological geologist, which means he was interested in stonecarving cultures, such as the Olmec, who had to move heavy blocks of stove over large distances.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Life Itself: A Documentary About Robert Ebert, The Soldier of Cinema

by Drew Martin
Looking back at everything I watched as a kid on television, one of the show's I liked the most was Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert's At The Movies. It brought to television an argumentative conversation about the pop culture of movies by two frenemies from Illinois who were movie critics at competing Chicago newspapers. I loved how they locked horns but I always appreciated more Ebert's insight and intellect so I was delighted to see there is a documentary about him on Netflix called Life Itself. It is an very intimate look at Ebert's life (1942 - 2013), from his struggles with alcohol to his medical issues including the removal of his jaw because of cancer. Werner Herzog, who dedicated his film about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World to Ebert, called him the soldier of cinema because of his perseverance and steel will.

The documentary opens with a speech Ebert gave in 2005:

We all are born with a certain package; we are who we are - where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

This occasion for this speech was for his star dedication: he was the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and 30 years earlier he was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize. The ubiquitous "thumbs up" image in social media is a direct descendant of this simple rating system introduced to television by his show. Ebert was certainly ahead of his time (and the Twitter phenomenon): he introduced the idea of direct reporting from Cannes about the movies being shown during the film festival, in a time when the rest of the critics took notes during the events, and then wrote about the movies they reviewed after they returned home to their respective media outlets.

The aforementioned speech is followed by a text quote from him that is centered on the screen:

"I was born inside the movie of my life...I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me."

If his own life was a movie, then the best supporting actor goes not to Siskel but his lovely wife Chaz, who we see a lot of in this documentary. Ebert was an active blogger and his blog can still be seen at, which includes a blog by Chaz.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Rich Hill

by Drew Martin
I watch, read, and see a lot of things that I do not write posts about, despite what you might think based on the contents of this blog. There was one documentary, Rich Hill, I recently watched that I really liked, and liking it was enough for me so I did not feel like I should work it into a post. But tonight my daughter asked me why I watched it, and why I liked it.

Rich Hill is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that was made by two cousins who turned their lens on the small town Missouri life that they know firsthand. It follows three teenage boys, Andrew, Appachey, and Harley. All three are disadvantaged, some would say white-trash kids, but despite being uneducated and rough around the edges, they are all very likable in their own, unique way.

I like this film a lot because there is no agenda, other than and honest "walk a mile in my shoes" approach. And, most fortunately there is no character/subject gentrification. It is not a film about escaping an impoverished life through talent or luck but rather, take each day as it comes, and hopefully the next one is better.

There were two art-related moments that took me by surprise and they were both in the presence of Appachey, the most reckless of the youths. With no apparent focus or direction in life, he says out-of-the-blue that he would like to be an art teacher in China. He then continues to say that if you are an art teacher in China, all you have to do is sit around and draw pictures of dragons all day. From an adult that would be an off-color remark but from a young boy, it is a dream job/world.

The other "art" moment is when Appachey is walking around a run-down section of town by an highway underpass. He complains there is ice everywhere and apparently wants to smash it all. He walks through one huge puddle that has a thin layer of ice, and throws rocks and even his skateboard at it to break it, which seems delinquent and pointless but then he steps back and holds out his arms and exclaims, "The amazing splatter art." It is a scene that explains how unlikely artists such as Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst got their start.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Web Junkie: In the Real World Everybody is Fake

by Drew Martin
A distraught Chinese teenager who has been locked up in a military hospital for a boot camp-style rehab program is asked why he is there. He sobs, "I used the Internet." Web Junkie is an eye-opening documentary about one of China's (roughly) 400 rehab centers that have been established to make certain youth go cold turkey on "electronic heroin." The term is used when describing the addiction to (primarily) online video games. [The expression in Chinese for computer is electronic brain] While the prison-like atmosphere seems extreme, especially the ten-day solitary confinement used to punish a boy featured in the documentary who escaped and then was returned, the young junkies pushed their desperate parents over the edge by skipping school, spending nights and days in the arcade/call center-like internet cafés, and losing touch with reality. One of the youths in the center brags about playing Warcraft for 300 continuous hours, pausing briefly to take cat naps. Some kids even wear diapers made for incontinent adults because they worry that taking a bathroom break will affect their performance. A father of one of the rehab kids claims his colleague's son died in one of the cafés at night. The boys are typically tricked into the stay, which is a minimum four months. One of the boys says his parents told him they were taking him for a ski trip to Russia. Some kids are even drugged in their sleep by their parents. The parents, however, often seem to be the root of the problem. They are demanding about their schoolwork and not loving. One father explains that he beats his son, and wants the people running the center to do the same. He adds that he once tried to stab his son with a knife. The Chinese government classifies Internet addiction as a clinical disorder and reports to have more than 20 million Internet addicts. One of the adults in the documentary muses that this is related to their one-child policy, and most of the kids in the program question the reality of their life in China compared to the fantastical world of their video games.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Taste of Civilization

by Drew Martin
If you have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and visited the 40,000-square-foot wing on the south side that houses the arts of Africa, (native) Americas, and Oceania, you might have noticed it is dedicated to Michael C. Rockefeller. The collection was kickstarted by Michael’s father, Nelson A. Rockefeller, a former governor of New York, who donated his more than 3,000-piece collection to the Met. Many of the objects in the collection were gathered by Michael during his anthropological and art collecting trips in New Guinea. He was most fascinated by the Asmat people and their ancestral bisj poles (pictured top), which embodied cycles of life and the cannibalistic headhunting raids.

The completion of a bisj pole usually unleashed a new round of raids; revenge was taken and balance restored, new heads obtained—new seeds to nourish the growth of boys into men—and the blood of the victims rubbed into the pole. The spirit in the pole was made complete. The villagers then engaged in sex, and the poles were left to rot in the sago fields, fertilizing the sago and completing the cycle.

On November 18, 1961 Michael was aboard a makeshift boat during a return expedition in the region. The boat capsized in the rough delta of the Pulau River/Eilandenrivier of the Arafura Sea. Michael left a Dutch companion with the debilitated craft and tried to make the more-than-three-mile swim to shore, which was done successfully earlier by two locals who had also been aboard. He was never seen from again.

Michael was thought to have drowned, or to have been eaten by sharks or crocodiles. There was also strong evidence that he reached shore but was then murdered by Ajam, (pictured here, middle, in a photo from 1973 when he was chief of the Dani tribe) who acknowledged killing Michael and, with the help of others, eating him.

Cannibalism was revenge based so Michael and other Western visitors to this region were typically outside of that death cycle but the tribe that is said to have killed him had yet to revenge deaths by a Dutch official who shot and killed Asmat people a few years prior. One other fantastical story is that he shed his past, and cultural trappings, and went native. Film footage from 1969 of an Asmat war canoe fleet fueled this speculation when a Caucasian man who resembled Michael was noticed among the cannibals. (Still from footage pictured below)

While the latter story is the least likely because of the extensive search for him, it does make for an interesting tale, especially since Michael hastily returned to the area after a brief visit to New York, where he learned his parents were getting divorced. And who better to turn his back on Western culture than one of the heirs of the greatest fortunes, compounded by an unsettled feeling he must have had for his trading of Western tools in exchange for a kind of cultural robbery of a people he had grown so close to, who he found uninhibited and unburdened by the problems of "civilization." And while it is hard to find a good angle at the butchering and consumption of a fellow being, the Asmat people believed you took on the knowledge and power of the individual you cannibalized.

What recently piqued my interest in this topic was a documentary I watched about the search for Michael:

To see a more recent incident of cannibalism in Western culture, watch Ke$ha's video, Cannibal:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Whiplash: Perfect Timing

by Drew Martin
Last night I saw the brilliant film Whiplash about the demanding atmosphere of jazz musician students at the Shaffer Conservatory, a fictitious stand-in for The Juilliard School in New York City. It focuses on a jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) and the all-consuming life of trying to achieve and then hold on to the coveted position as core drummer in the elite studio band, which is conducted by a drill sergeant of a teacher (an amazing performance by J. K. Simmons). The film is, of course, about jazz, and drumming, but it is really about the drive for perfection and the caustic and abusive relationships that are sometimes needed to achieve great things.