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things new yorkers like :: john waters

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Baltimore native John Waters, the filmmaker brought to mainstream fame with his movie Hairspray, featuring Ricki Lake, Divine, and Sonny Bono, is currently on tour promoting the paperback edition of Role Models. While most of us think of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and JFK when we hear that phrase, Waters, a true subversive, thinks of Little Richard, Johnny Mathis, and Leslie Van Houten, a former Manson girl still in prison for murders she committed under the influence of one of the world’s most notorious psychopaths. John still advocates for her release today.

I was lucky enough to catch this great hero of misfits everywhere at the Paula Cooper Gallery in, where else, Chelsea, where he kicked off his short, 4-city tour.

If you’re not fortunate enough to catch him in San Fran, LA, or Baltimore, you should check out his interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. And while you should definitely check out the films he’s directed and produced, his stand up on This Filthy World, now available for streaming on Netflix, is amazing.


Written by Gabrielle

April 28, 2011 at 7:42 am

Posted in books, film, things new yorkers like

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the underground surfaces

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exit through the gift shop is as entertaining as Banksy’s art, and warrants the same double take

the elusive street artist Banksy has earned an incredible amount of recognition over the past few years. his public displays of political satire have since expanded from the confides of his hometown, bristol. the attention reached new heights when, in 2005, he painted nine ironic images onto the separation wall in the west bank. before that he’d caused a stir at a number of prominent museums in new york and one in brooklyn when he put a few paintings of his own up on the walls. now, the documentary exit through the gift shop, which he both stars in and is given credit for directing, is up for an Oscar.

for people unfamiliar with the big names in street art—shepard fairey, hands-down the most recognizable in the film; space invader, a true up-and-comer; swoon, a woman who knows how to use a haunting image; and ron english, a contemporary artist who turns pop-advertising on its head—this documentary is a great intro not only to the cast of deviant characters and their works but also to the essence of the movement: a rebellious world where smart asses and class clowns reign.

street artists—whether they use paint, stencils, or mixed media installations—go to great lengths to thwart fines, arrest, and injury; most of the time it’s hard to tell if they do it in spite of or because of the risks involved. these talented and determined artists use the street as their canvas. they don’t create for the money but will most likely admit that fame plays a factor. Fame: not in the lindsay lohan and lady gaga sense but fame: the ubiquity of their signature character or style. like puppies on the first day in a new home they tag every spot, leaving no corner, wall, or fixed object unmarked; the harder to reach the better. even when a person’s technique or image isn’t the best, if they reach new levels of visibility, they earn respect.

this is why thierry guetta, a frenchman living in los angeles, is the perfect documentor for an authentic film on street art. just like the people he follows, he’s driven to take it one step further.

from the day thierry held his first video camera, the context of its arrival now forgotten,  it became an appendage. this new extension was always on, filming every moment to the annoyance of strangers and movie stars, and to the resignation of family members.

as luck would have it, one of those family members, thierry’s cousin, is the french artist space invader. during a visit to france, thierry collects footage of invader’s stealth gluing adventures. space invader, for all who have not yet had the pleasure of spying his work, is the creator of small mosaics featuring much-loved 1980s video game characters. these tiled squares, ranging from small to medium in size, have since made their way to many cities around the world—berlin, bangkok, bilbao, lyon, los angeles, and new york.

in a scene where the camera is turned on the filmmaker the audience is privvy to thierry’s sincere appreciation for what his cousin is doing; pasting up art in a public space for all to enjoy without having to pay an entrance fee. the experience changes him, his focus, and sparks an obsession; all of which only adds to his quirky charm.

thierry, obviously prone to obsessive behavior, digs deeper into the haphazard project, stubbornly pursuing and building relationships with the top names in the industry.

his first non-familial subject is shepard fairey, a connection made in 2002 through space invader. thierry goes to kinkos where shepard is printing out large sheets of his trademark image: a tightly-cropped face of wrestling legend Andre the Giant with the vague command, “obey,” written overhead. shepard had become used to increased media attention, his art having been recognizable for a few years at that point, but repeat interviews was something new and like any sane person, after a few mildly-intrusive days with the odd frenchman, shepard questions thierry about his plans.

thierry claims he’s working on a documentary about street art; fairey, convinced, allows him unprecedented, near-continuous access. soon thierry takes off for days at a time, leaving his wife and three kids at home, to travel the world documenting shepard’s wheatpasting escapades.

through thierry’s adventure videography, and because of his unrelenting desire to capture everything, viewers experience the streets with these graffiti-world heroes, witnessing firsthand what it’s like to scale the highest point of a building, dodge the police, and remain incognito—sometimes unsuccessfully—while committing unlawful acts, often on a large scale.

after embarking on a dogged pursuit thierry tracks down Banksy, the one artist notorious for keeping his face out of the press. his encounter with the indispensable figure, who appears on film only in the shadows and with his voice digitally altered, fundamentally changes the course of the film (or, the film that wasn’t, to be more precise).

in 2006, the art world experienced a shock: banksy’s show, “barely legal,” drew lines which, until that time, were reserved only for major museum exhibit openings. adding to the awe, the line wasn’t just for the first night, it persisted for three consecutive days; and even more incredible, it was in a warehouse located in downtown LA’s skid row, an area that contains one of the largest homeless populations in the US. big-time collectors started coming out to auction houses and paying good money for these pieces that were once categorized as crude vandalism. but now shepard fairey’s work hung side-by-side with rothko’s in the homes of international elites.

concerned with the commercialization of the work, banksy told thierry it was the time to finish the documentary—to show the artists for the anti-establishment, adrenaline addicts that they were and not some money-seeking flashes in the pan.

nearly a thousand, possibly more, hours of tape sat in thierry’s garage, uncategorized and abandoned without future. under pressure thierry does something he never expected: he edits the footage into a full-length feature; the end product is akin to acid visions on speed. filmmaker thierry is not but compulsive collector his is and banksy, with the eye and instincts of a world-class artist, takes over, turning the camera on thierry in the process.

along the way thierry had come up with his own character, an image of himself with a video camera, and had begun stickering and stenciling alongside his mentors. with this in mind banksy sends thierry back to LA with the idea of curating an art show in his head. it was a way of getting thierry out of his hair so he could sift through the footage but thierry, apparently very literal-minded, took it as a direct order. moving full-steam ahead as his newly-adopted street art persona, mr. brainwash, what becomes of thierry is comical—or horrific—depending on your sense of humor. rather quickly he sets up a studio ala warhol, hiring artists to create his mashed up visions pulled from a variety of art books and pop culture resources.

the speculation surrounding the film has become trite. skeptics believe banksy staged it all as another one of his sarcasm-soaked critiques of society. it probably didnt help that around the same time, joaquin phoenix came out with a documentary that supposedly followed him during his alleged nervous breakdown. both were a hoax, confirmed by the director and mentally-healthy star a few days after it hit the theaters. real street art fans won’t care; after all, they crave intelligent, well-crafted pranks; and anyway, exit through the gift shop, is so amazingly absurd it can’t help but be genuine.

exit through the gift shop‘s official site
interview with producer and editor on KCRW’s the treatment
space invader’s website
extra special thanks to laughing squid for running a giveaway of the dvd, which i won

Written by Gabrielle

February 24, 2011 at 8:53 am

Posted in art, film

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cultivating your geek cred: sci-fi for non sci-fi fans

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it doesn’t feel natural to me to like science fiction. i was never a superhero person. i liked Archie Comics. the characters were super-normal teens with super-normal problems. archie had confusing issues with two girls, betty and veronica (who may or may not have been best friends). jughead, an asexual, skinny hamburger-lover was chased relentlessly by gawky, love-struck “big” ethel. there was nothing fantastical about it. i tend to enjoy realism. i watch dramas. i read biography, science, and politics. i think using Photoshop is cheating. yet, i felt as if i was missing out on something.

i came across Heroes before i knew it could be classified as sci-fi. it didnt hit me until after i was nearly done with the series that that’s precisely what it is. it’s format is inspired by a marvel/dc-type comic book. i absolutely loved this show. the characters are layered and the creepy cliffhangers will hook you. it was a sad day to see this one end. now available at netflix for instant viewing.

Blade Runner, the book. i have the movie in vhs format but never got around to watching it. a few weekends ago, listening to podcasts, i’d heard novelist jonathan lethem talk about philip k. dick, the classic sci-fi author. i was already headed to the bookstore but never thought i’d go to the science fiction section. it was an odd feeling. all those so-called boy books. i headed straight to D on the shelf with the title jonathan mentioned in mind. i couldnt quite bring myself to buy it but was forever chronicled by my camera phone. the following week i was early for a train to long island. i found a place to sit outside and looked in my bag for something to read. after half-grabbing at what i saw i realized i didnt feel like reading anything i’d brought with me. in normal circumstances i wouldve made do but  at that moment i was staring straight at the Penn Plaza Borders. ‘just buy a cheap mass market’, i thought to myself. surely a $7.99 paperback in a time of reading-material-crisis wouldnt count towards my terrible book hoarding habit.

sci-fi is notorious for it’s mass market format. the small, cheap throwaways. and luckily, probably due to their popularity, the section was on the first floor, across from the cashier. i dug through my mental index and came up with a few names: gaiman, bradbury, asimov, dick. as i made a quick round through the alphabet, i had a few books in my hands but nothing that stood out, until i saw Blade Runner. i never knew philip k. dick wrote it, an embarrassing oversight by someone who owns the vhs. with a deep sense of shame in tow, i made my way to the checkout counter, hoping the guy or girl ringing me up wouldn’t mock me, silently, for jumping on the Blade Runner bandwagon a few decades too late.

i’m almost finished with it and can definitely say it’s worth reading if you’re curious about sci-fi. the humans in the story have this quirky fascination for animals. before the author makes it clear why, you get a sense that they’ve become scarce. you soon find out why. the bounty hunter, our protagonist, has an electric sheep but leads his neighbor to believe it’s real. live animals are more expensive than the knock-offs so having one speaks to your social status. their religion is interesting too. although kept in the background and semi-vague, the people have something called Mercerism, named after its creator and figurehead. it appears to tranquilize the people and give a feeling of  communalism, although through a solitary, sterile process.

the action takes place in the story of the bounty hunter and the hunted. the human and the androids. robots—androids—are used by the humans for mundane tasks but increasingly, they’re becoming more like humans and getting harder to tell apart. if this book hadnt been written in 1968, the premise would seem stale, but it works and stays fresh this many years later.

definitely a great intro to sci-fi literature.

other links:
To the Best of Our Knowledge: Writers on Writing – Jonathan Lethem discusses Philip K. Dick

Written by Gabrielle

September 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

Posted in books, film

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the helvetica around us

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i was in my favorite bookstore yesterday looking for the dvd of Examined Life (opens with video). turns out, it hasn’t been released yet but while i was looking over the videos they had on display, one caught my eye: Objectified. it had a bunch of simple, everyday images in black on the cover. the sticker on the cellophane said something like, “from the director of Helvetica“. being that i am a Netflix subscriber, i made sure to write down both film titles so i could put them in my queue when i got home.

as luck would have it, Helvetica was available for instant viewing, meaning i could play it on my computer at any time. so i watched it that night.

the film opens with typeface blocks cut from steel, a man inking them, rolling a press over them, and showing the end product – a fresh, black, inky ‘Helvetica’ in Helvetica on a piece of white paper. then, Times Square. it turns out that Helvetica is all around us and about 30 minutes into the film, it started to feel a bit oppressive. not the movie, but the fact that we are surrounded – overwhelmingly – with one typeface. i have a fear of walking outside my apartment and going mad from the oneness of our society’s choice in signage.

but, as the film goes on to show, there are reasons to embrace Helvetica. it is bold, clean, and easy to read. it is also the product of the “Swiss style,” which means it is very much concerned with the ‘figure-ground relationship,’ adding to it’s aesthetically pleasing presentation. the pro-Helvetica camp interviewed for the film even went so far as to philosophize about it’s rationality. to the pro-Helvetica camp, Helvetica is perfection.

i must say, i was buying it. i thought back to my zine days where i would toy with my font choices and even handwrite a few things. was i wrong? unwise to the supreme status of Helvetica? i was almost about to drop all my typeface-adventurism when in walked the anti-Helvetica camp – or the ‘we’re-just-not-that-into-you’ camp.

one of these revolutionaries has been my long-time design hero, david carson. i found myself cheering him on, like the dorky kid in class secretly willing the class clown to do the things she’d never dream of doing herself. david carson played with text. it looked weird, it overlapped, it didnt always make sense but it was art. it was rebellion textified.

but, as with many things, there was no simple answer. the pro and the anti camps kept coming back, intertwining and making their equally compelling cases. in the end, i came away with a shocking awareness of just how prevalant and profound something as unassuming as typeface can be.

the quality of Helvetica is astounding. the framing of the shots, the conversations from and observations of the world-renowned designers make this history of a runaway font thought-provoking and entertaining.

Written by Gabrielle

November 18, 2009 at 10:21 am

Posted in art, film

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