Sunday, December 21, 2008

Six Shooter Films

Originally published in the holiday issue of SOMA.

Six Shooter Film Series: Bending, Perhaps Even Breaking International Genre-Driven Cinema
By Jesi Khadivi

Feeling broody? Go see a cop film. Want to sleep with your lights on for a week? Check out the latest Saw movie or any of its myriad spin-offs. There’s an appropriate film genre for whatever emotion you’re looking to elicit. Historically produced on the cheap to screen as opening pictures for bigger budget fare, genre films have expanded into a multi-million dollar industry with fans hungry for the next installment of their favorite superhero or slasher flick.

It wasn’t always so banal, however. The seminal French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema extolled the virtues of directors like Nicholas Ray (Larger than Life/Rebel Without a Cause) and Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho/The Byrds). The budding critics of Cahiers, soon to make their names as French New Wave directors in the 1960s, discovered the (not so) hidden existential poetry of the bleak film noir genre in the dark and smoky cine clubs of Paris. At its best, pulp has the uncanny ability to expose cultural zeitgeist. Noirs and detective films showed these young Frenchmen the darker side of the post-war American psyche. Despite the sea of schlock out there, the past decade’s surge in independent filmmaking has contributed to an expansion of media literacy. MTV has aped the techniques of French New Wave icon Godard for years and Quentin Tarantino, the post-modern film-mix tape-compiler himself, mines the traditions of Blaxploitation, Noir, New Wave, and Kung Fu to create the heady mélange of films like Kill Bill and Jackie Brown. The demand for intellectual genre cinema is growing. Always a step ahead of the pack, Magnolia Pictures aims to fill the educated demand for intelligent genre pictures with their Six Shooter Series, restoring the exquisitely moody, character- driven quality of the genre films of yore to the big screen.

The brain child of Tom Quinn, Magnolia’s dynamic head of acquisitions, the series was a labor of love for the production company. As its name suggests, six international films were chosen for the series: Let The Right One In (Sweden), Special (United States), Time Crimes (Spain), Donkey Punch (Britain), Eden Log (France), and Big Man in Japan (you guessed it, Japan). The series is organized in the tradition of the famed Shooting Gallery, an innovative former NYC-based production company and film series that brought us indie favorites like Sling Blade and A Time For Drunken Horses. “Some of the most exciting, forward-thinking cinema today falls under the genre label and deserves a showcase,” says Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles. The Six Shooter is intended as a platform to distribute some of these bold experimentations. The relative simplicity of the films in this series is perhaps their boldest innovation. Eschewing the pyrotechnics of many Hollywood movies, the films featured in the Six Shooter series take on a more contemplative and intellectual tone without sacrificing a whit of entertainment value.

The first film in the series, the award winning Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In, was released on October 24thin New York and Los Angeles. Receiving nearly universal critical acclaim, the surprisingly tender story of a tortured young boy and his relationship with the 12 year old vampire next-door deftly encapsulates the radical potential of this latest crop of genre pictures: It’s smart, emotive, and though the film can be graphic, it doesn’t rely on violence to drive the narrative. Director Tomas Alfredson revels in what he calls the “unequivocal Swedishness” of his film, depicting the trauma of adolescence and the sensuality of violence with a rigorous attention to detail.

Les, the self-loathing, comic book obsessed traffic cop in Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore’s film Special, becomes convinced he is a super hero after participating in a clinical trial for “Specioprin Hydrochloride,” a drug intended to curtail the chemicals that produce self-doubt.. He stalks through anonymous streets and alleyways in Los Angeles, attacking innocent people that he imagines have committed crimes. Keeping with Magnolia’s unorthodox distribution methods, Special premiered as a VOD (video on demand) on HD Net in early November prior to its theatrical release later that month. (Back in 2006, Steven Soderbergh’s film Bubble was released simultaneously on DVD, HDTV and in the theaters).

While the time-traveling premise of the Spanish thriller, Time Crimes (dir. Nacho Vigalondo), is fantastical, the scariest and most compelling moments in the film come from the small, psychological gestures. Who knew that a man with a pink bandage-wrapped head miming holding a pair of binoculars could be so terrifying?

The new year will bring the British slasher-thriller Donkey Punch (dir.Oliver Blackburn), a story about 7 Euro party animals forced to duke it out after a freak death on a party yacht in the Mediterranean. In February, Eden Log(dir. Franck Vestiel), a French sci-fi horror flick about a man who awakens in a cave to find himself pursued by a mysterious monster will be released. Followed by Big Man Japan (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto) in March, the funniest film of the bunch, a kitschy, super hero film in the tradition of Asian slapstick like Kung-Fu Hustle. Like many of the films in the series, Big Manconflates the fantastical and the everyday. “It’s a mock doc about an ordinary Japanese man who will hop into purple underpants to battle Godzilla type monsters,” Quinn explains.

With Let the Right One In and Time Crimes garnering rave reviews (both are already slated for English language remakes), things are looking good for the Six Shooter Series. While online film critics and Fantastic Festival patrons started the buzz, many of the films in the series are finding cross-over success in the art film market. Is another series from Magnolia/Magnet in the works? “If we can find the films, we’ll do it,” Quinn laughs, “but we’re not limited to six. We could do the Five Furious Fingers of Film. Or the Seven Samurai of Cinema."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mungo Thomson @ the Hammer

Originally published in the December/January issue of Artweek.

Mungo Thomson
Hammer Projects
By Jesi Khadivi

Taken as a whole, Mungo Thomson’s oeuvre has the deceptive simplicity and humor of a Zen koan. His conversational works filter popular imagery, folkloric tradition, and conceptual art practice through an emphatically Californian insouciance. Works like The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), a mash-up of Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons presented at the High Desert Test Site in Joshua Tree and Silent Film of a Tree Falling in the Forest (the title says it all) combine meditative investigations of space and landscape with an incredibly goofy (and at times downright corny) pop sensibility. Some of Thomson’s early work evokes the wickedly funny Italian conceptualist, Maurizio Cattelan. Tapestry (2004), a woven Ecuadorian wool rug is emblazoned with political slogans that are both insightful (Why are peace activists so violent?) and cracked (Kerry is Bin Laden’s/Bush is Mine). Between Projects (2001), a sculptural installation consisting of a dozen handmade pencils embedded in the ceiling of the exhibition space is hilarious because of the absence it evokes: a bored office worker casually winging pencils at the ceiling like darts. But Thomson isn’t all fun and games. He presented the deathly still Wind Chimes, six sets of charred garden variety wind chimes, in Red Wind, a group exhibition about the enigmatic and quasi-mystical Santa Ana winds. The work’s pared down simplicity and latent possibility encapsulated the dread and precariousness of the mythic winds better than any other work in the exhibition.

Thomson recently exhibited a variant of his ongoing Negative Space project in the Hammer Museum lobby through Hammer curator (and long time Cattelan collaborator), Ali Subotnik. Keeping with his history of experimenting with ambient sounds and sparse gallery installation, Thomson downloaded photos of the M74 and NGC 3370 galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and inverted them in Photoshop to create an photographic mural. The swirling, bubbling depiction of space debris elicits the tensions between positive and negative, fullness and void, verisimilitude and fancy. He leaves room for humor with the ambient loops that accompany the mural (he changes the frequency of whale calls so they sound like birds and vice versa).Thomson says that the project “came out of reflecting on the color of nothing; in outer space the void is black, and in the art context the void – the empty gallery – is always white.” Art work that interrogates its gallery context is as old as Marcel Duchamp’s 1,200 Bags of Coal (1938), if not older, and Thomson does nothing new by calling our attention to this. He succeeds, however, because Negative Space thrives in liminal, almost forgotten spaces: hallways, stair cases, and overhangs—making transitional spaces a locus of infinite possibility.

Chop Shop

Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani creates a world alive with the textures of the outer boroughs in his second feature film, Chop Shop. The young protagonist, an enterprising street orphan named Ale (Alejandro Polanco), lives and works in a shady auto repair shop in Willets Point, Queens in order to secure a future for himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), a lithe young woman prone to secretive relationships and nocturnal assignations. Ale knows how to hustle. He steals hubcaps, hawks bootleg DVDs, and works long hours at the auto shop, all the while squirreling money away in a rusty tin to save up for a catering van that will keep his sister close to him and be their ticket out of abject poverty.
Though he inhabits a child’s body, he clearly lives in a man’s world. Ale’s quest for material and emotional transcendence is rendered with an emotional acuity that is never saccharine. He lives in the shadows of the furthest reaches of New York society without the anchors of family, school, or creature comforts, and though forced by necessity to labor like a man, he reaps none of the benefits of inclusion in the adult world. Polanco channels this anxiety into a taut, energized performance that mingles the carefree joie de vivre of youth with the grim determination of a pre-teen faced with adult responsibilities too young. The rush of the hustle, chaos of the streets, and hurt Ale feels from being cast to the periphery of the grown-up world is viscerally articulated throughout the film. Despite this strong undercurrent of sadness, a feeling of hopefulness prevails.
Keeping with the tradition of contemporary Iranian realist cinema, Chop Shop explores the textures of place and the redemptive bonds of family. Willets Point’s swirl of pigeon keepers, mechanics, lunch trucks, and elevated trains is a playground as much as a prison for Ale and Isamar. Bahrani never pities his characters; instead he imbues them with soulful humanity and presents them as willful dreamers rather than victims of their circumstance. Even in the depths of disappointment they can depend on each other to pull through.

If I am Missing or Dead

Orginally published in Ins & Outs.

By Janine Latus | Simon & Schuster 2008 | $15.00 | 336 pages

“I didn't want to do it, but you made me," Janine Latus’s boyfriend says after brutally beating her on a ski vacation. These ten simple words are practically synonymous with abusive relationships. It is a verbal trap so common that it borders on clichéd, yet it is one of the most distilled expressions of the perverse logic that drives abuse: the aggressor’s desire for absolution from blame and the victim’s search for whatever misdeed could make their loved one so cruel to them. Journalist Janine Latus skillfully explores the rhetoric of abuse in loose, lean prose in her gripping memoir, If I Am Missing or Dead. The book tells the story of Latus and her younger sister Amy, both charming, bright women who continuously choose domineering, abusive partners. Latus finally leaves her husband in the spring of 2002 after over a decade of marriage. Amy isn’t so lucky. Years after successfully leaving one abusive marriage, she is murdered by her boyfriend, a con artist rodeo cowboy named Ron Ball.
Despite the heart wrenching nature of her story, Latus doesn’t leave room for self-pity or florid depictions of abuse and redemption, no small feat considering that these stylistic flourishes are staples of the genre. Instead, she adroitly mines her history of abuse to expose the roots of her cycle of violence in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. Growing up in the pre-feminist Midwest, Latus is saddled with an imperious, lewd father who belittles his children, and she is subject to myriad unwelcome advances by older men. The narrative arc is structured like an abusive relationship itself; her father’s lecherousness and husband’s control issues are introduced into the narrative with little fanfare. Fleeting details are dropped like a warning sign that could be easily overlooked, like her father’s hand grazing her leg for a fraction of a second too long or the daily “weigh in” with her husband, until they spiral out of control pages hence, and her father is sidling up to one of her friends trying to cop a feel or her husband is monitoring her clothing and Body Mass Index. How one chooses to internalize power or perceived lack of it lies at the heart of this unflinching, evocative story that evokes the claustrophobia of infinitely regressive abusive relationships. It reminds its readers that all victims of abuse have agency, without succumbing to the moralization of a cautionary tale.


Hung Liu @ Walter Maciel

My review of Hung Liu @ the Walter Maciel Gallery was published by The Magazine. Check it out online or find it at a local LA gallery or newstand.

Hung Liu
Rat Years 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008
Walter Maciel Gallery
2642 S. La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles
(310) 839-1840

Rat Years 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008

Chinese astrology is organized in twelve-year cycles. Each year is named after an animal, and each animal has symbolic associations believed to shape the tenor of the year.

Chinese-American artist Hung Liu was born in the year of the rat, an animal the Chinese associate with prosperity, order, aggression, war, death, and pestilence. Now in her sixth rat year, Liu has significantly shifted her focus inward for an exhibition of self-portraits, a marked departure from the meta-historical portraiture and abstract work she is best known for. Each piece is painted from a photograph taken during a rat year and accompanied by a digitally rendered painting of a drawing made at the age she was in the portrait. While the formula of pairing self-portraits with old drawings is simple, in this case it works. Liu's formal mastery lends her paintings a distinctive gravity. Painted on unprimed linen, the brushstrokes evoke the sketchy quality of a graphite drawing. When combined with the rich colors she uses to offset small details (a cape, scarf, or brooch), a dazzling play of textures ensues.

Though her self-portraits are intimate and compelling, Liu's Rat King series steals the show. A rat king is a mythic group of rats that live their entire lives bound together by their tangled tails, cemented by dirt, blood, and excrement. Liu began thinking of the folkloric rat colonies in the wake of the earthquake that decimated the Sichuan Province shortly before her trip to Beijing this year. The pastel-hued Rat King II is practically transcendental. Tails delicately twist together like a bouquet, the pale, half-erased rats seem like they are being beckoned to a spirit world. Rat King 1, on the other hand, is a broody, realistic depiction of a rat king preserved at the scientific museum, Mauritianum, in Altenburg, Germany. The image is darkly beguiling and violent, evoking myriad situations where humans are trapped by their conditions, whether political, social, or environmental.
by Jesi Khadivi

Monday, December 8, 2008

Lari Pittman

My review of the Lari Pittman exhibition at Barbara Gladstone in Whitehot Magazine.

LA based artist, Lari Pittman, presents exuberant large-scale paintings in his third show at the Gladstone Gallery. His new body of work is a compelling twist on the tradition of vanitas paintings, 17th century Northern European symbolic still-lives that explore (among other things) man’s mortality and the fleeting impermanence of life’s pleasures. Unlike his Dutch and Flemish brethren, however, there is little room for somberness in Pittman’s paintings. The implied morality in Pittman’s work goes over like a firecracker rather than a lead balloon. On first glance, the paintings are garish. Like a design you would see on a suburban craft fair patron’s t-shirt. The colors are jolting and the iconography is mystifying. Pittman’s densely layered paintings borrow heavily from Pop (think James Rosenquist), tribal art (batik and Thai shadow puppets seem to be an inspiration), and graffiti art. Nonetheless, a bizarre unity begins to coalesce after a few moments with his work. In Untitled #14 a humanoid rabbit-type figure scales a pyramid festooned with delicately hatched patterns towards a shimmering star. A swollen rain/tear drop hangs delicately by a thread from the top of the painting. Bulbous fruits, and I use the word fruit lightly, are interspersed throughout the bottom of the composition, while intestinal looking piping twists throughout the image. The end result is a highly symbolic illustrative style with a Rube Goldbergian quirkiness. Untitled #7 shares some of the iconography of Untitled #2. Translucent layers of highly detailed patterns are painted atop each other. The shadow figures and dripping water remain, yet urns and fried eggs are added to the mix.

In Pittman’s hands, the anxious uncertainty of the vanitas painting is retooled into a celebration of life’s impermanence chock full of stylistic and multi-cultural references. The delicacy with which he paints his bubbles and urns are a paean to life’s possibilities rather than a portent of its brevity.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Camera Ephemera @ Found Gallery

Originally published in the November issue of Whitehot

Polaroid photography is a loaded, over saturated territory. Vice Magazine and NYC enfant terrible Dash Snow, have popularized the genre via images of waifish chicks flashing their tits and strung out hipster guys blowing rails, brawling, and fucking. The raw immediacy of these images holds some appeal, but they lack sensitivity of artists like Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley who document countercultural groups (that they belong to) without flaunting or pandering. The Vice Magazine Polaroid aesthetic has more in common with hip hop’s tradition of bragging and boasting than Goldin or McGinley’s penetrating snapshots. Staging bacchanalian rabble rousing for the camera is amusing, but quickly becomes tiresome. The compulsion to document oneself constantly underscores the possibility for counter culture to mutate into what journalist Douglas Harder calls “a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum.”

Ashley Tibbits’ first curatorial foray at Found Gallery is an effort to reclaim the Polaroid.Camera Ephemera attempts to reinstate the medium’s capacity for tenderness. “For many, such pictures are tied closely to memories of childhood, of family. Perhaps we realize that the physicality of holding a precious image in your hand might be a feeling as increasingly obsolete as the medium itself,’ Tibbits writes in her statement for the exhibition. She presents a wide range of approaches in this nine person show. “I didn’t want it to be a line of Polaroids on the wall,” she explains, “I wanted to show the different directions you could take the medium.” And she does. Camera Ephemera showcases 9 distinct photographic visions. Tibbits presents a series of self portraits of herself and an anonymous cut out figure enacting sweet, mundane routines. Clearly a paean to a distant (or past) love, the piece is cheekily endearing. Calethea deCanto’s warm, blurry photographs mounted on wood conjure up Maya Deren’s experimental film masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon, with its poetic evocation of inner experience.David Louang’s taut sun burnished portraits and interiors are clear indicators of the nostalgia and inherent melancholia Tibbits described in her curatorial statement. Joshua Wysocki’s framed landscapes are the most straight forward of the bunch, but his clear eye for structure and color make them one of the exhibitions stand-outs.

Despite their current ubiquity in underground art exhibitions and fashion/lifestyle mags, there are no solipstic party shots in the exhibtion.

What does Tibbits think about the popular bawdy boys club aesthetic of Vice? “Don’t even get me started about them,” she says and takes a sip of her coffee.