Monday, January 30, 2012

Ice and art

Yesterday Jeannine and I decided to drive up to Williamstown to see the Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum. We had planned to go a couple of days ago, on my birthday, but the weather was not good, unlike yesterday -- bright sunshine and temperatures in the forties.

I took the Mohawk Trail to North Adams, partly because I had not been that way since the repairs to the damage caused by Hurricane Irene last year had been fixed, and I wanted to see if the effects of that storm were still at least partly visible.

They were -- huge stretches along the banks of the river where the surging currents had torn away dirt and rocks and deeply undercut the trees along the riverbanks. At least one road off the Trail was still closed; we took a closer look at it and just a few hundred feet up the road the guardrails disappeared into a yawning abyss where half the paved road has been washed out. It must have been a crazy few days after that storm, when the waters were running high and strong. Scary.

Getting closer to North Adams, in the higher elevations of the Trail, near the "Eastern Summit", we passed through a glittering landscape of ice-encrusted trees, probably from the rain storm a couple of days ago. I stopped and took some photos with my new camera… here are a few.

The Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show at the Clark was small but interesting. It had mostly to do with Rembrandt's influence on the early work of Degas, both in painting and printmaking. One thing that immediately struck me was an old book of reproductions of Rembrandt's paintings and etchings… but this book was printed before the advent of photoengraving as a technique for reproducing images. All of the illustrations in this book were copies of Rembrandt's works painstakingly etched and/or engraved by other artists so that they could be printed.

I immediately started thinking about what that transition period must have been like, when photoengraving came to be and removed the necessity of all that handwork to get art ready for reproduction… and not only that, removed the interpretation which was part and parcel of that older process, where -- no matter how careful and talented the engraver was -- the end result would never look exactly like the original, especially in those cases where it was a painting being reproduced.
A whole group of people must have been thrown out of work by the introduction of this new process… I wonder what they did? Did their particular skill set translate into some other viable way of making a living?

Next to the Rembrandt/Degas show, in another small gallery, was an interesting exhibit called "Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art", devoted to the history and practice of copying of images, including many examples of just this type of engraving and/or etching of existing images for reproduction. It was interesting to see some of the copies which were mirror-images of the originals, flipped 180 degrees horizontally, because the copier worked from a print directly onto a slab of metal… and as we all know, whatever you create by etching or scratching or engraving into a printing plate always appears in reverse when printed.

(Here's an example -- sorry for the bad photography! I think the original Rembrandt print is on the left, and the copy of it on the right. Notice how everything is reversed.)

And that made a few of the examples sort of mysterious -- some amazingly accurate copies of Albrecht Durer prints. But these were NOT mirror images of the originals, but correctly-oriented copies. How did the person making the copy do it? Were they working from the original printing plate? Did they use some clever mirror arrangement to create the image in reverse on the new plate? I have no idea.

As I walked around the "Copycat" exhibit, I was surprised and delighted to see a copy of one of my favorite paintings -- William-Adolphe Bouguereau's "Nymph and Satyr". This incredible, huge painting (I think the original is something like ten feet tall) is in the collection of the Clark, and I have admired it many times. But I'd never before seen this copy of it. I'm not sure if it was an etching or an engraving or a combination of the two techniques, but it was extremely accurate. Here's a photograph of the original painting…

… and here are a few views of the copy. (Sorry about the inferior quality of my photos.)

I find it hard to imagine what it would take to do a copy this accurate with the tools available at the time. Amazing!

I want to mention one other thing about the Rembrandt/Degas show. In one corner of the room, there was a small etching by Rembrandt. (I wish I could include a photograph here, but photography was not allowed in that gallery.) The etching -- which was probably about 8.5 by 11 inches -- included a self-portrait and a few other figures and at least one other face, along with a couple of things I couldn't make out. The images were sort of strewn around the pages in the way that any artist would recognize -- they were doodles, sketches of varying degrees of completion and quality. This is the kind of thing that artists do when working out some ideas. In this case, Rembrandt did his doodling on a metal printing plate, and later printed it out. (Or maybe he didn't… maybe someone who came later found this "doodle" plate and thought it might be cool to print it out. I don't know.) But the thing that bugged me was part of the description of this piece on the card next to it, which talked about its "informal composition".


WHAT composition?

It's a group of DOODLES!

You've got this nifty, beautiful little self-portrait (head, hat, hair, neck), and then -- oriented ninety degrees away -- two full figures in period dress, and a face in a hood, all of these out of proportion to the self-portrait, plus a couple of other things which I could not identify. But there's no COMPOSITION there… well, not what I understand as "composition", anyway. Maybe in museum-speak "informal composition" means "doodles". Who knows?

I just thought it was kind of silly. But it's a minor thing, and both shows are cool and worth checking out. -- PL

P.S. The Clark is currently undergoing some renovation and the main galleries are closed. I'm not sure how long they will remain closed.

The Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show will be up until February 5, and the Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art show will be up until April 1. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review of "The Artist"

I just saw the much-praised movie "The Artist" with my wife and daughter, and I am wondering what all the hype was about. It's a movie with a simple story which could have been well-told in half an hour, and its much-ballyhooed "gimmick" -- that it's a silent movie in black and white, made in 2011 -- turns out to be a long-winded setup for an incredibly lame punchline. Want to know what it is?

Okay, here's a big spoiler… don't look if you don't want to know!

(I'll add a bunch of spaces here, to make it easier to avoid.)

The entire movie is in black and white so that at the very end of it, in a short, inexplicably NON-silent sequence, it can be revealed that the male lead…

… has a very thick French accent.

Okay, maybe I should mention what the movie is about. It's set in the period during which silent movies transitioned into "talking movies", with the attendant rise and fall of the careers of those people who blossomed in the new technology, and those whose skill sets didn't translate from silent to sound successfully. It's a fascinating bit of movie history, and it COULD have been the basic for a really interesting movie. I suppose it still could be. Sadly, "The Artist" is not that movie.

The main character is a dashing, extremely popular leading man of the silent movies, who befriends an aspiring young actress. As her star rises in the beginnings of the transition to "talkies", his falls… and he goes through various stages of denial, depression, failed attempts to prove that his silent roles are still viable, and ultimately attempts suicide. All during this time, the viewer wonders -- why is he falling apart? Why doesn't he at least TRY to get on the talkie bandwagon? He's a charismatic actor, handsome, athletic, and -- at least up until that point, when talkies take over -- wildly poplar. What's the problem?

Having seen "Singing in the Rain" (a large part of the plot of which deals with this aspect of film history) many times, I was starting to get the feeling that maybe he, like Lina Lamont in "Singing in the Rain", had some kind of weird, horrible, obnoxious, repulsive voice. And according to the makers of this movie, he does.

He sounds like a French guy.

Now, this movie is not without its charm. There is a wonderful dog. There are some occasional clever bits with the interplay of the visuals with the dialogue and sound effects cards typical of the silent movie genre. (I especially liked the one which was structured around a car crashing and a gun going off… if you see the movie, you'll know what I am referring to.) There are some very good performances, especially the lead actor, and James Cromwell as his chauffeur, though I thought John Goodman stood out like a sore thumb -- he just didn't seem like be belonged in this period piece.

But… the fact that the entire movie is just a setup for a weak audio gag is… well, for my money, pretty pathetic.

And once you've watched the movie to that point, you realize that the only reason it HAS been silent (something VERY unusual in this day and age, and one of the "hooks" this film has used to draw people in) is to serve this silly joke. I found it extremely disappointing.

It would be great if someone took the time and used some creativity to do a story about this key era in the evolution of the movie industry. If that's a subject which interests you, just watch "Singing in the Rain"... and avoid "The Artist". -- PL

Sunday, January 22, 2012


For the last day or so I have been doing double-takes when I open up my email folder, and see the title of the one from my parents: 
"Ed's Funeral"
Even though I know the sad reality, it still jars me. What? ED? There's a funeral for ED???!!
Ed Smith was a friend of ours for many years, the husband of my wife's best friend Pat. Since our daughter was born almost twenty-three years ago, they had spent a lot of time with us, even though they lived about eighty miles away, joining us for birthdays, holidays (they were the first non-family members invited to share Christmas with us), summer vacation excursions to Maine, and so forth. Ed was an important part of one crew who restored our barn and another crew which, a few years later, built our house. He did a lot of work for us over the years, helping with maintenance and upkeep, and kept my motorcycle collection running smoothly.
When I started "Team Mirage", the privateer motorcycle racing team I sponsored, back in the 1990's,  Ed was an enthusiastic participant, going to motorcycle races to see the guys we'd sponsored battle it out on dirt and on pavement. I remember riding with him and a small group of other dudes out to Ohio, to the Mid-Ohio race track, to see our racer Dale Quarterley dicing with the best of the AMA Superbike class… and I believe Ed was there the following year when Dale -- against all odds -- actually won that race. (Unfortunately, I missed that one!)
Ed loved motorcycles, and I think that was one of the things which drew us together when Jeannine -- who'd taught at a high school with Pat when we'd lived in Connecticut for two years -- introduced us. We both had Honda Gold Wings, and started riding together occasionally, sometimes as couples. One memorable ride took us up to the Shelburne Museums in Shelburne, Vermont, a fascinating place.
But the trip I remember most was not one that our wives went on (though they DID fly out to our destination to spend a few days with us), a twenty-three day excursion out to California -- San Diego, to be precise -- and back. As I recall, it was originally Jim Lawson's idea, and I think he was considering going out by himself, but for some reason the thought of a cross-country motorcycle trip got me fired up. (This was a couple of years after I had sworn off flying.) It ended up being seven of us -- me, Ed, Jim, Rob, Ken, Jay and Craig. I'd never gone on a trip that long, and I'll be honest -- I was more than a little nervous.
But it was great to have Ed along. He knew so much about taking care of motorcycles that I always felt that if we'd had mechanical problems with any of the bikes, we'd be okay. (We didn't have any breakdowns, fortunately.) But more than that, Ed was just a pleasure to travel with. Always up for the ride, even when he got some bad seafood in a restaurant in Utah. And he dealt with that by lying down on a strip of grass in a parking lot until the worst of the queasiness passed. That was Ed.
(Here's a photo from that trip, taken at the edge of the Grand Canyon. From left to right: Rob, Jay, me, Ken, Craig, Jim, and Ed. Notice that almost all of us are wearing long-sleeved t-shirts with the same design? That's something I did for the trip -- I thought it would be cool to give our group a name, and came up with "Digital Demons". Rob did the design work in consultation  with me, and we made the t-shirt, small travel bags, and pencils with the logo and artwork. Kinda goofy, but fun. And Ed was into it... though, the more I look at this photo, I think he must have cut the arms off his t-shirt... probably to get a better tan.)

On our return leg from California, three of our comrades decided they'd rather get home sooner than later, and left the group to head directly back to Massachusetts. But Ed stayed with me, Craig and Ken, as we perambulated north up through the Dakotas, into MIchigan and around the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. I'll never forget that trip.
We had many more good times in the following years with Pat and Ed, who watched our daughter grow up. They loved her, and she loved them.
Pat passed away about three years ago. Ed stayed with her, helping and supporting and loving her through her long illness, and then entered a darker world, one without his beloved Pat. But lately, he had found new happiness with his friend and co-worker Vivian, had lost some weight and started looking less stressed and lonely. These were great signs to those who cared about him.
And then a few days ago, I got a call from Vivian, who was crying. "Ed had a heart attack! He's on his way to the hospital right now!" And no more than thirty minutes later, a second call from her told us that Ed had died.
I -- we -- were stunned. ED?! I always thought the guy -- phlegmatic, strong, low-key and kind -- would outlive us all. I'd just talked to him on the phone the day before about a heating issue in my workshop, something he was planning on dealing with the following day.
Now we're just a few hours away from going down to Connecticut for Ed's memorial service. I still can't believe I am typing those words. It just seems so… wrong.
We'll miss you, Ed.

No --  we already do. -- PL

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Jeannine has the best seat at the kitchen table, at least for birdwatching. She faces south, while I face west, and to the east is her bird feeder, now stocked with seeds for the hungry wintering birds.

So it is that I often miss a lot of the colorful bird action, but occasionally Jeannine lets me know of something particularly interesting, as when this morning a cardinal appeared, briefly, to dine with his less flamboyant brethren.

I managed to snap a few shots through the window before he flew off. I think my goal this winter is to get a shot of one of these brilliantly-plumed birds on the wing, if I can. -- PL

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"


        When will I learn?

         First I waste time last night with "Cowboys and Aliens", and then I spend a couple of hours tonight with something a little less annoying, but still ultimately incredibly stupid -- "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark".

I guess it's a remake of an old TV movie of the same name, which I kind of think I may have seen years ago… but it did not make much of an impression upon me -- certainly not as much as it apparently did upon Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote and, I think, produced this remake.

And he usually does such interesting stuff. Too bad he wasted his time -- and ours -- with this ridiculous excuse for a horror film.

It does have a few interesting bits. The creatures -- grotesque, scuttling, rat-sized homunculi infesting an old mansion -- are well-realized. The setting -- the mansion -- is nice to look at.


Yeah, that's about it. The rest of it is just several different shades of running around screaming-type nonsense.

The plot revolves around a little girl, Sally, and her attempts to convince her distracted father and his girlfriend (played by none other than Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes) that there are these weird little things bothering her. Eventually, the girlfriend decides to believe the kid, but as you might guess, it's too little, too late.

There are several points in the film where you might think "Aha! NOW she's going to be able to show them that these things are REAL!" The first one is when she takes a Polaroid photo of one of them (not sure why there is a Polaroid camera in this movie, as it takes place in contemporary times), and for some reason, the photo takes WAY longer to develop than any normal Polaroid photo should, so the creatures steal it from her and destroy it before she can show it to anyone.

And then the girl is trapped in the library with a bunch of the creatures, and she manages to squish one between two halves of a set of heavy, sliding book shelves, and we even see one of the squished creature's arms fall off and land on the floor. But do we then see the kid drag her father or his girlfriend over to the spot where the creature is squished, or point to the arm on the floor, and say "Look!"? 

No, of course not. That would have required some clever writing and imagination.

Instead, the depredations of the creatures continue, until they tie ropes around the girl's legs and start dragging her down into the basement, where they clearly intend to pull her through the little door into the ash pit from whence they first emerged.

The girlfriend comes home to find this going on and tries to save the girl. She succeeds, but is herself dragged through the ash pit door by the creatures -- at this point in full view of the little girl and her father. 

Okay, great, you say -- surely now that the father knows these things are real, and he saw his girlfriend disappear screaming down into this ash pit below the mansion, he will move heaven and earth to rescue her. Surely within minutes, screentime-wise, there will be heavy equipment brought in to dig up the cellar of this cursed mansion and locate the girlfriend, be she dead or alive or transformed into one of the homunculi. Right?


The movie ends with the father apparently making ZERO efforts to bring his girlfriend back from the clutches of these spawn of the devil. He does NOTHING except walk away with his daughter.


I hate this crap. -- PL

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Review of "Cowboys and Aliens" (the movie)

I have really got to stop my impulse-buying of new movies on DVD.

I mean, I go into Barnes and Noble, and browsing through the new stuff I notice DVD releases of movies I had maybe a little bit of interest in going to the theater to see some five or six months earlier. The fact that I DIDN'T go to see them at the theater should give me the first warning that maybe it's a good idea to not buy the DVD… but hey, like many of us, I get seduced by packaging.

So it was a few days ago when I picked up the DVD release of "Cowboys and Aliens", which I watched last night. I should not have expected too much, given that two of the people credited with writing the screenplay were Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who were also responsible for writing the execrable "Star Trek" movie (or, as I like to call it, "that sci-fi flick somebody mistakenly titled "Star Trek"") which came out in 2009. But -- it stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, and it's directed by John "Iron Man" Favreau… it couldn't be THAT bad, could it?

Yes, it could. And it is.

While looking on to confirm the names of the screenwriters, I noticed that there is actually an extended version of the movie, which adds about eighteen minutes to the regular version's running time. Gack! I can't imagine sitting through even a few more minutes of the interminable "action", the infantile character relationships, the parade of "Western" movie stereotypes and cliches, and the just plain ol' stupidity of this movie.

Wait a minute -- maybe I am looking at this the wrong way. Maybe those extra eighteen minutes turn this movie from one that I fast-forwarded through half of into a really good, well-thought-out, exciting science fiction/adventure film with characters I might care about and a story that made sense.

I guess I'll never know… because watching the regular version last night was almost painful, and too unpleasant to even consider wasting another two hours or so sitting through it again. I won't deny that the effects weren't nicely done -- they were -- but these days, it's hard to see a big-budget flick of this type where the effects AREN'T done well.

There is so much that is dopey about this movie that I don't have the time (or energy) to touch on everything, but I will point out perhaps the most ridiculous bit of all -- the rationale for the aliens' coming to Earth: They want our gold.

They want our gold because… umm… because… let's see… because... they want it!

(Now, to be fair, there may have been an logical explanation for a starfaring species' ravenous desire for Earth's gold, one which I missed because of my fast-forwarding, and if somebody knows what that is and wants to inform me, I'm all ears. Maybe it's included in the "extended cut" of the movie.)

It's not quite as idiotic as the aliens coming to Earth because they want our water (as seen in the original "V" television miniseries), but it's pretty close. -- PL

Monday, January 2, 2012

First day

Yesterday was the first day of 2012, and it was marked here -- at least near our house -- by a lot of mist in the morning. The weather was mild, and the sun was shining, and for a while there was a thick mist -- I wouldn't call it a fog, exactly, but it was definitely a lot more moisture in the air than we usually have this time of year. 

       Maybe if it had been a bit colder, we would have gotten snow.

       I'm glad we didn't.

       It was cold enough to leave -- for a brief time -- some bits and pieces of frost on the grass and fallen leaves. I noticed one curled-up leaf near my foot and took a closeup shot of it.

I love the patterns in the frost here -- they almost look like a lot of tiny silver-white leaves. It's that whole fractal thing, I think. 

Or something.

But what I was really out there in the mist with my camera for was to see if I could get some shots similar to those I took last year after a quick summer shower in late afternoon, when the air was heavy with dampness and mists curled among the trees… and the sun moving towards the horizon, shining through the trees, made for some beautiful light effects in the mist. I lucked out and got a number of shots which I thought were quite beautiful.

Unfortunately, I did not have that much luck yesterday… but I did manage to get the above shot, and that one I liked. -- PL