The Spellout

Art, Culture & Unavoidable Spite

Hail, Caesar, Where Art Thou Ranked?

Earlier this week I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! at a critic’s screening and loved it. It was funny, fleet on its feet, and composed of so many references to Hollywood’s Golden Age that I imagine Karina Longworth will need at least one entire podcast to unpack them all. (It’s also a rare Coen Brothers film, in that it directly references another of their works: The film studio of Hail, Caesar! is Capitol Pictures, where Barton Fink met his destiny.)

I haven’t written a review for Hail, Caesar! yet, and I may not, seeing as the film was screened for critics after my print deadline. (Sadly, that’s an all-too-common occurrence in the nation’s 40th-largest television market, 41st-largest radio market and 61st-largest newspaper market; there’s simply not enough media professionals in town for the studios to justify earlier, solely media-targeted screenings. Instead, critics are lumped in with radio contest winners.) But I was curious to know how the film was being received, so I did something I almost never do before the review is written: I Googled up Hail, Caesar! to get an idea of its critical consensus.

What I saw surprised me: The first few reviews weren’t reviews, but ordered critical lists of all 17 of the Coen Brothers’ films, with Hail, Caesar! ranked within. (Yahoo! ranked the film at number 15; Vulture put it at number 11;  The Wrap placed it at number 9; and The Atlantic ranked it at number 8, as did The Washington Post.)  For the life of me, I can’t think of another filmmaker who’s received such treatment so soon after they’ve released a new film—not Scorsese, not Spielberg, not even Michael Bay. I’ve seen it done for animation studios, like Pixar; critics have no problem making that call when a Cars 2 comes out, because to their minds animation isn’t true auteur filmmaking; in their heart-of-hearts, it is product, nothing more. Sometimes it’s good product, they’ll say. But if it comes down to a Beauty and the Beast vs. a JFK, there’s just no contest; JFK deserves more critical weight and respect, they’ll say, because it was made by and stars actual people.

I’d like to attribute the rash of Coen Brothers rankings to critics’ unmasked enthusiasm for their films; even their one flat-out failure (The Ladykillers) is fun to watch. But here’s the thing: Ranking a filmmaker’s latest film within their catalog three days before general release is fucking stupid. Especially so for the Coens, who have seen several of their films—The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There come to mind—grow in stature over the years. One of these days, amuse yourself by going back and reading the contemporaneous reviews of The Big Lebowski. (Roger Ebert gave Lebowski three stars in 1998, calling it “genial, shambling comedy.” In 2010, he named it one of his “Great Movies,” and bumped it up to four stars. Such critical reappraisals have been fairly common with Lebowski.)

But here’s the thing: I don’t blame the critics, who at this point are blessedly lucky to still have jobs. Nor do I blame websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, which reduce a movie’s worth to crowdsourced numbers. I blame us, because the first question we’re inclined to ask about an auteur’s new work is how it rates in comparison to their other shit. Such comparisons used to be exclusive to our conversations with friends, but we have been encouraged, via websites like Rotten Tomatoes—wow, I guess I do blame them!—to seek out these comparisons at the media level. That’s fine for something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which most of you probably would have seen even if I told you the film ended with a real-life punch to the kidneys.

But for artists like the Coens, whose films are so different from each other that a Lebowski fan could conceivably have despised No Country For Old Men, a numbered list is dangerous. Their commercial clout isn’t such that they can open whatever the hell they want and expect to work with the same studio twice. The Coens still need the help of their critics. They still need people at the door saying, “No, seriously, come in. If you liked that other one, you’ll like this one.” The last thing they need is for their every moved to be measured against their changing selves, and our ever-changing perception of who they are. Who does need anything like that, come to think of it?

 

The Jim Henson Company Rises from the Oubliette

Look, you shouldn’t hate on The Jim Henson Company too much for its ill-timed decision to reboot/remake Labyrinth. Not that I blame you if you do; judging by the timing of this announcement, Sony/Henson have obviously misunderstood the enduring appeal of the original 1986 film. It wasn’t the late Jim Henson’s direction, Terry Jones’ story or the breakout performance of Jennifer Connolly, though all those things deserve recognition.

No, what keeps Labyrinth alive is that bulge in David Bowie’s tights. Pow. Millions of preteens discovered their sexuality in that particular topographical feature. It was Generation X’s leaning-over-the-washing-machine-on-spin-cycle moment. And oh yeah, Bowie’s songs were pretty good, too.

The announcement hasn’t gone over well.

The timing truly is awful. But the idea might not be so bad, if you’re  interested in the Henson Company existing as a creative force.  Of the properties Henson still owns outright—which include LabyrinthFraggle Rock, Mirrormask, The Dark Crystal and Farscape, near as I can determine—Labyrinth has the greatest potential to put Henson back in the game alongside Blue Sky, Laika and Pixar. Even though puppeteering is an entirely different medium than animation, it’s obvious that those studios have the audience that Henson wants, meaning everybody, beginning with those parents who were raised on Labyrinth but didn’t bother taking their kids to a single Muppet movie after Toy Story reset the horizon.

I had the good fortune of visiting Henson’s Los Angeles studio earlier this month to preview Henson Alternative’s new stage show Puppet Up: Uncensored in advance of its Las Vegas debut. (I’ll write about the show itself in Vegas Seven next month.) I wish you could have been there, not just because the studio is charming and historic—it used to belong to Charlie Chaplin—but so you could see how much pent-up creative energy is flat-out languishing behind those gates. By Brian Henson’s own admission, the Henson Company is kind of limited in its scope these days; all they do are puppets for preschool shows and adult productions like Puppet Up. They can’t even call their characters Muppets anymore; Disney owns that name, and all its associated characters. (The Sesame Street characters are wholly owned by Sesame Workshop, though Henson continues to build and maintain their characters, which can be called “Muppets” through a licensing agreement with Disney.)

So what you’ve got is a studio that still has stories to tell, still has brilliant young talents flocking to its banner. But they’ve no good way to get a toehold in a marketplace that views puppeteering as quaint, obsolete. (J.J. Abrams talked a good game about the practical effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but when it came time to make a new Yoda-like character, he used CGI.) They can’t use the Muppet name to reinforce what they do, which leaves them to go with what is arguably the second-best known propert in their possession.

The Labyrinth reboot has been in the making for some time. Brian Henson spoke about it at the Puppet Up media summit, weeks before David Bowie’s death. Even then, I thought that the chances of Bowie reprising his role were virtually nil, but the idea didn’t seem like a horrible one. A well-made Labyrinth film, one with ties to the original story but with a new, engaging story of its own, could lead new viewers to the original film, just as the Star Wars prequels primed a new generation for The Force Awakens. And any kind of Labyrinth film Henson makes now could be so elegiac in tone that older viewers would be churlish to find fault with it.

I can’t imagine what form a new Labyrinth might take, and that’s kind of exciting. If it’s got a good story to tell (and with Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman writing the script, it could well have), and if the Henson crew innovates as they did in  1986, the new Labyrinth could restore the Henson Company’s name as a creator of unique visual storytelling. Then they’ll be free to create even more new stories to fill out their portfolio, and the next thing you know, Disney could sell back the original Muppets to the only people who fully understand what makes them work.

But holy shit, is the timing ever bad. No denying it. I know that Sony needs to announce the deal while Bowie and Labyrinth is fresh in everyone’s mind, to leverage this outpouring of passion and sentimentality. Still, ugh. The world only just fell down.

UPDATE, JANUARY 25: It’s not happening, says screenwriter Nicole Perlman on Twitter: “No one is remaking Labyrinth. That movie is perfect as-is.”  Although, as AV Club points out, the door is open for a sequel to Labyrinth, and I still think that might not be the worst idea. And that begs the question: What is Perlman writing for Henson?

The Man Who Souled the World (Extended Dub)

David Bowie flier, summer 1987I wrote an obituary for David Bowie in Vegas Seven last Monday, while the shock of his death was fresh. Truth be told, I’m still dumbfounded by the loss, and I expect I will be for years to come. (I’m not over the 1991 death of Freddie Mercury, either. And I get angry about it every time Queen goes on tour with some has-been or game show contestant in Mercury’s rightful place.)

There are some losses that never seem real because the lives never seemed real, either. I know David Bowie was human; know it all too well this sad, shocking week. But I was never able to imagine being in the same room with him.  I shared a roof with him once, but it was the roof of the Thomas & Mack Center, an intimate setting only for college basketball. There were 19,000 other people there, and the half of them who weren’t there only to see Nine Inch Nails were probably thinking the same thing I was: Is that really him? Is he really here? Is David Bowie really a thing, or did we imagine him?

In any case, my Seven obituary is reprinted below. If I’d had the time and the space to do so, I might have expanded on a few things I touch on in passing, in particular Bowie’s unfairly maligned 1980s output (I’ve been listening to Never Let Me Down and the Tin Machine albums all week, and dated production aside, they hold up), and the shabby treatment Bowie received on the Outside tour, in Las Vegas and, I suspect, nationwide. Mosh-pit jackasses threw their beer cups and plastic water bottles at him. You might not have seen it from your perspective on the floor, but I had a clear view of it from my elevated place at stage right and mentioned it in my October 1995 review . (It’s in the old, Patrick Gaffey-run Las Vegas Weekly, and I’ll reprint it here just as soon as I can dig it up.)

In your defense, Las Vegas, Bowie didn’t seem that bothered by the garbage. And it was the 1990s; back then, audiences were more frisky, because rock ‘n’ roll was still around in a way that counted.  Believe me, as one of Las Vegas most enduring cheerleaders, I’d rather say that it didn’t happen: I’d love to say that David Bowie came to town and everyone was pie-eyed and reverent and kept their fucking beer cups to themselves. But it did happen. I saw it. I’m just not sure I actually saw Bowie himself, feel me?

(Funny how trolling travels. When I snagged the link for the video below—Bowie’s 1993 cover of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” done in the style of Pin-Ups—I made the mistake of reading through the comments. Don’t do it. It’s like watching the man get pelted with trash all over again.)

David Bowie is gone. He left Earth on January 10, after some 50 years of making music, film and art for a world that embraced him even when it didn’t quite understand him. His discography is, on the whole, unmatched in its quality—yes, even when you factor in Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down. And today, like many of you, I’m listening to that music. There is no better way to pay homage to David Bowie than to listen to his records.

Bowie was more than a supernaturally gifted songwriter and musician. He was, as my girlfriend said this morning, “a beacon for freaks.” So many of our friends felt validated by him; no matter what your struggle was, Bowie had a soundtrack for it. As we read our way through our Facebook feeds, we realized that every single person we knew—the goths, the jocks, the poets, the rockers, the ravers—every one of them had been drawn to Bowie at an early age, and every one of them knew a different man, from Goblin King to Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust.

I saw Bowie perform only once. It was October 19, 1995, at the Thomas & Mack—the Outside tour, which he conducted in partnership with Nine Inch Nails. The two bands actually shared the stage for five songs, including Bowie’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” The rest of Bowie’s set was heavy with songs relating to death, either directly (“Look Back in Anger,” “A Small Plot of Land”) or obliquely (“Andy Warhol,” “Under Pressure”).

And yet, I have rarely seen a performer with more life in him, more commitment to the moment at hand. Some assholes in the audience threw their water bottles at Bowie, but he didn’t let it faze him. He just danced around the projectiles and unwrapped gift after gift: “Breaking Glass,” “I’m Deranged,” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” And at the end of his set, at the end of a splendid version of “Teenage Wildlife,” he mimed stabbing himself in the gut and fell over, “dead.” That night, 20-plus years ago, Bowie bluntly told us that he would have to go someday, and he predicted the way he would go out: singing.

Today, every Bowie song is a sacred thing. Yes, even the pop stuff he made in the 1980s and early 1990s, the music that Pitchfork would like to pretend doesn’t exist. I can hear Bowie’s alpha and omega in every single note. He was always, always telling us that this was too good to last, and always exhorting us to live fully in the moment: This is our last dance/this is our last dance/this is ourselves. I couldn’t state David Bowie’s central message more clearly than that. Live your life as whoever you want to be. Enjoy every second doing it. And, when you can, throw Aladdin Sane or Black Tie White Noise on the stereo, and remember the man who souled the world.

Into the Wild with Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth

Craig Thornton

Craig Thornton (center) supervises a Wolvesmouth dinner.

Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011

Craig Thornton is passionate about many things. He loves traveling; he loves wild nature; he loves Tom Waits and Joy Division. But all of these things are subservient to his first love: cooking. More precisely, the 29-year-old loves cooking for others—and at his Los Angeles loft, which he calls the Wolvesden, Thornton does just that. Other great chefs may dream of opening restaurants, but through a series of Wolvesden events whose attendance is limited to a dozen people who have signed up online, Craig Thornton hopes to bring back the old-school dinner party.

“I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking,” says the chef, whose previous jobs included cooking for Nicolas Cage and at one of Thomas Keller’s prestigious restaurants. “They’re talking about a dish or about somewhere that I need to go try, and I like that exchange more than I enjoy feeding 200 people.  … The whole idea is that you come in, you eat, you leave, and you’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”

That question is difficult to answer if one perceives iconic chefs as being lofty restaurateurs or reality show contestants. Thornton approaches a new dish as a painter approaches a fresh canvas; he considers what he wants to say with it, what mood he’d like to infuse it with, what materials he needs to make it perfect, and how it might work in context with the art surrounding it. And if it comes out looking a bit weird, that’s fine.

“When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking,” says Thornton. “I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, and more aggressive. … I’m trying to get across a feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type.”

Thornton created two dishes for Fresh Perspectives, on the themes of Empowerment and Escape. The Escape dish, which Thornton calls “Rabbit in the Forest,” hints at his love of sitting around a campfire in the woods – “that’s my escape from reality,” he says. But for Empowerment, he played a bit of a trick.

“It looked sweet, but it was savory,” he says. “When I think of the word empower, I think of liberating yourself. Looks can be deceiving; you look at something, and you assume that it is what it is. You assume that it’s going to be yogurt and berries and granola, and then you bite into it and it’s a pickled beet in the shape of a blackberry. Feta cheese was the yogurt; it had more the texture of a whipped yogurt. And the granola was a sweet and salty granola that I made. Underneath that was a beet salad that you couldn’t see at first. The idea behind the dish was that of liberating yourself by actually looking and tasting and really thinking about what’s actually going on before passing judgment. Once you do, that’s when you can empower yourself to move forward.

Moving forward is Craig Thornton’s central preoccupation. He wants to bring Wolvesden dinners to other cities and towns, provided he can maintain the quality of the experience. And more than anything, the chef wants to continue blurring the lines between art, music and cooking – creative mediums that, to his mind, come from the same place and fill the same human need.

“Food is very much how you would view art in a gallery,” says Thornton. “Cooking is a craft, but you can use it to create art as you would anything else, like painting. Everything starts out as a craft. Once you have the idea and express it, that’s when it becomes art.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE MARCH 2011 INTERVIEW

What’s the first thing you remember cooking?

Oh man, I mean I started cooking when I was extremely young, literally when I was 9 or 10. I was asking for cast-iron pans and mixing bowls for Christmas. The first thing I remember cooking was a turkey, pickle and cheese quesadilla that I made for my grandma.

That sounds really good.

At the time, all I knew was I liked the flavors together. But as I got older, now I understand why the flavors would actually work together. But this had to be when I was probably 7 or 8 years old.

How do you perceive flavor? As color? As music? Or something else entirely?

That’s the thing; it really depends on what mindframe I’m in. if I’m out with some friends in a restaurant I’m not necessarily tasting, but more concentrating on having a great time. But when I’m really thinking about what I want to do flavorwise… I went to a Godspeed You Black Emperor show the other night, and as I watched the show I was literally creating a whole dinner concept in my head. I look at literally everything and find to try to find its  connection to food. As far as actual taste goes, I like to think that I perceive taste a little more intensely. I grew up literally on canned government food, so I pick up on off flavors extremely easily. So if I’m making something or I go to a restaurant and there’s an off flavor, I pick it up really easy, because it brings me back to growing up with it.

Like, dehydrated, reconstituted whatever?

Yeah. You’d open up a silver can that has a picture of a pig on it and that’s all that would be on it. But the flavors, you know government cheese, government fruit loops, stuff like that … there’s off flavors with them. Growing up with that, I think I’m perceptive to off flavors immediately. When you’re a kid, that’s when you develop your taste buds as far as things that you like and that you don’t like, and I don’t like off flavors. I can go into a place and I can tell how many times a meat’s been reheated because I can taste it

Why do you do these speakeasy-style dinners? Why not just open a restaurant?

I feel the world is speeding up so fast that most everything seems to be just surface connections . I’m sure you experience it every day; I experience it every day, everyone experiences it. It’s like talking to a person in text message only. The world is becoming very much like a turn ‘n’ burn—you know, where it’s “try and get as much stuff out as possible and just keep moving on” and you don’t really get strong connections with people.

Obviously, I’m working on ways of expanding (Wolvesden), but to me, expanding doesn’t necessarily mean feeding more people. I’m hoping to teach people to be able to do the kind of stuff I’m doing.  I really like the idea of having a smaller group together, where it’s more about the experience as a whole. Food is a very big part of it, but I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking. Or when I’m over hanging out after the dinner, they’re talking about a dish, or somewhere that I need to go try. I like those exchange more than I do feeding 200 people. It’s just a deeper kind of connection than just a surface “Hey, how’s it going, oh great, have a good night, see ya.” I want to find out more about people. I’m an extremely curious person. I ask people questions all the time, because I just want to know

Backtracking a bit. What are your musical influences?

I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits. Joy Division. I listen to Philip Glass quite a bit. My musical tastes go all over the place, just like my food does. My top three bands, if I had to name them, would be Tom Waits, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Joy Division. It’s three completely different styles of music…

But they were all at their best when they went outside conventions, when they strived.

Definitely. Someone like Tom WaitsI love his music, but the thing I like the most about him is that he’s very good at telling stories, just like Bob Dylan was. He has a lot of abstract stuff going on, but at the same time, it all makes sense. But if you just glance over it, you might think, what the hell is this? I really like that kind of surrealism.

Wolvesmouth

And you put it on a plate.

When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking. I don’t do right angles most of the time. When I do, it’s on purpose. I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. I don’t like that organization. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, more aggressive. That’s what I’m trying to get acrossthat feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type. That’s just how I see it; obviously, everyone’s not going to see it that way. They want a perfect, consistent portion where everything is exactly 1.5 ounces. I like the idea of everything not being exactly the same.

When people come here to eat, I want them to leave feeling they’ve had a one-of-a-kind experience, and it’s fleeting. They’re here, and then it’s gone, but that experience stays as what it is. That’s why I try not to repeat a ton of dishes. If I do repeat, it’s because I’m trying to refine the dishto find a better way of cooking and serving it. But I also like the idea that every time we do a dinner, they have that experience to share with that group. And that’s the only time they’re going to experience it. The next group has a different experience. I like that idea of going in and it’s all handmade.

I’m really just taking food back 50 years. That’s all I’m doing, regarding the experience. The food itself doesn’t date back to the 1950s, but I guess that the ideal, the connection to where people are sitting around… If you came to a dinner and were just a fly on the wall, you’d see weird stuff happen. People come in here and I can immediately tell who’s more timid and shy and feels lost and doesn’t know what to expect. What’s funny is that, by course three or four, those people are the loudest and having the best time. That’s what I strive for.

What kind of mark do you hope to leave on your profession?

Mostly, I’d like to show people that if you really want to do something—whether it’s cooking, painting, being in a band, being a journalist—you have to sacrifice your time, you have to love what you’re doing and you have to work your ass off.

I didn’t have my early 20s. I literally chose to just cook. Had I waited for someone to get what I was doing, I would still be doing nothing. I would never have progressed. Instead, I figured out what I wanted and I worked toward my goals and I saved up every penny and put it all back into cooking. That’s all I’ve done since my early 20s—I didn’t go partying, didn’t do any of that stuff. Wasn’t even interested in doing any of that stuff. I didn’t take the normal path of working a nine-to-five and partying it up on the weekends. You keep doing that, and then all of a sudden, you’re pissed off about what you’re not doing.

I just kept saving up, kept buying the equipment – and as soon as I felt like I had enough time and  enough equipment to not do it half-assed, that’s when I decided to let loose. To me, that’s a big part of it—leaving mediocrity at the doorstep. If that means that you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, then you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, and you’re not gonna bitch and cry about it. You’re just gonna do it because you love it so much.

Augustine Kofie Shapes the New

AKofie by urbanartcore.eu

Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011

If you must give Augustine Kofie something, give him something old. “There’s so much out there, in the past,” says the 37-year-old artist. “We live in an age where there’s so much new technology and new information, but there’s still so much old stuff that’s great, too. That’s my whole life, being a vintage futurist. I love my new stereo, but I also have a reel-to-reel player.”

And even though Kofie owns a computer and has easy access to all the sophisticated illustration tools it offers, when it comes time to draw a circle or square, he reaches for his vintage drafting tools and he uses them to produce otherworldly abstractions like none you’ve seen before. A Kofie piece can be a mass of sharp interlocking forms floating on a background of muted earth tones, with more of the more vibrant colors trapped in soft, rolling shapes … or it can be something else entirely. Kofie’s art has personality enough to change its mood, sometimes while you’re looking right at it. And it does indeed look futuristic while also seeming old, like snapshots of a forgotten World’s Fair.

“I like combining things that don’t seem like they’re supposed to be mixed,” says Kofie. “I’ve been drawing in this style for so long now that I can just kind of go off my head and build something from the ground up.”

Kofie builds his pieces in a variety of settings. More often than not he’s working in his studio, which sits on a hill above L.A. (“it’s really quiet; it’s amazing”), but sometimes you’ll find him plotting his beguiling abstractions on city walls. While not as active in the street art community as he once was, he remains committed to it.

“Street art is just a really tough art form for people to digest sometimes, and I’ve held with it and kept it and I really believe in it,” says Kofie. He’s a bit cagey about his street work – “There’s still a risk factor in doing it out there and I’m well aware of it, the illegal activity of it” – but he does confess to his love of transforming abandoned buildings and drawing the occasional freehand circle on a nice, rectangular wall.

“You have to really balance yourself and have control of your arm; it’s called can control,” says Kofie. “You have to pre-think of everything you’re going to sketch out. People can’t paint like that. I mean, I can because I’m six-foot-two, have a pretty wide arm span, and I’ve paid attention to the fact that my body can be, in essence, a compass.”

For Fresh Perspectives, Kofie was asked to use that human compass to create two pieces on the themes of Empowerment and Escape, both of which resonate through the whole of Kofie’s work and sense of being. “I understand empowerment because I’ve basically empowered myself — I started my own business, I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t go to business school. And because my work is so involved and there are so many layers and so much depth to it, I feel like when I work on the pieces I shut out reality. I’m in my studio, playing music, and I’m just letting my work do what it needs to do. It’s still in the midst of everything, but my studio is an escape for me.”

The way Kofie speaks about his studio, it’s obvious that it’s his second heart. In his studio are paintings waiting to be begun or revised, and of course, a bunch of vintage drafting tools he picked up at estate sales.

“I’m an old soul,” says Augustine Kofie. “I’m inspired by the things that people kind of forget about.”

KeepDrafting.com

Keep Drafting @ Flickr

Keep Drafting @ Vimeo

Official Facebook Page

PHOTO BY URBANARTCORE.EU/CREATIVE COMMONS

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