Articles by

<Benjamin Sutton>

12/18/13 4:00am

The New Rijksmuseum
Directed by Oeke Hoogendijk

“A process in which no one wants to take a risk is too Dutch for me,” says architect Antonio Cruz of Cruz y Ortiz, the firm in charge of designing the renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. He says this in late 2005, just two years into what will wind up being a 10-year project to renovate the beloved museum, one threatened by risk-averse politicians, greedy contractors, short-sighted curators and a tyrannical cyclists’ association. “I spend more time on cyclists than on Rembrandt,” whines Wim Pijbes, the museum’s new director-general. “It’s my fate.” Director Hoogendijk tracks the project through pitched disputes, captivating artworks and vivid characters in this surprisingly gripping two-part, four-hour documentary.

The personalities involved are what make The New Rijksmuseum so engrossing. There’s the quirky and ponderous caretaker Leo van Gerven, the dreamy Asian art curator Menno Fitski, the sage outgoing director-general Ronald de Leeuw, and the stoic director of collections Taco Dibbits (real name!). More than serving as talking heads in some rudimentary museum documentary, they’re given the time and attention to become full-fledged characters with dynamic subplots. “This building is just as important to me as a wife would be,” van Gerven says, his devotion to the temporarily vacant museum seeming at once sweet and melancholy. When his office of 10 years is demolished right before the reopening, his sadness is unmistakable.

By giving so much life to the curators, administrators, staffers, activists, politicians and architects who figure into this sprawling drama—not to mention the beautifully photographed building itself—Hoogendijk has created something that feels nothing like a conventional documentary. With startlingly clear storytelling she constructs a narrative of maddening bureaucratic conflict and administrative indecision set off by the hopes and dreams of the Rijksmuseum’s staff and designers. At times the project’s overly decorous showdowns and interminably delayed gratification evoke an HBO drama or a Victorian novel. An even more apt point of comparison is the Rijksmseum’s star attraction, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” an enormous and arresting painting whose many richly detailed figures transmit vivid inner lives filled with clashing and complimentary histories, dreams and disappointments.

Opens December 18

11/06/13 4:00am

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here
Directed by Amei Wallach

The Kabakovs are not your typical artist couple. First of all, they’re related: during a family-history excursion in Russia, we visit the courtyard that was once shared by Ilya Kabakov’s father and Emilia Kabakov’s grandmother, who were either cousins or siblings; it’s unclear. Secondly, their collaborative process is very starkly split: Ilya creates or conceives of all the artworks—massive installations drawn from Soviet life telling the playful and affectionate stories of fictional but semi-autobiographical characters—while Emilia acts as a kind of agent, assistant and spokesperson. Also, and this helps to elevate Enter Here beyond the artist-documentary niche, as Soviet-born American immigrants they have extremely personal and illuminating perspectives on Russian society and culture. Despite some muddled passages early on, Wallach manages to gather her subjects’ many facets into a cohesive narrative about conflicted nostalgia and the enduring neuroses of having grown up in the USSR.

The budding artist-documentary auteur—whose only previous credit is her invaluable 2008 Louise Bourgeois doc—seems at first to take on too much. The film’s narrative focus is the Kabakovs’s first major retrospective in Russia, which in 2008 launched art czarina Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center. As we follow preparations at their Long Island home-studio and in Russia, Wallach recaps Ilya’s career as an official artist and children’s book illustrator by day and elite member of the Moscow avant-garde at night, plus most of Soviet art history between 1917 and the late-1980s. That’s a lot to tackle, and a couple of tangents seem extraneous, but the Kabakovs eventually articulate and turn out to embody many of the peculiar conflicts and contradictions of contemporary Russian identity. The couple is endearing and very forthcoming, but their relationship lacks the tension that made films like Cutie and the Boxer or Eames: The Architect & The Painter so rich.

Meanwhile, Enter Here’s portrayal of modern-day Russia may be its greatest shortcoming. Filmed and edited before the Pussy Riot trial and the country’s passage of anti-gay legislation, Wallach’s Russia isn’t quite neutral, but seems conspicuously unproblematic. “It’s changing and it’s still the same,” Zhukova muses in the film’s most skeptical statement about post-Soviet Russia. “I guess it’ll always
be like that.”

Opens November 13 at Film Forum

10/16/13 4:00am

Camille Claudel 1915
Directed by Bruno Dumont

The most haunting features of French sculptor Camille Claudel’s works are always the eyes, which uncannily convey a rich inner life. Juliette Binoche achieves a similar effect here in her portrayal of the artist during the second year of a three-decade institutionalization that would last until her death. In long, silent takes and a few monologues inspired by Claudel’s correspondence with her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent)—who kept her institutionalized but remained virtually her only contact with the outside world—Binoche makes plain the maddening dread of wasted talent, stolen freedom and lost years.

Bruno Dumont’s pared-down direction and screenplay, and Guillaume Deffontaines’s spartan cinematography, amplify Binoche’s intensity, making this more of a psychological portrait than a period biopic. In this respect it couldn’t be more different from Camille Claudel, 1988’s Isabelle Adjani-Gerard Depardieu melodrama, which focused on younger Claudel’s relationship with her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin. In fact, if not for the title and occasional allusions to WWI, you could easily forget when Camille Claudel 1915 is set. The nun-staffed institution in rural France looks practically medieval, but its deeply engrained sexism and condescension are creepily modern. The austere conditions and supporting cast of weirdly endearing detainees evoke an era before the Industrial Revolution, but then Paul turns up in a motorcar. This disorienting jumble, suggesting disparate places and times, contributes to the film’s purgatorial mood.

In this raw, sparse setting, with its windswept landscape populated by patients whose grimacing faces share the same depth as Claudel’s best portrait busts, Binoche is superb. Quiet and calculating one minute, unhinged and sobbing the next, she expresses brilliantly the maddening frustration of a falsely incarcerated genius. Seeking some modicum of control over her predicament, and plagued by paranoid fears and conspiracy theories, Claudel is permitted to prepare her own meals. But fleeting bursts of creativity, as when she begins drawing in the margins of a letter or manipulates a handful of clay found on a stroll, only serve to extenuate her growing desperation and feelings of powerlessness.

Meanwhile, Dumont refrains from casting Paul as an outright villain or elucidating his motivation for locking up his sister, though his culpability is never in doubt. In two monologue-driven scenes that are the film’s weakest, Vincent plays Paul as alternately aloof and conniving, feigning piety and concern but clearly eager to keep his sister imprisoned. Otherwise, Camille Claudel 1915 foregoes family drama to focus on and conjure all-too-effectively the crazy-making daily slog of being the only sane person in a mental institution. Knowing that Claudel would die in that same facility 28 years later makes Binoche’s performance, with its sporadic flashes of hope and optimism for a return to normalcy, all the more powerful and gut-wrenching.

Opens October 16

08/14/13 4:00am

Cutie and the Boxer
Directed by Zachary Heizerling

This movie’s about many things—art, family, the American dream—but, as its title suggests, it’s primarily about a relationship: the marriage between DUMBO-based artist couple Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Introduced to us on the morning of Ushio’s 80th birthday, he and his wife trade a series of stinging jabs that come off as weirdly affectionate. “You are so pitiful,” she chuckles. “Don’t get mugged on your way home,” he calls as she leaves his studio, before confiding to the camera, “The average one has to support the genius.” He clearly considers himself the genius, though his career has taken a nosedive since his gnarly cardboard sculptures and post-Pollock action paintings—made by punching long canvases with paint-soaked gloves—fell out of favor. Now his few hard-earned sales support them both.

Ushio’s work is übermacho to the point of verging on satire, while Noriko’s is very feminine. Director Heizerling animates her precise, comic-like paintings—a semi-autobiographical series titled “Cutie and the Bullie”—to tell the couple’s history, splicing in home videos and vintage news profiles of Ushio. Their son, also an artist, is most conspicuous by his awkward near-absence, an apparent casualty of his parents’ careers. Their dingy and cluttered loft is a far richer character, externalizing decades of literal and symbolic baggage. Reclining in lawn chairs on their Jay Street rooftop as trains rumble over the glowing Manhattan Bridge, Noriko and Ushio resemble a bohemian update of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Heizerling conveys the tensions between Noriko and Ushio very economically while emphasizing their interdependence. When they’re not arguing or pausing for a moment of unexpected affection, they’re in their studios: he banging away at his canvases and bolting together giant cardboard motorcycles; she carefully painting the next passage in her revenge fantasy. Likening the pair to flowers sharing a pot, Noriko explains that when things are bad—as they seem at the film’s start—they are dire, but when their fortunes improve, they both thrive.

The beautifully shot and sensitively edited documentary builds toward a heightened moment of shared triumph. Noriko is far more candid and comes across as more genuine, which can give the impression that she is Cutie and the Boxer’s hero. But the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic bout the film portrays suggests she and Ushio are pushing—rather than punching—each other.

Opens August 16

07/31/13 4:00am

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer
Directed by Charlie Ahearn

As one of New York’s first street style photographers, Jamel Shabazz helped set the tone for sites like Humans of New York and the Sartorialist. Beyond serving as a lookbook of Brooklyn cool from the late 1970s to the present, his work serves as a historical record of the last three decades in the borough and city as glimpsed through his focus on graffiti writers, subway riders and members of the Nation of Islam. His images’ most powerful function, which Charlie Ahearn zooms in on in Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer‘s most moving moments, is as memorials to his many, many subjects who have since died from gun violence or drugs.

The images ooze style, but their undercurrents are often tragic. Flipping through his photographs in parks, barbershops and on street corners from Harlem to his childhood block in Flatbush, Shabazz and his friends keep pointing out who has died and how. That underlying violence is all the more palpable in light of his longtime day job as a correctional officer at Riker’s Island, where he earned the trust of many wayward young men who would later vouch for him, boosting his street cred and gaining him access to previously off-limit subjects. Beneath the Kangol hats and behind the Gazelle glasses, his photographs document stories that otherwise survive mostly as oral histories in rap. His oeuvre makes an argument for street photography as another constituent element of hip-hop culture, on a par with graffiti, breakdancing or rapping.

“Way before those things were mythologized in rap, in numerous videos, Jamel had captured them,” says Fab 5 Freddy, one of several hip-hop greats Ahearn consults. The lineup of talking heads, who range from Shabazz’s friends and acquaintances to The Source‘s former graffiti editor and KRS-One, offers a broad range of personal and historical takes on his work. These are interspersed with the artist’s own reminiscences and footage of him in action at recent African American Day and Veterans Day parades. I wished that Ahearn, as the director of Wild Style and a fellow documentarian of New York’s street culture in the early 80s, would have turned the camera on himself, at least briefly. In spite of this, and though it lacks any kind of narrative arc, Ahearn’s film makes clear the richness of Shabazz’s photos. Also, it’s impossible to overstate their coolness.

Opens August 2 at BAM

07/18/13 10:42am

#coriolanus shakespeare theater in asylum

  • Bailey Carr

Standing at the podium, addressing the Roman Senate in his bid to be elected consul, the titular character in Theater In Asylum’s Shakespeare modernization #Coriolanus (Russell Peck) flies into a rage, one that is dutifully live-tweeted by the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius (Julie Robles and Julia Giolzetti). His tyrannical rant elicits immediate reaction from the people of Rome, who are portrayed in this inventive staging as flurries of tweets that are projected onto the walls of Under St. Marks. “He did call us #rats,” one of them writes, as the public turns against the general whose praises were being tweeted a few minutes earlier.


Incorporating social media on stage is a gamble, particularly in updates of classical works, but it pays off handsomely here. The projected tweets help to fill out the Off-Off Broadway production’s necessarily small cast, while speeding this potentially clunky historical tragedy through its various military and political campaigns. At just 95 minutes, director Paul Bedard’s adaptation is expedient not just for the sake of keeping the audience’s attention but also as a reflection of today’s accelerated political news cycle. Here, potentially pompous battlefield scenes are distilled to very effective interpretive dance duels (choreographed by Katie Palmer) and didactic senate speeches become mediated minefields liable to be parodied and retweeted relentlessly by the Roman electorate.

Beyond outsourcing its plebeian chorus to Twitter, this contemporary take on Coriolanus benefits from some terrific performances, and a couple that are rather overwrought. Peck and Madeline Reed (as the general’s mother Volumnia) frequently fall into overacting, particularly given the intimacy of the tiny stage. Happily, they also play up the incestuous undertones of Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother—which may be heightened here since the role of Virgilia, his wife, has been cut—evoking Shakespeare’s other creepily close mother-son duo, Hamlet and Gertrude. Robles and Giolzetti are especially excellent in their scene as hapless attendants to Aufidius (Martin Boersma), Coriolanus’s nemesis and, briefly, his ally against Rome.

Though Bedard and company have taken a great number of risks in this stylized semi-update of Coriolanus, the result is well worthwhile. By the time Roman citizens are hashtagging their tweets “#CoriolanusIsBanished,” we’ve become devoted followers.

Theater in Asylum’s #Coriolanus runs through July 20 at Under St. Marks.

06/19/13 4:00am

Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Courtesy Clearing

So you’re a recent MFA grad from Yale, RISD, VCU, SCAD, or another highly regarded (and high-priced) studio art program, and you’ve arrived in Brooklyn to recoup your investment and conquer the art world? The good news is that whatever your plan lacks in originality (and you want to be an artist?!), it more than makes up for in rationality. After all, no greater concentration of artists, art organizations, art publications, alternative spaces, curators, galleries specializing in emerging artists and affordable-ish studios exists in the country. These are the places and people you need to know to make it here. (NB: we realize that this list is very North Brooklyn-centric, but that’s just how it is, ok?)

Brooklyn’s 10 Most Important Galleries

5 Key Members of the Brooklyn Art Scene

5 Essential Resources for Brooklyn Artists

06/05/13 4:00am

Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the “War” and “Death” Portfolios
Brooklyn Museum

In Käthe Kollwitz’s prints, the devastation of war becomes uncomfortably familiar. As opposed to male contemporaries like Otto Dix or George Grosz, who portrayed the savagery of the World Wars’ trench fighting, Kollwitz trained her eye on the domestic front, creating devastating prints and sculptures based on the tragedy and desperation she witnessed daily in Berlin—and occasionally experienced herself. (Her youngest son, Peter, died on the battlefield in Flanders in 1914.) For Käthe Kollwitz: Prints from the “War” and “Death” Portfolios (through November 10), the Brooklyn Museum is showing its complete holdings of the seven Krieg (or “War”) woodblock prints from 1922-23 for the first time, alongside its five lithograph prints from the later Tod (“Death”) series from 1934-35, and a 1927 self-portrait. Though she’s best known for the earlier stylized woodblock pieces, with their virtuoso use of negative space to trace features and forms shrouded in darkness, the “Death” prints, with their softer and more naturalistic lines and surreal, demonic figures, prove to be this tight and terrifying show’s strongest works.

The figure of Death had been haunting Kollwitz’s works for decades by the eve of WWII, when the Nazi party branded her a “Degenerate Artist,” stripped her of her professorship, and banned her from exhibiting. The subjects of her superb “War” series stare out from group huddles and tight, desperate hugs at some unseen, threatening force—notice the wide-eyed stares of the freaked out kids in “The People” and “The Mother” (both 1922-23). By the time of the “Death” prints, Kollwitz’s haggard figures have embraced the fiend.

In the latter series, Death isn’t the cloaked character from popular culture, but something closer to the vampires portrayed by Edvard Munch: a primordial evil preying on modernism’s castoffs. What’s most disturbing in the “Death” prints is the victims’ intimacy with this haunting figure. In “Death Recognized as a Friend” (1934-35), the jagged features, crazed eyes and pained expression belong to the doomed person who’s peering intensely over Death’s shoulder at the viewer with a nightmarish look mingling terror and relief. “Girl in the Lap of Death” (1934) finds a depleted woman breathing a final sigh of comfort and thanks as she finds respite in Death’s embrace.

These works’ soft lines and sharp details make them all the more affecting. Kollwitz, an outspoken pacifist throughout her life, was an expert at appealing to viewers’ emotions, and somehow the “War” prints’ formal daring partially undercuts their expressiveness, while the “Death” prints are absolutely haunting. In both series, especially the latter, she portrays the unsettlingly familiar terror of a culture in which death and destitution are not anomalies but daily companions.

Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945). The Mothers (Die Mütter), 1922-1923. Woodcut on heavy Japan paper, Image: 13 3/8 x 15 13/16 in. (34 x 40.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum

05/22/13 4:00am

Fast & Furious 6
Directed by Justin Lin

Twelve years and five sequels in, the Fast & Furious franchise has finally grown up. In Part Six, new dad Brian (Paul Walker) and new uncle Dom (Vin Diesel) are recruited by former foe Agent Hobbs (The Rock) to chase down the Londonian cyber-terrorist Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who has enlisted Dom’s presumed-dead former flame Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). If they prevail, Dom, Brian and company will receive full pardons for the crimes perpetrated in Fast & Furious 1-5. This episode of the outlaw-loving series, with its uncharacteristically government-backed mission, adds family values and pro-torture patriotism to the foregoing installments’ core curriculum of objectifying women while sexualizing cars. It also gets baroque in its narrative intricacies—at least by car-chase movie standards.

With a convoy of nearly a dozen central characters from every previous installment, F&F6‘s many non-chase scenes fall somewhere between soap-opera sentimentalism and Victorian-novel complexity. Self-referential histrionics and shop-talk schmaltz abound. Former frenemies exchange slaps and a few punches, plus what pass for witticisms in this grease-monkey melodrama. Roman (Tyrese Gibson): “You’ve gotta get her a big rock, or you’d better be big somewhere else, if you know what I mean.” Han (Sung Kang): “So that’s why all your girlfriends wear so much bling.” But the movie’s overriding and oft-articulated message is that safeguarding country and family justifies any kind of violence.

And justify it does, after each admittedly gripping chase sequence, from London to the Spanish countryside. The vehicular cast, too, is practically Dickensian, the typical roster of American muscle cars, imported roadsters, and souped-up motorcycles joined by a supporting set of auction-bought vintage coupes, custom-built racecars, a tank, and one very large airplane. Director Lin keeps all the fast-moving parts staggered, with various subplots and tangents gliding off and then looping back to the main action like an expertly engineered freeway. Its expanding repertoire of reprehensible ideologies may be shameful, but for a blockbuster vehicle designed to extract premium action from every gallon, F&F6 is far more fuel-efficient than any of the guzzlers it speeds toward chassis-crunching crashes.

Opens May 24

04/17/13 4:00am

Herman’s House
Directed by Angad Sing Bhalla

“It’s probably the best move I made in my life,” Herman Wallace, who has spent all but eight months of the last 40 years in solitary confinement at America’s largest maximum security prison, says of his ongoing collaboration with artist Jackie Sumell. In 2002 she asked him what his dream house would look like, and the resulting fantasy home spawned wooden and digital models, architectural blueprints, exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world—including Artists Space in New York—and, finally, the project to actually build the thing in New Orleans that takes up the latter section of director Bhalla’s first feature-length doc. Herman’s House is big enough to accommodate countless rich subjects, from prison reform and black radicalism to architectural theory and the nature of artistic collaboration, but its cursory explorations add up to a frustrating if sometimes incredibly engaging film.

Sumell and Wallace’s relationship carries the film, even though the latter is present only as a wise, disembodied voice. Their tense yet affectionate phone conversations ooze with the emotional intensity that great documentaries are built around, which makes it problematic when Bhalla’s focus drfits. An early section involving Wallace’s sister proves very moving, so it’s all the more conspicuous when she disappears from the film. Another aside devoted to a younger, since-released inmate whom Wallace took under his wing may be heartwarming, but it detracts from the film’s momentum. Sumell’s struggles with New Orleans’s city bureaucracy are briefly alluded to, but never explored, and the parallels between her collaboration with Wallace and the feelings of loss and pain bound up in her parents’ house are made very palpable early on and never raised again. With some trimming and more focused storytelling this strong documentary might have been as structurally sound and brutally powerful as the art project that generated it.

Opens April 19