Articles by

<Benjamin Sutton>

12/12/12 4:00am

Gremlins (1984)
Directed by Joe Dante
Saturday, December 15, at BAM, part of its Home for the Holidays series

Three decades and four presidents later, Gremlins still offers a rich feast of holiday camp. This Reagan-era nightmare finds idyllic Kingston Falls, NY, under siege from enemies both foreign and domestic. Hatched in a Chinatown trinket store and recognized by the town’s alcoholic veteran (Dick Miller) as the same beasts secretly deployed against US pilots in WWII, the gremlins are classic Cold War invaders. But with their insatiable appetites—for junk food, booze and mayhem—they’re also models of bad citizenship and out-of-control adolescence. Watching them trash the local dive, dispatch Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday)—the local Scrooge, as a conspicuous It’s a Wonderful Life excerpt underlines—and take down Santa provokes the giddiness of teenage transgression.

The town’s saviors use the tools of wholesome Americana to restore order. Shy guy Billy (Zach Galligan) opts for a baseball bat, while the E.T./Ewok/teddy bear hybrid Gizmo pilots a toy car. Even Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain) notches a few kills by weaponizing her kitchen appliances, and romantic interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) turns her Polaroid against the light-hating monsters in an extended Rear Window reference. The bacchanalia of destruction reaches its climax as the gremlin horde sings along to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves before clawing through the cinema’s screen as if coming at the viewer. Aside from such sequences’ lack of 3D, Gremlins remains as current a piece of pop satire—albeit a staunchly centrist one—as it was when it first tore through US screens.

11/21/12 4:00am

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Directed by Joe Dante
November 23 at BAM, part of its “Chuck Amuck” Chuck Jones series

“This is worse than the first one,” an exasperated filmgoer whines midway through this sequel, after the titular creatures commandeer the projector at a cinema inside the Orwellian Midtown headquarters of Clamp Industries, the movie’s true villain. The suppressed desires indulged by the first batch of gremlins—who in 1984 terrorized an American Anytown reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting—seem tame compared to the havoc the second wave visits upon the empire of gentrifying real estate tycoon and insidious corporate guru Daniel Clamp (John Glover). The culture whose taboos the gremlins shatter in this sequel is, indeed, much worse than the first one’s.

Chuck Jones deserves much of the credit for the second batch’s increased vigor. He gives volume and texture to a gremlin horde teeming with diversity: there’s bat gremlin, spider gremlin, Professor gremlin, cougar gremlin (the vampy older woman kind, not the big cat kind), electric gremlin, veggie gremlin, and many more. Jones and Dante know who the movie’s real heroes are; tellingly, Gizmo spends most of it in hiding. The bad guy, meanwhile, is a spineless Bloomberg-Giuliani hybrid who’s introduced pitching a project to raze Chinatown and rebuild it in the image of his differences-crushing enterprise. His generic vision for the Clamp Chinatown Center (“where business gets oriented“) is the brushwork of leading man Billy (Zach Galligan), who’s abandoned his dreams of becoming a comic book artist to paint renderings of Clamp’s forthcoming cookie-cutter megaliths. Compared to the gremlins’ unbridled hedonism, he and his fellow cubicle inmates absolutely have it worse.

10/24/12 4:00am

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters
Directed by Ben Shapiro

In 1979, when Park Slope native Gregory Crewdson was just 17, his high school band the Speedies had a minor hit—their only one—with a song he wrote titled “Let Me Take Your Photo“. Crewdson never pursued a career in music, and quickly abandoned his plan to follow in his psychoanalyst father’s footsteps, instead enrolling in Yale’s documentary-inclined photography program where his technicolor, diorama-style surrealism stuck out defiantly. But that adolescent artistic success reads as perfect foreshadowing in Ben Shapiro’s revelatory doc about the celebrated photographer of elaborately staged melancholy scenes in contemporary yet nostalgia-tinged American Anytowns.

Following Crewdson around the depressed former manufacturing hubs of Western Massachusetts, where he photographed his Beneath the Roses series between 2002 and 2008, Brief Encounters chronicles the filmshoot-like process that goes into each of his eerie and exquisite large-format images. The location shooting is especially high-stress, as crews of dozens or more hurry to set up his Edward Hopper-esque scenes by sunset, Crewdson’s preferred time of day because it permits the theatrical lighting that gives his stills their simultaneously cinematic and Renaissance painting-like qualities. “My pictures are moments between moments,” he says, “and I think twilight is a beautiful metaphor for that.” Others offer politicized readings of Crewdson’s chosen aesthetic in the more analytical and biographical sequences that Shapiro splices between soundstage and location shooting. “There’s something spectacular about the settings of those shots,” longtime friend Rick Moody offers, “that has to do with the way capitalism is failing in a very beautiful, ancient landscape.”

Fittingly, one of the documentary’s strongest sequences involves a location where, the day before Crewdson’s shoot, a wrecking crew shows up and begins bulldozing three abandoned houses that were going to be in a photograph. He takes the photo anyway, casting the scene with his typically haunting lighting to capture it mid-demolition, which only boosts the image’s uncanny and impenetrable narrative element. The America that interests Crewdson is slowly being worn or torn down, foreclosed upon and further marginalized, a sentiment this and many of his other works articulate, however obliquely. “The majority of Americans live lives of quiet desperation,” one interviewee comments, “and those are the lives that Gregory is portraying.”

Opens October 31 at Film Forum

10/03/12 4:00am

Bel Borba Aqui
Directed by Burt Sun and André Costanini

Bel Borba, basically a Brazilian Banksy, has tucked public art into every corner of his hometown Salvador: underwater sculptures in the harbor, painted airplanes at the airport, countless tile murals, and a giant beachside Coke-bottle Christmas tree commissioned by the soft drink company. He has left no medium or space unexplored; as one local says weirdly: “He is to Salvador as a sperm is to a woman.”

Sadly, this documentary does a great deal to sap the artistic virility from the urban revivalist whose ceaseless movements it tracks. Borba’s populist public art offers an appealing vernacular alternative to Brazil’s increasingly professionalized contemporary art scene, as well as a means of visual enrichment for a chronically poor region. But his scattered oeuvre hardly justifies the filmmakers’ similarly disjointed documentary. Burt and Costanini continually shift between grainy hand-held video, lush hi-def and touristy interludes, doing debilitating disservice to an intriguing subject whose charisma should easily suffice to sustain a much better film.

Bel Borba Aqui‘s frenetic form occasionally calms down, allowing for some exquisite sequences. The opening mural-painting session on an abandoned and eviscerated apartment building stokes hope for a better film ahead, and the artist’s astoundingly lucid musings on art’s relationship to politics during a drive through town offers a glimpse of a more thoughtful, less condescending documentary that could have been. But flaws both technical and structural quickly undo the film’s immense potential—and do great disservice to its intriguing subject.

Opens October 3

09/26/12 4:00am

Lupe Fiasco
Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1


Lupe Fiasco’s return to his stellar debut took just two intervening albums—the very good The Cool and mediocre Lasers—with the gothic, hyper-political Food & Liquor II emerging from a prolonged label dispute over creative control. The record’s opening verse on “Strange Fruition,” delivered over a piercing string sample, sets the mood: “No I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag/’cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past/There was nothing equal for my people in your math/You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads.” Lupe’s sharp-tongued pessimism pervades the album, save a very uneven pair of love songs at its center: the clever healthcare allegory “Heart Donor” and “How Dare You,” the record’s low point.

Food & Liquor II couldn’t be much more tonally different from its predecessor, substituting dystopian visions, harsh realism and self-seriousness for the earlier record’s playfulness, imaginative alternate worlds and optimism. “That was Lupe number one/now this version number four/and I still feel like a virgin me versus the globe,” he raps over military drums on “Battle Scars.” Not surprisingly, the album’s highlights pair adversarial doom-and-gloom lyrics with subdued or seemingly upbeat instrumentals, like the jazzy “Around My Way,” the cascades of synths on “Lamborghini Angels,” and the soul-tinged outro “Hood Now.” Despite falling short of even The Cool, this record boasts the most intelligent feminist rap song in years, “Bitch Bad,” proof that this is a great American rap album—just not the great American rap album.

09/05/12 4:00am

Beauty is Embarrassing
Directed by Neil Berkeley

“My mission is to bring humor into contemporary art,” Wayne White declares near the end of Beauty is Embarrassing, Neil Berkeley’s absorbing documentary about the artist who, with every new project, comes closer to accomplishing his mission. A charismatic figure whose paintings of giant letters on tacky thrift-store art spelling out funny messages—“Donald Judd Was a Son of a Bitch Wrecked His Train in a Whorehouse Ditch,” “I’ll Smash This Painting Over Your Fucking Head,” etc.—have finally been accepted by the comedy-wary art world, White’s circuitous career trajectory affords glimpses of fascinating and esoteric creative communities. Berkeley connects the now-disparate participants in those moments of creative fervor while crafting a very thorough portrait of his main subject.

White was born in Chattanooga and grew up an outcast, only finding likeminded artists when he enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, after which he moved to New York in the early days of the East Village art scene. His puppet performances, similar in tone to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s video collaborations, eventually landed him a job working on a strange new kid’s-TV show being shot in somebody’s loft, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The sizeable section of Beauty is Embarrassing devoted to the incubator-like collective of artists who came together to create Pee-wee is especially fascinating, particularly as it outgrows its DIY, Downtown roots after the first season to become a Los Angeles studio soundstage production.

After working on other TV shows, creating many music videos—including, most famously, the George Méliès-inspired video for the Smashing Pumpkins’s “Tonight, Tonight”—and burning out from overwork, White has settled into something of a renaissance-man role. Berkeley tags along as he visits his parents’ home, drops in on a college buddy to collaborate on a giant puppet, creates an oversized cardboard LBJ head with his son for an impromptu performance, paints in his studio, and presents his punch line-like compositions in a traveling stage show that’s equal parts TED talk and comedy routine. With his candid portrait, Berkeley shows that White is indeed that rare funny artist who deserves to be taken seriously—but not too seriously.

Opens September 7

03/30/12 4:00am

Wrath of the Titans
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

“Is it too heavy,” Perseus asks his young son Helius in the last scene of Wrath of the Titans, referring, ostensibly, to the sword he’s just handed him and the symbolic weight of the responsibilities that come with it, but probably also to the foregoing 90-minute mythology mashup—a sequel to 2010’s remake of 1981’s video store classic Clash of the Titans. “No,” replies Helius, clutching his new sword confidently in the movie’s final, franchise-forshadowing shot. And he’s right; for all its flaws (of which it has more than it has ancient Greek monsters), this blockbuster doesn’t suffer from the same irksome heaviness as its predecessor, which took itself much too seriously. Wrath at least acknowledges its ridiculousness. “So you’re Perseus,” says Agenor (Toby Kebbel). “‘Release the Kraken’ and all that?” If only the object of its self-referential humor weren’t such a flimsy predecessor.

Titans is above all else a series about the stability of lineage, about the importance of venerating one’s elders one’s superiors, and one’s deities—hence Perseus’s (Sam Worthington) threefold devotion to his father Zeus (Liam Neeson). The wrath of the apocalypse-wreaking Titans comes about because humans stop praying to the gods, thus weakening their power and allowing the demon inmates from the giant jail at the center of the earth to escape. (Democratic though they may have been, ancient Greeks apparently didn’t believe in prison reform.) As the symbolic fabric of society begins to crumble, so too does the planet’s crust. Wrath‘s climactic baddie isn’t a tentacled sea monster, but an enormous humanoid made of molten lava who emerges, kicking and belching fire, from the belly of mother earth.

The liberties that screenwriters Dan Mazeau and David Johnson take with mythological narratives might have been less grating if the dialogue with which they do so weren’t so comically limp. Even Neeson, Hollywood’s go-to angry dad, seems less than fully faithful in the text. As in the first film, his scenes with Ralph Fiennes (playing Hades) are the best here, particularly a sequence in which they skip across a battlefield dispatching four-armed enemy warriors with a flick of the wrist, like Jedis from a time not quite so long ago. The Zeus-Hades relationship and a Cube-like labyrinth sequence just about manage to keep our interest, but the gods will be dead to most viewers long before the Titans’ wrath runs its course.

Opens March 30

02/29/12 4:00am

R. Justin Stewart’s installation Distorting (A Messiah Project, 13C) takes over the ground floor of the Invisible Dog Art Center (51 Bergen Street) on March 10 and remains on view through May 5

What is the installation at Invisible Dog based on?
The piece at the Invisible Dog is based on the 18 months of research I did into the idea of the messiah, so this is actually the messiah map. This is 3,000 years of the knowledge that I gained. When I started researching I knew nothing. I grew up Lutheran, I married a Jewish girl, and when I started I had a basic set of knowledge about Judaism, but it was like Sunday school knowledge. But there’s this whole underlayer of history, theory, case law. The text is very much like case law, building one piece after another after another, all building their argument off of previous things that were written. But when I started, the first book I read took me six months, because I had to read it three times. I was trying to figure out who Jacob was; I was talking to this rabbi, and I said, “I’m just trying to figure out who Jacob was.” And he’s like, “Yes, who is Jacob?” He was talking metaphorically, but I’m just wondering who’s Jacob related to, what did he do; there’s Jacob and Joshua, and they sound very similar so I’m trying to keep them separate in my brain.

So that’s where I came from, and I don’t remember all of this, but when I start reading over it I start remembering bit of it and how they interconnect. but this is basically the data set that I gathered over that 18 month period and it’s not perfect, I’m not a scholar, I’m an artist. It’s accurate enough, and it’s accurate through a specific kind of lens. One of the elements in here might be perfectly accurate to one person but then you talk to a different scholar and it’s a completely different story. So it’s a lens through which I gathered the information. Everything I gathered here I took from books. The Invisible Dog takes this slice, the 13th century, and it’s going to be a fleece pod installation that’ll fill the entire ground floor. You’ll actually be able to walk under it, around it, through it, and there will be 118 pods. Some of them will be big—some of them will be person-sized—and some of them will be a little bit smaller. And each pod will represent a bubble on the messiah map. The map is built out like a Harvard outline, with subject, sub-subject, and then the item, so each pod is either a person, a category or an idea. And there will be a little QR code embedded on the pods that you can scan that will give you this information on your smartphone, if you have a smartphone.

02/17/12 4:09pm

Random assortment of things Ive written about, or symbols for my closest colleagues at The L Magazine?

  • Random assortment of things I’ve written about, or symbols for my closest colleagues at The L Magazine?

Hello dear readers. As Mark already mentioned, today is my final day here at The L. After just over four years of frantically writing about seemingly every single thing about which I feel strongly—from fine art to fine rap, from deathly serious cycling issues to delightfully trivial Tumblrs—I am optimistically but sadly taking my leave. Should you care to follow my travels in the land beyond L, you may do so on Tumblr or Twitter. Or, if you consider that there is no life beyond The L—indeed, “life” is one of the many things for which the “L” in “The L Magazine” has been rumored to stand—well then I guess this is goodbye forever. I leave you with this excerpt from Rashaad Newsome’s short video “The Conductor,” an artwork made up of short clips from rap music videos that I like very much, and which also happens to double as a symbolic wave goodbye.

02/17/12 12:19pm

Installation view of The Ungovernables.

  • Installation view of The Ungovernables.

The New Museum’s second triennial exhibition, The Ungovernables—which follows 2009’s Younger Than Jesus—opened on Wednesday, and it’s much, much more engaging and satisfying than its overcrowded and too-predictable predecessor. (There are, to be fair, a couple of impressively bad works in this show as well.) Though it features a surprising number of paintings, sculptures and drawings, it also abounds in new media, installation, performance and ephemeral works by loosely formed collectives and continent-spanning collaborative groups, making it all the more true to its title. These are The Ungovernables‘ least governable artworks.

Tin Soldiers (2010-12) by Ala Younis, Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu, Doa Aly, Cevdet Erek and Kamal Mufti.

  • “Tin Soldiers” (2010-12) by Ala Younis, Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu, Doa Aly, Cevdet Erek and Kamal Mufti.

Ala Younis, Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu, Doa Aly, Cevdet Erek and Kamal Mufti’s “Tin Soldiers”: Only intelligible from a certain vantage point in the NuMu’s lobby gallery, these 8-bit army men are like a chiptune remix of Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.”

A Person Loved Me (2012) by Adrian Villar Rojas.

  • “A Person Loved Me” (2012) by Adrian Villar Rojas.

Adrian Villar Rojas’s “A Person Loved Me”: This crash-landed Styrofoam space station is like sci-fi Cyprien Gaillard—and possibly part of a model from Aliens.

Habemus Gasoline (2008) by Jose Antonio Macotela.

  • “Habemus Gasoline” (2008) by Jose Antonio Macotela.

Jose Antonio Macotela’s “Habemus Gasoline”: This DIY (and functional!) crude oil refinery made from parts of a tequila distiller is so ungovernable it’s defying a U.S.-Mexico trade agreement!

ALL THIS THIS HERE (2012) by Cinthia Marcelle.

  • “ALL THIS THIS HERE” (2012) by Cinthia Marcelle.

Cinthia Marcelle’s “ALL THIS THIS HERE”: If nobody steps in this piece’s puddle between now and April 22, when The Ungovernables closes, it will be a miracle.

Acepto que nada es mio (I accept that nothing is mine) (2010-12) by Rita Ponce de Leon.

  • “Acepto que nada es mio (I accept that nothing is mine)” (2010-12) by Rita Ponce de Leon.

Rita Ponce de Leon’s “Acepto que nada es mio (I accept that nothing is mine)”: This collection of tiny, tiny drawings on view in a table-top display case is ungovernable by virtue of both its radical distortion of scale and almost impossible to fully appreciate level of detail.

Dark Day (2012) by Abigail DeVille.

  • “Dark Day” (2012) by Abigail DeVille.

Abigail DeVille’s “Dark Day”: Installed in the NuMu’s always challenging shaft space in the staircase between the third and fourth floors, DeVille’s messy piece made of found trash is pure anarchy and impossible to see in full.

Untitled 19 (3:00pm - 8:30 pm, February 4, 2012) (2012) by Julia Dault.

  • “Untitled 19 (3:00pm – 8:30 pm, February 4, 2012)” (2012) by Julia Dault.

Julia Dault’s “Untitled 19 (3:00pm – 8:30 pm, February 4, 2012)”: Diault’s sculptures are terrific, specifically this one with its kaleidoscopic lower third. They’re also terrifying because they seem forever poised to spring on viewers like some sort of art rat trap.

Still from The Trainee/Working at Deloitte for a Month (2008) by Pilvi Takala. (Courtesy the artist and Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam.)

  • Still from “The Trainee/Working at Deloitte for a Month” (2008) by Pilvi Takala. (Courtesy the artist and Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam.)

Pilvi Takala’s “The Trainee/Working at Deloitte for a Month”: If The Office were actually a documentary about a real workplace, it would be a lot like this hilarious bit of performance art/readymade absurdism, for which Takala took an office job and spent all day very deliberately and clearly doing nothing while her bewildered colleagues grew increasingly flabbergasted.

1989 (2012) by Rayyane Tabet.

  • “1989” (2012) by Rayyane Tabet.

Rayyane Tabet’s “1989”: This strange bit of architectural distortion looks like a remnant from the NuMu’s just-closed Carsten Holler show.

What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed (2009) by Pratchaya Phinthong.

  • “What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed” (2009) by Pratchaya Phinthong.

Pratchaya Phinthong’s “What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed”: Cleverly, but also depressingly, Phinthong’s pile of Zimbabwean bills is more valuable as an artwork than as currency.

The New Museum’s 2012 triennial, The Ungovernables is on view through April 22.

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt