The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Conception Versus Sterilization - Paint it or Abort!

Throughout my life I’ve met many different kinds of creative people. I marvel at most of them. Always, I can’t seem to get enough of their product and find I’m increasingly fascinated by those skills that have plumb evaded me (Like singing ... especially operatic numbers). I have been trying to understand creativity since I was very young and over the years I’ve come to understand that the craftsmanship of creating holds a fundamental truth, no matter the means by which it comes to life. And, that truth is as simple as conception.

Conception, literally defined, is the act or power of forming notions, ideas, or concepts.  A creative person is one who can harness that power.

Another way to consider conception is to define the word thus:  origination; beginning.

I hurt my brain when I try to think about the conception of conception ... or, the origination of forming notions, ideas, and concepts. It is necessary for me to parcel things down in socratic method and compartmentalize my thoughts to get any sort of handle on this notion. The interrelation between those compartments is a bond worth noting and I work on developing recognition of those ties all the time.

What makes me vocalize these thoughts today? Avatar. So many people seem to think I really need to watch that film and love it. I am an artist and I will adore the beauty of it. I don’t want to love it.  I am turned off by it. Why? One word comes to mind. Sterilization.

Sterilization, literally defined, is the act of sterilizing; A condition of being sterile or sterilized.

Another way to think of sterile is to stretch the definition in a botanical (living) sense and say thus: not productive of results, ideas, etc.; fruitless.

The ironic thing about this thought-line of mine is that Avatar is considered the very first to pull off 3-D animation of the human form in a fluid and believable way (I’d call it 2.5-D, myself, but that's another story). I have seen trailers for it and can vouch that, yes, it’s more fluid than previous attempts and CGI-ing the human form. I recognize that I am way outnumbered in my lack of interest for this film and that’s ok with me. I have a love for another kind of animation that has been a part of visual creation for a very, very long time. I’d rather talk about that.

When one thinks of early animation, what first comes to mind?  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  Mickey Mouse?  I think the answer will depend on the age of the person being asked.  Or, perhaps, it will depend on the level of creativity that person holds. I know, for a solid fact, that those of us with the sketching bug used that skill to draw stick men along edges of our text-book pages in school so we could watch them bounce balls and run as we flipped the sheets of bound paper during the teacher’s ever so boring lecture on whatever inane subject was on the docket that day. That’s a long sentence for a big idea. Why so big? It took evolution a long time to teach the human race how to make a stick figure run. So, let’s compartmentalize this idea and figure out how Avatar came to be, creatively speaking.

Animation is illusioned movement using still drawings. To find the first invention of such, we have to dig back and back into the history of drawing to look for indicators showing some sort of imagery depicting the same figure with superimposed positions. A drawing like that would indicate that the draftsman conceived movement and struggled to express and suggest it. Believe it or not, that sort of drawing can be seen in Paleolithic cave paintings where animals were shown with multiple legs in superimposed positions. Paleolithic is prehistoric. That is the Old Stone Age ... like, 35,000 years ago or so. Our brains have been trying to figure this out for quite a long time.

Continuing through the ages we find artists in places like Iran and Egypt suggested implied motion the same way ... so did Leonardo Da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance. None of the known samples up to Leo’s time could actually make a stick figure run, though. All moving positions where drawn on the same rock, or wall, or piece of paper. Sometimes there were cartoon-like strips where figures would change position from panel to panel, indicating movement in a very still way. Other times there were lines or arrows added next to the multiple-limbed figure to further indicate motion. That is all that evolved.

I just laid out about 35,000 years where nothing really changed. Rock to paper was good inventive development, but the actual motion within a drawing remained pretty much the same. I like to think of this as the primitive stage. The beginnings.

Now, if we dissect animation we find that even a modern creation’s beginnings are really the very same. We just call the primitive stage something else. A Story board.

One of the greatest (many say the greatest) Story Board artist was an American Post-Impressionist genius named Mentor Huebner. His prolific-self conceptualized film production for over 250 movies, he had more than 50 one man exhibits (for his fine art), designed 10 theme parks, created more than 2,000 paintings, and produced over 40,000 drawings.  He was a powerhouse of creativity.  His wife (Louise) is the official witch of Los Angeles, and his son’s (Gregory) left hand was the stunt-double for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s during his Hollywood film making days.

Film Production, Conceptual Design, and even Visual Development are forms of illustration, and that’s how Mentor Huebner made his living. The key to this sort of work is that the subject matter drawn is beyond the draftsman’s control. The artist must illustrate someone else’s story and look for visual stimuli, or flaws, before final production begins – hopefully saving the studio multiple thousands of dollars in the process. Story Boarding is the way to do this, which is tedious, intricate, and was developed at Walt Disney Studios in the early 1930’s. Huebner worked for Disney at that time and participated in the animation of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937). That movie is considered by many as the first animated feature ever made. (Actually, there were 8 produced before, Snow White was the first successful one. This was also the first movie to use cells for animation.)
Story Board by Huebner for Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"

As animation goes, the first time someone drew on separate pieces of paper, then flipped those pages to make the stick figure run was in 1868.  That breakthrough brought about rapid growth in the entertainment industry.

Story Boarding and animation grew together through the 20th century: In 1906 the first animation to film happened, showing a cartoonist interacting with a face that came to life on a chalk board. 1914 brought the first cartoon where an animated character seemed to think and have feelings. The first animated feature film happened in 1917. A film-short of the Three Little Pigs, in 1933, was the first to utilize Story Boarding to outline story sequence. And, 1937 introduced the first animation to have synchronized sound. Understanding the benefit of laying out production, Hollywood brought Story Boarding to live action films in 1939, with (some say) the first completely Story Boarded film being Gone With the Wind. This process became extremely popular in the early 1940’s and it has since grown into the standard process of movie making. So much so, that when today’s animation directors work on their films, Story Boarding is used so extensively that they have replaced actual scripts.

The artist behind the Story Board is important to developing the emotional impact of the visual product. If you consider the list of movies Huebner visually conceived, for example, you’ll find a ‘theme’ or ‘mood’ that is all ‘Huebner’: Planet of the Apes.  Soylent Green.  Forbidden Planet. Total Recall. Man in the Iron Mask, Lord of the Rings (Bakshi) ... the list goes on and on.

This painter made a living illustrating other people’s ideas. And he was good at it. In his spare time he would paint on canvas. His studio was the great outdoors and he’d plein aire close to home in California, or wherever the studios sent him on movie assignments. He never cared about selling his fine art. In fact, he seldom sold them simply because he wouldn’t let his work live with just anyone. He painted for the love of it and did it one way or the other every day.

One of my favorite paintings of all time is his self portrait, The Artist, painted in 1946. He worked in front of a mirror, in the traditional way, and gave us a perfect impression of the artist in the zone; thinking, pondering, evaluating. I spent quite a lot of time talking with his wife and son and learned that he was a confident, yet humble, man who was dearly loved by his family and friends. Today you can enjoy their pride and memories, as well as a good collection of Mentor’s work, at the official Mentor Huebner web site: www.mentorhuebnerart.com

For me, I’m interested in the links of this story of a creative guy. The first movie I ever saw was Gone with the Wind.  That was the first (some say) movie to completely Story Board sequences and, in the beginning, Mentor Huebner helped develop that process (he was the first to draw story panes on large sheets and tack those to a wall for better viewing). The second movie I ever saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Not only did Mentor work on that film, he developed and completed the ‘off to work I go’ sequence, which was my favorite. Over the years there have been certain movies that stood out for me, on a creative or moody scale of things. Mentor was the production designer in a considerable number of them (Planet of the Apes, especially special for me). After I’d grown and found myself working in the art business, I met Gregory and first saw the self portrait of Huebner. I feel in love with that painting and recognized that Rembrandt was the Master that inspired Huebner as a young man. That is the Master that inspired me. And through Gregory I came to know Louise. She is a treasure still living in the same house where Mentor lived and worked; missing him and doing all she can to promote and preserve his art.

Animation isn’t the same anymore, neither is production for motion pictures. When I spoke about sterility above, I didn’t mean it in a mean way. I think it’s just progress speeding along so quickly that those of us from the old days really do miss the nuances of the human hand. It was brought to my attention in the Star Trek film released in 2009.  Those creators went back to old cameras to allow for light flares and other flaws. Anything that was CGI-ed was given film flaws to match the old camera work used in the real life sequences. I thought that gave it a better Star Trek feel. I was more comfortable with that look, rather than the ultra clean and perfect CGI world most often seen. We artists have been striving for perfection since the beginning of time and I think computers and the digital age have beaten us to it. When I look at the perfection in something like Avatar I find myself very depressed. It’s as though our purpose is no more. I feel old. I yearn to put a heavy vinyl on the turn-table so I can enjoy the scratchy sounds of years of enjoyment.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Paintings, Movies, and a Book

Two painters, two art movements, two movies, and a really good book.

The principle of Six Degrees of Separation doesn’t apply in my story because the subjects are naturally much closer than that. Creativity has a tendency to intertwine upon itself and when one studies the human factor in the history of arts, the truth that all creators really are related some how, some way, is easily discovered.

There hasn’t been much talk linking the artists in my story and that bothers me a bit. Both played a vital role in American Art. One is nearly forgotten, the other has become a major figure in a relatively short lived art movement. One was a reputable painter who was considered the future of American art by critics in his heyday; his works were highly regarded while his opinions were always noted. He became an influential teacher that would help shape potential up-and-coming-would-be-masters. The other was a student who was emotionally out of balance, rebellious as the day is long, and drank alcohol until it killed him. He was a shy Wyoming son who spoke very little, to the point of eventually abandoning the practice of titling his paintings with words.  He numbered his them, instead.

One was in the forefront of the Regionalist art movement in the United States. His fluid and sculptural paintings represented everyday life in America and are mostly associated with the Midwest (notably his mural in the Missouri State Capitol). He did create scores of New York paintings and lived in Martha’s Vineyard for years, but most don’t think of him as the East Coast fellow that he really was. Artistically, he declared himself an “enemy of modernism” and, in 1941, he was dismissed from his teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute for saying that the typical art museum was, “a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait." He was a very opinionated man who liked to talk.

In 1930, the other followed his older brother east and enrolled with him in the Art Students League of New York, where the one mentioned above became this student’s mentor and teacher. Only fleetingly did the teacher’s rural American subject matter influence him, though surely a rhythmic sense of composition and fierce independence became the more lasting guides for this shy Wyoming son. Once he found his way in the American art scene, he often would say that his teacher’s traditional lessons gave him something to rebel against. It sounded like something his teacher would have said.

The one who was the teacher was a traditionalist who helped shape several notable art movements:  Regionalism, Social Realism, American modernism, American realism, and Synchromism. His natural and representational works showcased everyday people and he did not sugarcoat the past or the present for the sake of a pretty picture. Controversy and criticism followed most public works he created. Folks weren’t comfortable with the teacher's including things like Ku Klux Klan members in full costume, the depiction of slavery, and inclusion of unsavory subjects like the outlaw Jesse James, immorally loose women, and political ‘boss’ Tom Pendergast. His sympathy was consistently directed toward the working class and even when Regionalism fell from favour he remained an active painter for another thirty years.

When the other left his teacher and set out to find his own place in the American art scene, he was influenced by the avant-garde in New York. In 1936 he was introduced to the use of liquid paint and experimentation eventually lead to what he called his ‘drip’ technique. His process moved away from that which was expected and traditionally taught but, more importantly, his purpose of creation shifted to a place never before seen. He was the founder of the Abstract Expressionist movement. And, though this movement varied wildly from the representational realism taught by his teacher, one must recognize that his organizational principles continued to follow the teacher’s method with forms composed around a central vertical pole, counterbalanced by an equal and opposite form. It is ironic that what pushed Regionalism away from favour was Abstract Expressionism. The student out-did the teacher.

The story of these two painters have been decently told in both film and book. I would like to introduce you to those, and encourage you to study beyond what I’ve brought you here. These men were truly Americans who followed, in their own way, the American dream and influenced our culture immeasurably.

In 1988, Ken Burns profiled the teacher in his American Stories Series. The episode is called Thomas Hart Benton and it is available on DVD today. I saw this film on it’s original air date and was stunned to learn about a painter I’d I had never heard of before. I would later ask my Art History professor about Benton and was not happy when I was told both he and his movement were insignificant and not worth considering ... just study Grant Wood and call it good. What? Over the years I’ve made a point to learn all I can about Benton’s contributions and influences, and still try to introduce him to anyone interested in the human side of American painting.

The Burns film is phenomenally well made and informative. In it, the viewer gets to know the person behind the paintings by listening to patrons and family members remember him and his work. Old interview footage from the 1950s shows Benton explaining why traditionalism will one day be important again as he encourages young artists to remember fundimentals and principles behind well made works.  Throughout the film, a good evaluation of his painting style and technique is presented. His process of building plasticine sculptures and painting by those is well explained and would be useful for any painter wanting to learn that technique. For me, I loved learning that he died in his studio, just as he signed his last painting. He left this world with no creation un-done ... what painter could ask for more? This DVD holds a thorough telling of the artist's life and career and I recommend it as a documentary worth owning.

One = Teacher:
Thomas Hart Benton
April 15, 1889 - January 19, 1975 (aged 86)

"Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley" by Thomas Hart Benton. Painted in 1934, collection of the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas.


In 2000, Ed Harris starred in a movie about life and art. It was called Pollock. Pollock is our student and this film begins the story with a flashback to 1941. The early life of the artist was not told in the film, but the discoveries, achievements, sorrows, loves, and tragedy were so well played that I BELIEVED I was voyeuristically peeking in on the painter’s world. This was not a happy movie, by any means. I did not come away from it inspired to paint at all. It was kind of embarrassing, in a way, like the dirtiest part of the creative self was showcased. What needs to be remembered when watching this film is that art is secondary to the story of mental illness and alcoholism, or it may be the therapeutic  by-product of those conditions and that is worth exploring. Self destruction is often associated with creative people, probably because we are always looking for a way to express and release our inner-most turmoils and demons. As hard as this movie is to watch, it’s important to face the story and understand what drove one of the most influential American painters of our time.

If you rent or buy this DVD, do make sure you have one with Special Features. Ed Harris plays the artist so superbly that you forget it’s not actually Pollock in the movie, and there are special features that show how that came to be. That in itself is interesting. One snippet shows original footage of Pollock painting on a large canvas; dancing around it, challenging the tradition of using easel and brush by instead flipping a paint-dripping stick in eloquent motion. It is Jack the Dripper at his best. Interspersed with that is footage of Harris from the film. It is very hard to tell which is which and I found myself nearly believing in the practice of channeling a troubled soul. I have to say, I found myself enthralled with the skill of Harris the actor.

Other = Student:
Jackson Pollock
January 28, 1912 - August 11, 1956 (aged 44)

"Convergence" by Jackson Pollock. Painted in 1952, collection of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


To bring all this together, I highly recommend a book that is described as

“ A groundbreaking portrait of the intense personal and artistic relationship between Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, revealing how their friendship changed American art.”

This book is poignant and provides personal insights into two of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. When I finished reading mine, I sat back and simply said, “Wow.” Then I turned back to the beginning and started to read it again.  I savored words that did not scoff at Benton; no racist baiting, or hill-billy jabs. In the past I’d read dribble like this: “His work, to me, is a sort of corpse that’s been disinterred … To me it doesn’t really exist as an aesthetic object”  Written by Hilton Kramer, an influential former New York Times art critic. For so many years Benton has been ignored and it is marvelous to see a modern scholar take him seriously. The two men are finally on equal ground in this book, and that is how it should be.

The Book:
Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock
by Henry Adams
published 2009
available on Kindle


There you have it. Two painters, two art movements, two movies, and a wonderfully good book. That ought to keep you busy for a while ....

Monday, May 17, 2010

For the Good of Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a balladeer’s tale that chronicles the adventures of a crackerjack archer and highly skilled swordsman. English folklore perpetually portrayed this outlaw as a hero who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, with the oldest references beginning in medieval time and continuing through modern literature, films, music, and television.  The earliest  ballads link him to identifiable places and many accept he was, more or less, a real person.  There are also those who consider the tale as nothing more than muse inspired folklore or legend.  For sure, the name Robin Hood has customarily been used to describe an itinerant felon who was really just a figuration shaping the battle for liberty and freedom from high taxation and tyranny.  It is a story that seems fit for the ages.

This is the sort of tale I adore.  I delight in the hero; the battle between right and wrong; costumes and time periods; face to face conflicts and brotherhood of man.  Still, I’ve never enjoyed modern productions of it.  I find them too clean, too cute, and (especially in the case of Kevin Costner) too unbelievable.  When I heard Russell Crowe was involved with a new telling I, for the first time, found myself anticipating that there may be a Robin Hood worth watching.

I have heard folks complain that Crowe is too old (at 45, he's the oldest to ever play this character) and not what one expects for our hero.  Really?  I don’t think of medieval vagabond-types as Errol Flynnish prancers with Andy Divine voice-over.  He should be strong, rough, and grungy.  I have seen a sufficient amount of films staring Russell Crowe and know he can do strong-rough-grungy well enough to fool my nose into thinking he stinks.  More than that, his acting is based soundly on emotion and he has mastered the art of telling the story with very few words.  It’s all in his eyes.  Secondary is the unparalleled masculinity and charisma that he commands as he effortlessly performs his role. A believable Robin Hood must have substantial experience to do what Robin must do.  The same holds true for the actor who plays that part.  When I contemplate this from the angle of what could have really been, Crowe is the most believable Robin Hood I’ve ever seen.

The same holds true for his merry men.  Minimal time was spent developing their part of the story, yet it was easily believed that these ex-soldiers would follow Robin to the ends of the earth and back.  That was due not only to Crowe’s masculine bearing, but also to the set-up of Robin as their commander in the Kings’ army at the beginning of the film. They naturally supported and respected him, and merrily drank and frolicked when time allowed. The main grouping also stared with Crowe in Mystery Alaska, and some where cast members in A Knight’s Tale.  They are all solidly good at their craft and created a believable group of characters built from very little context.  It was a pleasure to see them again.

More than anything, I appreciated Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion.  So many times movie makers cast a young starlet next to an older man and I find myself annoyed at the sexism of it all. Here, both characters feel a bit used and worn, experienced and leery.  Blanchett and Crowe may not have had the boiling chemistry of young love, but their characters demanded practicality above fantasy, as it should have been.  Before love comes trust, and this movie quietly built upon that notion.  The underlying idea of self-preservation was actually rather strong in the script, and was played well by the actors.  On some level it reminded me of Gone with the Wind – that sort of, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” kind of thing.  I like the optimism of stubborn defiance.

In this interpretation of Robin Hood, King Richard has been away from England fighting costly crusades for 10 years, leaving the homeland vulnerable to French invasion.  Richard and his army are on the final push for their journey home, bombarding a French castle that looks strangely like it came from the set of Timeline, when a cook popped off a lucky shot and brought the King down.  The story-line develops from there – which takes Robin from loyal royal archer to – Robert, assumed Lord Luxley of Nottingham who helps save England from French invasion – then eventually to Robin, a notorious outlaw protecting and defending the poor against oppressive tyranny.  It’s a predictable story, and I’d be pissed if they changed it.  I very quickly surrendered my normal critical self as the film moved along and forgave some obvious flaws in accuracy.  I simply enjoyed the film’s visual journey and the actor's performances, even though I am not a fan of Ridley Scott’s shaky camera work and wished that weren’t there during the battle scenes.  Even the trite and obvious reference to modern Omaha Beach landing on D-Day as an equivalent to the French invasion was okay.  It felt like a struggle to be epic and I suspect folks who wanted the film to succeed on it’s battle sequences might be a bit disappointed. The success of the film was carried on a smaller scale of things:  The acting, the costumes, and the city/village/forest sets. In a nutshell, the human factor is high in Robin Hood and I will buy a dvd release and watch it again.

“It's almost over it's almost done
And you can't put the blame on anyone
It's almost easy and it's almost fun
Did  you get caught with your britches on

Hi derry day in the month of May
Was the song the minstrel sang
To the good of Robin Hood
Maid Marion and all the gang

His aim was mean and his shot was clean
And his suit was the sheen of evergreen
The folks he knew hadn't naught to fear
When the sheriff was there they were over here

Hi derry doon in the month of June
Was the song the minstrel sung
To the good of Robin Hood's
Good name and a place to run

He loved strong ale and a run down jail
Was the kind of a scene where he never failed
There was no man on the sea or land
Who could get Maid Marion on the trail"

––– Gordon Lightfoot, Songs the Minstrel Sang

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Movie Poll for June

Has anyone else found themselves annoyed with movies of late? Perhaps I'm the only one, but I frankly find the jerky camera work, intensely saturated colours, and overly CGI'd/animated subjects rather tiring. I’ve been thinking lately about the heyday of Hollywood and the notion that there is truth to the idea that “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

Consider 1939 and imagine having to choose which of the movies produced that year was best. Variety alone is a bugger:

Gone with the Wind gave us a landmark epic film that stunningly showcased a panoramic story of history and human strife – not to mention a list of memorable characters like sassy Vivien Leigh, I don’t know nutin’ ‘bout no Hattie McDaniel, and ol’ charm-boat himself, Clark Gable.

Then there was the Wizard of Oz which, like Gone with the Wind, has become one of the most popular films of all time. It was a fantasy film based on a classic children’s tale that taught grass isn’t always greener on the other side of reality. We all remember the munchkins doing what munchkins do, the wicked witch melting, and that yellow brick road leading us home. More than that, this film gave us one of the most beautiful songs that simply appears when you least expect it (like at the end of 50 First Dates), ‘Over the Rainbow’. Technically, I appreciate the mood filmmakers created when they shot Kansas sequences in sepia-tone, while the Oz sequences were filmed in newfangled 3-strip Technicolor.

Next we have Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Ahhh – ordinary man, idealistic, standing tall against the corrupt political elite, attempting to restore faith in democracy. Jimmy Stewart’s passionate filibuster in the final moments of this film should be required viewing for everyone ... especially today.

Before Stagecoach, hardly anyone knew of a man named John Wayne. More importantly, westerns were not considered serious genre. This quintessential landmark film was shot in the majestic Monument Valley and show-cased courage and heroic self-sacrifice. It is hard to imagine a western film being cutting edge, but it was in 1939, and many a great movie would follow in this masterpiece’s footsteps.

And, last on my list is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The 1939 version of this classic story is considered by many to be the best film adaptation of this tragic love story. It features a grotesque outcast who rings a bell and a beautiful Gypsy dancer (Maureen O’Hara) who is mistaken for a witch. **spoiler** At least she doesn’t get hanged.

There were more great films produced that year. The players were beautiful, the costumes delightful, the music divine. There was something for everybody and I know that I, as a kid, aspired to be like those monumental people on the big screen. It’s not that I wanted to be an actress, it was more than that. The images on film stirred my imagination in ways that paved the way for creative things of the mind.

Hollywood used to bring us magic and inspiration ... and that magic, for me, was the human touch. Today I’m overwhelmed with technology and I am inclined to give a shout-out to the past and a simpler way of telling the story. Seek out any of the movies listed in my poll and I promise solid entertainment and thought provoking masterpieces.