Tim’s Vermeer

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The Music Lesson

The documentary Tim’s Vermeer is the story of Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to recreate a Vermeer. Vermeer, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, is often mentioned as one of the greatest of all artists, with his paintings of domestic life glowing with an inner light. They are also startlingly realistic—some would say photorealistic.

Jenison believes that
Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. The image is projected upside down, and Jenison believes that Vermeer used a mirror to correct this.

camera obscura

camera obscura

verneer5Tim’s Vermeer is as much the story of Tim, as it is of Vermeer. His nature is obsessive, and the viewer is repeatedly astonished to see the lengths Tim will go to accurately reproduce a Vermeer called “The Music Lesson.” As well as using a camera obscura, he recreates the setting, including making a virginal, the keyboard instrument shown in the painting. He makes his own lens to seventeenth-century specifications, and grinds his own pigments for paint.

secretknowledge He also traveled to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted, and to Yorkshire to meet artist (and Vermeer fan) David Hockney, and to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen’s Vermeer. Hockney had written his own book on the use of optical devices by artists, called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

vermeer2Then we watch Jenison, who labors for hour after hour, reproducing each brushstroke as he re-creates the Vermeer. He completed the painting in six months, and brought it to David Hockney to see. Is Tim’s Vermeer as good as Vermeer’s Vermeer? It’s really not clear that Jenison’s painting is that good—we don’t get a close enough look. And there is a telling moment when Jenison unveils the painting before Hockney, who remains silent, and then comments on the realistic carpet.

My guess is that Vermeer did use such a device, or something similar, but that his artist’s eye came into play, as well, and this explains Hockney’s silence—perhaps Jenison’s painting has everything but that mysterious something that is the soul of the artist.

girlYou might want to watch the movie Girl with Pearl Earring after seeing this. You get to see some of the process by which Vermeer painted, including the grinding of his paints, though there is no sign of a camera obscura.

 

 

 

Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch

hutto1A few minutes into watching the documentary “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch,” the story of wildlife researcher Joe Hutto and his study of mule deer, I became aware that I was meeting an extraordinary person.

Joe, who lives on a ranch near the Wind River Mountains, of Wyoming, had dedicated himself to patiently earning the trust of the deer, and after two years the deer finally began to respond. Once he won full acceptance from their matriarch, a doe he called Raggedy Anne, he could move among the individuals in the herd: He had become part of the family. He was to spend the next years of his life with the deer, who are keenly intelligent animals.

muleThe mule deer live in families, and each deer has its own personality. There are family bonds, and the deer will stay with and mourn for a dying member. The deer themselves are, well, dear. With big soft ears and gentle, intelligent faces, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Joe guards against anthropomorphizing the animals, but notes their “human” qualities, and wonders if loyalty, love, and the ability to grieve and mourn aren’t actually common to many animals, and aren’t really solely human at all.

The hardest scenes in the documentary are taken during hunting season, when hunters  “hunt the region hard.” Joe has hunted all his life, but with mule deer populations falling, feels that they should be protected. When a hunter kills a mule deer Hutto has known since the deer was a fawn, named Buck, he asked Hutto how old the deer might be. Hutto responded, “I know exactly how old he is. I’ve known him since he was a speckled fawn. I have all his shed antlers.”

Hutto feels that a hunter should know what he is hunting. Instead he sees hunters with high-powered rifles and high tech devices shooting from great distances, never truly entering into a contest with their prey. The moment when old Buck is loaded into a pickup truck like a sack of potatoes is a really hard one to watch.

touchingAfter watching this documentary, you may wish to read the companion book to it, also called Touching the Wild.

Hutto is the author of Illumination in the Flatwoods, which was made into the celebrated PBS Nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey, chronicling his exhaustive study of wild turkeys. He is also the author of The Light in High Places, an account of living alone in the high country of Wyoming observing the life of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Flicks for Fabulous Fashionistas

For the fashionistas among us, here are four documentaries about fashion greats Halston, Diana Vreeland, Carine Roitfeld and Yves Saint Laurent to slurp up while indolently leafing through the latest Vogue and painting your toenails.

vreeThe first is Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel 2012 (746.92 DIA). Diana (pronounced dee-ahna) worked as editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, singlehandedly bringing fashion into the modern world and out of the hands of a privileged, stuffy elite. She was known for her eccentric, but amusing, pronouncements, such as “Why don’t you wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?” and “Why don’t you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?” Really, why not? She discovered major models such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and the fabulous Veruschka. She was also known for her tremendous sense of personal style—her lacquered hair, her rouge, even for polishing the bottoms of her high heels every day.

vree1Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston 2010 (746.92 ULT), was, for me, the most enjoyable of these documentaries. Halston began as a milliner and created the famous pill box hat worn by Jackie Kennedy. He went on to revolutionize women’s clothing, simplifying and bringing fashion into the future. His ultrasuede shirt dress became an instant classic. He had a coterie of women followers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, and they often partied the night away at Studio 54.

The seventies, with its avocado refrigerators and shag carpets, is sometimes remembered as an era of nightmare design, but seeing Ultrasuede reminds us of that era’s elegance. By the early eighties, though, fashion times had changed, and his empire crumbled and then collapsed. The party was over.

madcMademoiselle C 2014 (746.92 MAD) is about Carine Roitfeld, the least known of this group, at least to me. Mademoiselle C is for the hard-core fashionista, as it’s a  detailed documentary about Carine as she starts up her fashion book/magazine, called CR Fashion Book, in 2012. She doesn’t come across as warm and fuzzy, but if you are interested in the creative process behind magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s, it’s enlightening, and she does hobnob with fashion luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld. Her hair, though, remains a mystery (meow!).

lamourL’Amour Fou  2011 (746.92 AMO) details the life of Yves Saint Laurent and his business partner and lover Pierre Berge. There are wonderful vintage clips of fashion shows, along with glimpses into their fabulously decorated homes. After Saint Laurent’s death in 2008, these belongings were sold in an auction at Christie’s for $483.8 million.

In some ways, this documentary is a meditation on having it all–is it ever enough? Saint Laurent suffered from depression, and the ups and downs of the creative process in the hot house atmosphere of the Paris fashion world ultimately destroyed him.

You might also be interested in the documentary September Issue 2009 (746.92 SEP) which details the creation of a September issue of Vogue magazine, always the biggest of the year.

 

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

wells2Sometimes memories of movies emerge like bubbles oozing up from the murk at the back of my mind, and the movie demands to be seen again. Such a movie is The Time Machine, made in 1960, and based on a novel by writer H. G. Wells.

wellsAs well as being a writer (he is sometimes called the Father of Science Fiction),  Wells was a historian, a champion of social ideals, and a futurist, who peered into the coming years and made predictions, some of startling accuracy. (He foresaw two world wars, saying the second would start in 1940, the rise of fascist dictators, and the invention of atomic bombs.) Such was the power of his inventive mind that his writings are still of interest.

First edition of "The Time Machine"

First edition of “The Time Machine”

Wells wrote what he called “scientific romances,” and one of his earliest (1895) was The Time Machine, in which he looked far, far ahead—to 802,701 A.D., to be exact. In it, a scientist travels to the future in his invention, a time machine.

He returns to tell his friends that he did not find the Utopian society he had hoped for. Instead, the human race had divided into two races: the passive Eloi, who dwelt above ground, and the subterranean, bestial Morlocks. The Eloi seemed to live an idyllic life, but, in fact, were consumed by the Morlocks. It’s actually a pretty horrifying vision of the future, and Wells, a socialist, based it on the widening gulf he saw between the rich and the laboring class, and viewed his story as a grim allegory of evolution.

timemachineThe movie The Time Machine was the most popular work of director George Pal. The time machine itself is a Victorian-looking contraption with brass trim and a red velvet seat, and is apparently powered by a single light bulb. The scientist, played by square-jawed Rod Taylor, who had met a beautiful Eloi named Weena (played by Yvette Mimeux), had led the Eloi in a successful revolt against the Morlocks. Perhaps thinking of Weena, he returns to the future.

EloiMuch of the fun of the movie stems from its retro vibe and time-lapse photographic effects, which received an Oscar. It’s been criticized for its paring down of a thoughtful novel into a straightforward adventure film, and for the casting of brawny Rod Taylor who teaches the Eloi that there’s nothing a punch in the jaw won’t solve, but I enjoyed it for its silliness, its glowing Metrocolor coloring, and for the hapless Morlocks, who sometimes look more frightened of the Eloi than the other way around.

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Morlocks

Speaking of the Morlocks, they are a fun bunch. After watching modern horror sci-fi such as Alien, in which the snake aliens really are frightening, the Morlocks look like big green teddy bears with long blond hair, kind of like what Pamela Anderson would wear, and you may find yourself smiling rather than shuddering at them. When a spindly Eloi, emboldened by the professor’s manly example, timidly raps a Morlock on the snout, the Morlock instantly falls dead, bleeding profusely. I found myself rooting for the adorable Morlocks.

The Time Machine is a bit of a cult film, and has its own Facebook page, and there are modern filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg who cite George Pal and his thoughtful science fiction movies as one of their inspirations. At any rate, from the moment the MGM’s moth-eaten lion roars in the opening frame, I think you will enjoy yourself. A lukewarm Tab and a bag of Doritos would be the preferred snack to eat while watching.

 

Babette’s Feast

babette1I have several favorite movies: one is The Big Lebowski, which never fails to make me laugh until I snort, and the other is Babette’s Feast, which usually makes me laugh and cry. Babette’s Feast (1987) was unavailable as a DVD for a long time, but was just re-released, packaged with documentary footage and interviews. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves this movie. I’ve probably watched it ten times, and have often reflected on just what makes it so wonderful.

babette4Well, first, there’s the story. It’s based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, who was a master storyteller. In Babette’s Feast, she tells of a master chef who must escape Paris during a revolution. Her husband and son have been killed, and on the recommendation of a friend, she seeks refuge with a pair of spinsters living on a remote coast of Denmark. The sisters are the daughters of a charismatic Lutheran minister who founded his own Christian sect. Babette begs them to take her on as a cook and housekeeper, and soon they are enjoying her good food. They have no idea that she had been the chef of the renowned Cafe Anglais, in Paris.

The years roll by and  Babette wins a lottery. She asks the sisters if she might cook a special dinner for the villagers, who are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the father’s birth. Little do the sisters suspect that Babette plans to cook the most fabulous meal ever.

babette3So villagers used to eating dried fish and rye bread crust gruel find themselves partaking of Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); La Salad (featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette); and Les Fromages (blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple), with the grand finale dessert Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines and Champagnes complete the menu. The dinner scene gets funnier every time I watch it, because the straight-laced diners have taken a vow not to notice the food, no matter how delicious.

babette2Under the influence of the wonderful meal, the diners, who had been quarreling with one another, are reconciled. In a transcendent moment, recognizing the shortness of life and their love for one another, they dance together under the stars. The sisters are flabbergasted to learn that Babette had spent all of her lottery winnings on the meal. Sister Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life,” to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”

Dinesen’s ability to show the deep sadness of life along with its joy and comedy make this a unique movie to me. Babette’s Feast,  which is in Danish, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

As a side note, Pope Francis has identified Babette’s Feast as his favorite movie. (New Yorker, April 26, 2013). I am not at all surprised.

An Oldie, but a Goodie

poldark3Long ago and far away, before there were computer-aided graphics and other digital camera technologies, BBC made an entertaining TV series called “Poldark,” (available as Season One and Season Two),and I’m mentioning it in case you would just like to sit down, relax,  and enjoy a good swashbuckling romance that will carry you away. It was based on a series of novels by English author Winston Graham.

Set in late 18th century Cornwall, the story is long and convoluted, but the appeal stems from the romance of darkly handsome Ross Poldark (played by Robin Ellis–Oh, my beating heart be still!) with Demelza (played by Angharad Reese), the guttersnipe servant. Complications arise because Ross thinks he is really in love with the well-bred beauty Elizabeth (Jill Townshend). Ross had been a British Army officer fighting in the American Revolutionary War, and had been taken prisoner. Thinking Ross was dead, Elizabeth had married his cousin, Francis Poldark. Of course, viewers knows that Ross really loves Demelza, but this series would go nowhere if he knew this, too. So there are plenty of ingredients to keep the pot boiling.

The above plot might seem to indicate Poldark is a “chick flick,” but what with shipwrecks, smuggling, and Ross’s efforts to revive his family’s tin mine, there is plenty here of interest to guys, as well. The time period of the saga, 1783 to 1799, was one of social turmoil, as England recovered from losing its American colonies, entered the Industrial Revolution, and waged war with France.

There were 29 episodes broadcast over two seasons, from October 1975 through December 1977. Poldark is one of the most successful British television adaptations of all time. At one point, during its original broadcasts, church services in Britain were postponed so that everyone could watch it.

First Edition of "Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall."

First Edition of “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall.”

Winston Graham wrote twelve Poldark novels, including Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, and Demelza: a Novel of Cornwall.  The titles are available in our LINC system and can be placed on hold.

 

 

 

 

 

Tous les Matins du Monde

tous2Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World), made in 1991, is set in seventeenth-century France  (1640-1670) and is the story of a virtuoso musician named Monsieur de St. Columbe and his fraught relationship with Marin Marais, his sometimes pupil. St. Colombe was a master on the viola da gamba, which was a precursor to the cello.

As the movie opens, St. Colombe is returning from playing for a friend who was dying, only to find that in his absence, his beautiful young wife has died suddenly. He is shattered, and retreats from the world to lose himself in his music. A young musician named Marin Marais (played by Guillaume  Depardieu, the son of Gerard Depardieu) comes to him to ask for lessons, but St. Colombe brusquely rejects him, saying that while Marais can play well, his soul is not in his music. Marais is able to learn from St. Colombe’s daughter, who also plays, and who falls in love with him.

The composer Lully.

Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Marais goes to the court of King Louis XIV, where he rises to fame among the court musicians, and where the famed composer Lully is preeminent. (Note: The adult Marais is played by Gerard Depardieu.) I have to say, it’s worth watching the movie just to see Gerard Depardieu, dressed in full court regalia, including an amazing wig, and painted with rouge, powder and lipstick, leading the court orchestra, as they play March pour la Ceremone des Turcs, by Lully. Meanwhile, as St. Colombe continues to practice and compose, the ghost of his wife appears to him, and he finds consolation.

Gerard Depardieu as Marin Marais

Gerard Depardieu as Marin Marais

The movie is told as a flashback, as the older Marin Marais, himself melancholy to find that fame and fortune are hollow, talks to his young students about music. Through the vicissitudes of life, he finally understands what St. Colombe was trying to teach him. As he plays the haunting “Dreaming Girl,” (La Reveuse) the ghost of St. Colombe appears, and finally gives his blessing.

Bass viola da gamba. Image from www.orpheon.org

Bass viola da gamba. Image from www.orpheon.org

This is a gorgeous movie, set in the French countryside, and in an ancient French manor house, and in Versailles itself. The music caught me by surprise, being hauntingly beautiful, melodic and accessible. I am not the only one to love the soundtrack–it has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The viola da gamba is played by virtuoso Jordi Savall, the modern master of the instrument. The viola da gamba and related strings, which were suited to being played in small venues, were eventually replaced by the  violins, whose piercing tones which were better suited to large concert halls.

Lubin_Baugin_001

“Still Life with Wafers,” by Lubin Baugin, a friend of Sainte Colombe.

The movie’s title comes from a French proverb: “Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour,” means literally “All the mornings of the world [leave] without [ever] returning.”

This movie is in French, with English subtitles.

 

 

 

Sherlock Holmes

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Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been hunkered down in a cozy armchair for days now, up to my chin in a wooly afghan, and have been watching Sherlock Holmes DVDs. Maybe it was the frequent bone-chilling temperatures of the past weeks, but some impulse prodded me to watch something cozy, and there’s nothing cozier than the world of Sherlock Holmes, what with the snug study at 221B Baker Street, the clip-clop of horses hooves on cobblestone streets, and Mrs. Hudson serving tea and scones.

holmes5I’ve been watching the version starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. In my opinion, he’s the best Holmes of all time, though I’m aware those might be fighting words. An amazing number of actors have taken a stab at Holmes, but I think only Brett captures the nervous sensibility of the character, with his mercurial moods, both those of the black depression when there is no intellectual stimulation at hand, and the elation when a new case,worthy of his intellect, appears.

holmes3 As I watch, I ponder why Sherlock Holmes remains so incredibly popular—there are many theories. My own is as follows: The modern world is prone to hysteria, but Holmes is singularly free of it—no flights of fancy, no wild conjectures. How reassuring that in the Holmesian universe, reason reigns, and that his formidable intellect is on the side of good, not evil.

holmes4The series, produced by Granada Television (a British company), ran for 41 episodes as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984–1985), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986–1988), The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1991–1993) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1994); 36 ran for 50 minutes, and five were feature-length specials.

holmes6The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (available at Batavia)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Five full-length Sherlock Holmes movies with Jeremy Brett can be accessed through Hoopla as e-Videos. They include: The Sign of Four; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Master Blackmailer; The Last Vampyre; and The Eligible Bachelor.

“So, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

Renoir

renoir5May I suggest a film antidote to these rather cold, dreary days of mid-winter? The movie is the biopic Renoir (2012), the story of the 74-year-old painter as he meets his last muse, the radiantly beautiful Andree, in 1915. She was recommended to him by Henri Matisse. Andree is vibrantly alive, and was to inspire Renoir to continue painting. He noted that “Her skin drinks in the light.”

 

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Blonde à la rose, Andrée, 1915-1917 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Meanwhile, Renoir’s son, Jean, has come back home to convalesce after being injured in battle in the war. He, too, falls under the spell of Andree, and they were later married. Jean went on to become a great filmmaker, filming La Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

As one critic has said, “Renoir doesn’t get much beneath the surface–but, good God, what a surface.”  The mellow golden sun of the Cote d’Azur in late summer, the sparkling olive and citrus groves, the cerulean blue of the nearby Mediterranean, the soft hillside grasses: Renoir lived in a Mediterranean Eden.

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Renoir lived in this house near the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, from 1907-1919.

Critics who have complained that Renoir is static seem to not notice the dynamo humming at the center of the film: Renoir himself. Yes, he is wheelchair bound, and is so arthritic that a brush must be strapped to his hand every morning, but he still thirsts for life and to create beauty. His body is withering away, but his spirit is vibrantly alive.

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Be aware that there is nudity in the film, as Andree poses for Renoir—though such is the light and ambiance that she could be a bowl of peaches, so I wouldn’t say the nudity is gratuitous or offensive.

renoir7To learn more about Renoir and his son, consider reading Renoir, my Father, by Jean Renoir. Art historian John Golding said it “remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have.”

Renoir has been chosen as France’s entry into the 2014 Oscar race. It is in French, with English subtitles.

Brazil

brazilIt’s a bit hard to know where to begin in describing Brazil, the 1985 Terry Gilliam satire of a world in which bureaucracy has run amok. You could say it’s a feverish, surrealistic, colorful, funny, horrible version of 1984, by George Orwell, though there’s no Big Brother, just a smothering mediocrity and mindless technology that infests every aspect of life. In fact, the original title of Brazil was 1984-½.

brazil2

Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level government technocrat who dreams of a life where he can fly away and spend eternity with the woman of his dreams. One day he is assigned the task of trying to rectify an error caused by a fly getting jammed in a printer, resulting in the death during interrogation of Mr. Archibald Buttle instead of the suspected “terrorist,” Archibald “Harry” Tuttle. Sam comes in contact with the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a renegade air conditioning specialist. Tuttle helps Sam deal with two Central Services workers who later return to demolish Sam’s ducts and seize his apartment under the guise of fixing the air conditioning. And so on.

Harry Tuttle Robert DeNiro Brazil

Robert De Niro as Archibald “Harry” Tuttle

What’s striking and dismaying about Brazil is how spot-on current it is. The terrorists, the swat teams, the obsession with youth, the technology that is both hi-tech and half-a#%@, continue to resonate.

Brazil is the second in Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination.” The first was Time Bandits (1981), and the third was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three films are about escapes from ordered society.

The theme song of Brazil is “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil), known in the English-speaking world simply as “Brazil.” What does it have to do with this movie? Nothing, actually, but just as a dream can make perfect sense when you are dreaming it, the song is part-and-parcel of the feverish hallucination that is Brazil.