Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Weather Underground (from ARTFORUM)

Left: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 5, 1989, still from a color video, 38 minutes 17 seconds. Right: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 1, 1986, still from a color video, 79 minutes.

“IF WE NEED ACTION”—camera pans up toward an ominous gray sky—“we know where to look.” The joke, delivered by George Kuchar about halfway through his Weather Diary 5 (1989), is typical fare for the filmmaker, riffing on his frustration with the lack of sexual stimulation in his cooped-up motel room and the inherent dangers of the locale: the “Tornado Alley” region of Oklahoma that Kuchar has been visiting each May for the past two decades. The result is an ongoing personal theater of absurdity, nonpareil in the world of cinema.

Kuchar’s career as a filmmaker can be divided into three discernible phases: his earliest collaborations with his twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the two emerged as pioneers of the early New York underground film scene; the chaotic and colorful films he has made with his students each year, since the early ’70s, at the San Francisco Art Institute; and his more personal, diaristic video works. It is this third phase, resulting in several hundred works to date, that forms the focus of a retrospective, curated by scholar Marc Siegel, currently on view as part of the Berlin Biennial. Kuchar began working with a camcorder in the ’80s because, in his words, it was a “despised medium,” ugly and amateur—the stuff of home movies rather than a vehicle for high art. Ever prescient, Kuchar immediately sensed that the most interesting way of dealing with video’s limitations would be to exploit them. The resulting oeuvre can be read as a single, continuous opus, with individual films serving as chapters, ranging in length from under ten minutes to over an hour. Stylistically, the work is neither home movie nor high art, but perhaps a little of both, and it forms a self-portrait of the artist—his journeys, his friends, and his daily motions—all transmitted through Kuchar’s self-deprecating, Bronx-accented narration. The Kuchar oeuvre is an archaeology of the mundane.

The centerpiece of Kuchar’s work since the late ’80s has been his “Weather Diaries” (1986–), which document his annual visits to the El Reno Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma. These trips are a means of temporarily escaping the muck of urban life while simultaneously engaging the artist’s childhood fascination with—and fear of—extreme weather. Much of the footage focuses on Kuchar’s motel room: a collage of banal narrative veering perpetually toward the grotesque (as we are constantly reminded of the artist’s canned-meat-and-fast-food diet—and its gastrointestinal consequences) interspersed with weather reports from television and radio, as well as “action” shots of the (impending) storms outside the window. Occasionally, he ventures out for strained interactions with the locals. In Weather Diary 5, we accompany Kuchar to an empty beauty salon, where the proprietress gives us an in-depth tour of all the hair products. In Weather Diary 3 (1988), he befriends a student storm chaser staying in the room next door. Kuchar’s infatuation with the young man seems more rooted in his awe of the meteorology student’s bravery than in straightforward sexual attraction.

Like his ambivalent fix on El Reno, Kuchar’s relationship with mainstream cinema has always been one of give-and-take. While there’s nothing here resembling a conventional plot, the action is always fast-paced, with most shots in the “Hollywood” three-and-a-half-to-five-second range, thus resisting the strategic slowness on which oppositional strategists of “art cinema” so often rely. Kuchar could be thought of as anti-anti, his art the deployment of a deliberate artlessness. With its wandering gaze, lo-fi effects, and obsessive need to document and find spectacular meaning in the unspectacular, Kuchar’s vision continues to be one of the most endearing in American cinema.

— Travis Jeppesen

A selection of George Kuchar’s video works curated by Marc Siegel is on view through August 8, 2010, at Mehringdamm 28, D-10961 Berlin, as part of the 6th Berlin Biennial.
Our Finest Basher of Plutocratic Bigness (from Too Much)Melvin Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life. Pantheon Books, 2009, 953 pp.

Last week's Senate confirmation hearing on the Elena Kagan Supreme Court nomination proved to be, as expected, a rather listless affair. President Obama had picked for the high court a nominee almost sure to raise no passionate opposition, and she didn't.

Nearly a century ago, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson chose the opposite course. Wilson named for the high court a public figure absolutely certain to set the nation ablaze with passion. He nominated attorney Louis Brandeis, then the nation's most famed progressive critic of America's rich and powerful.

The opposition of those rich and powerful would be immediate and deep. They despised Brandeis. Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana, a Brandeis backer, would explain why. Louis Brandeis, Walsh noted, "has not stood in awe of the majesty of wealth."

We now have a magisterial new biography of Louis Brandeis, a volume of nearly 1,000 pages that never lags - in part because author Melvin Urofsky writes so well, in part because Brandeis led such a fascinating life.

Brandeis, this new biography makes clear, didn't figure to become a scourge of grand fortune. He grew up in a prosperous and cultured family in Louisville, matriculated at Harvard, and then went on to establish a thriving commercial law practice in Boston. By age 34 in 1890, Brandeis was earning over $50,000 a year, the equivalent of more than $1 million today.

The young Brandeis would be the very model of a model Victorian-age gentleman: always prim, always proper - and always honest. That honesty would eventually upend his comfortable existence.

In the late 19th century, prim and proper young Boston gentlemen joined "good government" groups. Brandeis did, too - and took the work seriously. The young lawyer would soon realize that most all "bad government" seemed to share a common source: rich and powerful special interests.

Brandeis began taking on these special interests, first locally in Boston, then statewide, and finally at the national level. By 1907, he was confronting the empire of financier J. P. Morgan, the heaviest of Wall Street heavyweights.

Opponents blasted Brandeis as a "socialist." But Brandeis never did or said anything that merited that label. Brandeis did not want, notes biographer Urofsky, "to tear down" private enterprise. He sought to save it from the "curse of bigness," from the "great aggregations" of wealth that menaced democracy.

If that wealth went unchallenged, Brandeis believed, society would likely see upheaval - and who knew what the end product of that upheaval would be?

"The rising resentment at plutocratic action will make itself severely felt," Brandeis confided in a letter to his brother. "After all, we are living in a Democracy, & some way or other, the people will get back at power unduly concentrated, and there will be plenty of injustice in the process."

The people, Brandeis would warn in a public address, are "beginning to doubt whether there is a justification for the great inequalities in the distribution of wealth, for the rapid creation of fortunes." And the people, he would add, "show evidence on all sides of a tendency to act."

Brandeis would go on to play a key role in the early Woodrow Wilson administration, and help craft the legislation that brought the first sweeping federal regulation of the corporate state. He would later look back fondly on 1913 and 1914 as "the only time in recent American history when rich men had not had an undue influence with an administration."

In 1916, Brandeis won his Supreme Court nomination fight and would serve nearly two dozen years as a justice, most of that time in a distinct philosophical minority. He would discuss, in dissents, the "gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and income which giant corporations have fostered" and predict, in the 1920s, that the nation's growing inequality would lead to no good.

In the 1930s, with the coming of Depression and New Deal, the ideas that Brandeis had championed years earlier would bear new fruit, in bills like the Glass-Steagall Act, the financial reform legislation that would essentially tame Wall Street for the next 50 years.

But Brandeis, notes Urofsky, wanted checks on fortune that went beyond what the New Deal was contemplating in the 1930s. He wanted to "increase sharply the income tax at the upper ends of the spectrum," on corporations and on individuals alike, and "impose a steep federal inheritance tax to limit the amount that any one person could pass down to the next generation to $1 million."

Brandeis would retire in 1939 and pass on two years later. He would likely have taken great pride in the much more equal United States that began to emerge in the 1940s after his death. For good reason. He helped create it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It’s like walking: You don’t show people walking if they aren’t going somewhere.