The ARTsy Annette

As America bloodily disengages from a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the COVID pandemic still rages across the U.S. thanks to the very willingly misinformed unvaccinated (Note: despite this country ironically having THE MOST ACCESS of any country in the world to these very much in demand life-saving vaccines), it seems a bit quaint to speak about things like art.

Or is it?

Art you say?

Of course, art these days isn’t limited to Picassos, Monets or anything else hanging prominently in a museum.  It’s more a blanket term that covers movies, TV, theatre, music and even sports.

It might even include chefs, scientists and TikTok influencers.

C’mon, this is art
(“Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures” – Massimo Bottura)

In short, art is anything that can take us out of ourselves and our troubled world and open our minds up to a different mood or alternate way of thinking or seeing.

In that way then, and most especially in trying times like these, all this art talk begins to seem not so much quaint but essential.

Certainly not as essential as an 80-90% vaccination rate but right up there nonetheless.  If art can open up minds to some new momentary way of perceiving or participating in the world then heck yeah, we need it now more than ever.

In fact –

PLEASE! BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!!

Because I’m all out of ideas for reaching the unreachable.

Yet how many times have we heard and/or read phrases like, oh, she’s a true artist or his artistic vision is limitless before we roll our eyes, disengage or want to and/or actually do scream?

Well, if you’ve spent your life listening in on conversations or reading and writing reviews the way I have, (Note: Or even trying to be creative the way most of us have, whether we know it or not), chances are the answer is too many times or, more likely, daily.  

As both a writer and a writing teacher I’m well aware of the pretention of the mere mention of the word ART and of all of the would-be artists who engage in it.

Whatever are you talking about?

Yet I’m equally aware of its power for both the art-makers and their audiences.  When it’s firing on all cylinders, at its best, it’s an unstoppable force for universal good. (Note:  Google the global impact of a once in a generation theatre piece of art like Hamilton).

Still, at its most screamingly, omni-presently ARTISTIC it does make you never want to go to another museum, watch another film or TV show, or even try to indulge in something as au-currant as TikTok ever, ever, ever again.

This weekend I spent 2 hours and 20 minutes watching a film called Annette starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.  Let me state upfront that it’s a somewhat interesting though not thoroughly realized movie that has its moments even as it so often woefully and painfully disappoints.

We’re gonna talk about the puppet right… wait.. no?

Annette caused a ruckus at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with any number of walkouts and boos the night it opened the film festival (Note: Exacerbated by the fest’s best director win for Leos Carax).

Yet to its credit, Amazon, one of the biggest corporations on the planet, saw fit to acquire the rights to it back in 2017, ensuring it a huge audience of subscribers with FREE ACCESS to this big risky artistic project.

That was a bold move four years ago but even more so now, in summer 2021, a time where we’ve all been aching for some diversion, or reeducation or just simple relief from the plain, glum depressiveness of our very, very mundanely unpredictable world.

Remember that there is an entire twitter community that goes after Ted Lasso, so, no one wins

Sadly, as a film, Annette is a master class in something I’d like to call artsiness gone bad.  That is to say it so revels in its difference that ultimately that is all that emerges.  It’s weirdness, it’s strangeness and its sheer differentness becomes its calling card – and its downfall.

Its ambition to out art the artsy works as a kind of creative COVID that virally swallows the whole effort whole, devouring every bit of the essential, energizing life force it might have provided us in trying times like these.

If only the filmmakers had simply told their story and not gotten so artily up our asses in every which way Annette could have really said something about whatever it was trying to say. 

Chair goes in!

Which is one of the issues of art that too stringently aspires to the groundbreaking and mind-blowing.  It forgets about the details and intricacies and nuances of the story it’s telling because it is forever trying to top itself in upending our expectations and challenging the status quo with, well…not very much.  Or, at the very least, not enough.  Or, more likely, too much.

Its star, Adam Driver, plays not so much a character but an idea.  A comic who isn’t funny, an archetypal bad boy because he dresses in black, rides a motorcycle and broods.  He lumbers and blusters his way through the world but also, quelle surprise, has a soft side.

And let’s not even start on the hair

It’s the same way with the woman he loves except she’s his complete opposite. That leaves its other star, Marion Cotillard, the task of projecting the isolated, sensitive, sweet-as-syrup voiced uber soprano.  A beloved public figure that plays a tragic heroine in seriously off the-wall operatic performance pieces that have somehow gained mass worldwide acceptance. 

Are they headed for tragedy?  Well, what do you think?  (Note:  Of course, you know what you think without having even seen it).

But even if your response was, well of course I know it’s a tragedy – it’s an opera for god sakes – but it will be interesting to understand the reasons behind all this BEHAVIOR, well, we never do.

Instead, we get events unfolding randomly with no real recognizable humanity or particular point of view.  More of a potluck smorgasbord with varied references to the demons of celebrity, the #MeToo toxic masculinity of it all, tropes of romantic codependence and addictive sex, and all the ultimate dissatisfactions to be found in marriage and parenting that one can literally shake a camera at.

… wait I think I can fit one more thing

And it’s all done in the guise of an opera, or rather opera-light, meaning most of the communication is sung by actors who don’t have particularly great voices even though they manage to get by. 

Real opera can get away with archetypal storytelling because we get swept up in the drama of the voices.  Movie rock operas like Ken Russell’s Tommy are visual delights that do the same.  And hybrid or real-life musicals like Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land spend a lot of time on design, story, character and annoying little things like motivation, back story and logic within their magical realism.

They might seem a little pretentious to many viewers but at the end of the day they have the weight and subtext to back it up.

They might at times alienate us and disengage from us, and annoy us, but we get what the stakes are and who the people are.  Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) starring Bjork, another Cannes premiere of a different type of unbridled artsiness that went on to win the top Palme d’Or prize, went out on countless limbs but still managed to give us women, men and show-within-a-show imaginings that always felt living and breathing and fully alive even as it reveled in the artificial.

So… not this puppet? Right, gotcha

The best of these art films immerse, challenge and even alternately annoy some in the audience as they push boundaries.  But they also try to engage us in stories that go deep into the psyche of their characters even as they exhaustively bend the rules of the worlds in which they choose to exist.

Meaning: they embrace the conceit of artiness without being engulfed by it and thus becoming its victim.

After watching Annette I read almost two dozen reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes (Note: Because what else do I have to do?) and almost half came to the exact same conclusion.  Annette is a film that can’t entirely be recommended but, as all of these top critics wrote in different ways, they were ultimately glad it was made because, well, at least it was something different.

Ehhh… I don’t know about that

The latter is a misleading, partial truth at best and ultimately just plain lazy, which is pretty much the worst you can be as a writer.  One can be glad something is different but if one is going to be different and be praised for it (Note: Or do the praising), it comes with the obligation to go deeper and to attempt to be better.  Not to simply frolic in a trough of tropes, technical acumen and irresistible actorly flourishes, set to one’s own original music. 

and again, Adam Driver’s hair

And to not bank on the lucky chance that something, or really anything coherent happens to come out.  Or depend on the de rigueur praise of desperate critics looking for an escape from what must as this point seem to them to be an inescapable cookie cutter world of commercialized art.

By taking either the uninspired or unexamined way out, artists of every kind relinquish the personal responsibility one takes on when trying to do something big and different, especially when you have huge movie stars, because it makes it that much harder for everyone else following you and rooting for your success.

Plus, you know… puppets.

It’s a special willful ignorance of responsibility, the kind you have to everyone else trying to survive in a creative arena that is difficult enough these days because it exists in an outside world that is nearly impossible to navigate.

In short, it’s the artistic equivalent of choosing to go unvaccinated just because you can.

“We Love Each Other So Much” – Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard

Untwisting The Olympics

Normally I have a lot to say about, well… everything.  Actually, not really.  There are some topics I’m smart enough not to voice an opinion on.

One of them is whether an elite athlete should get up on an international Olympic stage before billions of viewers and literally risk his or her life for our collective amusements.

Until I can do this, I don’t have a say

After four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles decided last week she was mentally and therefore physically unable to perform her routines at the Tokyo Olympics there have been numerous athletes who have been injured in the line of what too many of us in, their public, instinctively consider their duty.

But perhaps none of them so seriously as the 28-year-old men’s BMX racer Connor Fields.  He suffered a brain hemorrhage after a bad crash Friday night.  As of this writing he is out of intensive care and the bleeding in his brain has stopped. 

Best wishes sent to this already gold medal winning champion!

Right now Connor seems to be okay cognitively because he knows where is, remembers his birthday and can recognize people, according to his dad. But as a person who endured many, many, many months of miserable headaches and other life-altering symptoms after a mere concussion more than 20 years ago, I can tell you it’s way too soon to determine any long-term effects.

Oh, he’s also got a broken rib and a bruised lung.

Like Simone, Connor had already won a gold medal in his sport at the last Olympics.  Unlike Simone, he suffered no disorientation this time doing any of his moves prior to his event.

What happened to him was that during his race the front wheel of his bike clipped the bike in front of him, causing him to tumble forward on his head going around a turn.

This then caused him to be bashed repeatedly by the pack of speeding bikers directly behind him.

Now there is no reading anyone’s minds, especially athletes who are not satisfied with winning merely one or more gold medals in their sports and decide to come back four years later (Note: Okay, due to the covid pandemic, it’s five years this time) to challenge themselves all over again.

But I’d like to think had Connor found himself to be consistently off-balance and disoriented in practice prior to his race, in essence unable to judge the distance between himself and anything beside, beneath or in front of him, there’s a good chance he just might have chosen to sit Friday night’s fateful race out and at least saved himself the hemorrhage.

On the other hand, there is no way to know for sure. 

Nevertheless, one hopes so. 

Also.. who am I to judge?

It’s one thing to risk a brain bleed as part of your sport when you’re in pique shape. It’s an entirely different matter altogether when your judgment is so far off that even a simple beginners move in practice puts you severely off balance.

Not only are you risking your own life if you choose to compete, you are potentially endangering those around you, the reputation of your sport and the potential Olympic outcome of the rest of your hard-training (Note: FIVE years) teammates.

As Stephen Sondheim and George Furth wisely told us in one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Merrily We Roll Along, sometimes talent is knowing when to get off the stage.

Sometimes you gotta be your own hook

It actually takes a great champion like 24-year-old Simone to not only instinctually know this but to execute the correct move of BOWING OUT in front of the ENTIRE WORLD. 

Despite what the armchair, nay-saying couch potatoes are tweeting, that’s actually the move with the highest degree of difficulty.

Though her struggle with the serious gymnastic malady called the twisties is well known and historically documented, and has plagued many a gymnast through the decades, few if any athletes have publicly owned up to it until this Olympics. 

When they don’t go on it’s instead usually attributed to something the public can more easily understand – like a persistent virus, a strained muscle or a severely pulled something or other.

She still vaults above everyone

Though even a third degree lateral sprained ankle that made it impossible for her to walk normally (Note: And at minimum requires 8 to 12 months of recovery), plus two torn ligaments, didn’t prevent Team USA’s 17-year-old phenom gymnast, Kerri Strug, from continuing her routine in 1996.

In fact, she agreed to get back out there after she was pretty much ordered in front of the whole world to get back out there and perform a second vault by her renowned tough love coach, Bela Karolyi, in order to win the gold for her team. 

Which she did at the time. 

Never mind that coach Bela had to physically carry her onto the Olympic podium to accept her medal hours later because she was unable to walk at all.

Hard not to look at this and see the abuse

Still, the accolades and support for that sequence of events was overwhelming and deafening at the time. Strug wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on the cover of a box of Wheaties and internationally covered when she visited then Pres. Bill Clinton at the White House.

But if you now look at the footage of this 17-year-old girl being goaded to run and jump on a maimed limb after she sheepishly approaches her coach and asks, do we need this?,it today plays as nothing less than cringe worthy and toxic.   Or worse.

(Note: For the record, Bela’s exact reply to her was: Kerri, we need you to go one more time.  We need you one more time for the gold.  You can do it, you better do it.).

It also tells you everything you need to know about what these young athletes are subjected to by some of the very coaches and systems that are supposed to protect them.

Is anyone throwing a lifeboat?

Three decades later, it has taken a multiple gold medal Olympian to begin to turn the tide on all of this.  Interestingly, this Olympian is also a young woman of color who is one of a large group of sexual abuse survivors who suffered under the care of former Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser.  That guy now sits in prison under a 60-year sentence for sexual abuse crimes after decades of atrocities covered up and/or not taken seriously by the power structure of Olympic level sports.

Challenging that power structure is no small thing for any athlete, especially a 4’8” Black woman.   Yet it’s not only the gatekeepers of her sport in her way.

It’s the hubris of every single armchair critic that has tweeted, written, commentated and podcasted against a pro making a decision not to risk their life for the entertainment of those who salivate for the drama of a more modern version of Roman Coliseum style blood sports.

The Olympic viewing audience

One imagines these very same critics would likely send out real live lions onto the various arena stages in Tokyo if only we’d let them.  No doubt they’d see it as an Olympic sized insurrection to the soft, woke, left wing entertainments now being broadcast across the globe.

These same people can’t see Simone Biles’ actions at this Olympics for what they truly are – a sports changing, life changing, giant Olympic step forward from the dark ages of ignorance they’d prefer to keep us in this and so many other areas.

Guess I did have an opinion on this subject, after all.

Kehlani – “24/7”