Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bob Cassilly

A few words about the great St. Louis sculptor/builder/doer/civic hero Bob Cassilly, who died this week in an accident while working on his long-anticipated Cementland project:

Bob Cassilly's work appeals to a huge range of people - it could never be called "elitist" - and works on many levels. It doesn't allow you to engage with it on a purely intellectual basis - it appeals to the physical, to memory, to things in the brainstem - but if you do choose to think about it, there are precedents to be found in the history of art and architecture - the monsters of Villa Orsini, obsessive "outsider"/folk art sculptors like Simon Rodia of the Watts Towers, and, above all in my mind, Antoni Gaudi. When I visited the Guell Park, I thought of Bob's work and was amazed that I'd never made the connection before. The mosaic work, the torquing cave-like arcades, the creatures - all have their echoes in Cassilly's work. But while Gaudi served wealthy patrons and the Church, Cassilly was truly a people's artist, making the best kind of public art, accessible but never condescending. He was like a DIY Gaudi, working with reclaimed materials (Gaudi's mosaics were made from discarded dinne plates and the like, but Cassilly took recycling and architectural salvage to a whole new level in the City Museum). And like Gaudi, his work was heavily craft-dependent - he needed a team of skilled craftsmen to realize his visions, but Cassilly was himself a great craftsmen, hands-on literally to the end.

In creating the City Museum, Cassilly and his collaborators (sometimes referred to as the "cowboys" or as their Twitter feed has it, Cassilly's "personal build monkeys") took an old shoe factory and turned it into, among other things, a repository of dreams...and nightmares. As the upper and outer parts of the museum allow you to climb into open space, high and free above the city, the lower regions of the museum, often aided by clever lighting, and especially after the addition of the Enchanted Caves, seemed to be an outlet for Cassilly's darker imaginings, or a portal into them. Primordial creatures lurk, concrete seems to melt, ooze, and mate with twisted metal. The logic of the museum's circulation is dream logic - slides and spiral staircases skip over several stories of the building, tunnels with the mouths of beasts spit you out in unexpected places. Perhaps only in Bob Cassilly's hands could the friendly burger-wielding Bob's Big Boy take on an eerie, portentous quality, as he does in the carnivalesque Beatnik Bob's section of the museum (of course, I may be the only person who took it that way!).

Terms like "interactive art" and "adventure play" become meaningless when applied to Cassilly's work because it goes so far beyond the type of work usually described by those terms. I'm pretty sure Bob never felt the need to study the "psychology of play" or the developmental needs of children in creating the City Museum or Turtle Park (which he famously vandalized in protest after his concrete sculptures were covered in an epoxy coating - a far greater vandalism, in his estimation). He didn't have to, because he'd somehow never lost the ability to see things from a kid's point of view. "Inner child" was a term that cropped up in almost any piece of writing about Cassilly, and to say he was "in touch" with it is probably a significant understatement. There were stories of him challenging members of his crew to race him up ladders (with a $100 bill as the prize). In an early story about the Cementland project (which, I noticed upon rereading, also includes a Gaudi comparison that wouldn't have meant much to me at the time it was written, before I'd seen Gaudi's work in person), he was quoted on the pent-up desire he was sure people had to throw rocks off of the site's tall smokestacks, a desire he fully intended to satisfy (he rejected his earliest idea for the site, which was to fill it with sand and bring in camels). It was the combination of a child-like imagination with business acumen and the ability to make stuff happen which really made Cassilly a rarity, and an absolutely irreplaceable figure. If his final project is completed with even half of his conception intact, it will surely be a helluva thing to experience.

I thought that grabbing links to the best photos I could find on Flickr would be a suitable tribute since Cassilly's work begs to be photographed and is difficult to photograph badly - intensely three-dimensional, his work looks interesting from any angle, and as the photos of the City Museum show, it can be experienced from any angle, often from inside and out. I went a little nuts once I started browsing Flickr - I've got 65 links so far and that's only the City Museum. I might do some organizing and add photos of more projects, but these should give you a taste if you've never made it to St. Louis to see Cassilly's work for yourself (and I of course recommend you do):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Bonus Links
Two accounts (with a video) of Cassilly's 2003 boxing match at the City Museum, by notable St. Louis scribes Thomas Crone and Randall Roberts.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Three Un-recent Movies Seen Recently

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices
I don't remember exactly when or where I first heard about this one, but I did some have curiosity about the (to me) mysterious world of polyphonic vocal music - motets, madrigals, etc - and, at this point, I would watch a Werner Herzog documentary on just about any subject. Herzog's rather free (to put it mildly) approach to documentary filmmaking surely reaches one of its highest points of invention in Death for Five Voices, as he packs numerous staged scenes and outright fabrications into a 60-minute running time (it was originally made for German TV). Though anyone with an ounce of natural skepticism or previous acquaintance with Herzog's documentaries will be doubting at least half of what they see on-screen, it's all somehow appropriate in telling the story of a man, Prince Carlo Gesualdo, who inspired plenty of wild legends and rumors in his own time and for centuries after. Why shouldn't Herzog get to invent some of his own?

Though some of the stories Herzog tells about the mad, murderous composer are fictional or exaggerated, the music, performed for the film by a couple of different ensembles, is very much for real and quite striking. Though I didn't know enough about the style or have a good enough ear to immediately distinguish the elements that made Gesualdo's music so strange in its own time but attractive to much later composers like Stravinsky, Herzog includes enough explanation from musicians/musicologists to give the viewer things to listen for without getting into levels of detail that might have bogged down a 60-minute film. Herzog rarely gets bogged down, especially in his documentaries, which with their abundance of fascinating people, places, and events have represented his stronger work in recent years. The Herzog filmography contains many lesser-known gems like Death in Five VoicesThe White Diamond being only the first that comes to mind.

The Loved One
Check out the list of names associated with this movie, from 1965: Tony Richardson (fresh off his Oscars for Tom Jones) as director; Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, Liberace, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Rod Steiger, and Paul Williams among the cast; Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood as screenwriters, adapting Evelyn Waugh; Haskell Wexler as DP and producer and Hal Ashby as editor. It's not uncommon for movies that are overstuffed with big names to be big flops, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It's dark, a bit strange, and has strong performances from all the leads, including Mad Men's Robert Morse as the at-first befuddled but ultimately resourceful protagonist, an English poet living by his wits in LA. There are so many off-the-wall characters (none more so than Steiger's Mr. Joyboy, though he has stiff competition) and bizarre/surreal set pieces that it almost doesn't matter whether it all adds up, but for the most part I think it does.

The Loved One is one of the many, many films in which Hollywood turns the camera on itself, though here the the funeral industry (along with the pet cemetery business, anticipating Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven) plays an even bigger role than the film industry in making up the strange sea in which Morse's fish-out-of-water finds himself. The idea of a lone sane man and/or outsider trying to survive in the insanity of Southern California is something of a film subgenre, of which Sunset Boulevard and The Long Goodbye are two of the finest examples (though here, as in Sunset Boulevard, the hero is not exactly a white knight, but a man with ambitions whose eye for opportunities is sharper than his moral code).

I don't know how faithful the adaptation is to Waugh's novel, but Terry Southern's influence seems evident in the tone of the movie - anti-authoritarian, satirical, horny, and a bit perverse. The Loved One looks forward to the similarly-themed but more anarchic (and to me, less effective) movies that Southern was involved in later in the '60, Easy Rider and The Magic Christian. While not a restrained piece of work by any means, The Loved One shows more craft and discipline than those later films, which for me typify the period after the decline of "studio system" craft but before the "new Hollywood" had really found its footing. Simultaneously experimental (or perhaps just aping experiments done years before in Europe) and nakedly/desperately appealing to the "youth market", some of these movies (like the Monkees' Head) are still great fun to watch, but they tend to give the impression that most of the cast and crew were high and/or assuming the audience would be.

One last, rather trivial note: I took the shots of rotating statues in the Whispering Glades "memorial gardens" to be an obvious nod to Godard's Contempt (try 1:25 in this excerpt), but in the making-of doc on the DVD, Wexler makes no mention of Godard, even though he singles out those shots and discusses how he set them up. As Contempt opened in the US less than a year before The Loved One was released, I suppose it's possible that Wexler and Richardson wouldn't have seen it in time, but if not, it's a pretty striking coincidence.

Derek Jarman's Jubilee has an all-star cast of a different sort, featuring generally lesser known actors but some big names from the music world, including a very young Adam Ant, punk/glam pioneer Wayne/Jayne County, Siouxie and the Banshees, and soundtrack contributions by Brian Eno. Jarman seemed to have a great ability to find a style for each of his films suitable to the subject (the compositions, lighting, and use of color in Caravaggio, for instance), and the anarchic, violently eclectic look and flow of Jubilee (apparently inspired in part by early punk 'zines) is no exception, though it's not entirely clear how much of this was planned and how much resulted from necessity, disorganization, or lack of funds. As with The Loved One, the succession of wild characters and strange happenings keeps things interesting, with Jarman stuffing a surplus of ideas (mostly good ones) into the cinematic blender.

Among the strange case of characters, Toyah Willcox's performance as Mad, the genuinely frightening butch pyromaniac, is of particular note. Though she was a serious, trained actor in a cast made up largely of non-actors, friends of Jarman, and genuine punks, her performance came across to me as more "real" and believable than some of those who may have been playing characters much closer to their off-camera selves. Apparently Willcox later became something of a pop star, but I hadn't heard of her, and until I saw the making-of documentary, I assumed she was someone Jarman found trawling around London punk shows.

Though very much inspired by and steeped in the punk aesthetic, Jubilee is by no means a celebration of punk. Jarman was an outsider, fascinated by the aesthetics but able to retain a critical distance from the scene he was immersing himself in. His skepticism about punk as a cultural revolutionary movement is part of the reason Jubilee is still watchable as something more than a period piece and helps explain why many scenesters were apparently upset and disappointed with the film when it opened (most notoriously, Vivienne Westwood, who responded with her "Open Letter to Derek Jarman" t-shirt, a reading of which reveals that Jarman's film certainly hit a nerve). This reaction from the true believers is understandable in light of the film's (cynical but, in retrospect, rather uncontroversial) suggestion that punk was just another style ripe for co-option and exploitation by the star-making machinery. Even some of Jarman's friends and associates took the film as a politcally conservative piece of nostalgia for the Golden Age of Elizabeth I, and there is certainly enough material in the film to make that a defensible interpretation, though not the only one.

Jubilee fits well with some of the work that Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg, among British directors, were doing in the '70s, as well as having some apparent nods to Kenneth Anger and, perhaps inevitably, to some of Godard's late-'60s films. Jarman was clearly well-read, but the book that Jubilee put me in mind of was written many years later. The idyllic seaside ending (with Elizabeth and her astrologer/advisor/magus John Dee walking off along some very scenic cliffs) reminded me a bit of Iain Sinclair's novel Downriver, which, like Jubilee, shows contemporary Britain (Downriver came out just after the Thatcher era; Jubilee just before) through a dark, twisted mirror (Sinclair also shares Jarman's fascination with Dee, though I don't recall that he figures in Downriver). In both works, the ending feels like a relief, resigned if not necessarily hopeful, after the violence and grotesquerie that went before. In an unexpected but effective touch, Jarman lets the seagull sounds from the last scene continue for a minute or so over a black screen, like the blank pages at the back of a book, inviting the audience to sit for a bit longer and reflect.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gedney at Duke

I've just started reading Geoff Dyer's newish essay/review collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, and Dyer has already led me to an amazing find - the online William Gedney archive at Duke University. Dyer co-edited a book of Gedney's photographs and writings (most of which apparently went unpublished during his lifetime), and the photos of India seem to have been a major influence on Dyer's excellent Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The book, What Was True, seems to be out of print and selling for four to five times its original $35 list price online, but the Duke website will do nicely until I can get my hands on a copy. Besides the Benares/Varanasi photos and the photos of Kentucky, Haight-Ashbury, and Brooklyn (Gedney was a longtime resident and chronicler of Myrtle Ave - his notebooks on the subject are like the Brooklyn Arcades Project) that Dyer mentions in his essay, my favorite find so far in the archive is a mockup of a planned book on contemporary composers, with great photos of just about all the big names of Gedney's time - Partch, Feldman, Wolpe, and the big Bs and Cs: Babbitt, Barber and Bernstein, Cage, Carter and Copland.