Monday, January 28, 2013

The Queen of Versailles: Finding Humans Beneath the Money

A photo-shoot: David Siegel, seventy-four, lounges comfortably on an ornate throne with gold naked baby angels and ornate swirls and scrolls. Jackie Siegel, his busty forty-three-year-old wife, perches on his lap, his hand holding her forearm, her fingers lightly gripping his thigh, her bare foot rubbing against his sleek dress shoes. The scene ends with Jackie’s premonitory words: “My husband, when I got married to him, all I wanted was love from him, and he always said, ‘Trust me,’ and I put my trust into him. So if, so…we’ll see what happens.” Yes, we sure will.

This introductory scene to director Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” sets up the conflicting emotions that arise throughout the film. It first associates self-prescribed royalty to the Siegel family, while Jackie’s final comment warns how billionaire time-share mogul David Siegel eventually fails. The soft, enchanting piano music playing throughout the posh scene adds a feeling of monarchal power.

People enjoy watching powerful people fail. Just as we had a strange fascination when Brittney Spears broke down and shaved her head, seeing David’s company fall apart after the 2008 recession and watching the cocky, self-aggrandizing man struggle brings a strange joy and satisfaction.

Instead of feeling solely satisfaction at the gradual demise, however, Greenfield also creates pity for the dysfunctional family. Greenfield juxtaposes certain images and scenes to create doubt over what is right and what constitutes normal. One scene, for example, shows the family seated around the dinner table for their father’s birthday, David on his cell and disconnected. Immediately after however, you see David’s 90,000 square-foot dream-house falling apart and desolate, and you pity him as he watches his dream crumble.

By the end of the film you can’t decide what to feel. You are sick of the children because of their lack of respect and responsibility, yet you pity them because they must deal with a disconnected and ungrateful father. You hate narcissistic David for disrespecting his family, yet you pity him for watching helplessly as his lifelong work and dreams fail. You are infuriated with Jackie because of her vanity and inability to stand up to David, yet you pity her because she loves a husband who doesn't love her back.

Greenfield tells the story she wants to tell. She builds the family’s sense of royalty and excessive materialism through camera angles and sound to make the Siegel's failure even more enjoyable. She juxtaposes scenes and images in order to draw attention to humanistic aspects of a ridiculous rich family most would never even consider.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stop and Stare

Alexa Meade's art is a new form of body paint. It is an illusion. She combines reality with creativity to create something in between: the real world with specks of the unexplained creeping through.

Instead of painting directly on a canvas, she paints on objects, changing the object from something in the real world to a piece of art. Instead of painting fruit on canvas she will literally paint fruit. Instead of painting a two-dimensional woman, she will actually paint a woman--Meade takes the brush to the woman's skin and paints.

When her work is photographed, everything she painted looks real, and often stands in stark contrast to the photographed people and places surrounding the subject. Meade captures the struggle of everyday life and draws attention to it. She ensures that you notice the lines of exhaustion on an old man's face as he stands on a subway, the sadness in a young woman's eyes from the way her eyebrows form on her face, another woman's despair as she sits, half-naked in an art gallery, head bowed and staring at her hands.

Through her art, Meade forces you to stop and look at what you try to ignore, what you attempt to pass by without a glance: struggle, truth, despair. She doesn't allow you to ignore it. She does this by using the magic of paint, of her hand, of her imagination. Meade applies art and creativity to the real world, creating the illusion that a man from a painting came to life, climbed out of his canvas, and now explores the streets.

 Meade doesn't allow you to ignore the pain and struggle because she creates something that causes you to look twice; you can't simply walk by without a glance because curiosity and enchantment with the unexplained, the unknown, the magic draws you in and makes you stop and stare.

To see more of Meade's art, go here:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One Moment

Satoki Nagata's photographs capture a moment. Yes, technically all photographs do, but Nagata's photos do so differently. His photos are a snapshot into someone's routine--one second, one glance, one movement. He captures his subject's attention in a moment of utter boredom, frustration, desperation, hope. His photos provide a glimpse into other people's lives--a single moment in the life of men, women, and children that communicates the reality of their circumstances.

You see sadness in a woman's downcast gaze. You see exhaustion in a young man's parted lips and squinted eyes. You see boredom in an unknown woman's tapping fingers. You see longing in the young girl gripping the shades peering outside, light shining on her disappointed features.

In an interview posted on "The Leica Camera Blog" Nagata explains his photos:

"My goal as an artist is finding and showing the various connections forming the reality in which the city and its people exist. The camera captures the moment in a fraction of a second, and I have found that images that succeed show the multi-dimensional relationship of the world through symbolic and abstract forms. By searching for the elements that represent the reality I see around me, I can capture them through the photographic medium. I am always trying to create intimate bonds with my subjects while photographing them, and I believe this is the only way to show their reality and their relationships to the world. Through these images I hope you will discover these subtle but substantial links, and feel a connection to the world I document."

He succeeds. His photos provide a brief connection and relationship with his subjects. For a moment, you know them. You understand that woman's sadness. You feel that man's exhaustion, as if it pulsed through your own body. You know that unknown woman's boredom. For a moment, you are that young girl longing to venture outside into the fresh and open air, knowing you must stay trapped inside. For one moment, you forget your own life, and experience the reality of someone else's.

Here is a link to more of Nagata's photos:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life of Pi: Life of a Man or a Boy?

A castaway kneels on his raft, unable to sleep from the soft blue luminescence in the black ocean. It illuminates his smiling face as he swirls his arm in the water, trying to touch the mystical glow: it’s a whale that leaps from the water and soars through the sky. For a moment, it’s suspended in air and the boy is minuscule in comparison, gazing up in awe. The moment ends and the whale smashes the raft, sending the young man, swimming for his life, into the water. He loses his only food, and the majestic whale glides away.

This scene occurs soon after Life of Pi’s hero, Pi (Suraj Sharma), becomes stranded in the Pacific Ocean with only the company of a Bengal tiger. Reason and logic of adulthood conflict with the curious and unbiased perspective of the child, beginning with the disagreement between Pi and his father (Adil Hussain) about religion and faith. The whale scene juxtaposes reality and magic by placing the beauty of the majestic luminescent whale beside the drive for survival when the whale nearly kills Pi. It’s the curiosity and idealism of a boy combined with the wisdom of a man that allow Pi to survive. The balance between magic and reality appears throughout the film, enticing the question of which is more important.

Director Ang Lee creates a visually stunning film, with cinematography requiring vastness and diversity, and including digital images sewn together in post-production, as described by “The Independent”. The imagery is spectacular, from the desolate ocean to a brilliant sunrise over the water.

Sharma splendidly portrays prolonged loneliness. He playfully lounges on the raft to stay sane. Sharma creates the relationship between Pi and the tiger, making the evolution from extreme fear to asserting dominance over the tiger seem natural, even though he primarily interacts with a blue screen rather than a tiger (“The Independent”). Sharma gives an engaging performance despite the limitations of the circumstances.

The story reflects the importance of reason with the need for imagination—being old with being young.  It combines wise caution with the child’s desire to befriend, to accept. Though many images seem bizarre and ridiculous, such as an island of thousands of barking meerkats, acceptance and suspension of disbelief allow the true meaning to emerge—they allow and compel you to wonder whether magic doesn't exist solely because we refuse to believe in it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Life of Pi: Becoming an Adult or Staying Young?

It’s easy to describe the plot of “Life of Pi”: a young man, Pi (Suraj Sharma), survives on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with only the company of a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The film can be easily mocked because most of it takes place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are surreal sequences of glowing blue lights reflecting in the water, there is a carnivorous island that has no inhabitants other than thousands of meerkats. Though easily mocked, it is these mystical characteristics that make the film powerful. It is a story of beautiful images and dreamlike visions. It is a story full of things we've never seen before. It is a story that examines spirituality while exploring the magic of childhood trust and dreams. From the beginning, the reason and logic of adulthood conflicts with the curious and unbiased perspective of the child through the relationship between Pi and his father (Adil Hussain) and their disagreements about religion and faith.

Pi is alone for most of the film—his only interaction being with a tiger—as he tries to survive as a castaway, but Sharma does a splendid job portraying what it would like to be alone for so long.  Though there is nearly no human interaction for about the last hour and a half of the film, Sharma combines wise survival instincts with boyish hope and innocence to create a character that can keep you captivated and engaged with solely the way he holds himself, the way he clings to the rail of the boat, the way he lounges on his makeshift raft, the way he stares at the regal and terrifying tiger. Sharma can portray a boy’s will to survive, a boy’s capacity for love and trust —and it’s this ability to constantly remind us that Pi is a boy that allow the film to be truly captivating.

This is a story that combines reason and faith. It combines being old with being young.  It combines wise, instinctual caution with the child’s desire to befriend, to accept. It is a story that will make you question what is real and what is magic and whether the two can be one. It asks whether the truth is the story that happened, or the story that is plausible. It makes you wonder whether magic doesn't exist solely because we refuse to believe in it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Something Beautiful

It’s easy to get caught up in the routine, to become preoccupied with the responsibilities that come with growing up. Leave the childhood dreams of exploration and adventure and forget the world you used to believe in—the beautiful world of enchanting magic, wondrous possibility, and frightening beauty. To enter the world of success, of strived-for luxury. There’s no longer time to have a picnic, get lost, watch the silhouette of a flock of birds as they cross a mountain at dusk. We can’t put our feet up on the dash because we won’t be in the car long enough for it to be worth it. 

There’s no time for this because there’s work to do, people to see, essays to write, problems to solve, paintings to paint, children to sing to sleep. There’s a path to success we follow, preparing ourselves for the life of stability and comfort and hard work and joy. A life full of responsibility but also full of satisfaction and magnificent moments. This is the life most of us strive for. It is a good life. It is an important life. But we forget the mystery of childhood dreams. We forget what it’s like to have nothing instead of seek everything.

There’s something beautiful about driving with nowhere to go. About stopping to buy a powdered donut simply because you feel like it. Running through dry grass, jumping over crooked streams, playing the banjo. There’s something beautiful about swimming in the lake because you can, staring into a campfire until your eyes burn, sleeping in a tent under the stars in the middle of nowhere. There’s something beautiful about being able to sit still long enough for a bird to land on your out-stretched hand. It’s something beautiful, something brave, something strange to live without a planned future. To live for today and fall into tomorrow.

It’s not something responsible. It’s not something stable. It’s not something to do for forever.

But it is something beautiful.