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Silents: Before and After, Part Two

Today's guest blogger is Eric Grayson,a film historian and preservationist who lives in Indianapolis.

The IMA’s silent film series continues on April 12, with a rare showing of WC Fields’ So’s Your Old Man (1926), followed by its sound remake You’re Telling Me (1934).  Although Fields is well remembered for his talking pictures, his silent work is nearly forgotten today.  Most of the films are tied up in complex rights issues, none of which got more complicated than So’s Your Old Man.

Based on an award-winning story by Julian Street, the film tells the story of eccentric inventor Sam Bisbee (Fields), who has invented a shatterproof glass and wants to sell the patent in the big city.  A series of tragic and comic circumstances keep Bisbee from selling his patent, and, dejected, he boards a train bound for home.  Unable to face the shame of failure, he contemplates suicide.  Fortune belatedly intervenes and a foreign princess, traveling on the same train, comes to his rescue.

SosYourOldMan_720x500

 

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Filed under: Film, Guest Bloggers, Public Programs, The Toby

 

A First Time for Everything

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson, who writes about this weekend's Winter Nights films.

It may seem that this week’s Winter Nights show is a mismatched pair of films.  The films do have a few things in common. Besides the fact that they are both “visual feasts” with dramatic photography, they both contain violent images and they both were the first films made by their respective directors.

The first film that will be shown is Night of the Hunter (1955), which was directed by Charles Laughton.  He had been a successful actor in movies for some 25 years by the time he decided to direct this film.  It was not successful when released, and Laughton returned to acting.  Laughton’s blood-and-thunder opening, followed by the sensitive, dramatic approach to the ending, was a little jarring for 1955 audiences.  Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is unhinged and creepy, a complete departure from roles he’d been playing up to that time.  Seen today, it’s an unforgettable bravura performance, but at the time reviewers found it confusing.  Mitchum is top-billed, but is the film’s villain, even though he does not appear for long stretches of screen time.

As the film reaches its midsection, the entire tone of the story changes.  Trying to escape the influence of murderer Mitchum, two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), flee down a river and continue on several adventures.  Their exploits have an almost story-book quality to them, thanks to the photography of Stanley Cortez.

robertmitchum

Cortez (1908-1997) is the film’s true star, because Night of the Hunter literally shimmers with his dazzling photography.  He had been working in films for years, notably on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and he had a fondness for experimental photographic techniques, often things that mainstream Hollywood was reluctant to let him do.  Charles Laughton gave Cortez a free hand to try different things, within the bounds of Laughton’s overall vision, which was to create a German Expressionistic atmosphere.  Cortez was only nominated for an Oscar twice, although he never won.  Although Night of the Hunter is perhaps his finest work, it was not nominated at all.

Director Laughton also went un-nominated, another undeserved slight.  Most directors tend to be either technical experts, overseeing the photography and editing, or acting specialists who compose sloppy films.  Laughton handled both tasks well.  Children are particularly difficult to direct, and Laughton lavished extra time on them to get the performances he needed.  Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s widow, donated 80,000 feet (over 13 hours) of footage showing outtakes and behind-the-scenes shots, enough that UCLA historians were able to make a documentary about Night of the Hunter that lasts longer than the film itself.

Like Night of the Hunter, the second film on the program Un Chien Andalou (1929) also starts off violently.  Un Chien is the first film directed by Luis Buñuel, who, unlike Laughton, went on to a long career directing movies.

Inspired by dream logic and surrealistic art, Buñuel and collaborator Salvador Dali made a film comprised almost solely of stunning images without a thread of plot to connect them.  Their hope was that it would annoy and upset patrons looking for a conventional narrative, and they were slightly disappointed when the film caught on with audiences and got decent reviews.

chien

The film’s opening shot is not for the squeamish, and is one of the most iconic in all cinema.  Actress Simonne Mareuil apparently has her eye slashed open with a razor (actually done by intercutting with a dead calf’s eye being cut).  This image is juxtaposed with a cloud, also shaped like a razor, “cutting” across the surface of the moon.

Un Chien Andalou continues at a breakneck pace throughout its brief 16-minute running time, with images of ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand, dead donkeys strapped to pianos, and, well, a lot of other things.

Overall, it makes no sense, but it isn’t supposed to make sense.  Like all art, it’s supposed to make the audience think and feel, which it still does.

Both films will be screened Friday night in the Toby, starting at 7pm. 

Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

 

A Savvy Success

Yesterday we (the Environmental & Historic Preservation Division of the Indianapolis Museum of Art) held our inaugural Emily N. Daniels Horticulture Symposium. Titled “Shade Savvy,” the symposium brought together five highly respected speakers, both national and local, to the IMA to discuss the many possibilities that shade provides when planning or working in a garden.

Every kind of plant was presented as a potential partner in helping the amateur and professional gardener achieve success. A very large plant palette was presented to attendees, from small native spring ephemerals to large exotic trees, dappled shade to dense dark shade, and stunning tender tropicals to tough as nails perennials. We were thrilled to have 175 people from Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio join us for this wonderful event.

A quick note on each of the speakers, who not only educated but entertained the audience (you need to have a sense of humor when you deal with nature every day).

Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer Gardens opened our program with a visually stunning review of many wonderful plant combinations used in this highly respected public garden. Chanticleer is rightfully considered one of the finest gardens to visit. I always leave there inspired nearly beyond measure.

Karen Perkins was our one specialist, you might say. She covered the incredibly diverse world of epimediums. Her mail-order business, Garden Vision Epimediums, carries an amazing selection of plants with fragile looking flowers and exotic leaves that are in reality some of our hardiest perennials. Expect her to be online soon but in the meantime you can request a catalogue at by emailing her here.

Munchkin Nursery & Gardens, LLC in southern Indiana has been a destination and mail-order nursery for some time. Husband and wife team Gene Bush and JoAn Riley run the nursery and garden but Gene is the one that gets in front of audiences. Always knowledgeable and entertaining, he presented many tough shade tolerant perennials.

As the interest in using native plants in our gardens has increased, so has the research. This covers not only new colors and forms, but also less obvious things like selection for more robust plants that reproduce faster. Faster reproduction can mean more folks can add natives to their home gardens.  It also generally means lower cost so we can afford more of them. Brian Jorge of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Program presented a program highlighting the diverse possibilities of Trilliums and other native woodland flowers. Always remember this zoo is also a botanical garden. You can get your flora and fauna fix at the same time.

Our final speaker, Paul Cappiello of Yew Dell Gardens, concentrated on woody plants for the shade garden whether they were for growing in the shade or creating the shade. Actually, most of the trees he mentioned did both. He could not resist presenting some prime herbaceous plants as well. Heuchera parviflora is in our future. Yew Dell is a young dynamic public garden only about 1 ½ hours south of Indianapolis and well worth the easy drive.

Before this first symposium started, we were already wondering aloud about next year’s possibilities. With the wrap up of “Shade Savvy” nearly complete we will soon sit down to evaluate the program and toss around ideas for 2014. We hope you will be able to join us in the future and contribute to our next savvy success.

Filed under: Horticulture, Public Programs, The Toby

 

Darkness, Indeterminacy, Rebirth

Our guest blogger today is John N. Failey, President of the Ensemble Music Society and co-presenter of the upcoming JACK Quartet performance in the Toby.

The Ensemble Music Society did not set out to have a “theme” for the upcoming concert by JACK Quartet at the IMA, it just happened. We wanted to present the Quartet (1964) by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski because 2013 is the centennial of his birth. György Ligeti’s Quartet No. 2 and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis were both stunning sonic wonderlands of sound and textures that have become contemporary classics and have never been performed in Indianapolis. We liked selecting Xenakis too because he was once as an Associate Professor of Music at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University from 1967 to 1972.

But a larger underlying theme emerged in the life experiences of these three composers. Darkness as they were all uprooted and tormented by the World Wars and civil upheaval that stripped them of all personal possessions, Indeterminacy as they faced an uncertain future or nearly certain death during these struggles, and later found Rebirth and new beginnings with freedom to express their musical ideas.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, presented last weekend in the Toby, was described in Eric Grayson’s blog post as “still a stunning and fresh experience.” Besides the cinematic elements that make this film so impressive, the use of music by classical composers heightens the experience. The two pieces most familiar to traditional music audiences in the film are Johann StraussBeautiful Blue Danube Waltz and Richard StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra. It is somewhat odd that both of these nineteenth century pieces were featured in a movie about the future, however most of the other music in 2001 was by composer György Ligeti. Definitely on the leading edge of contemporary music, Ligeti was better known in avant garde art and music circles. Three works by Ligeti were in the movie. Excerpts from “Requiem” are heard during the monolith scenes and “Lux Aeterna” is another recurring motif. Ligeti’s Atmosphères is heard in its entirety in the film. Kubrick returned to Ligeti again for piano music to the masked orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.

 

György Ligeti

György Ligeti

Ligeti was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in 1923. During the Austrian occupation of Hungary and the rise of the Nazi movement, Ligeti was sent to a forced labor brigade, his brother to a concentration camp and his parents to Auschwitz. His mother was a nurse and the only other member of his immediate family to survive. When Soviet troops violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Ligeti escaped to the West, hidden in a railway baggage car. Kubrick did not seek Ligeti’s permission to use his music for 2001 in advance. While the juxtaposition of his music with that of Richard Strauss’ did not make him happy, it did result in a top selling film and soundtrack recording.

Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski’s father was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 when he was five years old. He and his mother moved to Warsaw where, from 1939 to 1945, war was besieging the country. They narrowly escaped the retreating Nazi army that destroyed nearly 85% of Warsaw, but they lost everything. They endured a repressive Stalinist regime that tightly controlled the type of music he could write. The string quartet composed in 1964 came after an easing of government control and uses an aleatoric or random chance technique in each performers part. Each performer within certain structural boundaries has the freedom to express the music of their part as they feel best. If much of life is indeterminate, so is his music.

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis was of Greek heritage and born in what was then Romania. In his student days living in Athens, he was politically active and fought against British troops and other efforts to restore the Greek monarchy during the Greek Civil War. In the midst of the fighting, Xenakis was severely injured, losing sight in one eye and having his face permanently scarred in a shell attack. He then escaped to France in 1947 after he was first sentenced to death by the right wing government of Greece. He practiced architecture in France with Corbusier as an illegal immigrant. He was also a brilliant mathematician.  He studied music composition with Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis wrote a collection of texts on applications of stochastic processes, game theory, and computer programming in music. Tetras is one of the most spectacular works in the entire string quartet repertoire. It is an athletic piece that’s powerful and dense — worlds away from the airy styles often mistakenly associated with string quartet music.

Hear these works performed by contemporary music ensemble JACK Quartet in the Toby on Thursday, February 21. Pre-concert discussion with ISO Music Director Krzysztof Urbański begins at 6:45 PM, Concert at 7:30 PM.

Filed under: Public Programs, The Toby

 

2001: A Sideways Odyssey

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson, who writes about this weekend's Winter Nights film.

space odyssey

People from Generation Y, often called Millennials, are being lumped into a group by our media.  They are said to have a core belief that modern cinema began with Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), and that any movie older than that is culturally irrelevant. Under these conditions, it becomes difficult to make a case that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)is still culturally relevant at all, since it is much older and depicts a future now 12 years past. Even though it may seem a distant relic, 2001 is still a stunning and fresh experience.

The vast majority of films that try to depict the future, particularly anything with a science fiction slant, fail miserably both in dramatics and accuracy. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) shows a bleak world of labor unrest and a severely divided culture.  HG Wells’ Things to Come (1936) foretells a second World War that is stunningly accurate, but Wells’ war lasts for 30 years and degrades into global tribal conflict, a worldwide Afghanistan. The triumphant moon landing does not occur until 2036 and is technically incorrect in almost every way.

Learning from his mistakes in Metropolis, Fritz Lang tried again with Woman in the Moon (1929), which is amazingly accurate up until the rocket lands on the moon. This is, no doubt, largely because Lang hired advisors from the scientific community, many of whom went on to work on the German V-2 rockets and, later, the American Apollo program. Similarly, producer George Pal hired only top people for his Destination Moon (1950), which, despite some very hokey dramatics, holds up pretty well.

Frau_im_Mond

But 2001 is in a class by itself, and always has been. Novelist Arthur C. Clarke simply projected the American space program forward into the future, making the assumption that we would maintain a constant level of funding.  That was his only major mistake, because the Apollo program was not the beginning of a slow ramp of progress, but a bubble of innovation in a sea of lethargy.

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Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

 

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