Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Richter Surprise at the High

A pic of me enjoying Jackson Pollock's 1A 1948 up close for the first time in my life. I have previously only seen it in art books. Taken with Jennifer's iPhone today at the High Museum in Atlanta. This was part of the Picasso to Warhol exhibit. Seeing Pollock's work was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
All the Campbell's Soup Cans of Andy Warhol were at the High today as well. I only recently learned how many of these Warhol painted. Warhol is very popular among the artsy crowd, of course. I am non-plussed by most of his work.

I took a day of vacation today so Jennifer and I could take her parents to Atlanta as a double-birthday present. We treated them to an exhibit at the High Museum and lunch afterwards. It was fun to get out of what has been a dreadful routine of work lately and shift mind-gears into something more meaningful. For me, that something often means Art.

Jennifer, of course, was particularly taken with the featured works of Henri Mattise and we all enjoyed the Pablo Picasso pieces. But, the biggest surprise of the day, for me, was not part of the exhibit.

As almost an after-thought, Jennifer suggested that we go up one floor to a contemporary art exhibit "just to see what's up there." Well, it turns out that among the many works there were three paintings and two installations by my favorite living painter, Gerhard Richter.

Richter is a prolific visual artist who works in many mediums. Richter has recently made headlines for the prices his work is now fetching. He is certainly considered one of the world's premiere living artists and his work is in very high demand. So, finding him unexpectedly at the High today was a wonderful treat.

Richter's Blau was painted in 1988. It sold in 2002 for over $2 million. That makes it a rather minor work among his vast catalog. Chump change at today's prices.
Blau is a large painting with numerous abstracted images within the work. This is a detail. I wish I had remembered to bring a camera other than Jennifer's iPhone. But, this still gives you some idea of the visual feast to be discovered around the canvas of this large contemporary masterpiece.

The Reader is from 1994. An oil on linen taken from a photograph. This is an amazing work to see up close. Well, actually, if you initially step back you can more easily realize what you are looking at. Then as you move inward you find more and more to appreciate in this textured, defused-for-effect, painting.

After this wonderful surprise, and after appreciating a few other impressive works featured at the High, the four of us had
lunch at Murphy's, which used to be something of a hang-out when Jennifer and I first met in 1987. The place has moved across the street since then and is now considerably larger and brighter (more windows). It was a nice experience topped off by a decadently generous slice of Toll house cookie pie which we all shared.

Sure beats working.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sort of Catching Up With Woody Allen

Woody Allen is an American filmmaker icon and one of our country’s most prolific writers and directors. He is a comic genius with a solid dramatic competence. Jennifer and I are both Woody Allen fans. It was something we had in common when we first married. We both had seen Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1978), among others. But early on in our marriage we had a falling-out with Allen and his work. And for the next 20 years he hardly registered in our conversations and interests.

This was due to a couple of different reasons. First of all, I had become rather blasé about Allen. For me, Stardust Memories (1980) had encapsulated and brought closer to the first part of his career. Even though it was not as well received by either audiences or the critics, I considered it a brilliant film, certainly one of my favorites. Skipping over a few movies, Allen’s next excellent effort was a different kind of film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which I also enjoyed. This was followed four films later by the noteworthy Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

But, as so often happens with artists (the novels of Kurt Vonnegut come to mind), the differences between Hannah and Crimes were not significant stylistically. It seemed to me that Allen could not escape a kind of creative rut. Sure, the films were sophisticated in a distinctively urbane way, filled with searing wit and spiky philosophy, insightful and entertaining, cerebral and shrewd. He seemed be stuck on a high plateau, however. His films explored the same themes, playing himself as the same whiny, sexually infatuated, emotionally frustrated character, the same topics of dialog, an endless parade of dinner parties and cafes and entangled relationships. It seemed to me that Allen was simultaneously innovative, yet he was plowing through essentially the same ground repeatedly. So, as I said, Allen became somewhat dull to me.

Add to my mindset that of Jennifer’s. She became thoroughly pissed with Allen in the early 90’s over his abandonment of Mia Farrow for Farrow's adopted teen Asian daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. This was, of course, sensational, scandalous, tabloid style news at the time. Like many of Allen’s fans, I’m sure, Jennifer proclaimed she would have nothing to do with the idiot anymore, despite his undeniable genius as a filmmaker.

So, both of us, for slightly different reasons, swore off Allen. For 20 years his films had nothing to do with our marriage, even though I would occasionally revisit what I considered to be the Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories trilogy. These three films remained genuine treasures in my collection as Allen was being innovative with them and, to me, still exploring the possibilities of self-expressing without the tedious repetitiveness.

Fast-forward to 2011. It is Thanksgiving. For no particular reason, after some family and guests had enjoyed a late lunch at our house and gone, Jennifer and I decided to watch a film. Some film. Any film. I almost randomly picked Hannah and Her Sisters. It was a thoroughly entertaining experience. It had been so long since either of us had watched it that we had both forgotten that the film opens and closes with a Thanksgiving meal. So it was a rather auspicious, spontaneous choice.

Not long after that, we Jennifer and I watched
an excellent PBS documentary on Woody Allen. It was a thorough examination of Allen’s life and work. I learned a lot from it. But its most significant impact was to show me a brief glimpse and overview of all the many films of Allen that I had missed over the past two decades.

So, I decided to play catch-up. I was not feeling blasé about him anymore and the damnable relationship with Mia Farrow’s formerly adopted teen daughter had dulled with the passage of time in the mind of Jennifer. After all, the PBS documentary showed them together. The daughter was no longer a young girl but a mature woman and the couple had a family of their own. Allen had settled down. The original uproar had subsided into apparent domestic tranquility. A happy ending, perhaps?

Over the next several months, with and without Jennifer, occasionally including my daughter on the more light-hearted efforts, I sort of caught up with Woody Allen’s career. The first two used DVDs I purchased were Scoop (2006) and Match Point (2005), two very contrasting productions. I chose Scoop primarily because it was the last film in Allen himself has actually acted in to date. It is a purely entertaining film, without any of the famous Allen depth and angst. Not a great film at all, but worth watching, good for a laugh, and better than the critical and public response might indicate.

Match Point is something entirely different. I was blown away by it, and I consider it to be one of Allen’s best films even though it is an almost Hitchcock-like drama, not the least bit funny, but just
flat out sexy. Allen has always exhibited a superior competence with the erotic undertones of his work. In this film eroticism often takes center stage. Allen has attempted pure drama before with Interiors (1978), as an example. But, this is his best dramatic film, to my knowledge. It is interesting, complex, believable, builds slowly, with several powerful, suspenseful scenes. Just an outstanding effort and very different from any other Allen film I have mentioned or will comment on in this post.

This motivated me to go back further and see what other gems I might have missed. All the way back to the original, offending film itself, Husbands and Wives (1992). The soap opera circumstances surrounding this film, leading to the livid break-up of Allen and Farrow over his sexual relations with her adopted daughter, makes the title of the film especially ironic. As a film, it is only interesting in terms of its subject matter in the context of true-life events. Otherwise, the film is trapped in the same rut that made me blasé about Allen to begin with.

The best thing about the film is fellow actor-director
Sydney Pollack's performance. The script is a bit too convenient and contrived for the complex situation Allen attempts to capture. It fiddles around with a documentary style, with “interviews” of various characters parsed throughout as well as a lot of hand-held, shaky camera shots. Otherwise, there is nothing new and noteworthy here yet, as usual, it is a capable film and worth watching from a dramatic perspective. There is nothing funny about any of this.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995) spends the first third of the movie establishing a well-worn Allen relationship. A routine, troubled, mature marriage of a sophisticated urbane couple fundamentally based on sex and personal chemistry with a dose of art and politics and a lot of red wine and theater tickets, apparently, becomes fundamentally hollow due to a twisted web of psychological reasons. That description fits a lot of Woody Allen films. In Mighty Aphrodite the quintessential angst-filled Allen character is matched with a wonderfully, entertaining performance of a simple-minded young blonde prostitute who is nevertheless genuinely honest and who is simultaneously a wannabe porn star, played by
Mira Sorvino. Sorvino's work makes the whole film either work or not, depending on your critical perspective. It all works for me. Not great but a worthy and in some ways very bold film.

At his best, Allen never strays too far from the ridiculous. Elements of it are more pronounced than usual in this film. The film features a classic chorus from a Greek tragedy led by F. Murray Abraham. The chorus is cleverly used, it interacts with Allen's character, serving as his conscience while also summarizing aspects of the plot to keep the film moving along. It also delivers numerous funny lines like "Tortured by passions too overwhelming to regulate..." in reference to the main character’s unstoppable desire to change the life of the hooker. The film has a mildly predictable yet surprisingly (for Allen) sentimental ending.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) was a wonderful surprise. Of all the Allen films with which I have recently acquainted myself, it stands as the best of Allen, cerebrally and intensely funny, with a lot of psychological depth and rewarding sophistication. Allen plays the role of Harry Block an accomplished novelist suffering from writers block – a pun! - as the characters from his past work filter in and out of thinly connected scenes in the film.
Robin Williams has a cameo as an actor who is suffering from being in "soft focus". Literally, his entire body is defused and out of focus while everything around him is perfectly clear, rendering him impossible to film. Work on the scene comes to a halt and he is told to "go home, lie down, and rest. Maybe you'll sharpen up."

Harry is constantly victimized by his own misbehavior and his two intensely vindictive former wives. In what is essentially non-linear storytelling, Harry’s psyche tries to find solace in characters from his former stories. Other funny cameo parts are performed by
Demi Moore as a vehemently Jewish psychiatrist and Billy Crystal as Satan himself.

Allen is a master of setting up the absurd situation. Through a strange set of circumstances, of course, Harry is having difficulty finding anyone to accompany him to his former university for a ceremony in honor of his work. He ends up bringing along a peculiar threesome consisting of his young son (who he has kidnapped because his former wife would not allow him to miss a day of school), a troublesome friend who suffers from delusions of having a heart attack, and a athletic, dope smoking black hooker who Harry is paying to travel along just to give the illusion of a personal following. Of course, the obsessive heart guy actually dies of a heart attack on the way. The hooker and his young son carry on. After a detour through hell he ends up in jail for a variety of charges including the kidnapping, transportation of marijuana, and cavorting with a prostitute.

Before we get this far, however, the film sort of deconstructs itself. The narrative becomes soft focus. Reality and imagination are fused. I'm not sure if there ever was a ceremony somewhere to honor Harry. In the end, the writer is honored by all his characters in a dream sequence and the film comes full circle, all narratives and side stories are merged and everyone applauds the creator. In acceptance of their recognition, as Harry puts it, his life's work is centrally about: "...a guy who can't function well in life but can only function in art. It's sort of sad in a way and it's also funny." No one could sum up Woody Allen’s films better than that.

I prefer Deconstructing Harry to Match Point. Both are first rate artistic endeavors but the later is more experimental with film as an art while the former is specifically an Allen-esque appreciation of writing as art. I appreciate the genius it took to make Match Point but it is more like a Hitchcock film, Allen trying on someone else's film-creation persona and succeeding at it greatly. (Whereas his impersonation of Ingmar Bergman never worked for me.)

Deconstructing Harry is Allen finding his inner voice again after the rut and repetition of very good films like Crimes or Husbands. With Deconstructing Harry Allen nails a sense of himself in the way he did early on with Bananas (1971) and then with the brilliant Annie Hall followed by Hannah. Deconstructing Harry is another side of Woody Allen perfectly captured. Match Point deserves mention with these other films because part of Woody Allen is trying to capture the essence of other film styles that he appreciates.

My daughter watched both Scoop and Small Time Crooks (2000) with Jennifer and me. She laughed and enjoyed both. Small Time Crooks is an entertaining and funny film that also serves as a great example of the Allen "gimmick" plot twist. In an attempt to rob a bank, Allen’s character, his wife, and bumbling buddies, open a cookie store as a "front" two buildings down on from the bank. The robbery plan is absurd and ends up a miserable failure, but in the meantime, the cookie store "front" becomes wildly successful. The entire cast ends up in executive positions in a multi-million dollar baking empire. Of course, Allen, rich with success, is totally miserable and longs for being his modestly crooked self. He obsesses about robbing a bank, taking the loot (small in comparison with the vastness of his legitimately gained wealth) and "moving to Florida" - his lofty heart's desire. Hilarious.

The journey back into Allen that began with the random viewing of Hannah last Thanksgiving also brought his most recent film to Jennifer and me. Midnight in Paris (2011) is a wonderful, rich, light romantic comedy. It is a return to a simpler story, told with genuine humor and warmth. It is an easy, enjoyable film to watch. Most of the Allen-esque angst is missing. The lead character is a dreamer, an idealist and romantic writer. But the true main character is Paris itself, which works magic into the actor's life with its aura of a rich, artistic and intelligent past.
Allen won an Oscar this year for writing the screenplay. Midnight in Paris works because Owen Wilson carries his part of the bargain. He doesn't attempt to imitate Allen, who wrote and directed but does not appear in the film. Instead, Wilson gives us a unique portrayal that is in the genre of an Allen. A very entertaining film and comparable to Manhattan in all sorts of ways.

One of my employees is a huge Woody Allen fan. She is collecting all his movies which is a bit like me collecting
Neil Young music. Her favorite film of all time is Annie Hall. She has an Annie Hall badge stuck in the side of her work cubical. Anyway, she is recommending other Woody Allen films for me to see. Admittedly, this post does not pretend to fully explore Woody Allen. I know there are other cool Allen films to see. But I'm feeling a bit bloated of him at the moment. So the other stuff will have to wait for a future date. Suffice it to say that not a single one of the films I mention in this post is a "bad" film. Allen does not always succeed and the majority of his films are simply more entertaining than they are great works. Still, I'd rather watch something considered a failure among critics and the public like Scoop to most anything else out in theaters or available through Netflix and Red Box.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mostly Sunny with a Chance of Severe Thunderstorms

A beautiful, mostly sunny day here today. We did routine chores, went to a double-birthday party in my family, and we spent a lot of time outside. My dad's farm is now to the point where he doesn't really need my help to clean up from the storm that hit there before Christmas. He has grown a bit weary of the clean-up's immensity. So, he takes weekends off. There is more fence work to do and lots of trees to pile up and burn. There is still a pole barn to put up. But, he is hiring most of that out now that he is getting money from insurance and farm assistance programs.

It is too warm for March with record highs being set locally all around; so warm that ticks are already plentiful in our woods. I got two bites and Jennifer had one. My body overreacts or is allergic or something to tick bites. I won't go into the details but those two bites will bother me now for several weeks before they finally heal - which is why I tend to watch out for ticks. But normally I don't have to worry about that until June.

We had a brief, strong storm here Thursday night. It blew over several trees on my neighbor's property, including a huge old Southern Red Oak that I played under as a kid. The tree crushed my neighbor's Jeep, tore through the garage door, and punctured his roof in three places. A couple of the trees fell in the road as well, blocking our meager amount of traffic. I went down to help him clear them out in the dark with some chainsaw work.

It rained marble-sized hail blowing sideways from south to north for about ten minutes. The balls were hitting our windows so hard I was afraid it might crack them. Luckily, we suffered no damage, just a lot of limbs, some quite large, to clear out of the drive-way and along the trails in our woods.
Part of our backyard. The plentiful rain and warm sunshine has been great for early spring growth. Jennifer is proud of the size of our Yoshino Cherry tree. Its abundant yet delicate pink foliage contrasts nicely with the deep reds of our Loropetalum shrub. The dogwoods throughout our property are rebounding this year. Dozens of young ones are shooting up, tipped with pregnant buds.

Our tulips are in glorious full bloom. We have a little more than 3 dozen all total. But, Jennifer has them propagated in nice clusters that dot her backyard landscape design. Many have returned from previous seasons. Some for their third season. The ones in this pic are my favorite. They returned from last season.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Watching Kelly Evans

Sometime last August I was fiddling around with my iPad, reading news from the various apps that I have downloaded, when I stumbled into the video section of the CNBC app. Please recall that I do not have cable or satellite. Much to my daughter’s dismay, we are cave-dwelling TV antennae people. I won’t pay for TV because, frankly, it seems stupid to pay for all that crap. Cultural norms being what they are, I understand that monthly TV fees are acceptable in this country. I just think anyone paying for TV is wasting their time and their money. But, I digress.

Obviously, I don’t watch CNBC. I don’t even follow CNBC much. I use the app on my iPad to check how the world markets are doing in real-time. They have particularly detailed and complete commodity market information that I haven’t found anywhere else. But, one day last fall I decided to wander over to the video section of the app.

I immediately saw silly financial shows like Jim Cramer’s Mad Money. Why would anyone listen to that guy? There were a few other programs available. But, faltering around randomly in the “most recent” videos section I saw a segment about the (then) current state of the markets (which was extremely volatile). It was a discussion from The Kudlow Report, which I had never even heard of, about whether we were headed for another recession. Anyway, I gave it a tap to see what the various pundits had to say.

Turns out that in addition to the boisterous conservative elder host himself there was a bright, young white guy, forecasting slow but consistent economic growth. The two were joined by Kelly Evans, this young, attractive, articulate reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who completely exuded confidence and a high degree of technical insight. I agreed with much that she had to say but, more to the point, she impressed me because she did not hesitate to press her points in a confident yet non-bitchy (unlike, say, Ann Coulter who is confident in a completely bitchy way and whose obvious intelligence does not compensate for how wrong she generally is about everything) manner, managing a gorgeous southern smile while slamming contending perspectives with hard data and historical context.

I was bowled over by Kelly Evans and immediately googled her. I discovered that she was a native Virginian who hosted the News Hub AM, part of the fledgling and low-budget WSJ Video programming. I started watching the program in the evenings when I had time on my WSJ Live app. It was definitely unpolished and totally web-based. No high-end cameras or sets. All remote reports were funneled in through Skype in the herky-jerky style of fluctuating bandwidth. There were frequent technical problems particularly with the sound breaking up on Skype.

In spite of all this, however, the program was rich in relevant and insightful content. Almost every day I learned something I hadn’t heard anywhere else. Long story made short, I became a fan of Kelly Evans. I immediately turned Jennifer on to this new find and she likewise started watching WSJ Live when neither of us had given it any thought previously. It was a show that was heavy on substance and had almost no TV flash to it. In fact, all the WSJ Live programming is this way. Interesting, insightful, relevant yet not much more technically advanced than what you or I could do with our own Skype and web cam capabilities. That says more about the accessibility of the technology than about WSJ’s lack of commitment to challenge traditional programming. Low-end doesn’t mean dumb-down. In fact, I would argue that most of the traditional TV flash detracts from the quality of the reporting. But, once more, I digress.

Over a period of months that Jennifer and I spent watching Kelly Evans we were introduced to many reporters and editors at WSJ. One of particular note was Evan Newmark, who kind of co-anchored at least once a week (often twice), and who has his own show in the afternoons called Mean Street (which Kelly was frequently on). Newmark is 48 and obviously a mentor of sorts for Kelly. He is a quirky guy with a lot of wealth and innate investment smarts. We found out he lives overlooking Central Park. Definitely, blue-blood and old money who proudly proclaims that he is “part of the one percent.” He is an interesting guy, not someone I always agree with, but certainly a William Buckley wannabe with some credentials worthy of that intellectual conservative bent.

It turns out the Kelly and Evan are terrific on set together. They have entertaining chemistry, constantly bickering in a playful way, throwing facts at one another and challenging one another. Newmark says we are in a “slow slog economy but the fundamentals are in good shape.” Evans is more like, “there are a number of indicators that give pause before trusting any stock rally.” Newmark: “You will eventually see my way of thinking, it is just a matter of time.” Evans: “I’m going to give you an elbow.”

It was fun and informative stuff. One indicator that the two of them had terrific on-camera chemistry can be found in the fact that someone created a facebook fan page for them as a team. A couple of examples I’ll share. From Kelly's show here, here and here. There are better indications of their chemistry on Evan's show, since it is an interview, rather than news, program. See shorter clips here, here, and here.

Kelly had Evan on for the New Year’s Eve Special News Hub. They shared their lists of resolutions. Kelly’s list for 2012 included: “Learn Greek” and “Figure Out Excel Pivot Tables”. Kelly Evans can’t get enough economic statistics. She prides herself in understanding the various fundamental official financial reports and genuinely has fun sorting through all the data. She is geeky, savvy, yet down-home, with a lot of Virginia charm and authenticity.

And she is attractive. And an athlete, in fact. She is a bit over 5’10” and she graduated magnum cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business journalism from Washington & Lee University. In high school she excelled in lacrosse, cross-country, and track. She received a full-ride four-year athletic scholarship to W&L where she served as the lacross team’s co-captain. Kelly has pushed all the right buttons in life. She is a rising star, with genuine talent, intelligence, communication skills, insight, confidence, and charisma.

Which is why Kelly Evans could not simply remain in a low-budget, internet-based video program for The Wall Street Journal. She started there right out of college in 2007. She was 23-years old. She was featured on CNN for her early reporting. After earning her stripes a couple of years as a business reporter, Evans became a columnist for the paper and wrote the daily “Ahead of the Tape” piece for WSJ. Her articles, like her video news anchoring, were filled with statistics and trends and were surgical in their focus of how specific publicly traded companies might fare in the current economic environment. Her swansong column dealt with how lack of start-up companies is affecting unemployment.

Her reputation as a reporter and a moderator earned her a spot on the South Carolina GOP Primary debate’s press panel. She asked very direct questions with quick follow-ups for each candidate. She was particularly probing of Mitt Romney’s economic policy, more so than the other panelists.

Regardless of her entertaining chemistry with Evan Newmark, Kelly Evans has a rich career in front of her and she knows her real talent is in the video, not print, medium. It was only a matter of time until someone in the video realm noticed Kelly Evans and scooped her away, which is what CNBC did in February this year.

Kelly made her debut on CNBC on March 1. She was featured on every CNBC morning and early afternoon program; four appearances on her first day at the new job. CNBC is certainly proud of her and plans to make all their viewers acquainted with her quickly. Kelly is smart and somewhat idealistic (which is part of her youthful appeal) and she understands the nature of television.

So. The new Kelly Evans does not have black hair, she is a brunette with faint blonde highlights. Otherwise, she is the same Kelly Evans, however. And she immediately made an impression in the very first show, a strange early-morning business program called Squawk Box, by speaking of “the Dental Indicator”. By the time she got around to making her fourth appearance of the morning, CNBC had gotten some very rough statistics together from dentists across the country. The dentists collectively seemed to verify Kelly’s assertion that dental activity has generally picked back up, indicating that employees are taking advantage of re-found benefits from new jobs. Kelly’s insights are rarely so personal, generally more statistical, but they are always very precise.

So, as she said half-jokingly in her first CNBC appearance about new colleague, “a star is born.” Her new colleagues echoed the sentiment and made it stick to her. Jennifer and I both hate it that her days with Evan Newmark are gone forever. Next stop for Kelly will be a major network, perhaps NBC, but I’m sure she considers herself a ‘free agent’ available to the market. For now, however, she will fill a London assignment for CNBC, another rung up the ladder.

It is ironic that she would end up on the very network where I first saw her giving a guest appearance last August.

But, Jennifer and I were lucky to have watched Kelly’s low-tech News Hub show for several months. We saw it in what turned out to be its mature stage. There is a lot of great business reporting available at WSJ Live and for awhile Kelly had it at her command. Evan Newmark honored her on her final News Hub appearance. It is worth watching and kind of symbolic of the father-daughter, slash, mentor-student relationship.

Newmark is a huge Bob Dylan fan (and a great fan of Duane Allman I might add) so he quotes the words from “Forever Young” with enthusiasm and a smile sending her off to her future journalistic glory. I was a college journalism student once. I know something of what Kelly must feel, only she has gone far beyond me in terms of career success. Nevertheless, I appreciate success and know something of her craft. Which is why I am watching her so intently. The likes of her are the best promise of journalism.