December 5, 2013
For some fans of popular Asian cinema, American remakes are automatically sacrilegious insults to intelligence and taste. I am not so doctrinaire. While it’s true that films like The Ring and The Grudge pale compared to the Japanese originals, Martin Scorsese managed, with The Departed, to create something new and compelling by reinterpreting the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs in his own style while retaining its clever core conceit. Spike Lee is the kind of director who may have been able to do the same with the 2003 Korean film Oldboy, but, as a longtime Spike Lee fan, it pains me to say this isn’t the case.
Like all the above mentioned films, the new Oldboy came to be thanks to the efforts of the Korean-American producer Roy Lee, whose company, Vertigo Entertainment, was founded on the perhaps cynical idea that Americans won’t go to see movies with subtitles. Vertigo buys the remake rights from Asian distributors, then pitches them to Hollywood studios as readymade scripts that are already proven hits in their home territories and only require a bit of tinkering to do the same in the US.
It is upon these twin assumptions—an untapped, subtitle-averse audience unfamiliar with the source material and the need to make changes to suit American tastes—that the new version of Oldboy falters. Park Chan-wook’s original film combines a lurid, neon lit visual palette with a charismatic, deadpan performance by Choi Min-sik as the protagonist Oh Dae-su. In keeping with its origins as a Japanese manga comic, the plot is lean and propulsive and ends with a shocking twist. Its meticulously choreographed violence, somehow both operatic and cartoonish, is best exemplified by a famous fight scene in which Dae-su dispatches a couple of dozen thugs in a hallway using only a hammer. Judging by reviews at the time, its discomfiting mix of violence, visual beauty and dark humor left critics feeling as impressed and battered as the those hammer-beaten thugs. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and spawned an enthusiastic worldwide cult audience. When the Freer|Sackler screened Oldboy earlier this year as part of a Park Chan-wook retrospective at the Korean Film Festival, one audience member proudly told me it was her sixth time seeing it.
In other words, Oldboy already has a following. Many people who normally wouldn’t see a foreign film have seen it, so there’s a lot riding on any remake of it.
Park’s film is designed to make you uncomfortable: he wants you to be repelled and fascinated at the same time, to laugh at things you know you shouldn’t. Spike Lee achieved a similar feat with Bamboozled, and, like Park, he’s an inventive stylist willing to take risks, so I can see why he might have been a good choice to direct the remake. The problem is that what draws fans to the original Oldboy is that it eschews convention. Park has no time for traditional character development, or even for making them sympathetic. All we know about Oh Dae-su is that he gets epically drunk one night, misses his daughter’s birthday, and wakes up in a locked room. When he emerges 15 years later, he is a creature of pure vengeance, so lacking in humanity that he tries to sexually assault Mi-do, the kind young woman who comes to his aid.
Although Lee claims he wasn’t thinking about altering Oldboy to suit American tastes, he doesn’t seem to be on the same page with his screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, who, in a Buzzfeed interview, discusses the necessity of doing exactly that.
For example: because sympathetic characters with clear backstories and motivations are considered essential, the new Oldboy begins with several scenes detailing just how much of an alcoholic jerk Josh Brolin’s Joe Doucett is before his imprisonment: he drinks on the job, curses out his ex-wife, and hits on a client’s wife during a business meeting. Once imprisoned, he follows the well-trodden Hollywood path to redemption by quitting drinking and writing letter after letter to his daughter promising to be a better man. He at first nobly spurns the tentative advances of Mi-do’s counterpart, Marie Sebastian, who in the new version has been transformed from a sushi chef to a social worker with, naturally, a history of addiction to explain her urge to help people like Joe.
This sort of Screenwriting 101 backstory replaces momentum with explanation and leaves little room for the black humor that saves Park’s original from becoming too bleak. In fact, one of the oddest failings of the new Oldboy is its complete lack of humor. Where Park acknowledges—indeed embraces—his film’s outlandishness, Lee presents it with a straight face, which, considering all the violence involved, makes for grim going.
Lee’s Oldboy did poorly with audiences and critics alike. Given the lack of fanfare or publicity surrounding its release, I suspect that both Lee and the studio knew they had a dud on their hands. I may be naïve, but a solution to a problem such as this might be for studios to simply release foreign language films with the marketing and promotion budget they deserve. They may discover that Americans aren’t so afraid of subtitles after all.
November 18, 2013
To Americans living in the late 19th century, yoga looked an awful lot like magic. The ancient discipline appeared to Western observers primarily in the form of ethnographic images of “fakirs”—a blanket term encompassing Sufi dervishes, Hindu ascetics and, most importantly, stage and street performers of death-defying stunts, such as the bed-of-nails and Indian rope tricks. In 1902, the “fakir-yogi” made his big screen debut in a “trick film” produced by Thomas Edison, Hindoo Fakir, one of three motion pictures in the Sackler Gallery’s pioneering exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
Hindoo Fakir, said to be the first film ever made about India, depicts the stage act of an Indian magician who makes his assistant disappear and reappear, as a butterfly emerging from a flower. To a modern eye, the special effects may leave something to be desired. But Edison’s audiences, in nickelodeons and vaudeville houses, would have marveled at the magic on screen as well as the magic of the moving image itself. Cinema was still new at the time and dominated by “actuality films” of exotic destinations and “trick films,” like Hindoo Fakir, which featured dissolves, superimpositions and other seemingly magical techniques. Indeed, some of the most important early filmmakers were magicians, including George Melies and Dadasaheb Phalke, director of India’s first feature film. “The early days of cinema were about wonder and showing off this technology,” says Tom Vick, curator of film at the Freer and Sackler galleries.
Early cinema was certainly not about cultural sensitivity. The similarity between “fakir” and “faker” is no coincidence; these words became synonyms in the American imagination, as performers in circuses and magic shows invoked supernatural powers commonly attributed to the fakir-yogi. Howard Thurston, a stage magician from Ohio, appropriated the Indian rope trick for his popular 1920s traveling show. In the 1930s, the French magician Koringa, billed as the “only female fakir in the world,” baffled audiences with hypnosis and crocodile wrestling. Her assumed Indian identity was an “understandable idea by that time,” says Sita Reddy, a Smithsonian Folklife research associate and “Yoga” curator. “The fakir became something that didn’t have to be explained anew; it was already circulating.” Fakir was, if not a household name, a part of popular parlance—pervasive enough that in 1931, Winston Churchill used it as a slur against Gandhi.
Yet Western taste for fakir-style huckstering appears to have waned by 1941, when the musical You’re the One presented the yogi as an object of ridicule. In a big band number called “The Yogi Who Lost His Will Power,” the eponymous yogi runs through all of the typical “Indian” cliches, wearing the obligatory turban and robes, gazing into a crystal ball, lying on a bed of nails and more. But the lyrics by Johnny Mercer cast him as a hapless romantic who “couldn’t concentrate or lie on broken glass” after falling for the “Maharajah’s turtle dove”; for all his yogic powers, this yogi is powerless when it comes to love. Arriving at the tail end of the fakir phenomenon, You’re the One encouraged audiences to laugh, rather than marvel, at the stock character.
How did yoga make the leap from the circus ring to the American mainstream? Reddy traces yoga’s current popularity to the loosening of Indian immigration restrictions in 1965, which brought droves of yogis into the U.S.—and into the confidence of celebrities like the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. But the transformation began much earlier, she says, with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu spiritual leader whose 1896 book, Raja Yoga, inaugurated the modern era of yoga. Vivekananda denounced the conjurers and contortionists he felt had hijacked the practice and instead proposed a yoga of the mind that would serve as an “emblem of authentic Hinduism.” Vivekananda’s vision of rational spirituality contended with the fakir trope in the early decades of the 20th century, but after the 1940s, yoga was increasingly linked to medicine and fitness culture, gaining a new kind of cultural legitimacy in the West.
The physicality of yoga is revived in the third and final film of the exhibit, in which master practitioner T. Krishnamacharya demonstrates a series of linked asanas, or postures, which form the backbone of yoga practice today. This 1938 silent film introduced yoga to new audiences across the whole of India, expanding the practice beyond the traditionally private teacher-student relationship for the first time in history. Unlike Hindoo Fakir and You’re the One, the Krishnamacharya film was made by and for Indians. But like them, it affirms the power of the moving image to communicate the dynamism of yoga.
October 9, 2013
As we reach day nine of the federal shutdown, it’s widely known that all 19 of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are closed to the public due to the furloughs of all non-essential federal employees.
What’s less often discussed, though, is the fact that the Smithsonian is also an international research organization that employs hundreds of scientists—and consequently, the shutdown has impacted dozens of scientific projects across the U.S. and in far-flung locations around the world. Interrupting this work for even a short-term period, scientists say, can have lasting effects down the road, as in many cases, projects may have to be started anew due to gaps in data.
Because of the furloughs, many researchers and other personnel are unreachable (some may even face penalties for merely checking their e-mail), so collecting information is difficult. But here’s a partial list of Smithsonian research projects interrupted by the ongoing shutdown:
Nick Pyenson of the Natural History Museum has conducted fieldwork on every continent except Antarctica, excavating ancient fossils to understand the evolution of modern marine mammals. As part of his team’s current project, in Chile, they’re 3D scanning a particularly rich site that includes whale, penguin and seal fossils so scientists worldwide can study the digital data.
But last week, that work was abruptly halted. “The Smithsonian is closed, due to a federal government #shutdown. All Pyenson Lab social media, including coverage of the ongoing joint UChile expedition, will be suspended starting 12 pm EST (noon) today (1 Oct),” Pyenson wrote on Facebook. “Also, all federally funded Smithsonian employees are forbidden, under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine and up to 2 years in a federal prison, from logging into their SI email accounts. I will be out of contact until the federal government reopens.”
In 2011, Pyenson’s crew discovered a set of ancient whale fossils in the path of the Pan-American Highway and excavated them just in time. There might not be any looming highway projects currently, but leaving these precious fossils exposed to the elements still poses an enormous risk to their scientific value.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which partners with Harvard to operate and analyze data from dozens of astronomical telescopes, located both on the ground and in space, has managed to keep most of its facilities operating thus far. “You have to shutter federal buildings, but some of these aren’t technically federal buildings,” says David Aguilar, an SAO spokesman, noting that many telescopes, such as those at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, are shared with local universities and are still staffed by skeleton crews comprised mostly of non-federal employees.
Many SAO researchers, though, depend on data that comes from a range of non-Smithsonian telescopes that have already been shut down. This group includes radio astronomer Mark Reid, who conducts research with the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of telescopes operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that stretches all the way from Hawaii to New England and was closed last week. “This is really bad,” he told Science. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
At the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and various research sites around the world, staff has been stripped down to the minimum level necessary to care for animals—and that means all of the research into how these animals behave and how their bodies function has been shut down.
“All of the scientists, with very few exceptions, have been furloughed,” says Steve Monfort, director of the SCBI. “So everything is shut down. All of our labs are closed, and dozens of projects have been put on hold.” This includes the Zoo’s endocrinology lab (which provides crucial services to dozens of zoos across the country to help them breed elephants and other animals) and the genetics lab (which analyzes biodiversity to sustain severely endangered species on the brink of extinction). “We’re pretty much dead in the water, as far as ongoing science work,” he says.
Additionally, some of these projects are conducted in some 35 different countries annually, so travel arrangements and international collaborations—such as a trip to China to study pandas and a Zoo team’s research into emerging infectious animal diseases in Uganda—have been delayed or cancelled.
“What the public sees when we put on displays is only the tip of the iceberg,” says David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened the (briefly) acclaimed exhibition “Dancing the Dream” the day before the shutdown. “There’s a tremendous amount of day-to-day work and research necessary to keep everything going, and we can’t do it right now. It’s very frustrating.”
Apart from designing exhibitions—a whole host of which will likely be delayed in opening, including the Sackler Museum’s exhibit on yoga in historic Asian art, the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control,” a much-anticipated exhibition on the theme of destruction in contemporary at, and the American Art Museum’s “Our America” exhibition on Latino art—curators conduct research to expand knowledge in their fields. This work, too, has been interrupted by the shutdown.
Kristopher Helgen, the Natural History Museum curator and biologist who announced the discovery of the olinguito species to great fanfare in August, announced on Twitter today that he “had to turn away mammalogists from Oz, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, etc. Long way to come to find the collections closed.”
Because the majority of Smithsonian researchers and curators are furloughed and out of contact, what we currently know about interrupted science is only a small measure of the total effects of the shutdown. “I don’t have much information because, scientists are largely furloughed and silent,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum. “The real impact of this will emerge once the lights are back on.”
July 18, 2013
As the weather heats up, some of the Smithsonian’s exhibits are preparing to cool down. To make way for future shows, a dozen current ones at various museums will close their doors by summer’s end, so don’t miss a chance to see some of these historic, unique, beautiful, innovative and thought-provoking exhibits. Here is a list of all exhibits closing before September 15.
Thomas Day was black man living in North Carolina before the Civil War. An expert cabinetmaker with his own business and more success than many white plantation owners, he was a freedman whose craftmanship earned him both respect and brisk sales. His style was classified as “exuberant” and was adapted from the French Antique tradition. Step back in time to the Victorian South and view Day’s ornate cabinetry work on display. Ends July 28. Renwick Gallery.
The Madrid-based artist group DEMOCRACIA created a video featuring the art of movement in a socio-political context. The film features practitioners of “parkour,” a kind of urban street sport with virtually no rules or equipment and where participants move quickly and efficiently through space by running, jumping, swinging, rolling, climbing and flipping. The actors are filmed practicing parkour in a Madrid cemetery, providing a spooky backdrop for their amazing acrobatics and interspersed with symbols of the working class, internationalism, anarchy, secret societies and revolution that pop up throughout the film. Ends August 4. Hirshhorn Museum.
The Edo period (1603-1868) marked a peaceful and stable time in Japan, but in the world of art, culture and literature, it was a prolific era. These companion exhibitions showcase great works of the Edo period that depict natural beauty as well as challenge the old social order. “Edo Aviary” features paintings of birds during that period, which reflected a shift toward natural history and science and away from religious and spiritual influence in art. “Poetic License: Making Old Words New” showcases works demonstrating how the domain of art and literature transitioned from wealthy aristocrats to one more inclusive of artisans and merchants. Ends August 4. Freer Gallery.
This exhibit, held at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City, explores the significant contributions of Native Americans to contemporary music. From Jimi Hendrix (he’s part Cherokee) to Russell “Big Chief” Moore of the Gila River Indian Community to Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree, Native Americans have had a hand in creating and influencing popular jazz, rock, folk, blues and country music. Don’t miss your chance to see the influence of Native Americans in mainstream music and pop culture. Ends August 11. American Indian Museum in New York.
The exhibition featuring works by the innovative Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, whose bright television screens and various electronic devices helped to bring modern art into the technological age during the 1960s, features 67 pieces of artwork and 140 other items from the artist’s archives. Ends August 11. American Art Museum.
Come to the Sackler Gallery and learn about the Japanese precursor to today’s electronic mass media: the woodblock-printed books of the Edo period. The books brought art and literature to the masses in compact and entertaining volumes that circulated Japan, passed around much like today’s Internet memes. The mixing of art with mass consumption helped to bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes in Japan, a characteristic of the progression during the Edo period. The exhibit features books in a variety of genres, from the action-packed to the tranquil, including sketches from Manga, not related to the Japanese art phenomenon of today, by the famous woodblock printer Hokusai. Ends August 11. Sackler Gallery.
In this seventh installation of the “Portraiture Now” series, view contemporary portraits by artists Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews, each exploring different ways to create such personal works of art. From charcoal drawings and acrylic paints to video and computer technology, these artists use their own style in preserving a face and bringing it alive for viewers. Ends August 18. National Portrait Gallery.
Celebrate Asian Pacific American history at the American History Museum and view posters depicting Asian American history in the United States ranging from the pre-Columbian years to the present day. The exhibit explores the role of Asian Americans in this country, from Filipino fishing villages in New Orleans in the 1760s to Asian-American involvement in the Civil War and later in the Civil Rights Movement. The name of the exhibit comes from the famed Filipino American poet Carlos Bulosan, who wrote, “Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers, / I say I want the wide American earth / For all the free . . .” Ends August 25. American History Museum.
This exhibit features a collection of eight portraits of influential women in American history, but you may not know all their names. They came long before the Women’s Rights Movement and questioned their status in a newly freed America by fighting for equal rights and career opportunities. Come see the portraits of these forward-thinking pioneers—Judith Sargent Murray, Abigail Smith Adams, Elizabeth Seton and Phillis Wheatley. Ends September 2. National Portrait Gallery.
Take a peek into the creative world of Chinese artist Xu Bing in this exhibition showcasing materials Bing used to create his massive sculpture Phoenix Project, which all came from construction sites in Beijing. The two-part installation, weighing 12 tons and extending nearly 100 feet long, features the traditional Chinese symbol of the phoenix, but the construction materials add a more modern message about Chinese economic development. While Phoenix Project resides at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sackler’s companion exhibition displays drawings, scale models and reconfigured construction fragments. Ends September 2. Sackler Gallery.
Stroll through the London of the 1800s in this exhibit featuring works by painter James McNeill Whistler, who lived in and documented the transformation of the Chelsea neighborhood. Whistler witnessed the destruction of historic, decaying buildings that made way for mansions and a new riverbank, followed by a wave of the elite. With artistic domination of the neighborhood throughout the transition, Whistler documented an important part of London’s history. The exhibit features small etchings and watercolor and oil paintings of scenes in Chelsea during the 1880s. Ends September 8. Freer Gallery.
From Picasso to Man Ray to present-day sculptor Doris Salcedo, many of the most innovative and prolific modern artists have set aside paint brush and canvas to embrace mixed media. View works by artists from all over the world during the last century and see the evolution of the collage and assemblage throughout the years. Featured in this exhibit is a tiny Joseph Stella collage made with scraps of paper and Ann Hamilton’s room-sized installation made of newsprint, beeswax tablets and snails, among other things. Ends September 8. Hirshhorn Museum.
July 12, 2013
The full title of Rina Banerjee’s latest work, now on view in the Sackler Gallery, is 71 words long: A world Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this. Since Monday, the artist has been assembling the work in public view in the Sackler Gallery pavilion. The site-specific installation, part of the gallery’s tenth annual Perspectives series, consists of a horned, inverted dome suspended over a river of shells, coins and rope—an imagined world that reflects upon our own.
Bridging worlds both real and invented has always been an essential feature of Banerjee’s work. The Indian-born, New York-based artist was a polymer chemist before she completed her MFA at Yale in 1995. Since then she has exhibited her work at the Whitney Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Venice Biennale. Banerjee’s sculptures combine many different materials—from feathers and skulls to lace and plastic wrap—with as many different cultural points of origin, challenging the divide between natural and synthetic, here and elsewhere. One of her most well-known works is a floating pink Taj Mahal.
Sackler curator Carol Huh was drawn to Banerjee’s work because of her imaginative use of space and “attention to the dynamics of migration and cultural transformation.” Huh adds, “The way she’s also thinking about discovery and travel resonates with the museum.”
In A world Lost, Banerjee revels in allusion on a monumental scale. Originally inspired by the rivers and mountains of Asia, the work has since taken on a constellation of references that span the globe. African feathers, a Chinese temple and the horns of an American buffalo adorn the central dome—itself a twist on the Flemish inverted funnel, a symbol of madness. Figurines enmeshed in the river on the floor were found on Germany and India’s eBay pages. The goal was “not to divulge to you what is China, what is Africa,” Banerjee says, “but what parts of those worlds interest me. It’s a kind of fabrication, invention and creation of…individual identity.”
Banerjee’s own experience of Hurricane Sandy played an important role in the development of A world Lost. She was evacuated from her Brooklyn home for nine days. “We could see the sea coming in towards the high rises,” she says. “In that moment it was very clear the connections we have to the rest of the world, which is this water that surrounds every place.”
A world Lost also has its dark side. Sharp black horns and a mangled wire frame give the dome a sinister aspect, and splashes of red on the (real) ostrich eggs convey death as well as fertility. Light bulbs, vials, coins and plastic cups coexist with the sculpture’s organic forms, but as the flotsam of human civilization they also represent the exploitation and destruction of nature. This duality of meaning is suggested by the work’s elaborate title, which Banerjee describes as an “access point” that has changed and evolved alongside the work itself.
Banerjee did not create a drawing of A world Lost before she began installing it on Monday. “When you’re making larger works, your body only allows you to see the space in which you are making it, and then to see the whole is very hard,” she says. “Instead of fighting that, I really rejoice in the ability to be participating in the sculpture, so to speak, because you’re not in control of all of it. You’re somehow part of it.”
Today is the last day to view the work in progress before it debuts on Saturday, July 13.