Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island


Last night, I had the pleasure of watching film master directorMartin Scorsese’s latest cinema treat, “Shutter Island”.

"Shutter Island" is the story of two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who are summoned to a remote and barren island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island’s fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane. A period psychological thriller, S.I. offers a wonderfully spine-tingling and twisted ride on an unstable “mental” roller coaster composed of jagged metal, dim shadows, rust, cobwebs, fire and ice.


With an ensemble cast consisting of Leonardo Di Caprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo with a few outstanding and surprising cameos tossed into the mix, S.I. will supply you with enough “who done it” moments and “reality check” back flips to keep you guessing, and anticipating, to the last scene.

While not one of Scorsese’s best films - and a bit on the long side at 2.5 hours- (I can think of at least two scenes that could have been cut from the film without compromising the story line), the film is magnificently photographed and the acting, particularly DiCaprio, is top-notch. I can easily see him being nominated for an Oscar for this performance, should it stay within the Academy’s memory banks for that amount of time. 

Currently, the film has a 67% ranking on www.rottentomatoes.com ( http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1198124-shutter_island/) and I suggest that you check out that link for detailed information.

By the way, the dream sequences are phenomenal and, in the opinion of this visual artist, some of the best work of that nature that I have seen, perhaps ever.

And remember, everything in this film is a clue.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hate email. . .

Without going into much detail, over the weekend, I received a "hate email" from an irate artist in response to a comment that I made regarding her art that I posted on an online art critique forum from six years ago. . .

That's right - Six. Years. Ago.

It took quite a bit of brainstorming at 6 AM to remember just what this person was referring to, but I found it. It was from an online visual art collective that I joined many years ago. While I was once quite active in the group, it's been quite some time since I've engaged in anything there over the last few years other than a quick and occasional check in. But her name was vaguely familiar, and with a few clicks in the search engine, I located her and the now, at least when it comes to the web, ancient post.

Amazingly, it really wasn't even a critique of her work as much as it was an admonishment. This artist took it upon herself to post an image of her work (which really was quite terrible) and then proceeded to give it a 10 rating (the highest) as well as a glorious comment about the work. She finished off the review by signing another person's name.

Uh huh.

I won't give her name or the name of the site - but I will say that her "painting" was intended to be a portrait of Cleopatra apparently engaged in some sort of "walk like an Egyptian" dance. She had also glued fake jewels and some gold lame material to the image as if it were a dress of some sort. Snickering aside, the work was truly wretched and looked like something that a 2nd grade student would bring home in exchange for sweet motherly praise and a cookie.

At the time, 6 years ago mind you, I was very involved with this artists' portal and took the critiques rather seriously as many of the artists used them as educational tools. Seeing that an artist felt the need to post it and then give it the highest rating available, at the time, really got my goat so to speak.
The work, which had been posted for quite some time prior to her self-critique, had received no comment at all from anyone. In my opinion, that was quite possibly due to the fact that no one could find anything positive to say about it in the forum.

So, the artist, clearly desperate for some attention or praise for her work, freakishly posted some for herself.

My response to that was

"Please correct me if I am wrong, but did you just give YOURSELF a 10 rating on this and sign it with some other name?

I'm not saying that is the case (though it does appear to be),however, if it is, it is not only quite dishonorable, it flies in the face of everything that this Critic's Corner is about.

Please convince us that this is not the case or admit the error in judgment and save your honor as an artist."

Was I too harsh? Perhaps, but if so, tough. If an artist really wants to create work and display it in public, do so, but have the balls to deal with the consequences or get out of the studio. Also, if an artist is so desperate to have someone acknowledge their work as substantial to the point that they fabricate their own spectacular praise, well, then - perhaps they should drop the brush and pick up a microphone en route to the next American Idol auditions where lack of talent seems to be glorified in an "emperor's-new-clothesesque" orgy of self adoration on a continuous basis.

To be fair, the artist did ask me in the email if I were a moron not to see that what she was posting was a quote from a collector praising her work (regardless of the fact that she placed no quotations around the quote or even suggested in the post that she was posting someone else's review).

I still stand by my original observation that she did something stupid and was caught with her hand in the painterly cookie jar so to speak. Oddly enough, she could have easliy cleared up the issue with an explanitory response post at least with a "I'm sorry, I misunderstood the process here" slant to it - but she didn't.

Rather, she waited 6 years to send me a 4 paragraph hate email in the middle of the night.

I can only assume that she must have freed herself from her restraints, chewed through the walls of her padded cell, and made it to the office computer in the middle of the night to do so. . .

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Crowd

Fortunately for me, Turner Classic Movies aired the masterful 1928 silent classic, “The Crowd” last night. Unfamiliar with the film and on a  whim strengthened by curiosity, I decided to watch it.

Cinema wise, it was one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time.


Recognized as one of the finest examples of American silent film and masterfully directed by screen legend King Vidor, “The Crowd” centers on ambitious but undisciplined New York City office worker John Sims (played by James Murray) who meets and marries Mary (Eleanor Boardman).


They start a family, struggle to cope with marital stress, financial setbacks, and tragedy, all while lost amid the anonymous, pitiless throngs of the big city.

Sound bleak? Well, yes, ultimately, it is – but it is so much more than one story of shattered dreams. It is also a heart wrenching story of endearing love, and visual parable against vanity, folly, and arrogance, a visually historic documentary of class struggle and the gritty urban life of living in New York City in the 1920’s and more.

All of this packed into 90 minutes and without words. Amazingly, King Vidor pulls it off in spades creating a film that, even after close to 80 years, is still prescient in meaning and scope.


(King Vidor)

Not only are the performances absolutely top notch ( it’s easy to forget that this is a pre-sound film as the actors seem much more natural than in their portrayals than most silent films and frequently, you are able to read the lips which gives an even deeper nuances into the characterizations.)

And, visually, there are certain scenes that are just stunning and King Vidor paved the way for modern American cinematography, It’s easy to understand after watching this mesmerizing film why it was chosen in 1989, to be one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


There is a phenomenal blog entry on the details of this film here http://silent-volume.blogspot.com/2009/12/crowd-1928.html which I highly recommend if interested.

But I couldn’t finish this entry without mentioning the fascinating back story of the leading actor in “The Crowd”, James Murray.


Stunningly handsome and naturally talented, Murray was lured into show business while working as a doorman at the Capitol Theater on Broadway and 51st Street (where ''The Crowd'' later opened). In the 1920s he hitchhiked to Hollywood from the Bronx, New York to try to succeed as an actor. After several years of work, mostly as an extra, with little hope of a starring role, he was "discovered" by director King Vidor, who saw Murray walking by on the MGM lot. Vidor was about to begin work on a new film and thought Murray might look right for the lead. Murray, however, failed to show up for the meeting he arranged with Vidor, apparently thinking it to be a joke. Vidor subsequently tracked him down, and Murray's performance in The Crowd was lauded by both the critics and the public. Before his work in The Crowd, Murray had starred alongside Joan Crawford in Rose-Marie in 1928.

Despite success in subsequent MGM films such as Lon Chaney's Thunder, Murray's life soon took a turn for the tragic that eerily mirrored his role in The Crowd. Excessive drinking led to a scarcity of roles, and by 1934 he was panhandling on the street. In an instance of extreme coincidence, he tried panhandling a man who turned out to be King Vidor. Vidor offered Murray a role in his upcoming film, Our Daily Bread, but Murray turned it down, deeming it an act of pity. Decades later, Vidor was still so haunted by Murray's tragic decline that he wrote an unrealized screenplay about his life, "The Actor".

In 1936, Murray drowned after falling from the string-piece of a pier into the Hudson River. The medical examiner determined that the cause was asphyxia by submersion, without ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide.[1] He was interred at the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York. At the time of his death he was married to actress Marion Sayers.

Now that, my devotees, is irony pure and simple. In closing, let me suggest that if you ever happen to find the opportunity of watching this masterpiece, take it. My experience has catapulted this film to the number one spot of my personal list of all time favorite silent classics knocking down Metropolis, Greed, The Battleship Potemkin, and a few others down a few notches. And that, wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles. . .

Truthfully, I have never experienced as much snow in my life as I have experienced over the last 3 weeks. The massive amount, now being officially documented as the heftiest snowfall in the area's recorded history, was rare enough for the mid-atlantic region and particularly rare for this part of Delaware as we are usually exempt from snow of any accumulation due to our proximity to the shore.

I won't go into details of the wintry deluge as there are plenty of other blogs and media resources for that - and frankly, after living through the thick of it, I find even blogging about it tiresome to say the least.

What I did find of interest - Paris, one of my favorite places in the world. It just so happened that two of my Netflix.com rentals that managed to arrive in my box just prior to the week long weather related stoppage of any of my mail had one thing in common - Paris.

Thankfully, as I did not lose power as many did in my area, I discovered a great way to pass the hours while stuck inside as the wild and wintry winds whip about the way, is to watch films - Preferably with a jug or two of red wine.

One of these films, a sublime work of art directed by the genius filmmaker and co- founders of the French New Wave François Truffaut, was titled "The 400 Blows".

This film is a true gem. While you may find all of the details listed on the wikipedia.com link above, let me say that personally, this masterpiece contains all of the absolute ingredients needed to create a perfect film experience. Believable, compelling, and likable characters that and storyline, wonderful performances, stunning cinematography ( which now after 50 years also has the added essence of being historic as well), and of course - Paris.

In the film, 13 year old troubled youth Antoine Doinel ends choosing to live on the streets of Paris rather than continue attending class in his oppressive school or living in the cramped apartment that he shares with his disinterested, vain and ultimately selfish mother and his bumbling, heavy handed stepfather.

I won't go into details, but take it for granted that his decision ends up being life-changing offering him a definitely hard knock path to follow.

Interestingly enough, the English title is a straight translation of the French, but misses its meaning, as the French title refers to the expression "faire les quatre cents coups", which means "to raise hell". On the first American prints, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gilmore gave the film the title Wild Oats, but the distributor did not like that title, and reverted it to The 400 Blows.

The actor, played by 15 year old Jean-Pierre Léaud is a screen revelation. Truffaut's decision to cast him was pure genius. In the film, there is a compelling scene where Antoine is being interviewed by a social worker of sorts and he is presented with a string of personal questions about his past. I read after watching the film, that that particular scene was actually Jean-Pierre's screen test and Truffaut was so moved by it and so certain that he was the perfect fellow for the role, the he incorporated the scene into the film itself.

I'll save my review of my second Paris themed film, the erotically charged, sexually explicit, yet ultimately yawn producing "The Dreamers" for another day. Rest assured that if you're looking for the authentic French New Wave film experience, rent "The 400 Blows", better yet, make it a double feature and add Godard's classic, "Breathless" to the mix.

But first, toss on your beret, dangle a thick cut cigarette from your lower lip, and grab a cheap jug of red wine. . . because it's going to take a few trips around the old Eiffel Tower for this snow to melt. . .

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

From the mouth of babes. . .


I must share a fascinating story with a 125 year history that I have managed to become a key player in involving the photograph of a little girl named Lydia.

About four years ago, a close friend of mine rented a retail space in on old street front building in a small town in New Jersey where I was living at the time.

For many years at that location, stood a rather disheveled curio-consignment shop. The shop, which seemed to grow more and more chaotic with passing each year, eventually proved too much for the aging tenant and the space was rented to my friend who used it as a storefront for showcasing his hand painted furniture and faux painting business.

While renovating the space into his new storefront, my friend and his wife experienced some rather unusual occurrences that most would describe as a “haunting”. Several times, rocking chairs on display would begin quickly rocking back and forth on their own accord with no breeze to cause it as would the doors to the rooms and cabinets. I personally witnessed a heavily closed door – complete with a clicking sound of a turned doorknob mind you, creakily and steadily open as if being slowly pulled by something mischievous only to be slammed shut with a wildly loud bang.

The most disconcerting occurrences according to my friend however, were the loud moan and growling like sounds and scattering footsteps noises that seemed to emit, from no other place of course, then the dark and windowless basement. . .

As far as I can remember, there were no light fixtures of any kind in the basement keeping it dark as a cave at all times. Personally, having seen my fair share of things that go bump in the night, I couldn’t imagine descending down the rickety, wooden stairs which disappeared into nothing but cold, inky darkness. However, one day, my brave friend had had enough. He grabbed a flashlight, clenched his teeth, and went for it.

The basement, he discovered, was empty – all except for the upper corner of an old photograph that he noticed in the beam of his flashlight that was sticking up from between a crevice in the old wooden floor.

It was a photograph of Lydia. Lydia Bishop Maiden to be exact. . .

Not long after his discovery, while I was visiting his shop one afternoon, my friend kindly gave me the photograph as a gift. He knew that I collected antique photographs and that I use them frequently in my work or model paintings after the subjects of them.

I thought it was a very lovely photograph of a well dressed Victorian era little girl of perhaps 2 or 3 years old. After he told me the story of how he came about it, I became even more enamored with with the little cardboard backed bit of history.

While the original photograph had faded noticeably over the years with a bit of tattering on the lower edge (the above work is a version that I restored in Photoshop), it was still in relatively very good condition and I welcomed it into my collection.

I recognized the photo as a “cabinet card” which was a late 19th century form of studio photography that was wildly popular in the post Civil War United States until being replaced by the even more popular brownie camera. I was also particularly taken with the back of the photograph.


Someone, over the last 125 years or so, had written the name “Lydia Bishop Maiden” in pencil above a beautiful and flourished photographic studio and emblem.

Eventually, I discovered that the name of the photographer who took the image was W.G. Entrekin who had a studio at 4384 Main Street in Manayunk, Pennsylvania which is right outside of Philadelphia. According to information that I found on this wonderful site http://craigcamera.com/dag/, Entrekin learned photography in 1856 before traveling for some time with a gallery on wheels. In 1861 he was employed by the Army of the Potomac. After the Civil War, he established galleries at Manayunk, Norristown and Philadelphia, Pa. and he was also credited with the invention of the Entrekin Burnisher for photography.

To an antique photography lover like myself, this information proved fascinating. So, excited by my new addition, I took the photograph of the young Lydia into my collection, scanned it, digitally restored it in Photoshop and posted it along with my findings on my flickr.com account.

After I estimated the photo to have been taken in the late 1880’s/early 90’s based upon Lydia’s clothing and other visual clues and posted the image, I placed it with my collection of hundreds of other antique and vintage photographs and, quite frankly, forgot about it.

Two years pass.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I received the most interesting email that read. . .

“I have been researching my wife's family and stumbled across the Lydia May photo. Lydia is my wife's Great Grandmother. Lydia married WM, who had FM, then FM, my father in law, who is 80 years old. We would love to hear about the photograph.”

Initially, I couldn’t figure out what he was referring to as the email came to me from a form on my web site http://www.sprouseart.com/, and I’ve no antique photos posted there. Eventually, I brushed away the cobwebs from my memory and found the reference point on my flickr.com account.

Still not quite certain that this was the same Lydia (after all, there was no “May” listed on my photograph), I emailed him my story of how I had come across the image and the history that I had been able to piece together from it. I then received this response. . .

“That is a great story and back ground. To give you some background Lydia May Bishop was born May 4th, 1882 in Manayunk and lived there until she died in 1944 at the age of 62 and was buried in Westminster Cemetery, PA. So your estimate on dates, giving she looks to be ~2 years old, this would have been taken around 1884, so you are on the money. I have her father as John Bishop who died in Philadelphia, but I do not have any other details on him. Lydia married William Henry Maiden from Madeley Wood, England in 1905 at the age of 23. She had 5 children, all died starting from 1989 to finally EBM died in Florida in 2006 at the age of 96. Her oldest child FJM Sr. had four children, F. Jr. being the oldest and my father in law, and then his 3 sisters, all still living and all born in Manayunk.
I don’t know how her ghost was relocated to Haddon Ave., guess I have some digging to do. I do know she had a sister-in-law, RJM, died right around the corner in Haddonfield, which is where we live now. That would be my best guess at how the picture moved to NJ.
After college at West Chester, my father-in–law got a job teaching in Stratford, New Jersey where he met RH and had 3 children, my wife being one of them.”

And that is how I became, in my opinion, a key player in the full 125 year circle return of this photograph of Lydia May Bishop Maiden to her family.

The fellow that contacted me (I replaced any prevalent names with initials in the snippets above) asked in a gentle manner if I would be at all interested in selling him the photograph. I responded with a “no”, but I did inform him that I would gladly give him the photograph in the same way that it was given to me.

I feel that in this manner I am but a link in a long and magical chain centered around a small and delicate antique photograph of a beautiful child that somehow managed to survive 125 years that, quite literally perhaps, cried out in the darkness in order to be returned to the family that she created so many years ago.

I can live with that decision quite happily.

I can’t remember if the possibly paranormal activity in my friend’s shop ceased after his discovery of the photo, but I do know that I had no such issues after it was placed in my care.

And I can’t imagine that her descendants will either. . .

Monday, February 01, 2010

And now the morning news. . .


I usually never do this, but as I was sipping my morning coffee, I clicked on the news. The brilliant Tom Tomorrow has majestically expressed my sentiments exactly in the cartoon panel above.

Within 5 minutes during a switch or two between the major news networks, I saw that a group of American, Baptist, religious zealots have been arrested in Haiti for kidnapping. They tried to mask their bourgeois arrogance through piety and the statement that “God instructed them” to go there and start grabbing undocumented children at random to take back the the good ole’ USA. It didn’t seem to matter that at least one third (so far) of the 30+ children that they “rescued” weren’t orphaned at all. Even though these non-orphaned children were actually crying and begging the do-gooders to phone their parents at the phone numbers that they had supplied, their laments fell on the deaf ears of the self-appointed rescuers. Their hearing had no doubt been compromised by the loud voice of their God whispering instructions to them. I hope their God has the number of a good attorney. . .

And then of course came the usual “let’s all be frightened” commercials instructing me as to why I should be frightened by the possibility of contracting the flu, of having a heart attack, of not being able to get it up, and much more.

And then, once I heard the CNN morning anchor say with a straight face to an Obama administration financial spokesperson that there are parts of the country where residents would argue that “making $250,000 a year does make them middle class” I turned off the news, walked over to the window, and quietly finished my coffee while watching a flock of geese silently fly through a pristine sky over the recent blanket of snow that was being lit by the golden hues of a rising sun. . .