Sunday, December 20, 2015

High Style represents the apotheosis of the Cincinnati Art Museum

     The curatorial and design staff of the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) has historically put on special exhibits that are the equal of those at institutions with bigger names or in bigger cities.  High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection is the latest case in point.  As the curators point out, there are a number of similarities between the Brooklyn Museum’s approach to clothing and that of the CAM. Where CAM has it over other museums (and I am thinking of Indianapolis) is in the physical staging—sets, props, and lighting—of a special exhibit.  Each exhibit is a unique production and they’re invariably gorgeous, witty, and become artworks in themselves.  They’re on a par with the Metropolitan Museum of Art so this makes complete sense for this to be here because Brooklyn’s clothing collection is now housed at the Met.  

Worth Designs
     The exhibit begins in the late 19th century with Jean Philippe Worth (1856 – 1926), who was the first couturier to market his haute couture – finest sewing – to the rich in Paris.  What may have seemed like an eccentric affectation was the first step in turning a traditional medium into a new artistic expression. 
The 20s
Many of the great European names of the 1920s and 1930s are represented with iconic pieces such as Jeanne Lanvin, J. Suzanne Talbot, Coco Chanel, and Jean Patou.  

Schiaparelli's Day Dress
     The next generation of European big names from the 1940s and 1950s show up in works by Spaniard Cristobal Balenciaga, Frenchman Hubert de Givenchy and, of course, Christian Dior.  My favorite from this group, however, was Italian-Frenchwoman Elsa Schiaparelli’s prominently and fully back zippered day dress.  It could walk runways around the world right now.  

Arpad's Shoe Design
     Where things get interesting is in its examination of two overlooked accessory designers.  Steven Arpad’s wild, one-of-a-kind shoes that are both high heeled and platform heeled were built in the 1930s, but they look like something a

Sally Victor's Millinery Works
Medieval queen or a disco diva could have worn.  Then there’s American milliner Sally Victor, whose stunningly elegant hats defined their era (1930s through the 1960s).  As Elaine Stritch’s Joanne sang in Company (1970), “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and that may have been the reason behind Victor’s unfairly faded renown.


     Though historically the focus has been on Europe, Americans created their own spotlight in the 1940s and 1950s with the emergence of sportswear.  It was mainly female designers such as Vera Maxwell, Carolyn Schnurer, and Claire McCardell who did this while working in a patriarchal industry more interested in commercial product than artistic vision.  Then everything stops in its track and an overlooked legend comes to life.

Charles James' Clover Leaf Ball Gown
     American Charles James (1906 – 1978) earned Dior’s greatest respect.  Where Dior was about impeccable cut like Armani, James was a precursor to Versace.  Dior was Neo-Classical in his formality, while James was Baroque in his cornucopia.  How heavy were these clothes?  Katharine said that they were no more restrictive than a girdle would have
Cecil Beaton's Vogue Photograph in James' Gowns
been.  The dresses momentarily stop a viewer’s breath and when critics talk about architecture in clothes, this could be the jumping off point. They seem to float and refer to 18th century Versailles and the 19th century bustle; one even has a bustier.  Neil’s photographs capture their look, but the garments have to be seen to be believed.  The CAM supplements the background information with excellent computerized graphics showing the construction of these garments.  I’ve only seen this done previously with time-lapse photography of skyscrapers being constructed.

Halston and Scaasi
     My Mom’s favorite dress was Halston’s 1975 caftan, which refers back to the 1920s.  Betsy was taken with Arnold Scaasi’s 1983 evening ensemble that looks like a flowerbed. 
Adrian's "The Tigress"
The final piece is movie designer Gilbert Adrian’s 1947 ‘The Tigress.’  It displays the timelessness of clothing because the pattern looks contemporary, but exists in its own era because the lines of the silhouette were influenced by, but are more relaxed than, Dior.  

     Where the CAM really takes off and where Cincinnatians and Northern Kentuckians need to travel to Eden Park is that except for a $4 parking charge, admission is FREE.  

High Style runs through January 24, 2016.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Spotlight: Newspaper Craft

     Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is a low-key, character driven study of The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s cover-up and continuation of priests sexually abusing children.  McCarthy has always focused on complex, ambiguously motivated characters that have an immediate appeal for an audience in his earlier The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2008), and Win/Win (2011).  He continues that in this current screenplay collaboration with Josh Singer, but broadens his approach.  Three institutions meant to uphold the safety and ideals of Boston’s citizens have a proverbial dog in the fight that is this cover-up:  the Catholic Church, the legal establishment, and the press.  

The Spotlight Team
     Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the Spotlight team members whose continual legwork for over a year proved that the cover-up had gone on for decades.  They are perfect audience stand ins because they are articulate, middle-class, and hard-working.  The Globe team was determined to get the story completely right before publishing, but also trying to scoop The Boston Phoenix.  However, as the story progresses, and where Spotlight goes one step further than All The President’s Men (1976) is when one of the major characters realizes his guilt in the whole affair.  There are shades of Oedipus Rex in that scene and it’s probably the emotional climax of the movie.

    While I think it is a very well made and thought-provoking movie, I don’t think it’s ‘the best of the year’ as many other reviewers have opined.  It’s certainly a step up from the Ron Howard directed The Paper (1994) that also featured Michael Keaton with a plot that went all over the place and a cacophonous tone that swung wildly between sitcom slapstick and investigative melodrama.  There are a number of 
Billy Crudup
extraordinary scenes including one where McAdams’ character finds herself suddenly interviewing a frighteningly childlike defrocked priest and anything involving Billy Crudup.  He’s one of those actors who hasn’t become the star I expected after giving major performances in Without Limits (1998), Almost Famous (2000), and Stage Beauty (2003).  In this smaller role as an ambivalent and easy to misunderstand lawyer, the mask he has to maintain is almost as tragic as the fate that befell so many children because the powerful and the competent actively turned a blind eye. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Brooklyn: A Great Love Story About Ordinary People

     Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel and directed by John Crowley may be the best romantic drama of the past three or four years.  There were times when I found myself holding my breath and wishing it would not end and then that it would end in a very specific way.  Neil heard the tears from other audience members at the end and, as we stood reading the credits, I had a strong urge to sit down and watch it all over again.  Yes, it’s that good.  In fact, to quote Mary Poppins, it’s practically perfect in every way.

At Coney Island
     It’s rare that working class characters are the focus of a major movie, though they regularly featured in New York set movies of the ‘30s through the ‘60s.  In many ways, this looks like a movie made in that period except in color.  That coloring has a legendary quality at times – maybe because some images such as the Manhattan skyline were CGI – but it works in its favor.  There’s a beautiful sequence on Coney Island where a bathing suit (and especially the different manners in which Americans and Europeans layer clothes) and a pair of men’s long pants capture the mood of a decade and the aspirations of a generation.  The rolling fortunes of different ethnic groups – Irish, Italian, and Black are mentioned both in the dialogue and visually; the upward mobility of women; and the migration from the past rural (Ireland) to the present urban (NYC) to the dreamed of future suburbs (Long Island) enrich a potentially simple fable into the profundity of myth.  

Saoirse Ronan in Ireland
     This could be a family creation story told through the generations, but it’s also an adventure story featuring a female protagonist (you’d guess rightly that it wasn’t made or financed by Americans.  Instead, Ireland, the U.K., and Canada made it happen).  A young Irish girl leaves home, sponsored by her older sister and a priest, to pursue greater possibilities in New York in 1951.  She experiences intense homesickness even as various people reach out to her.  She finds fortune in kindness and help by her landlady, her supervisor, and her parish priest in Brooklyn 
Julie Walters as the Landlady
and that generosity by an older generation to ease the way for a younger adult reminded me of Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945), also set in a similar era.  She returns these kindnesses with gratitude, respect, and good humor.  She goes to a church dance and she sees a young man looking at her and in that moment, most viewers will know and begin to hope.  I won’t say anything more because the magic of this movie is in how it looks at the most mundane details of everyday life with a sense of wonder.

An Individual Young Woman
     Saoirse Ronan in the lead has the open face and graceful body in which a viewer can read pure and complex emotions.  She doesn’t need dialogue to express the character, which puts her in a league with Lillian Gish, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, Gong Li, and Julianne Moore.  She was perverse and sort of frightening in Atonement (2007) when she was thirteen, but she presents the soul of the immigrant experience here.  My Mother thought she was beautiful.  She is, but it’s because she embodies a character that grows emotionally, intellectually, and even physically before our eyes.  She could be almost any young girl at the beginning, but at the end she is that individual young woman and the light that shines on her in the final frames could be a halo.  

Emory Cohen with Saoirse Ronan
    Emory Cohen carries himself and reproduces the accent of a guy from ‘50s Brooklyn who would have been a featured movie player, but his eyes and facial contours might have entranced Caravaggio.  He has the uncanny ability of making the camera love him from the first shot in which he appears.  Burt Reynolds would instruct the camera to love him daily during a shoot and no performer can be a true star without that connection.  He’s unrecognizable from when he was the teenage son confused by his parents’ split up on TV’s Smash.  His keen vulnerability seemed like a real teenager’s, which made him an anomaly on a show that was almost completely artificial about artifice.

Ronan and Cohen
    Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Jessica Paré give performances detailed enough that viewers might want to know more about what’s going on in their characters’ lives beyond what is shared in the plot.  Irish stage actress Brid Brennan stuns as a figure out of a fairytale, a witch who wakes the young heroine.  The lighting, props, and furniture in this scene feel as creepy as Jabba the Hutt’s surroundings and it’s a credit to Crowley’s tonal control that it works perfectly to initiate the plot’s climax without upending the naturalism of the story.  Another instance of a movie working on all levels is when two inexperienced people decide to make love for the first time and it doesn’t quite work right, but the camera captures one of the character’s faces and the look says, “oh, I thought it would be something more, but it’ll get better because I love this person.”  It’s pretty incredible when a performer and a cinematographer (in this case, Yves Bélanger) can capture something so poignant and true.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Polish Village Café in Hamtramck, MI

Where everyone knows your name 
if you’re of Eastern European descent

The Polish Village Café

     We wanted to visit an Eastern European neighborhood in the Detroit region and Neil had read about The Polish VIllage Café.  Located in Hamtramck, which is a city within the greater city (sort of like how Norwood is to Cincinnati), The Polish Village Café is one of a number of restaurants in the area that reflect that cultural background, but it’s considered the best.  Not only the food press feels this way, but other diners that stood and waited for over an hour also assured us it was worth it.

The Lively Dining Room
     It’s a long, narrow crowded basement dining room festooned with lights and lots of laughing – also shouting, but that’s a by-product like it or not.  It’s very much a neighborhood restaurant where the patrons and the staff have known each other for generations.  I had a challenging time getting the bartender’s attention, but he made an excellent Moscow Mule.  The staff was run off its collective feet, but the place kept moving.  The hostess and servers were friendly in a reserved fashion, although our server was bright and effervescent.

Polish Platter
     We asked the patrons at the next table, who were obvious regulars, for recommendations since we could tell the staff wouldn’t have time for such niceties.  We followed their cues and both ordered the Polish Platter.  They came with Dill 
Dill Pickle Soup
Pickle soup, which was light and cream based with shredded carrot and diced pickle.  It was both sweet and slightly sour because of the brine.  We really liked it.  The platter of food was large with a stuffed cabbage roll covered in a thick paprika sauce, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, sausage, homemade sauerkraut, and a cheese pierogi.  Neil wasn’t too impressed by the pierogi, but the rest of it was good, especially the sauerkraut.  It was lighter and sweeter than I expected. Though I thought everything tasted good, Neil used quite a bit of salt, which is unusual for him.

Dessert Crepes
     A variety of crepes was offered for dessert – two to an order.  We shared a cherry and a prune crepe; both were freshly made and very tasty.  Again, they were also lighter than I expected.  The prices are very reasonable and the bubbly atmosphere are major selling points, but I don’t know if I would’ve stayed if I’d known it was really a seventy minute, rather than thirty minute wait.

Polish Village Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Degas’ Dancer Sculptures in Toledo

Second String City 
with a First Rate Art Museum

The Toledo Museum of Art
     Neil had been to The Toledo Museum of Art in the 1980s and was very impressed with the works by El Greco he’d seen there.  There’s an exhibition of Degas and the Dance through January 10 so we thought we’d check it out between Detroit and Cleveland.  One thing about late 19th century industrial cities’ movers and shakers, (in this case the Libbey Glass Company) they sure as heck pushed for major art showplaces.  
The Agony in the Garden, El Greco
As a follow-up and possible suspense killer, there is an El Greco painting.  What Neil remembered, according to one of the docents, was actually an exhibit.

Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years
     Degas and the Dance features eleven sculptures and paintings about ballet.  The centerpiece is the three foot tall figure of a dancer from the Ballet School of the Paris Opéra, the wax sculpture modeled in 1881, but cast in bronze a couple of years after Degas’ 1917 death.  It’s a boutique exhibit that is an amuse bouche for the following courses the museum offers.

The Glass Pavilion
     The unmissable, best thing to see first is the Glass Pavilion, opened in 2006 and designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa before they won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture.  Though it seems influenced by Phillip Johnson’s glass block private homes, it seems to float in the landscape because of its curving lines inside and out.  There are glassblowing demonstrations, but we didn’t have much time to check that out because we were under a deadline. The sublime 
BCE Glass Pieces
collection extends from 1500 BCE to the last couple of years and includes examples from around the world.  Amazingly, glass did not change much in terms of technology or method for production.  
Variations in Glass
The basis for design and color has remained steady, while there have been specific variations by continent and historical era.  There’s a mix of pieces to be used and those to be viewed.  I’d recommend going there first on a visit.

Wolfe Contemporary Gallery
     Wolfe Gallery on the second level in the main building has been renovated as the central point for the contemporary collection.  It’s impressive and even has a large Jennifer Bartlett work, which is the first time I’ve seen such a work by her that wasn’t in a book.  The rest of the museum covers the 
major movements and continents over the centuries, though the Baroque and Rococo periods receive significant exposure.  The 19th – early 20th century pieces will entice many visitors.

Degas and the Dance runs through January 10. 2016.