Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness

Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place  unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..  

Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the  impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.

The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl,  Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste,  and both Eliane and Camille. 

As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides.   As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.

The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime.   Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants  with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it. 

Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also  too slow, too long, and too languishly structured  in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this.   Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.

Tricky Dick–His Own Fantasy World

Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that  presents  the  lesser-known  story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political  career are  adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.

The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction.  But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here.  For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to  Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator.  Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California,  a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss.  Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.

Four years after JFK had become president, with the US  in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.

As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He  isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors  and prepares for a second term.

In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.

It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has.  Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it.  The parallels with today are frightening.

Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.

The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.

Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

Fahrenheit 11/9–Fourth of July

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary,  Fahrenheit 11/9, released in September of last year, is an interesting take on the 2016  presidential election .  (The film is named for the day Trump was declared the electoral winner.) This is another film in Moore’s canon of what is wrong with America, not his best but still worth  seeing.  The 39th Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor went to Donald Trump.

Although purportedly about Trump’s election and how the country got there, Fahrenheit 11/9 is also about other issues close to Moore’s heart including the 2014 Flint water crisis, and the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that levels of lead were unsafe to drink.  An unusual scene of Obama’s visit to Flint and how he disappointed local residents is eye-opening.

Moore also compares Trump’s rise to power to that of  Hitler in hate speeches against different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation. Showcasing recent racial violence, Fahrenheit 11/9 concludes that the  Constitution no longer protects the majority of our citizens from the wealthy and powerful. And, therefore, the American Dream is now nothing but a dream.  Highlighting social and political injustices,  Fahrenheit 11/9  insists that the election of Trump is a wakeup-call to the country for radical transformation. 

Although extremely provocative with multiple political targets–including not only Republican presidents but also Clinton and Obama,– this is not one of Michael Moore’s best documentaries.  It is somewhat scattered and loses its focus on what happened to the country when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump took  the electoral college.

Nonetheless, there is much substantive analysis of the political structure we have in the US, filmed with the director’s characteristic zeal, passion, flair, and wicked sense of humor.  Highly recommend for the 4th of July or when any gimlet-eyed vision of the US is called for.

The Hate U Give –T.H.U.G.

The Hate U Give is an adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestseller by the same name (released in February 2017).  Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

Beautiful  newcomer,  Amandla Stenberg, is perfectly cast as the  wounded, courageous high school student who attends an elite white private school because her mother Lisa (a superb Regina Hall) insists she has a bright future, one that most of their neighborhood’s teen residents will not have.  

Shedding her hoodie, swallowing any aggression that might make her seem “ghetto,” and eradicating black slang, Starr endures  her white peers, including boyfriend Chris (“Riverdale” star K J Apa) and friend Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) who have appropriated what they think is “cool” from black youth.  Painful tolerance is evident on Starr’s face.  “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me,” Starr tells Chris in response to his clueless-white-boy pride in  “not seeing color.”  Yet Starr also has to  straddle  differing opinions  of her blackness and suspicions about her elitist classmates.

Starr’s life is carefully compartmentalized. Yet it seems she can only truly relax around her loving family.  In a deeply moving and unforgettable scene, Maverick, her father  (sympathetically played by Russell Hornsby), is sitting at the dining room table giving his elementary school-age son a lesson on how to survive a traffic stop by a white cop.  Maverick insists that his young son copy how he should place his hands on the dashboard, head down, avoiding eye contact.  The little boy has no comprehension why his father’s doing this.

After a raucous and typical teenage party where Starr reconnects with her  childhood playmate and crush Khalil (Algee Smith), the story becomes tragic. Starr will become the  only witness, at first reluctantly, to a night of infamy.

The Hate U Give offers a fascinating portrayal of the inspiration and moral courage of youth,  especially  black youth, who struggle to understand and survive  the racism and brutality they encounter from infancy. Solidarity against the enemy should not have to mean harboring and hating the enemy within.  The lessons to be learned from The Hate U Give and the power of understanding the self-destructive force of hate are nuanced, not dogmatic.

 The Hate U Give deserves wide circulation.   Enraging, heartbreaking, and ultimately deeply moving,  none of the young people should ever have been asked to make these impossible choices.   Although the ending is rather weak,  the true ending IMHO is when Starr finds her voice.  The Hate U Give’s impact lies in using film to  demand concrete social change.

Note: Available on Netflix as a DVD and soon available on HBO.

Mendocino–An Artist Haven

Mendocino County is known for its beautiful coastline, redwood forests, wineries, microbreweries and liberal attitudes towards marijuana.  Also, in July of last year the Ranch Fire devastated miles near Clear Lake in Mendocino County.  For my first trip there last week it was for an art workshop at the Mendocino Art Center, a wonderful experience I highly recommend.  There are a wide range of art classes available for weekend artists and friendly, beautiful accommodations within walking distance.  (My friend and I stayed at MacCallum House, and I highly recommend them!)

“Lost Horizon” by Susie Berteaux
Barbara Kibbe

“The Finale” by Diana Paul

I think of Mendocino as Carmel about a century ago:  quaint, historic buildings that are impeccably well-preserved and with history hiding between its lanes and alleys.  For example, there is a cemetery with a Chinese grave site within its perimeter, established in 1863, and segregated from the “mainstream” plots.  Ditto for the Catholic cemetery.  Little known but well-worth stopping by.

The artisanal grocery stores, curated galleries, and wide range of retail clothing and jewelry shops try to represent locals only in their goods.  And an  unbelievably well-stocked bookstore (Gallery Bookshophas an entire table devoted to the local history of Mendocino. And the food (check out Trillium and Cafe Mendocino restaurants) are not to be missed.

For all of you who plan to visit northern California, I highly recommend the Mendocino Coast, and if you are there in May and love flowers, make sure to stop by the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (on 47 acres).  Last week’s rhododendron show was memorable–and the largest in the U.S.!

Who knew Mendocino had so much to offer?!

Kusama–Infinity

The art of critically-acclaimed Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama,  now commands the highest price for any female artist alive today.  As an art-world superstar, Kusama has attracted millions of  museum-goers worldwide who wait for hours for the chance to take selfies to post on Instagram in one of her mirrored Infinity Rooms.  Yet little is known of this nonagenarian artist obsessed with dots and the film Kusama-Infinity reveals much about the artist.  She committed herself to a mental hospital in the 1970s, out of fear that she might commit suicide.  Her long arduous road to success was painful and took decades to reach.

Infinity follows a young and beautiful Kusama whose tortuous path not only reveals the artist’s persistence, resilience, and confidence but also her understanding of women’s rights, sexual freedom,  and gay rights in the US.  She symbolically performed the first gay marriage in the US,  in Central Park,  long before most Americans were cognizant of the cultural revolution about to take over the mainstream psyche. 

Endlessly courageous, Kusama aggressively promoted her work in the male-dominated artworld of New York City, only a decade after the end of the Second World War.  Despite staggering odds, this petite, unassuming Japanese woman, speaking faltering English, was determined to exhibit her art as she wanted, not as the gatekeepers of the artworld demanded. 

Infinity suggests that Yayoi Kusama’s mental illness may have stemmed from a traumatic childhood.  Both her parents wanted her to have a traditional Japanese marriage, with an upper class lifestyle.  Instead, the young artist escaped to New York City. While Kusama was waiting for recognition, she had an intimate but nonsexual relationship with the famous artist, Joseph Cornell. Under the mentorship of Georgia O’Keefe, Kusama had her first important gallery show.  Frank Stella became an avid collector of her work as well as a supporter.

Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, among others, “borrowed heavily”from Kusama’s work which was still relatively obscure while these male artists became sensations.   This repeated pattern, with white male artists being recognized for work that seemed influenced by her own innovations, understandably upset Kusama. The theft of her ideas may have been a catalyst for her depression and decision to return to Japan in the late 70s.

Slowly, as Kusama reached her late sixties, her art became fully acknowledged and skyrocketed in value. The 1993 Venice Biennale exemplified the art world’s recognition.

Infinity should have broad appeal as this film is also a condemnation  of the patronizing art overseers and their impact as gatekeepers of  what art becomes internationally recognized.

Note:  Kusama–Infinity is available on Netflix DVD.  “Velvet Buzzsaw” (see my  February 12, 2019 review),  a dramatization of a fictionalized and futuristic artworld is a fascinating metaphor for what Yayoi Kusama experienced over half a century ago.