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[Editor's Note: The article below and its accompanying slideshow appears in its entirety today at The Atlantic.]

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Decoding the many references to film history in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated movie

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By Govindini Murty. Martin Scorsese’s delightful children’s film Hugo is currently nominated for eleven Oscars, the most of any film of 2011. And in a year of movies like The Artist and Midnight in Paris that pay homage to early 20th century film and cultural history, Hugo might be the most complex cinematic homage of them all.

Based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo tells the story of an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a train station in 1931 Paris. Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) maintains the station’s clocks and tries to repair a mysterious automaton left to him by his late father, a clock maker. While doing so, Hugo encounters an old man who sells toys in the station, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and his precocious step-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo and Isabelle team up to find the secret of the automaton, discovering along the way that Papa Georges is none other than Georges Méliès, the legendary turn of the century filmmaker known for such fantasy films as A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Scorsese uses the stunning 3D cinematography of Hugo much like a palimpsest, layering multiple levels of historical, cinematic, and intellectual history in each scene. Hugo references everyone from Jules Verne, Django Reinhardt, and the robot C-3PO to classic silent movies like Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Scorsese has even said that he considers the 3D in Hugo as a cinematic form of Cubism.

This cultural guide will help to decode the wealth of allusions in Hugo, making for a crash course in film, art, and literary history:

Maria from "Metropolis," C-3PO from "Star Wars."

Mysterious Automata

Hugo’s central mystery revolves around the automaton left to Hugo by his late father. The eerie metallic figure recalls such classic automata as the Machine-Man in Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis and C-3PO in Star Wars. According to Hugo author Brian Selznick, the inspiration for Hugo’s automaton came from an 1805 writing automaton created by Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillerdet, currently in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as well from the 18th century Jaquet-Droz writing automata in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Animated figures go back to the Renaissance, when mechanical humans and animals would appear out of clock faces to mark the time. Automata were also popular in Hellenistic Alexandria, where automated figures were used in mechanical puppet theaters and in temples to provide oracles.

In Hugo, the automaton possesses a dual quality—both ominous and marvelous. This reflects the ambiguous feelings that people have toward humanoid automata—seeing them either as frightening doppelgangers (as in Metropolis) or as magical helpers (as in Star Wars). The scene where Hugo dreams that he turns into the automaton reinforces this ambiguity and dramatizes a common fear of dehumanization in the machine age.

[For the rest of the article and the accompanying slideshow, please visit The Atlantic.]

Posted on February 22nd, 2012 at 8:16am.

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By David Ross. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” writes T.S. Eliot in the waning lines of “The Waste Land.” Just so, Push the Movement, a strictly visual but particularly thoughtful Tumblr blog, shores its own fragments against the ruin of the postmodern twilight. Its endless stream of vintage and contemporary photos constructs an elusive, melancholy narrative that is somehow far more than the sum of its obsessions: Natalie Portman, handguns, jungle cats, neo-classical statues, nuclear explosions, plummeting people (9/11 trauma?), urban sprawl, subversive graffiti, street battles, women in the tub, crashes (trains, planes, whatever), rockets, Bob Dylan (ca. 1966), baroque architectural detail, fires and smoke plumes, Kate Moss, girls in underwear standing at windows (an Alexandrian archive of this oddly moving tableau!), tornadoes, floods, ironic signage and logos, Muhammad Ali….

I realize that there are many likeminded Tumblr blogs, but Push the Movement strikes me as subtler, better eyed, more cliché averse, more clued into a kind of sadness that one finds in the work of postmodern humanists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: a sense that reality has become an increasingly attenuated and remote spectacle, a ghostly tabloidism. As DeLillo famously says of the supermarket’s myriad coded surfaces, “This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.” Push the Movement endlessly parades its miraculous visions yet it seems to know – its own minor key suggests – that this endless stream is an act of desperation, an addict’s exercise in ersatz experience and diminishing return. This is how Wim Wenders’ weary angels see the world in Wings of Desire: as a distant miracle in which they can no longer participate. This is the cinema of the end of the world.

The politics of Push the Movement is a cool and ironic anti-establishmentarianism, but the site seems to understand that there are no real politics amid the new reality of the data ether, and the site’s irony seems to some extent turned on itself. What ‘movement,’ after all, can be ‘pushed’ by endless quotation-marked juxtapositions of other people’s experience? The 1% needn’t fear.

Note that none of the photographs have captions, commentary, or identifying information of any sort. They belong to a disembodied circulatory system in which proprietary considerations, the very notions of origin and authorship, are unsustainable. I find this anti-apparatus of anonymity one of the creepiest and most telling aspects of the site. I once sent Push the Movement an e-mail inquiring about the source of a picture I wanted to show in class (with nobody to contradict me, I call the photo “Postmodern Man on the Shores of Time, with History Weeping on his Behalf”; see below). I should have predicted as much: no response.

I became addicted to Push the Movement earlier in the year. The fineness of its visual eye attracted me initially, but the mystery of its tristesse is the real fascination. I recently reviewed the entire archive for 2011 – thousands of pictures – with my CPU wheezing and finally collapsing under the weight of what amounted to a single vast download. Context matters, but here, out of context, are a few pictures that gave me particular pause and ambivalent pleasure.

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"Green Bridge II" (1916).

By David Ross. Lyonel Feininger has suddenly and splendidly swung into view, like some rare astral event. The Whitney Museum is holding, through October 16, an exhibition called “Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World,” which should go far toward confirming the obvious: Feininger was for half a century one of the world’s chief painters. The exhibition is a major contention on his behalf, as the magnificent exhibition catalogue – available here – makes clear.

Feininger (1871-1956) is less celebrated than he should be principally because he confuses the national categories that structure so much art history. He was born in New York to German parents. So far so good. At age sixteen, he shifted his studies to Germany and wound up becoming the proverbial American abroad. During his fifty-year German sojourn, he fell in with the expressionists and later joined the faculty of the Bauhaus as an instructor in printmaking. During the 1920s, he became one of the “Blue Four,” an eminent coterie that included Kandinsky, Klee, and Alexej von Jawlensky (see here for an excellent survey). Feininger returned to the U.S. in 1937, after the Nazis sent a not so subtle signal by including his work in their infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibit.”

Neither quite American nor quite German, Feininger figures in nobody’s national tale. Had he remained in the U.S. or expatriated himself in England or France – countries entwined in our own modernist myth – I suspect he would now be considered one of the Titans of twentieth-century American art. Certainly he was a greater painter than Marsden Hartley (born 1877), Georgia O’Keeffe (born 1887), and Thomas Hart Benton (born 1889), who may be his closest American counterparts. As it is, the Wikipedia entry on American art does not even mention Feininger.

Complicating matters further, Feininger passed through three distinct and not easily reconciled phases. He was first a German expressionist, an oil cartoonist of spooky elongations and lurid Halloween scenery; he was second an impeccably elegant cubist of the school of Cezanne in its Weimar manifestation; he was third – especially during his later American years – a sketch artist whose modest drawings of sailboats, waterfront scenes, and New York buildings translated nature into a kind of wiry architecture, a taut cross-hatching whose inspiration, it’s not incredible to think, may have been the rigging of ships. These latter drawings, sometimes overlaid with watercolor, have a wonderful simplicity, a relaxed confidence in the soundness of their own geometry. Which is the primary Feininger? What explains the strange, disjunctive pattern of his career? There are no clear answers and thus few critics inclined to take up the questions. Continue reading »

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By David Ross. My preferred form of Internet time-wasting is “Google Images.” I collect photos of great writers, Georgian architecture, Michelin-starred food (the kind I may never get a chance to eat), nineteenth and early twentieth-century art (Samuel Palmer, Lyonel Feininger, Wyndham Lewis, etc.), and, yes, glamour shots of classic actresses, including, but not limited to, Anouk Aimee, Lauren Bacall, Capucine, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Anna Karina, and Grace Kelly, preferably in Givenchy or Chanel, always in glorious black and white. In short, I’m a minor connoisseur, on which basis I would like to make the reckless assertion that the above photo of Veronica Lake, circa 1941, is the greatest still photo – the most elegant, seductive, multivalent – ever taken of an actress. The photographer was George Hurrell (1904–1992), whom Virginia Postrel calls the “master of Hollywood glamour.” You can read about his revival here and buy his work here.

The photo seems at first glance your standard come-hither boilerplate, elevated, obviously, by Veronica’s preternatural bone structure and hallmark tresses. I find, though, that Veronica’s expression has a kind of Gioconda irreducibility. At once sexy, weary, predatory, and demure, her expression seems to say something like, “I have no interest in you – no interest in the mere world – but if you insist, I will rouse myself to the matter of your destruction – and you will relish every wound.” Notice the faint sneer that registers at the right corner of the mouth; notice the shadowed right eye that carries dual connotations of the harlequin and the gun moll with a shiner; notice the coffin-forming play of light and shadow. This is a disconcerting silhouette indeed: a dark little study of sex and death, a forked image of the sleeping beauty and the stirred succubus, the thirst-awakened vampiress.

In comparison, Rita Hayworth kneeling on her satin-sheeted bed and Marilyn Monroe struggling with her billowing skirt are images of mere adolescent wish fulfillment, of sweaty pubescence. If buxom vistas are your thing — well, enjoy. Hurrell’s version of Veronica Lake belongs to an entirely different category. Its glamour recalls Beardsley, Weimar, what have you; it’s not kid’s stuff.

Posted on September 9th, 2011 at 2:07pm.

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Author David Foster Wallace.

By David Ross. Every so often I dip into contemporary literature to confirm my sense that I’m not missing very much. I recall forays into the work of Paul Auster, Angela Carter, Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Franzen, Michel Houellebecq, Jay MacInerney, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, Chuck Palahniuk, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterston, and other passing fancies of Time and Newsweek. Zadie Smith waits her turn on my shelf. All this sifting of silt has produced only a few glinting nuggets. I discovered in Houellebecq a fierce and welcome fellow despiser of modernity (see my comments here), and something even more in David Foster Wallace: a vast nineteenth-century mind struggling to find itself.

The “covering cherub,” in Blake’s parlance, was the postmodernism that DFW formally embraced against the grain of his personality. He was profoundly sincere, empathetic, and humane, a believer in “the sub-surface unity of things,” as he puts it in his famous Kenyon graduation address of May 2005, and yet devoted his career to self-conscious intricacies of irony and gamesmanship. He made great art in this mode – only Nabokov and Borges are his postmodern betters – but it was not, I can’t help feeling, the art he was born to make.

I have additional misgivings about his prose, though he is the only prose writer of his generation even worth noting. While meticulously attentive to his art, he was ambivalent about the formality of his art, the ideal of the well-wrought urn. His language is often splendid, but always splendid despite a certain scruffiness and loose-limbed sprawl. My eye is always instinctively performing the function of an editor, pruning, reshaping. He was too invested in his own unpretentiousness, too much infected with the modern American ideal of jeans and sandals, which ultimately expresses a yearning to be liked, to be no better or different than the rest of the crowd. I suppose this is the symbolic meaning of DFW’s hallmark bandana, an accouterment of kitchen and field workers, housewives and athletes. Great writers don’t care about being liked. They scorn our right to judge. They discover themselves amid the execrations of the crowd.

Even with his foibles and arguable failings totted up, DFW was the redeemer of his literary generation. He saved it from the humiliation of being the first generation in American history to lay nothing – not the least nosegay – on the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. He saved it from the gaping wound of a great naught.

DFW’s rightly famous Kenyon Commencement Speech (here and here) has become a pop-cultural touchstone. Perhaps enthusiasm for it has already become a bit of a cliché. Yet I defy anybody to listen attentively without succumbing to its moral seriousness and sinking into an inner hush just as the initially boisterous Kenyon audience stills into an outer hush. In the guise and moment of his speech, DFW defies the default setting of the culture. He sheds his celebrity – the unpeelable skin of the Oprah era – and becomes the conduit and servant of a message more urgent than himself. Thus Emerson spoke from the podium of the Concord lyceum.

Alex Niven, a friend of a friend, comments intelligently on the speech and on much else concerning DFW.

Posted on August 24th, 2011 at 2:04pm.

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By David Ross. Every so often liberal big leaguers take a whack at Thomas Kinkade, the king of mall and mail-order art, the entrepreneurial painter laureate of what Jed Pearl calls “Wal-Mart America.” His depictions of gingerbread cottages nestled in what seem to be sleepy Cotswold hamlets are beloved by the masses and equally detested by people who consider themselves – by virtue of college degrees and the occasional glass of white wine with dinner – Blue State sophisticates. In 2001, Susan Orlean gave Kinkade the once-over in the New Yorker (see here), though she semi-restrained her snark on the grounds that Kinkade’s buffoonery speaks for itself. Pearl has now followed suit with an inchoate piece of hostility – titled “Bullshit Heaven” no less – in The New Republic. Extending the toilet metaphor, Pearl concludes that Kinkade has “urinated on us all.”

There’s no denying that Kinkade’s art is pure kitsch, a confection of Christmas-card nostalgia derived from Wordsworth at his most fey, Norman Rockwell at his most precious, and whoever first had the idea of painting and mass-producing scenes of beagles playing poker. His cotton-candy shire scenes look as if model trains should be running through them or Hobbits should be peeking from the windows. I would no more hang a Kinkade in my living room than a poster of Ashton Kutcher in the buff.

The blame is usually – okay, always – directed at putative yahoos who clamor for this kind of thing and create demand for what were better handled like dog poo in the street (quick condescending glance, wide berth). Articles about Kinkade are never really about Kinkade; they are about the people who buy Kinkade. Essentially, they license the readers of the New Yorker and The New Republic to look down on “Wal-Mart America” from a standpoint of cultural and aesthetic superiority. Their real substance, in other words, is Blue State-Red State politics.(I wonder, by the way, whether a film like Winter’s Bone doesn’t exploit the same condescension.) Continue reading »

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