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Tim Hetherington: It’s War

Like other great war photographers, the late Tim Hetherington always went beyond the raw surface of armed conflict to find a more intimate view—and a better understanding—of the combatants. In his images of Liberia, which begin this absorbing show, there are no gruesome scenes of battle. Rather, we get ironic, unsettlingly calm portraits of a country ruined by a chaotic civil war. A boy in a soccer shirt slouches at a schoolroom desk with a defiant stare, cradling his AK-47. A young member of a rebel faction relaxes at a table, where a grenade stands before him like a glass of juice.

The juxtapositions, beautifully composed, can be striking. The window of an abandoned hospital frames a landscape so verdant you might mistake it for a painting. Emblematic of the nation’s destitution, a fisherman steers his makeshift sailboat around the toppled, rusting hulk of a cargo ship, commandeered years before by marauders.

In the back room, the subject shifts to an American Army platoon posted to Afghanistan’s deadly (and dreaded) Korengal Valley. The photographs here, selected from Hetherington’s book Infidel, once again forgo combat and instead depict the soldiers, with brotherly affection, in states of nervous joy and exhaustion. In one series, each man simply sleeps, curled up on a bunk like a vulnerable kid. The same images show up in a short video, layered over clips of gunfire, helicopters, and screamed grief; the sequence plays like a preview for Restrepo, the searing documentary that Hetherington co-directed (with Sebastian Junger) about the same group.

Even more affecting is Diary, a 20-minute film that captures a war correspondent’s schizophrenic shuttling between home and horror. Frequent shifts in perspective make for a dizzying dreamscape. A yellow car in a street battle becomes, in nicely rendered match cut, a New York taxi. Sun-dappled England cross-fades into a decrepit infirmary of the writhing wounded. A scene of imminent murder dissolves to a tidy hotel room. The effect, in the end, is emotionally piercing, especially because Hetherington died only a year after completing the work, killed in 2011 covering Libya’s bloody revolution.

THOMAS NOZKOWSKI: ‘NEW EDITIONS AND RELATED DRAWINGS’

If Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings and prints are enigmatic—the word most often used to describe them—then it’s because their biomorphic shapes and irregular geometric patterns always seem vaguely referential or imbued with logic. The new pieces here, too, tap into our pleasure with puzzle-solving: a teetering stack of polygons, a black mound with window-like squares, and rows of squashed hexagons that resemble 1970s op art. Slightly different iterations of each design encourage the notion that Nozkowski is embedding various codes of meaning.

A separate series of graphite drawings brings a more whimsical approach to similar sets of forms; their carefree lines are reminiscent of Philip Guston’s late cartoony period. That playfulness is what makes all of Nozkowski’s abstractions so instantly accessible, even as they resist the best efforts at interpretation. Senior & Shopmaker Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue, 212-213-6767, seniorandshopmaker.com. Through June 16.

TADANORI YOKOO: ‘KORA-JU’

Although best known as a designer of vivid posters in the 1960s and ’70s that advertised the arts, Tadanori Yokoo has spent decades making small but visually rich collages—exhibited here in their U.S. debut. Pieced together with snippings from vintage magazines, his surrealist scenes of incongruous images often gently satirize American icons, placing him in the arena of Richard Hamilton. In California Vision (2002), a nude pinup girl posing poolside appears oblivious to a fish, an acrobat, and a flying saucer hovering above her head. Another fantasy—Attack What? (2001)—has U.S. soldiers assaulting a sliced-open fruit pit, which displays decidedly vaginal clefts.

More recently, Yokoo has left narrative interests aside. The seamless layering of the earlier theatrical style has given way to rough mash-ups of cultural references. The astronauts and Neanderthals of Science and Primitive (2012) float in a cluttered sea of movie stills, text, and bits of advertising. No longer neatly trimmed, the individual parts seem to have been torn from their original pages and assembled in a frenzy—a reflection, perhaps, of today’s information overload. Friedman Benda, 515 West 26th Street, 212-239-8700, friedmanbenda.com. Through June 8.

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The Seedy Side of Albuquerque, But No Judgments, in Bad Posture

On a particularly hot summer day, monotone male housemates Flo (Florian Brozek, who also wrote the film) and Trey (Trey Cole) seek shade at a local duck pond. (Trey: “What the fuck else do you have to do today?” Flo: “Not shit.”) There, Flo attempts to pick up buried-in-a-book Marissa (Tabatha Shaun), while unbeknownst to both of them Trey loots her purse. The guys wind up flipping her car for $400 and an AK-47, which Trey eventually fires into his own toilet. Welcome to Albuquerque, or at least Bad Posture‘s outlaws-in-collared-shirts cross section of it, a place where everything, save for the occasional lawn, seems to have been burned to an almost charmingly charmless nihilist crisp. Various felonies and misdemeanors bogart the runtime: Trey buys (with intent to distribute) a lot of drugs, Flo gets hit over the head with a shovel during a house-party brawl, and the two find something like a creative outlet in spray-paint vandalism. Almost imperceptibly, a narrative begins to sprout up in the cracks between this immaculately shot misconduct, as stone-faced Flo—moved by remorse, and maybe even affection—quietly orchestrates the return of each of Marissa’s belongings. Bad Posture, the first narrative feature from director Malcolm Murray, is sure to unsettle those who prefer films to pass clear judgment on not-so-upstanding types, but it’s hard not to admire such a drolly off-kilter pass at the domestic regionalist indie.

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THEATER GONE WILD

Though our city’s annual FringeNYC will soon turn 14, it shows relatively few signs of adolescent angst: no slammed doors, no talkback at the dinner table, only a smidgen of inappropriate eye makeup. But expect plenty of raging hormones when this celebration of low budgets and high ambitions begins August 13. Eighteen theaters will host more than 200 dramas, comedies, solo shows, puppet plays, and unclassifiable oddities, hailing from as near as next door and as far-flung as Singapore and the Netherlands. This year’s selections run the gamut from “A” (AK-47 Sing-Along) to “Z” (well, “W,” anyway, Wanton Displays of Affection). Get your teenage kicks through August 29.

Aug. 13-29, 2010

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The Club: Not Even Fun When You’re Winning

To all the gun-toting video game bad guys out there: Please stop standing next to exploding barrels. Seriously now. Of the hundreds of places you could squat and shoot, you and your henchman pals always camp beside the neon orange canister with “FLAMMABLE!” painted on the side. Really, we don’t need your charity.

Of course, we get it anyway in the new first-person shooter The Club, which might as well be called “Join the Club.” It’s yet another clumsy death match game with splatter-heavy kills, generic characters, and — did we mention? — plenty of clueless idiots hiding next to dubious barrels.

The Club is novel enough to combine elements of first-person shooters and racing games, but the game play is as creatively empty as the clip in your AK-47. The premise, too, is delightfully stupid: An evil rich guy injects explosive microchips into a group of banal badasses and forces them into a Mortal Kombat-style shoot-’em-up contest.

In single-player mode, you’ll gun your way through claustrophobic, linear maps highlighted with a fresh coat of drab paint. Unlike the wonderful Team Fortress 2, there’s no strategy behind the massacre — simply hold down the trigger and plow forward, dick swinging as you go.

Now about that “racing” angle. Early on, The Club preaches the importance of sprinting from kill to kill, and so you’ll work feverishly to rack up kill combos. One level even has you running in laps, murdering as many faceless thugs as you can before crossing an actual checkered finish line. There’s a cool germ of an idea there: a game where if you quit killing for too long, you’ll die. A game where, if this were Speed, you’d be the bus. But while senseless killing without pause does help you rack up points, all the tension is forfeited when you realize it’s not required.

And other than feeling silly, you can’t help but realize how slow all this racing around seems to be, especially when compared to the hyperkinetic action of Unreal Tournament or Quake.

Laughably, one “survival” challenge sticks you in one spot, from which you hammer away at a horde of oncoming gun-fodder. Cross an arbitrary line on the floor, and your bomb implant is triggered. (Yes, chalk lines can trigger electronic devices. Just let it go.)

Most embarrassing are the game’s purported “stylish kills,” wherein you get more points for being fancy with your runnin’ and gunnin’. Popular moves include kicking down a door and blasting everyone, firing in mid-somersault, and . . . here it comes . . . shooting any number of exploding barrels laying around the countryside. Take that, John Woo!

The Club’s lone redeeming element may be its frantic multiplayer mode. Perfect for fans of old-school shooters, it allows you to kill constantly, die and revive instantly, and cheat by hanging out near weapon respawn points. Even so, the only kills I managed were by shooting guys who got stuck in the wall, thanks to game glitches.

During a recent match in which my team was beaten like Master Chief’s stepchild, I listened to my enemy’s online chatter. “This game’s actually fun when you’re winning!” bragged PapaSmurf929. With apologies to all of Smurf Village, I gotta disagree.

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‘Looking for an Icon’

Made to honor the 50th anniversary of the “World Press Photo of the Year,” this documentary fails as both birthday present and theoretical inquiry. The film focuses on four modern “icons”: a Vietnamese soldier shooting a dissident in the head; a student blocking a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square; Salvador Allende just before death, AK-47 in hand; and a wounded soldier from the first Gulf War, his friend in a body bag beside him. The interviews, courtesy of the surviving photographers and critic David Levi Strauss, ask all the standards: Does a photo distort the event? Who controls the image? How does the image control history? All very Media Theory 101. The real questions start when one critic suggests that the Allende photo is an icon only as an idea, and the Gulf photo only because the press was restricted. That, of course, is why neither is actually an icon, just a contest winner. Shadowing the whole enterprise is the absence of My Lai and Abu Ghraib—ineligible since they weren’t professionally shot—not to mention, more obviously, the first 100 years of photography. The film, contrived to avoid its own constraints, misses the contest’s most fascinating question: Why, over the course of 50 years, they selected so few iconic images.