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Can I Interest You in a Masterpiece?

I have a fantasy piece of conceptual art: Become an art adviser to some hedge-fund bro whose surfeit of cash and arrogance is inversely proportional to taste and sensitivity. Start by purchasing, on his dime, bloated canvases by overrated blue-chippers; next, add in a heaping pile of kitsch under some banner of hipster irony, pay shill-inflated auction prices, hire a congenitally over-budget architect to build a vanity museum, collect exorbitant art-advisory fees, and all the while keep a running tab of the boondoggle — a printout of which is displayed as the final artwork.

Damn it, though, I think the German conceptualist/trickster/ salesman/provocateur/celeb Christian Jankowski may have beaten me to the punch. Or at least, the homely paintings and drawings and off-kilter sculpture and videos that make up his current show at Petzel Gallery have punched a hole in my logic.

So, let’s run this Jankowski thing down: Conceptualist? Keep reading.

Trickster? How else to explain the way in which Jankowski cajoles everyone from museum directors to yacht manufacturers, television producers, arts writers, and the general public to embark on collaborations that are as much about human relationships as any resulting objets d’art. For instance, in 1992 Jankowski could be found in a supermarket “hunting” foods and sundries with a bow and arrow. Documentary materials reveal that while he was careful to avoid the security cameras during his performance, he brought the pierced toilet paper roll, bread loaf, and other staples to the checkout counter in his cart like any other shopper. Jankowski’s website relates that the woman at the cash register “remained wholly unimpressed by the trophies of his ‘bargain hunt,’ which she scanned with the arrows still sticking out of them. He has to pay like everyone else.”

Drumbeat of the heart. Jankowski installation view.

In the current show at Petzel, we are first confronted by a tower of drum cases tall enough, as it happens, for a man to stand inside (Contemporary Farewell, 2017.) A handout informs us that hundreds of spectators had gathered at a Leipzig museum to wish the departing director bon voyage but were told that the guest of honor had fallen into the gray plaster column while inspecting it and would deliver his speech from the interior. A microphone was set up to amplify his words and his heartbeat (the human drumbeat, as it were) as the speeches were delivered. This ungainly pillar (literally of plaster and metaphorically of culture) became an artifact of proper patrons and distinguished guests maintaining decorum amidst a ludicrous situation. Such work feels influenced by the installations of the brilliant Ilya Kabakov, which often focused on the darkness-at-noon absurdities of the Soviet Union. In one piece, Kabakov transformed a Spartan public toilet commonly found at bus stops in the Soviet provinces into a typically cramped communal Moscow apartment.

‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’

Kabakov was born in 1933, and has youthful memories of Nazi tanks invading his homeland, which may explain why his fatalistic wit never quite erupts into full-blown humor. Jankowski (born in 1968, in Göttingen, West Germany) is from a more congenial background, and his work can be truly funny. But sometimes, as in a video in the exhibition that revisits the theme of art professionals consumed by their obsessions, the humor can be a tad broad. In 2017’s What Could Possibly Go Wrong, the setup is that Jankowski has brought an alligator and an animal trainer to welcome a new director to Michigan State University’s Broad Museum. In short order, the director is menaced and then swallowed by the reptile, but survives and gamely gives an interview, in situ, to a local TV news anchorman. Jokes about belly laughs and fake news aside, what does it say about the art world to morph a museum director into a lumbering, scaly predator?

Salesman is a subset of Trickster: Jankowski once partnered with a boat manufacturer to offer a yacht and a stylish speedboat to the collector class, both of which would have a substantial premium added to their sticker prices if they bore his name, a case of the Artist’s signature enhancing the value of whatever it graces. Jankowski’s gambits have come a long way from Marcel Duchamp’s early-20th-century readymades, which were “chosen” — the key to understanding the artist’s role as cultural arbiter — for their rote utility. Duchamp’s workaday objects were so base that they kept getting thrown out, which is why we have only replicas of pieces such as his bottle rack (1914, also known as Hedgehog). One wonders what an institution such as the Philadelphia Museum paid for its copy, but if the original with its painted inscription were to ever miraculously turn up, its next-to-zero material value — transmuted through auction alchemy into nine figures — would prove both artists’ points.

Like Duchamp, Jankowski understands that there is no price tag on the heart’s desires, and over and over again he asks, “Is this art?” I know firsthand how persuasive Jankowski can be, as I participated (along with maybe a hundred other arts writers) in the collaborative piece Review (2012). Long story short, each writer agreed to provide Jankowski with a review of his exhibition Review before it existed, agreeing to place his or her speculations inside a bottle chosen by the writer — unread by anyone but its author. Jankowski then sealed said bottles with red wax, a motley collection of glass that constituted the artwork. Only a born huckster could get writers to swallow their egos and write a piece designed to be a mute object. (Jankowski let it be known that any writer who revealed the contents of the hidden essay — or maybe mash note, shopping list, or screenplay, who knows? — would have that bottle removed from the piece. I personally may have found a way around that stricture; it is for the reader — and ultimately, Jankowski — to decide):

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Which brings us to Provocateur, though perhaps interpreting the caricatures and paintings in the back gallery as “ugly” might trigger the retort, “Ugly is as ugly does.” In the series “Me in the Eyes of Another Actor,” the definition of “me” becomes a communal project. Last year, Jankowski asked pairs of artists who work in a Paris park, similar to the caricaturists in New York’s Times Square, to make drawings of themselves as Isabelle Huppert and one other actor, selected by Jankowski, on the same page. Huppert and her agent chose the photos from which her likenesses were rendered; portraits of such stars as Scarlett Johansson, Adrien Brody, and George Clooney were selected by Jankowski from celebrity portraits the artists keep on hand as samples of their drawing abilities.

Isabelle Huppert - Nastassja Kinski from the series: Me in the Eyes of another Actor 2017 drawing, coal and coloured pencil on paper Framed Dimensions: 22.24 x 28.11 inches 56.5 x 71.4 cm
Artists drawing artists: Isabelle Huppert – Nastassja Kinski from the series: “Me in the Eyes of Another Actor.”

For the project, the artists were instructed to portray each other’s postures and clothes and then add the heads on each other’s bodies, a process Jankowski likens to “the iconic drawing from M.C. Escher, where one hand with a pencil draws the other hand with a pencil.” To take a single example from the dozen or so on display, a comically proportioned and smiling Huppert — her head pinched in at the eyes, her legs and a cartoonish easel sketched in quick outlines, has been contrasted with a grim, carefully shaded Gérard Depardieu. The skill levels vary from clumsy to serviceable to art-class standout, but anyone who has bought a caricature for a relative visiting from the hinterlands knows it’s the thrill of sitting for a portrait done by a “real” artist that makes the work important in a personal sense: It’s one of a kind and it’s me! Though in this case, who exactly is “me”? Huppert, who wasn’t even present? Jankowski, who directed the project? Or the artists themselves, their own bodies portrayed under someone else’s head?

“Me in the Eyes of another Actor / Isabelle Huppert – George Clooney,” 2017.

A similar transmutation of “me” occurs in the “Neue Malerei” (“New Painting”) series. Jankowski searched the Internet for images in which a person or group of people reenacted scenes from famous paintings, such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. He then sent the image files to artists in China who make their living copying famous paintings. In a number of cases, large sections of the canvas have been left blank because the folks who set up the tableaux vivants often did not take care to get the proportions correct. Hence, roughly the bottom quarter of the Rembrandt that Jankowski commissioned is bare, because whoever composed the ersatz Night Watch — despite taking the time to approximate the 17th-century costumes — neglected to include the receding arch positioned above the militiamen in the original. Rembrandt’s dark void adds unexpected formal dynamism and emotional depth to his theatrical but compellingly realistic masterpiece. The virtuoso transformed the information his eyes received from live models through the motions of his own legs, spine, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers as he worked upon the huge (roughly 12-by-14-foot) canvas, physical actions that distilled three dimensions into two. In the painted copy created from a digital image, much has been lost in translation. And yet, in this ouroboros of depiction — Old Master canvas to posed digital image to painted knockoff — Jankowski has captured the passion that art engenders. Because you have to really care a lot to dress up in period garb and plot out where the woman with the chicken stands, and someone has to wrangle the dog so that your photo is at least a ballpark imitation of the Rembrandt — or Richter or Van Gogh or Matisse — which has been put through the Jankowski blender.

Neue Malerei - Rembrandt II 2018 Oil on canvas 142.91 x 172.05 inches 363 x 437 cm
Rembrandt from China: “Neue Malerei – Rembrandt II.”

By using other people’s imagery, no matter how amateurish, Jankowski exposes the spark of life that animates great art, and the craving people of all persuasions have to experience its jolt. Creation requires desperately hard work, in which the artist must be prepared to corral a lightning inspiration one moment and play a protracted chess match of thrusts, retreats, and waltzes at another. There are no formulas. On an aesthetic scale, Jankowski’s commissioned copies range from banal to bizarre (the scalded-pink color of the bathers’ flesh in a “Cézanne” is pretty off-putting). Yet in their desire to literally inhabit the spaces of great art, the various folk that Jankowski collaborates with — at however many removes — recall the “Social Sculpture” of one of his forebears and countrymen, Joseph Beuys (1921–86). In 1977, the German city of Münster staged an open-air sculpture exhibition and invited the former Luftwaffe pilot turned sculptor/performance artist/conceptual shaman to participate. Always on the lookout for poorly considered social environments, Beuys discovered a concrete dead zone inside a pedestrian underpass, which one curator described as “a deep wedge-shaped acute angle in which nothing but dirt could collect.” Collaborating with the unknowing and obviously expedient architect, Beuys built an exact mold of the void and then filled it with twenty tons of melted animal fat, which took three months to solidify. The result was an angular, sixteen-foot-high totem that, unlike stone or bronze, contained an inherent warmth, an abstraction that radiated corporeal presence.

Broadcast in Germany since 1970, Tatort’s credit sequence is a retro delight.

Which leads us to Celebrity. Jankowski was invited to participate in “Sculpture Project Münster” exactly forty years after Beuys pulled off his humanist intervention in that northwestern German city. But, similar to Andy Warhol’s turn as himself on TV’s The Love Boat, in 1985, Jankowski dispensed with objects and opted to make art from artifice. Jankowski is that rare artist with enough cultural wattage (in Germany, at any rate) to guest-star on the extremely popular police-procedural TV show Tatort (“Crime Scene”), which has run continuously since 1970 (and the title sequence looks it). Tatort sprawls across Germany, with episodes taking place in various cities. The Münster incarnation features two of the most popular characters, unkempt Detective Chief Inspector Frank Thiel and his insufferably high-falutin’ buddy (and landlord), forensics professor Karl-Friedrich Boerne.

In the witty episode in which Jankowski appears, murder victims preserved by DIY embalming mysteriously appear as sculptures throughout the city. As Boerne says, after exposing a human finger under mummy bandages covering a rogue sculpture: “We have an art-loving serial killer in Münster.” Jankowski has a small but important role as the artist “Jan Christowski,” who keeps his art concealed in a suitcase. During the investigation he agrees to open the case for one of the detectives, who in turn agrees not to reveal the contents. “OK, let’s make a deal,” the artist says, offering his hand. Later, when Christowski snitches on a colleague, the scene rings false, until, after an arrest is made, he retracts his testimony: “To create a good work, one must add something to reality, such as it is. The artist and audience agree to play a game with a different reality.”

The detective wears a Beuys vest for Münster’s sculpture project.

Words that might perfectly describe Jankowski’s ongoing sleight-of-hand career. But that has not stopped the producers of the show from protesting that he cannot present the episode in a gallery as an artwork by Christian Jankowski, which is exactly what the artist has done in the Petzel exhibition. Jankowski responded to the controversy in a recent interview with Artnet News: “From my perspective, it is my artwork because I came to [the German TV network] with the idea,” adding, “I pitched that I would play as myself in the fictional story of Tatort taking place during the Sculpture Projects.”

Hmmm. In a court of law I might ask, Who wrote the Jankowski-like lines for the Christowski character? Also, Who dressed Detective Thiel in a utilitarian, pocketed vest that very much resembled Joseph Beuys’s standard garb? (A Google image search for the characters does not show Theil wearing such a get-up in other episodes.) Münster is a cultural capital, so perhaps the show’s costumer was simply giving a visual shout-out to the sculpture project’s history.

And — SPOILER ALERT — we’ll note that the Christowski character is given the last word, dialogue that should perhaps be etched on Jankowski’s tombstone (which, come to think of it, should be offered for sale at auction one day): “Well? Was that art? You decide.”

‘Christian Jankowski: 2017’
Petzel
456 West 18th Street
petzel.com

Through August 3

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The Monuments Men Is Not Monumental

Art may not be more important than human lives. But on the list of things that mean something to human lives, across centuries, it ranks pretty high. That’s what’s so compelling about the story of the Monuments Men, a group of people from 13 nations who volunteered to protect cultural treasures from destruction during World War II. Most of us like to think we’d stride into a combat zone to save a distressed child. But would we do the same for a Michelangelo Madonna?

You can see why George Clooney, director and star of The Monuments Men, would be attracted to these comparatively unheralded heroes, particularly as Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter) presents them in his gloriously readable 2009 book of the same name. Edsel focuses on the eight men, among them museum curators and art historians, who trekked to Europe at the tail end of the war “to inspect and preserve” every important work of art or architecture in the path of the Allied forces between the English Channel and Berlin — and, as it turns out, ended up saving hundreds of stolen works that Hitler’s troops had amassed for a grand museum to be built in the Führer’s honor in Austria.

History, politics, and civic ideals are catnip to Clooney the director, and following those interests led him to make the finest of his five pictures (Good Night, and Good Luck), as well as a stolid, not terrifically memorable one (The Ides of March). What’s more, Edsel’s account of the Monuments Men’s subtle heroics features a character Clooney was born to play: Harvard art conservator George S. Stout, the man responsible for assembling this corps of trained specialists, a pencil-mustached gent whose uniform was neatly pressed even under the most trying conditions.

But The Monuments Men, either despite its clearly noble intentions or because of them, stumbles on the march. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov embellish, rearrange, and condense many of the details. They also change the names of the characters, reduce their number to seven, and turn them into composites, none of which is a problem. But Clooney can’t control the story; it keeps flying out of his grasp like an unruly spring. The Monuments Men feels loose and disorganized, even though all the requisite cogs (including a jaunty ascot of a score by Alexandre Desplat) have been accounted for.

At least Clooney finds glory in the corners. His great skill as a director may be his affinity for actors. The performers in a Clooney-directed movie nearly always have some quiet sparkle about them. Onscreen here, Clooney, though dashing, is more an emcee than a central figure. He has also taken the liberty of pairing characters off into unlikely twosomes, and as these duos set out to face both the usual and some unexpected dangers, those chemistry experiments pay off. John Goodman (as a jolly sculptor) and Jean Dujardin (an unidentified art expert type, really just the movie’s token French charmer) head out in a jeep, as if on a lark, eventually reaching a field populated by a single, magnificent horse. Dujardin leaps from the truck to say hello, though he has nothing to offer his new friend but a cigarette (wisely rejected). The moment is wonderful, a meeting of two long-legged movie-star beauties.

Less dazzling but possibly more complex is the tentative tango between Matt Damon (a medieval art expert) and Cate Blanchett (an icy French secretary who seems to have more feeling for art than people). Damon’s character has more down-home charm than you’d expect from a medieval art guy, but you believe in him anyway, and Blanchett gives a slightly stylized performance that opens out like a cautious morning glory.

Hugh Bonneville has some nicely tuned moments as an art enthusiast with a lifelong affection for the Madonna of Bruges, the only Michelangelo sculpture to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime. Clooney plays fast and loose with some of the facts here, but he wisely takes note of one real-life detail: German soldiers — at that point in the war, retreating and desperate and therefore perhaps even more driven to please their leader — stole the Madonna by wrapping her in mattresses and hustling her away in a Red Cross truck, a dirty trick even for Nazis.

The finest scenes belong to Bob Balaban, as a cranky unspecified expert at something-or-other, and Bill Murray, who plays a renowned architect — that’s pretty hilarious casting, though somehow it works. Balaban’s character, disgruntled that he’s only a private, wants little to do with anyone else, least of all loosey-goosey Murray. Still, as both people and movie characters do, they forge a friendship out of dirty looks and grumbling. Hunkered down in an army encampment, they huddle over packages sent from home: Balaban’s contains crackers, a gift that delights him; his features, previously so pinched and cranky, suddenly seem lit from within. Murray’s contains a recording made by his daughter and grandchildren, but he needs a record player to hear it, and good luck finding one of those. The actors then share one of those graceful, underplayed moments that you remember long after your memories of an otherwise not-great movie have dimmed. The Monuments Men fails in its grand ambitions, but it’s still satisfying in bits and pieces, like a busted statue. Even a tribute made of shining fragments counts for something.

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In All Is Lost, Robert Redford Won’t Go Down Easily

The title All Is Lost promises despair, especially with Robert Redford looking so stolid and weathered and still-got-it golden on the poster. Could this near-silent, you-are-there survival story be another of Redford’s yawps of boomer gloom? Another complaint, like The Company You Keep, about the realization that the world we seemed to be building to in the late ’60s turned out to be this one, compromised by money and cynicism, where the kids, if you can get their attention for even a moment, are all, “The Sundance Kid? What was his superpower?”

Sundance did have one, actually: holding the culture together through the Nixon crack-up, mostly with rumpled handsomeness.

Fortunately, the intimate, somewhat terrifying All Is Lost is much better than that, partially because here Redford is asked only to hold himself together. (America will do fine on its own.) The result is something no Redford movie has been in the lifetime of many filmgoers: a genuine nail-biter, scrupulously made and fully involving, elemental in its simplicity. Redford stars with just a yacht, a lifeboat, a shipping crate, a million miles of pitiless ocean, and what might be the movies’ most indefatigable hairpiece. Outside of a snatch of voiceover in the opening seconds, he speaks only four or so times the whole film. For once, he’s not the suave master of everything around him—he’s just a guy, trying not to die.

A fabulously wealthy and capable guy, of course. In the first moments, Redford’s character—hereafter let’s just call him Redford—awakens on his fancypants boat to discover that even the insulated rich sometimes take a hit from globalization—in this case, in the form of a one-size-fits-all shipping crates, a floating boxcar that has spilled off a trawler and cracked Redford’s yacht. The rest of the film is him just dealing with this. His radio is fried, the boat is sinking, the nearest shipping lanes are hundreds of miles away—and even if he could reach them, what are the odds that one of today’s overpacked, understaffed cargo ships would even spot him? (International shipping: another thing that’s lost its soul since the ’60s!)

Director J.C. Chandor proves adept at process, the sort of thing Hollywood isn’t much good at anymore. The whole of All Is Lost is just a person taking clear and meaningful action in a cramped, precarious space. In a way, it’s an earthbound variation on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, with one inhospitable element swapped for another, and desperate folks hauling every bit of strength and ingenuity up out of themselves to survive.

Chandor shrewdly handles the complex cause-and-effect of maritime life: It’s always clear what each rope Redford handles is attached to, and there’s wonderful tension in moments when the star is clambering from bow to stern; those surfaces are slick, those waves unpredictable, that ocean sickeningly dark. As the water gushes in, and the yacht lists at queasy angles, the simplest tasks prove suspenseful, and the difficult ones—shimmying up the mast, or fishing in shark-infested waters—are hold-your-breath stuff.

The film is, in one respect, more daring than Cuarón’s: We’re given only a few hints about this yachtman’s pre-crisis life, and certainly no traumatic backstory of the sort that Hollywood producers think makes characters easier to relate to. He has no George Clooney to buck him up, no volleyball to spill his guts to, no flashbacks to take a breather in. That’s just fine. Redford, as always, commands the screen, and is more moving the more his visage is laid into. He grows weatherbeaten, pinking with the sun, his lips chafing, his voice, the few times you hear it, dry as crumbling snakeskin. The will to survive is moving enough—here it is, stripped to its elements, and if you can’t bring yourself to care about something that simple then the problem is you, not the movies.

Redford gets harrowed, but not quite as thoroughly as he might have. Since the film achieves its considerable suspense through painstaking verisimilitude, its boat and sea always behaving as boats and seas really do, it’s somewhat disappointing that, when Redford’s old-man character is dunked in storm, his improbable old man hair isn’t washed away; it’s the one thing in the movie that doesn’t feel credible. I won’t suggest that the septuagenarian hunk’s Kennedy-thick mop has been augmented—maybe he truly did hit the genetic lottery in every way possible. If that is his natural hair, God bless him, but wouldn’t the film have been more powerful—and this man’s plight even more desperate—if they had fitted Redford out with a mortal’s bald pate? You can’t really claim all is lost when, nearing 80, you’re still blessed with that.

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One Giant Leap: Gravity Is a Thrilling Breakthrough

Some movies are so tense and deeply affecting that they shave years off your life as you’re watching, only to give back that lost time, and more, at the end. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one of those movies.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts—one a medical engineer, the other, as he puts it, the guy who “drives the bus”—who find themselves adrift in space, cut off from all (or almost all) Earth communication. This is Cuarón’s first movie since his stunning dystopian fantasy Children of Men, from 2006, and his first in 3D. After several years of 3D pointlessness, I’m thoroughly sick of the format, and you may be, too. But instead of attempting to make us believe 3D is a new language, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use it simply to expand the emotional vocabulary of filmmaking, to explore both wonder and the thing that makes wonder possible: despair. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max–colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin’ at ya: To see Clooney and Bullock floating and circling one another, nearly drifting into oblivion only to be reeled back, all captured in takes so long it’s as if Cuarón’s camera can’t bring itself to look away—this is what 3D was made for.

Gravity is remarkable because it’s both a spectacle and a platform for its actors, especially Bullock. Cuarón has some fun with stock 3D effects: Wrenches, bolts, fountain pens, a little Marvin the Martian figurine complete with scrub-brushy helmet all float by at some point in that optical neverland between the screen and our fingertips. As astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, Bullock and Clooney float, too, but it’s a different and generally more marvelous thing. In the early moments, the duo have left the comfort of their space station: She’s intent on installing a very important whatchamacallit into a thingie—doing so successfully will give her a chance at better funding for her research back home. He, on the other hand, is just fooling around, trying out a new jet pack—he resembles a toy, a human Buzz Lightyear who, thanks to NASA technology, really can fly. While Stone sweats, perhaps literally—she’s not feeling well on this particular day—Kowalski busies himself with being a goofball, entertaining ground control in Houston with tall tales and general waggery. (The voice you hear from the home planet belongs to Ed Harris, who played John Glenn better than anyone else could have in Philip Kaufman’s superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) The setup makes sense: Clooney is the clown, Bullock is the grind. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least the heavens.

What follows is a romance, with elements of romantic comedy and dream logic mixed in. If Clooney’s is the encouraging voice you want to hear when you’re trapped in the vast nowhere of space, Bullock’s face is the one you want to see. An early scene shows her drifting farther and farther from everything she knows, tetherless, possibly losing oxygen. She’s terrified but also astonished at what might be happening to her, and she has never looked more beautiful—Lubezki renders her skin as luminous as platinum. Even the sound of her breathing, strained and intensified, draws us close to her.

For all the dazzling technique, this really is Bullock’s movie. Stone continues to talk even after contact with home has been lost: Kowalski has reminded her that even though she can’t hear Houston, Houston may be able to hear her, which is as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of. And so she takes us, if not some unseen and unheard God, into her confidence with her soliloquies—we might be the last human beings to hear them, but Bullock treats them like casual conversation. She’s the perfect opposite of a grand dame actress: Instead of making pronouncements, she strives to connect.

Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. In Gravity‘s vision of space, all the whites are whiter and the darknesses darker: From the astronauts’ point of view, the world looks like a kind of sky, a bright bowl of day turned upside-down over night. It’s gorgeous, but it’s also a solemn reminder that these two are just one small step away from eternal isolation. The score, by English composer Steven Price, captures that tension perfectly. Its tones are broad and low, the province of the contrabassoon and of undersea monsters, except we’re not just talking about the sea or the musical staff. To go deeper into space means going farther out, and Kowalski and Stone find themselves at the edge of an ocean with no bottom, an infinity of unimaginable loneliness.

No space movie arises from a vacuum, and while there may be a mad rush to compare Gravity with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cuarón’s vision is a world apart from Kubrick’s. Kubrick approached space with a cool, confident master plan; Cuarón proceeds with awe. Gravity has more in common with The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma’s sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn’t so much about space as about the space program, and Cuarón—who co-wrote the script with Jonás Cuarón, his son—likewise captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates human beings to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. And Cuarón, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. To this day, detractors of Mission to Mars make fun of the picture’s allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts—who are usually men of science, not Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads—speak when they get that first long-distance view of Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best.

The pivotal event in Gravity is an echo, possibly a conscious one, of the tenderest, most tragic moment in Mission to Mars. Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness—for a place, a person, a planet—is universal. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing

 

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is Lightning From the Heavens

The late, great Elmore Leonard advised writers never to open a book with weather. Does a lightning storm count? Last evening I was welcomed to Venice, where I’m just settling in for the 2013 edition of the city’s film festival, with a spectacular lightning storm over the Grand Canal. This is my fourth time at the festival, as well as my fourth time in Venice, and I’ve seen these storms before–the atmospheric something-or-other, plus all this water, plus the magnetic beauty of this elderly and stately city, combine to create the perfect conditions. But I’m always struck by these storms; there’s nothing like them at home in New York. And when I see one on my first night here, I always wonder if it’s a good omen, a promise of similar drama and majesty in the movies to come.

Alfonso Cuarón, whom I now count as one of our greatest living directors, hurled a massive bolt at me this morning with Gravity. I haven’t yet fully recovered. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts–one a medical engineer, the other a sort of highly skilled grease monkey who knows everything about how spacecraft work–who find themselves adrift in space, cut off from all (or almost all) Earth communication. This is Cuarón’s first film since his stunning dystopian fantasy 2006 Children of Men, and his first in 3D. I’m thoroughly sick of 3D movies and, until this morning, at least, I would have been happy to never have to look at one again. But I wasn’t prepared for the way Cuarón uses it to explore both wonder and despair, in Gravity. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max–colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin’ at you: This is what 3D was made for.

Gravity is remarkable because it’s both a spectacle and a platform for performers, especially Bullock. Cuarón has some fun with stock 3D effects: wrenches, nuts, bolts, fountain pens, a little Marvin the Martian figurine in its scrub-brushy helmet–all float by at some point, in that optical neverland between the screen and our fingertips. Bullock and Clooney float too, but it’s a different and generally more marvelous thing. In the movie’s early moments, Bullock and Clooney have left the comfort of their space station. She’s intent on installing a very important whatchamacallit to a thingie outside the ship–doing so successfully will give her a chance at better funding for her research back home. He, on the other hand, is just drifting around, being a goofball, entertaining ground control in Houston with tall tales and general waggery. (The voice you hear from the home planet belongs to Ed Harris, who played John Glenn better than anyone else could have in Philip Kaufman’s superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) The setup makes sense: Clooney is the clown, Bullock is the grind. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least the heavens.

What follows is a romance, with elements of romantic comedy and dream logic mixed in. If Clooney’s is the voice you want to hear when you’re trapped in the vast nowhere of space, Bullock’s face is the one you want to see. An early scene shows her drifting further and further away from everything she knows, untethered, possibly losing oxygen. She’s terrified but also astonished at what might be happening to her, and her face has never looked more beautiful–cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki renders her skin as luminous as platinum. Even the sound of her breathing, strained and intensified, draws us close to her. This really is Bullock’s movie. She continues to talk even after contact with home has been lost (Clooney’s character has reminded hers that even though she can’t hear Houston, Houston may be able to hear her). She takes us into her confidence with her soliloquies–we might be the last human beings to hear them.

Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón even merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. No space movie arises from a vacuum, and the obvious comparative pulse points for this one include The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma’s sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn’t so much about space as about the space program, but Cuarón–who co-wrote the script with Jonás Cuarón, his son–captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates any human being who actually makes it into space. And Cuarón, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. At the time Mission to Mars was released, detractors made fun of the allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts–who are usually men of science, not Iowa Workshop grads–speak when they get that first long-distance view of planet Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best. (Elmore, incidentally, would agree.)

Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness–for a place, a person, a planet–is universal. Incidentally, the first person who tries to tell me Gravity is “unrealistic” or “implausible” is going to get a mock-Vulcan salute and a kick in the pants.

Given the amount of balderdash we have to swallow just to get through a typical summer movie season, taking a small leap of faith and imagination with Cuarón should hardly be a problem. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.

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Reading Around: Mary Shelley Meets Grave Robbers, Movie Stars, and Other Monsters

Chief among the dark oddities of life in 18th- and 19th-century London is that the city, which produced so many dead, was itself forever in want of corpses. Grave robbers found stocking the labs of scientists and students such profitable work that they eventually ruled over their own pub, the Fortune of War, not far from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and Medical College. They even seized upon a lofty name for their trade: resurrectionists. This crew survived long after Parliament chose to furnish to the city’s anatomists with the cadavers generated at the Old Bailey hanging grounds, a public abattoir so busy it would make Texas governors blanch. In the 1810s, body-theft got bad enough that entrepreneurial souls began peddling “coffin collars”—”cagelike iron structures that straddled the coffins and could be unlocked by thick iron keys held by the mourners.” The Fortune of War crowd kept at it, undeterred.

So it goes in Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and the Monsters (William Morrow, $26.99), a survey of the cultural and literary brine in which Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein so wonderfully pickled. Part intellectual history and part biography, the book makes grave robbing and pseudo-scientific dissections the gloomy thrill you would hope for. Like Shelley, Montillo relishes affronts to God and all that delicious corpse-on-the-slab labwork. She also dishes through familiar scandals, especially the one about the Shelleys (Mary and Percy, the poet), Lord Byron, and company buggering off to Lake Geneva for the gothic sex farce and creative-writing workshop that yielded Frankenstein and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first English tale of a sexy, undead count. (Polidori’s aristocratic vampire is Byron, of course.)

But the revelations are in Montillo’s accounts of the lives of the real-life scientists whose bloody work inspired Mary Shelley’s fiction. There are Shelley’s contemporaries Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, who, brains afire with Benjamin Franklin’s kite-and-lightning stunt, attempted to electro-shock life back into the corpses of frogs, bulls, and the decapitated heads of criminals. Or, 250 years earlier, the alchemist Paracelsus, whose recipe for a homunculus—a teensy, lab-manufactured helper creature—called for skin, hair, bones, and sperm, all stuffed for 40 days into the womb of a horse. And Johann Konrad Dippel, creator of a mad oil of healing, who had this to say about the difference between urine and blood: “The former will not cure the Epilepsy, but the latter will.”

Against such capital ick Montillo’s literary gossip seems quaint, save perhaps the rash of suicides that later afflicted the Lake Geneva coterie, and Percy Shelley’s famous vision, after he had worked himself up declaiming from Coleridge’s “Christabel,” of a woman whose breasts had eyes rather than nipples. Still, unlike the flesh that obsessed its subjects, Montillo’s book is fully alive, and not just thanks to all its grisly shocks. It lays bare nothing the less than the reason-minded madness of the age that gave us Mary Shelley, the inventor of our most enduring warning against science run amuck. Never cold nor clinical, Montillo’s anatomizing does what the grave robbers only claimed: It resurrects.

A different kind of Frankensteining shapes the beast at the heart of Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, $25), Christine Sneed’s strong first novel. Here, the perceptions of the villagers—if Hollywood can be called a village—are stitched together to give us that most beautiful monster of all: a movie star, one who in this case is totally George Clooney. A Clooney with kids, that is, and a phalanx of exes, and who in 1985 starred in some alt-historical Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than The Facts of Life. (Maybe you’ll think it’s Harrison Ford. The book could be a blind item.)

As with Shelley, Sneed is concerned here with the soul itself, specifically whether a star given access to every sexual temptation can possibly remain what we might call a good person. Evidence pro, con, and ambivalent comes from the novel’s multiple narrators and POVs: the star’s pill of a son, a listless twentysomething after the same woman as dad; the med student daughter who can’t avoid an impressive older man who shares her father’s fool-around ethos; a pair of ex-wives; and the starlet he’s currently involved with (and directing, in the hilariously titled Oscar-bait drama Bourbon at Dusk).

Sneed’s funny, insightful novel is admirably uncommitted to teaching any lesson. It’s also written more for gulpability than lingering over. Don’t be surprised if you knock it out in a handful of sittings—and on occasion find yourself impatient during the passages not featuring Sneed’s ersatz Clooney. (Such is the power of star charisma, even when the star’s made up.) To her credit, Sneed flouts the bookclub/Amazon reviewer rule that the characters we’re supposed to care about must be inherently likable. The star’s son, in particular, flirts with being a li’l shit, one afflicted by that peculiar mix of guilt and entitlement that only the offspring of the fabulously wealthy can know. Fame is neither a prison nor a heaven, here. For the unfamous folks in the orbit of the star, access to it is a means of escape from everyday life: Want to talk to that girl who’s ignoring you in your French class? Just mention that your dad is George Clooney. (Or whoever.)

There’s no escape for the everyday sods with the misfortune to be cast in the short stories of Laura Kasischke’s bracing, fascinating If a Stranger Approaches You (Sarabrande Books, $15.95). The first story, a tight jab to the guts, should convince you whether you have the will for what follows: “They’d all warned her not to snoop,” it begins, and from there a teenager’s mother does just what she knows she shouldn’t: pick through her daughter’s bedroom for a diary or a gun or something. That’s what she finds—something—and to say anything more would be to deny you one of the most pungent, curious, not-quite-pleasures readers will hit upon this month.

In story after story, Kasischke’s characters do the things that they wish they were strong enough not to. She often couches extraordinary disasters in the most ordinary language, stating flatly the terrible (at times impossible) doings that might make us flinch from the book. One long tale, in which a man wants to talk to a woman who wants nothing to do with him, turns on the line “It wasn’t a tackle, exactly.” The feigned offhandedness—as if it’s the classification that matters rather than the act itself!—only heightens the horror. There is horror here, and a direct connection to Percy and Mary Shelley: A young girl whose dolly has been chucked off a bridge imagines the nipples of a nude woman to be that doll’s button eyes. There’s also the poet’s full command of the language: “That night,” Kasischke writes, “an enormous hairless zoo animal made of silence slipped into my dream, lay down on top of me, and stayed there, like a warm snowpile, until morning.” Such beauty salves the heartache.

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George Clooney Beds Cindy Crawford to Sell Tequila

O.M.G.

George Clooney teamed up with Rande Gerber, nightlife impresario and Cindy Crawford’s husband, to promote their new drink venture, Casamigos Tequila. As if the idea of these two stone cold silver foxes partnering up wasn’t enough to make us start daydreaming, the pair is starring in an ad with Crawford and Stacey Keibler, Clooney’s current paramour. What’s more? The foursome appear to have shared one too many shots and wake up in bed with the wrong mate. We’ll drink to that.

Watch the group go at it after the break.

[via HuffPo]

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Obama Earns Coveted Ricky Martin Endorsement; New York GOP Irked By Prez Partying With Celebs

For anyone who takes their political cues from pop star Ricky Martin, the former Menudo member has thrown his support behind President Barack Obama in this year’s election — he’s even throwing the president a pretty pricey fundraiser in New York tonight, which the state’s Republican Party seems to think is the reason the economy sucks and you can’t find a job.

Obama hasn’t always been the recipient of Martin’s (ahem) coveted nod — in 2004, Martin supported Obama’s opponent, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primary for president.

This time around, however — much thanks to the president’s recent support for marriage equality, we’re sure — Obama’s Martin’s horse, and the first fundraiser he’ll hold for the “campaigner-in-chief” will be tonight at the Rubin Museum of Art. The ticket price: $5,000 a head.

The fundraiser, as we mentioned, has the panties of New York State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox in a bit of a bunch — his office just sent us the chairman’s reaction to Obama’s partying with celebrities, under the headline “LAST WEEK GEORGE CLOONEY, THIS WEEK RICKY MARTIN, NEXT WEEK AMERICANS WILL STILL BE UNEMPLOYED.”

Essentially, Cox is parroting what right-wing pundits have been shrieking about lately: the economy sucks, it’s Obama’s fault, and he’s busy paling around with actors and pop stars.

See Cox’s full statement below:

“Tonight, Campaigner-in-Chief Barack Obama will hold a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City with Ricky Martin.  While millions of unemployed Americans are struggling to find work, President Obama will be partying with celebrities.

“President Obama has had three and a half years to turn our economy around, and he hasn’t. The numbers speak for themselves: Obama promised that his $800 billion stimulus package would keep unemployment below 8%, and it has been above that threshold ever since.  In the process, President Obama has added nearly $5 trillion to the National Debt, with no end is sight.

“April’s jobs report was even more bleak: just over 100,000 jobs were created, compared to over 300,000 Americans dropping out of the workforce entirely.  Only 63% of Americans are in the workforce, the lowest number since 1981.

“It’s no surprise that the President’s approval rating has sunk to a new low of 41%.  Americans have realized that Barack Obama is a man in over his head.  But fortunately for unemployed Americans, a successful businessman and Governor is waiting in the wings to put our nation back on the path to prosperity. This November, after four wasted years, Americans will relieve Barack Obama of his duties and elect Mitt Romney as President.”

The president’s not just partying with celebrities — another fundraiser is being held for Obama tonight. It’s being held at a private residence in Manhattan, with tickets going for $35,800. About 60 people are expected to be in attendance.

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Exclusive Fake Interview With George Clooney’s Girlfriend

How’s this for a coup?

An imaginary interview with Stacy Keibler, who adorns George Clooney‘s arm for many a photo.

Stacy had some amazing fake things to say!

So, Stacy, what the world wants to know and only you can answer is … what’s George really like?

Well … he’s very, very nice. And really smart. And … what’s the word? … handsome.

Wow. Such insight! How did you meet him anyway?

Um, on the Eiffel Tower. No, wait, that’s where Tom met Katie. I meant that’s where Tom proposed to Katie. I’m getting confused.

]

So, has he proposed?

Tom? No, he’s married!

I mean George.

Oh. No, I don’t think that’s happening soon. I’d have to check.

What kinds of things do you do together?

Eating … red carpets …

[Pause.]

What did you think of his Advocate interview?

I don’t read The Advocate. He does. [Pause.] He likes to keep up with all kinds of stuff.

What’s your favorite movie of his?

I don’t know. I just do red carpets. But they’re gonna send me the DVDs. [Pause.] I liked him on Roseanne.

What did you think when he kissed Billy Crystal on the Oscars?

He can do better!

Any other insight into George’s personality that you can share?

He reads books. He likes vegetables, if they’re cooked well. Um …

Is he g …?

Gorgeous? Yes!

And what happens when he’s naked?

He gets so cold!

Can you tell us what his favorite position is?

[Pause.] Extreme liberal.

Thanks, Stacy. Bye.

No, not bi. Straight!

OK. Bye. I mean so long. Oy.

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George Clooney On The Gay Rumors: “I Don’t Give A Shit!”

Asked about the gay talk, George Clooney told The Advocate:

“I think it’s funny, but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down saying, ‘These are lies!’

“That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community.

]

“I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing. My private life is private and I’m very happy in it.

“Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay? I’ll be long dead and there will still people people who say I’m gay. I don’t give a shit.”

Yay!

But a couple of questions:

*Might this be a deflective way to deal with the things — give an interview to a gay magazine and say all the correct things, while maintaining you’re straight?

*Could he be straight?

*And why did the Radar write-up use the word “plagued” (as in he’s been “plagued by gay rumors for years”)?

That makes it sound like a horror, and even Clooney said it’s great, remember?