December 2010 Archives

Return of Scrooge

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Bernie Madoff's head surrounded by written commentaryVia Matt Taibbi's blog, I discovered the website of artist Geoffrey Raymond. A dedicated portrait painter, Raymond creates drip paint portraits of Wall Street's wealthiest and most nefarious characters, then invites the public to write comments, or annotations, on them.

His portrait of Bernie Madoff, shown here (view hi-res version here), contains annotations such as: "'Behind every great fortune there is a crime.' --Honore Balzac," "It's a proprietary strategy. I can't go into great detail," and "Prick, you screwed your family, your friends, good people, sleep well!"

Raymond has solicited annotations from the public by standing on the street, attending events and through his blog. In an interview about his work, Raymond states why he chose to make his paintings using an interactive process: "One of the reasons I paint the way I do is the idea that I provide an opportunity for people to have a say in sometimes catastrophic events over which they have no control -- even if it's only a sentence or two on a painting."

Raymond further notes that the annotations give each painting a documentary quality, with insights into a particular period of time on Wall Street. He also likes the way the strokes of the pen look. I agree. With their contributions from the public, I think these paintings would be a good choice for display in an open setting. Next to the guillotine, perhaps?

The friend who is not a friend

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I recently finished a non-fiction book on a heavy topic and decided I wanted to read something that could serve as a literary palate cleanser. I turned to my stack of unread graphic novels and bound comics collections and picked up Shrimpy and Paul and Friends, by Marc Bell. It seemed like just the thing.

When I first saw Shrimpy and Paul and Friends sitting on a shelf at Giant Robot, I was immediately attracted by the artwork's playful busyness. I was also drawn to a story described on the back cover as "the Catastrophic Tale of the LOSS of Paul's TWO NIPPLES."

My curiousity stemmed from the unease I've long felt regarding the rumored uselessness of men's nipples. While my friend Joe has disabused me of this widespread belief, I still feel a certain sadness inside when I think of men's nipples. They conjure up the same feeling I might get seeing brown petals falling off a fading rose in the late afternoon sunlight.

Shrimpy and Paul are indeed the stars of this collection of comics, along with a long line of characters--Blimpy, Saul, Taco, Miss Polly, Brosse the Goose, Mushroom Heddy, Sue the Tooth, Kevin, and others--who appear spontaneously as the story requires. I was surprised to read a review in Time Magazine that called out "Bell's sure hand at story structure." I bet these stories' structure came less from the author's sure hand than from whatever drugs may have been available to him at the moment.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's several well done episodes that capture a druggy feel, like when Paul lies down on the floor on his back and pretends the ceiling is the floor, or when a creature called the Ib-Ub gives birth to tiny versions of itself that obsessively build towers over every inch of Paul and Shrimpy's apartment. In general, the stories wander and weave in aimless reverie.

Shrimpy wacks Paul with a utensilWhat gives life to the stories is the dynamic between the two main characters, the kind and helpful Paul, and his friend and apartment-mate, the charismatic and chaos-inducing Shrimpy. Most of the stories go something like this: Shrimpy does something godawful, and Paul tries to set things right again.

For example, in the case of Paul's lost nipples, Shrimpy steals the nipples while Paul is sleeping. The unforeseen result is that Paul's life force begins to slip away through the holes where his nipples were. Paul's friends must then help corral Paul's soul and replug his nipple holes.

As I read through these adventures, I began to recognize in Shrimpy a familiar type: the friend who is not a friend. Although Paul and Shrimpy spend most of their time together, Shrimpy can never be depended on to act in Paul's interest. In one affecting story, Paul gently tries to persuade Shrimpy not to give away his favorite things. Shrimpy ignores him.

Safely confined to the pages of literature, Shrimpy is nonetheless a fascinating figure. Because Shrimpy doesn't appear to act according to self-interest or any other rationale, his actions carry the allure of mystery. He doesn't care about consequences to himself or anyone else.

I have known many Shrimpys in the past. When I was younger, I would consider at length the pros and cons of their amoral actions. Now that I'm older, I can recognize the profile of a born psychopath more easily and take the appropriate action, namely, to run in the other direction as fast as possible.

Swan Macabre

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The Black Swan's red eyesBlack Swan has "Best Picture" written all over it in firehouse-red lipstick letters. If you haven't heard about it already, Black Swan is a female monster movie about a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman. I'm anticipating that this new genre will take off and that AMC will shortly debut a new series based on the ballet horror concept.

Recalling movies like Memento, The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game, Black Swan's narrative shape-changes as the movie proceeds. The viewer will find it necessary to revisit earlier scenes to determine what actually happened, and even then, reality may not appear clear cut.

Natalie Portman excels as Nina, a young, up-and-coming dancer who scores the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. Against a background of intense female competition, Nina begins to unravel as she prepares for a role that could make her career.

The horror begins in mundane fashion, as the viewer is exposed to the physical brutality of the dancers' training. Bloody toes and routine stomach purging introduce the theme of sadism as a companion to beauty. Nina, in striving for perfection, continues the theme, with bouts of skin scratching, peeling and tearing, repeated late night practice sessions, and hallucinations.

About halfway through the film, the Cute-Little-Red-Headed-Girlfriend, who accompanied me to the theater, leaned over and whispered, "This film is terrorizing me." Later, the Girlfriend said she could feel her blood pressure increase every time Nina examined herself in a mirror, because it always meant something bad was about to happen. Looking in the mirror functioned like that scene in your average slasher film where everyone decides it would be a fine idea to split up.

Natalie Portman is to be commended for all that she has put into this role. I remember when Robert DeNiro altered his physique for the lead role in Raging Bull. The critics talked about him like he was a god walking upon the earth. Today's commentators don't seem to have the same respect for Portman's dedication to her role, but they should. The bodily permutations she has undertaken as an actor--months of ballet training, as well as dramatic weight loss--are vital to making Nina's story convincing.

Black Swan isn't just about female body horror. There are many instances where the female body and the extreme ideal of feminine beauty seen in ballet are showcased. I was mesmerized by the rippling backs of the ballerinas and mature ballet instructors as their arms imitated the movements of a swan. Also, be on the lookout for Nathalie Portman's breathtakingly muscular ass, or her quivering, flexing thighs in the first masturbation scene.

With its convoluted story line, I expect Black Swan is a movie that will benefit from a second viewing. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this one again.

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