Monday, February 22, 2010

Tim Burton at the MoMA

If you are anywhere near Manhattan in the next several weeks, creep, crawl, lurch, or better yet, run as if some unspeakable horror is chasing you, to the Tim Burton exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Burton is a filmmaker (Beetlejuice, Batman, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, etc.) the type whose distinctive touch is instantly discernable in everything he creates. Much like the films of Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers or Hal Hartley, one cannot help but know they are watching a Burton flick.

This Burton-inspired balloon stands in the foyer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

What many may not realize is that Burton is also an artist. But it won’t take long for anyone experiencing the MoMA exhibit to see that Burton’s talent in the visual arts is as masterful as that in his filmmaking.

NOTE: Get your tickets in advance; most days sell-out long beforehand.

The entrance to the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA

I had seen some of Burton’s preliminary sketches for various films, such as Nightmare Before Christmas, and those he provided for Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, his short story collection that was released a few year ago. But I expected more of the exhibit to focus on the former—along with props and costumes from his movies—than the latter, less commercial work.

I was happily surprised.

Sure, there are cases filled with puppets from the aforementioned Nightmare and his other stop-motion feature, Corpse Bride; props, such as the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker’s and Pierce Brosnan’s characters in Mars Attacks!; and costumes, including the cape worn by the headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow. But there are also hundreds of drawings and paintings, beyond those done for his movie work, from throughout his life.

Notice the fine line work and economy of color in this storyboard panel from Nightmare Before Christmas

Burton’s art is extraordinary; his line work—the control and wherewithal of such—had me shaking my head in profound disbelief. Even in his most lackadaisical of doodles, one can see genius. It’s no wonder he won a scholarship to the prestigious CalArts, the fine arts institution founded by Walt and Roy Disney, when he was eighteen.

Isn't it romantic?

Artists Gahan Wilson, Edward Gorey and MAD magazine were clear influences in both subject matter and technique. And Burton’s signature twisted, subversive humor is evident in his earliest pieces. I especially liked “Man Undressing a Woman with His Eyes,” the three-drawing sequence of a couple meeting at a party, “Man with Permanent Seeing Eye Dogs,” and “Little Dead Riding Hood,” but there are many others that tickled me.

Pablo Picasso once said that he spent his whole life learning how to draw like a child; to create with a mind free of preconception, prejudice, rule or life-experience. Burton’s art is a testament to this belief. His work is fearless, boundless, unfettered by convention. I was as awe-struck as I was jealous of his facility to just draw whatever comes to his mind; not think before putting instrument to paper.

Who doesn't think clowns are evil?

Accompanying some of Burton’s one-dimensional creations are maquettes by model maker Rick Heinrichs. And there are also a few “life-size” statues of his dark visions. All add to the exhibit’s enjoyment.

Unfortunately, the space MoMA provides for the exhibit is too limited—two small rooms. Most McDonald’s restaurants provide more space for their customers. Burton’s numerous drawings are crowded on the walls like the celebrity photos at Sardi’s. Alcoves the size of half-baths featuring screens on which the filmmaker’s early animated work played, were pigeon-holed in the exhibit like an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, museum-goers stopped—many even sat—before the screens to watch, creating immovable areas of traffic. I would have liked to enjoy them myself, but the set-up was not conducive to doing so. Other screens hung among the scads of art further impeding the flow of the patrons. And the exhibit was PACKED. I was among the first day’s group to enter and the space filled in minutes and only got worse as each successive scheduled ticket group’s time opened up.

What was the museum thinking? That an exhibit featuring the work of one of the world’s most popular visionary’s, in the country’s most populated—not including the millions of tourists that visit everyday—cities, wouldn’t be busy?!! I’d hate to think the decision was prejudiced, that the MoMA nabobs responsible for such decisions didn’t feel Burton’s work worthy of more space. As much as I enjoyed the work, the overall experience was hot, uncomfortable and completely AVOIDABLE had the exhibit been given the space it deserved.

Clean my room? Don't have to tell me twice!

Fortunately, MoMA’s website freely provides many, if not all, of the pieces featured in the exhibit, including the video segments. It’s not the same as seeing the art live, but at least your not getting jostled about or intimidated to move away from any piece you’d prefer to linger over.

Tim Burton’s work gets the full five spiders.

The exhibit gets a woeful two and a half spiders (the extra half a result of the museum’s website coverage of the exhibit)!

Shame on you MoMA!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I originally heard about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on a Sunday-morning program. In the segment, a lot was made of the fact that the main character—the eponymous Oscar Wao— was a comic-geek, and the author liberally referenced comics and other pop-culture minutiae in the telling of Oscar’s tale. This facet would nary induce a blip on the literary radar were it not for the fact that Wao had just won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

That the highest honor in bookdom should go to a novel whose hero is a comic lover and whose author used four-color lore—at times daring to (gasp!) quote comic books—was unheard of. Apparently, the correspondent was unfamiliar with 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner, the exemplary The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, a novel that doesn’t merely cite comics, but is actually immersed in that particular art form’s world. Fortunately, the segment was more journalistic than sensationalistic, but the inference that the Pulitzer Prize committee had lowered its standards or that the award had been cheapened by honoring Díaz’s work was plainly evident.

I didn’t care about the Pulitzer or the disparaging subtext of the segment—comics aficionados are used to it—the correspondent had me at “Fantastic Four,” to paraphrase Jerry Maguire. Wao went straight to my Christmas list and made it into my greedy little paws a few months later.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of an unsightly, social misfit Dominican’s journey to getting laid. Díaz uses the idea of achieving sex as a euphemism for Oscar’s struggle in overcoming his nigh-crippling shyness/awkwardness/not-fitting-in-ness and gaining acceptance. It’s a universal theme, one not exclusive to Dominicans.

Much to my delight, the book opens with an epigraph from Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, No. 49. Díaz further sets the stage with a poem from Nobel Prize (for Literature) winner Derek Walcott. Both present important facets to Oscar’s character: his affection for comics—more importantly the odd sense of greatness that geeks have for being expert in something beyond their fellow man, whether facility in comic books or fluency in Klingonese—and his feeling of displacement.

Author Díaz quotes World-Devourer Galactus in Wao’s opening epigraph

A short introduction on the Dominican idea of fukú follows. Fukú is an ancient curse with which our hero believes himself to be cursed. Whether Oscar is a victim of fukú or simply uses it to explain his perceived misfortune is left for the reader to decide.

An intriguing and clever start, the efficacy of which was immediately derailed by Díaz’s preponderance of footnotes. Or should I say, foot“novels”? Four of the seven introductory pages discussing fukú contain them. One travels half a page only to continue and conclude at the bottom fourth of the succeeding one. They are less frequent as the story progresses, but not less voluminous—at times extending more than two pages!

These short novels-within-a-novel most often explain references to Dominican culture, figures and language in the main text. They are engrossing in their own right, but intrusive. I found myself taking a deep breath before tackling them and pausing to recollect the main storyline upon my return. It was like putting a traffic stop on the Autobahn.

Far fewer of the notes concerned comic-book or pop-culture references—most of those were written into the text in a way that they needed no further explanation—and the info contained in those was already familiar to me. So it not only impeded the flow of my reading, but also proved aggravating each time I realized I need not have stopped, which I continued to do for fear that I might meet some nugget of info of which I wasn’t aware.

When Díaz wasn’t interrupting Oscar’s journey with footnotes, he was abruptly changing the story’s point-of-view. From Oscar to his sister, to the childhood tale of his mother, and back again. There were chapters that I was several pages into before I realized the narrator had changed, forcing me to return to the chapter’s start.

An author’s use of language or particular character’s vernacular normally deepens the reading experience. The opening dialogue of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a perfect example. The heavy Cajun accent that Toole employs takes some getting used to, but well worth the effort. And once familiar—by the end of that inaugural scene, easily—it proves no obstacle for the remainder of the book. Like anchovies in a well-crafted puttanesca: they add depth and complexity to the dish, but will only go unnoticed if not included.

Díaz’s liberal use of Spanish could have had the same effect, enhancing the depth and complexity of the novel and its characters. Unfortunately, the reader is never allowed to familiarize themselves with Wao’s voice—there are just too many other distractions—so the author’s use of language only exacerbates the situation.

I got the sense as I was reading that Díaz didn’t trust his writing talents or the story or both. It was as if he were trying to be clever to compensate.

Wao is nonetheless a good book. Not a great book. Just a good one. And that has less to do with its not meeting my high expectations than with the author’s overuse of these literary devices.

And because Wao is a Pulitzer Prize winner, it has to be held at a higher standard. Compared to the aforementioned Chabon and Toole classics, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao falls painfully short and gets a disappointing three out of five spiders.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Now Salchow?

Given former U. S. Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan’s familial woes, the impending Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, and this past weekend’s Super Bowl win by the New Orleans Saints, the following seemed appropriate.

For those of you have been living under a rock the past month, Kerrigan’s brother was arrested in connection with the death of his and Nancy’s father a couple of weeks ago. Her father died of a heart attack during an altercation with his son who had his hands around his dad’s neck at the time.

I met Kerrigan briefly shortly after her return from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she won the silver medal (Ukrainian Oksana Baiul won the gold) only seven weeks after the infamous “knee-capping” attack by rival Tonya Harding’s then husband, Jeff Gillooly, at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

I was gigging at a trade show in New Orleans (hence The Saints reference) for Marvel’s newsstand department, which deals with comic sales through major distribution channels as opposed to direct distribution, which was how comic specialty shops received their books. A recently-signed Kerrigan was appearing at the Revlon booth. A few years earlier Ron Perlman, Revlon’s owner, had purchased Marvel, so I was splitting my appearance time between the Marvel Comics and Revlon booths.

Kerrigan was certainly affable enough, but somewhat cold (no pun intended). I wouldn’t say she was aloof, but rather there was an uncomfortableness that may have come from her unfamiliarity with stardom and the endless stream of fans wanting to meet and get an autographed photo with her. As a native Bostonian, I tried cajoling her into opening up, as she was from Stoneham, Massachusetts, a town north of Beantown. I had actually visited the town’s zoo—now called the Stone Zoo—as a child while on a field trip and remembered the trip fondly. Alas, my feeble attempts fell flat and her demeanor remained reserved.

Obviously, the feelings she had from meeting Spider-Man so overwhelmed her, it was all she could do so as not to faint.

Marvel, in its infinite wisdom, would oftentimes register me as Spider-Man (Note badge in photo)... So much for a secret identity!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Webheads III: The Quiet Storm, The Loner, The Watcher and The You-Go-First

After receiving countless letters and emails demanding its return, I bring you, my devoted Bloglodytes, the third installment in my discussion on the types of fans I met on my near decade-long adventure as everyone’s favorite neighborhood Web-Swinger. Those of you wishing to relive those pleasurable past postings—and who wouldn’t?—have only to click on the following convenient links. For “Webheads I: The Exuberant,” CLICK HERE; For “Webheads II: The Screamer, The No-No and The Return Engagement,” CLICK HERE.
I have to admit I’m tickled when one of you reveals to me your relating to a category I’ve described when you were a wee worshipper of the webbed wonder. See if any of these spark memories…

Occasionally, Id encounter a child without a hint of trepidation. Case in point: This little boy threw himself into my arms, giddy at meeting his hero; a marked contrast to the wee lass in the background, who stares worriedly at our meeting while clutching onto her mom.

Patient, careful—but not hesitant—Quiet Storms were determined to show no fear before their peers. Most often, they’d appear accompanied. I’d easily envision Quiet Storms urgently telling attendant parent that they didn’t want Mom or Dad standing by them during their Spider-Man encounter; that would be far too embarrassing. Not that the Quiet Storms wanted said parent to leave the area entirely. The savvy Mom or Dad would save their independent offspring the ignominy of their having to ask their parent to stick around with a “I’ll just be waiting over here,” as they indicated the exit area.

A far cry from any of the children described here, this young lad could not tell me enough about his day, and queried me in great length about why I was in town, where my eyes were, and who I had been battling recently.

A Quiet Storm’s steps were measured as they neared. They'd never offer conversation, or elaborate with their responses. The internal conflict betwixt their fear at approaching Spidey and the pressure to appear unafraid before their peers didn’t allow for extraneous activity. They’d answer quietly and succinctly, even though their insides were flip-flopping in terror.

“Would you like an autographed comic?” I’d ask, the book before me, Sharpie already poised.

“Yes, sir.” they’d most often politely reply. From the corner of my eye, the parent would reveal themselves with a more-than-casual-observer smile.

“What is your name?”

“Trey Daniel Phillips.”

“I’ll just put it to ‘Trey.’ Is that okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how do you spell that?”

“T-R-E-Y…” Each letter carefully articulated, as if a code that would diffuse a bomb were being conveyed over a walkie-talkie.

Most often, the moment they had completed their task—must… overcome… fear… get… autograph—they’d scamper back to their parents, doing an emotional one-eighty—beaming, showing off their comic and talking a mean streak.

Like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, The Loner would appear. Unfettered by parents, guardians, siblings or friends, they’d dutifully wait in line to get a comic book and go. Like the Quiet Storms, they were not talkative, just economic in their use of words, usually saying no more than a “Hello, Spider-Man” at the start, stating their name when asked, and ending the encounter with a “Thank you, Spider-Man,” before disappearing by themselves into the crowd. The Loner was never frightened, just independent. Yet, unlike The Exuberant, who were also carefree, The Loner was unemotional and never shared his experience with others.

The Loner bothered me. I always wondered what caused them to be so independent and alone at such a young age.

From the crowd of onlookers, waist-level sets of eyes stare intently at the proceedings: The Watchers! These were children—oftentimes brethren of others in line—who were scared to death to confront Spider-Man personally, yet fascinated enough to observe the proceedings from the safety outside the barriers. Sometimes they’d whimper for their brother or sister when their turn came up—certain their siblings were walking toward their doom. Of course, once their loved one escaped unscathed The Watcher couldn’t wait to grab the signed comic out from their hands for a peek.

I’d always offer the parents of Watchers an autographed comic from my perch, handing it to their brother or sister for delivery. Sometimes, depending on the reaction, I'd get up and give the comic to The Watcher myself, stretching as far as I could muster. The Watcher, too, would extend to their wee limits, just grabbing the corner of the comic with tremulous fingers. The scene was like that in many an adventure movie with the hero saving the heroine from a perilous fall with an impossibly outstretched hand at the last possible instant.

A lot of very small children, who didnt know me from Elmo, were simply fascinated with the primary colors of the suit. Gotta love that red-and-blue!

Some children became Watchers when confronted with the moment of truth, after spending hours in line… much to the parent’s chagrin, I might add. Literally faced with their hero for the first time they’d stop short of the signing table and park themselves at the outskirts of the autograph zone, just out of range of whatever danger they considered might befall them if they got any closer.

Oblivious to their parents’ goading to either meet Spider-Man or concede defeat, the newbie Watchers remained stock-still in their parking spot, observing each successive child in line.

I had parents—overcome with impatience—literally leave their children by my table while they went shopping. They’d return an hour later to find their offspring still transfixed, frozen in the spot they’d left them, trapped between meeting their hero or fleeing. Oftentimes it was a sibling of The Watcher, who would return and drag their brother or sister off with a “C’mon, Mom’s leaving!”

Traveling in small packs or duos, the You-Go-Firsts would huddle together and shuffle warily toward the signing table, directing one another to be the first to meet Spider-Man. Much like a medieval jester—who would sample the king’s repast before His Highness to ensure the food wasn’t poisoned—The You-Go-Firsts or rather the Go-First would wriggle forward, to make sure the way was safe for the rest of his or her tribe.

You-Go-Firsts shared giggle-fits as they neared, the result of mutually-shared fraught nerves. Occasionally, the Stay-Behinds would have the audacity to push forward the volunteer of their group. Of course, once their tribe mate succeeded, they’d hurry forward en masse to claim their prize, forgetting the fear they held moments before. Sometimes duos would never come to a decision between themselves as to who would go first. So they sheepishly approached like conjoined twins attached at the hip.

Sometimes kids just wanted a hug...

It was always endearing to me to see wee You-Go-Firsts step forward who were BFFs. The tell-tale signs could be matching temporary tattoos on their forearms or identical barrettes in their similarly-styled hair; they might be clutching the purse or dressed in the same color schemes. Sometimes even they sported matching outfits. Meeting Spider-Man, with its high-risk level, was something that couldn’t not be done together. They’d depart, still arm-in-arm, clutching their autographed comics, already gabbing about the experience.

I’d like to think these encounters with me are retained with fondness, periodically brought up with a “Remember when we met Spider-Man…?”