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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 22, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Mob Art, Serkis, Downtown, Galleries

Flashmob concerts and theatricals have swept the country in recent years. In unexpected settings, innocent civilians -- in a train station, on a public square, in a food court -- are suddenly surrounded by performers.

I really loved some of the early weird ones. For instance, the one where a whole bunch of people who seemed to be going about their ordinary business suddenly stopped and held still as statues for a long, long time.

But of course the real audience is not the bystanders. They are, in fact, unwilling performers, because their surprised reactions are filmed as part of the fun of the flashmob. If they were not present -- and dutifully surprised and (we hope) amused or pleased or baffled -- there would be no point.

The real audience is the internet community, for these flashmobs seem always to be careful to have multiple cameras present, with lots of angles and closeups during the performance.

Hmmm ... I wonder how they disguise such high-quality cameras.

Maybe there are still some genuine in-the-moment flashmob events, in which the only audience is whatever group of bystanders happen to be present. We'd never hear about them unless we happened to be one of those bystanders, of course, because without the cameras they can't go up on the web.

The trouble is, how can you do a genuine surprise flashmob now? The moment someone starts performing, the bystanders (or at least, all of them that haven't been living in seclusion) instantly know what's happening.

Their "surprise" has been replaced by delight. Often exaggerated delight, because they know they're on camera.

They never put cameras on people like me. I'm a committed lifelong nonparticipant. When everyone stands for a perfunctory standing ovation, I remain seated -- unless I personally think the performance met my standards for a standing o, which happens two or three times a decade.

If I'm trying to conduct business, or talking on the phone, or listening to an audiobook, or sitting there with a book, or eating my lunch, or just trying to walk through a space to get somewhere, or some combination of the above -- which is pretty much the list of things I do in public spaces -- I would not be grateful to have a crowd of loud people blocking my way or interfering with my phone call or my audiobook with their loud noises.

In other words, I'm a curmudgeon, a Scrooge. Bah. Humbug.

You'll never see people like me in the flashmob videos -- rolling my eyes, covering the other ear as I flee to continue my phone call, or turning up the volume on my Nano while looking annoyed. I'd be edited out, since the myth is that such interruptions are always received with some degree of pleasure.

Here's the thing: The surprise is over. It's not new anymore.

So if you're going to put on a flashmob event, you no longer get any points for originality. Period.

Instead, you have to be good.

Very good.

In fact, you'd better be exceptionally good, or you become a public imposition, like a beggar who comes up and tugs on your clothing.

Which brings me to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. They arranged for a flashmob performance in the atrium of their impressive building, of a cool arrangement of "Deck the Halls."

Then it was put out as their Christmas greeting. And, I might add, as a recruiting poster. Isn't our building cool? And aren't we also cool to have a flashmob event?

A completely calculated, management-approved, three-camera-filmed flashmob concert?

Fortunately, it was very, very good. But spontaneous? Ha. Genuine? Bah. Fun to watch? It was all right. See for yourself: http://www.carlsonschool.umn.edu/holiday11/

If I had been in the atrium trying to study or take a nap or whatever, I would have been annoyed.

And if I were deciding on a school of management to attend, I would say, "Oh, a school of management that is about fake spontaneous events put on by outsiders -- unless the school of management also has a really talented glee club. Maybe I'll go to a school that's a little more serious about staying on-mission."

But that's because I'm a leave-me-alone, get-out-of-my-face, I'm-busy-don't-bother-me kind of guy.

*

Thinking back over the movies I've seen so far this year, the one that really stands out for me is, to my own great surprise, is Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

And while it had a very good cast, the performance that sticks most powerfully in my memory is that of Andy Serkis, the actor who played Caesar.

Yeah, that's right. The guy in the chimp suit.

Only it's not a chimp suit anymore. It's a whole bunch of electronic motion-capture stuff. And the performance is no longer hidden behind heavy makeup. Instead, computers work with the actor's face, reshaping it but still preserving his facial expressions.

We saw Serkis's brilliant work as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. We saw the making-of promos in which we watched Serkis go through the movements, the dialogue, the gestures and facial expressions, and then saw how the computers transformed him into a different creature.

But the most compelling thing about those how-we-did-it sequences was that we could see that everything that made Gollum a believable, moving character came from Serkis.

That's why we don't just have computer-generated images. That's why an actor has to be there first, so the computers can become, in effect, really brilliant and powerful makeup and costume artists.

Because actors and other Academy voters have no clue about computers, as a general rule, Serkis's performances have often been dismissed as "computer-generated" -- not acting at all.

This shows the stupidity of the person saying such nonsense. That's like saying that Emma Thompson's brilliant performance in Sense and Sensibility was costumer-generated.

That's why I was delighted when the latest mailing of The Hollywood Reporter included a tabloid-sized holographic poster of Andy Serkis and the chimp Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, urging Academy voters to realize that Serkis is one of the most brilliant, talented, hard-working actors around, and he has followed one brilliant non-human performance (Gollum) with another (Caesar the chimp) -- and he deserves to be considered for all the acting awards.

Has anyone in the history of film ever given a better performance of a role that presented comparable difficulty?

He has given the most powerful, memorable performance in every one of these films. He is slated to repeat as Gollum in the two Hobbit movies (in which he also is working as second-unit director).

Will he be nominated?

It is to laugh. Actors are notoriously ignorant in giving out awards. For instance, it was Dustin Hoffman's monotone in Rain Man that got the award -- not Tom Cruise's far more difficult straight-man performance that actually drove the movie.

Actors, just like everybody else, think it's about displays of emotion. About flamboyance or oddity.

And yet when Serkis gives the most amazingly flamboyant/odd performances of each year in which he played these CGI-clad parts, they ignore him because you can't see his undistorted face.

I wish they would imagine themselves playing these parts. Do they know how to move convincingly like a chimp? Serkis had to learn it -- and did it brilliantly. Could they have created a whole semi-human style of movement and speech, as Serkis did with Gollum? Precious few of them have that kind of creativity and range.

In a way, both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Rise of the Planet of the Apes bet the whole game on Serkis's ability to "wear" the CGI makeup-and-costume and still deliver a brilliant performance.

No actor has ever been so vital to the success of his movies -- while subsuming his ego by not wearing his face -- with the possible exceptions of Eric Stoltz's brilliant performance in Mask and John Hurt's Oscar-nominated performance in Elephant Man.

Ironically, Stoltz's performance was honored by the year's best-makeup Oscar, while at Cannes it was Cher, playing his mother, who won the best actress award. Only the Golden Globes nominated Stoltz for a supporting-actor award.

Still, nobody ever said that either Hurt or Stoltz's performance was "makeup generated."

There are still a lot of heavy contenders for awards coming out in the next weeks, and I plan to see many of them; I'm grateful to be on a list, as a member of the Writers Guild, that lets me receive screeners of movies I simply don't have time to see in the theaters.

Yet I am extremely doubtful that I will see a single performance that is comparable, let alone superior, to Andy Serkis's achievement as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, qv.

*

I had high hopes for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. His book Will in the World was one of the most useful biographies of Shakespeare I have ever read, and Swerve is the kind of biography-centered history I usually enjoy.

And in some ways, Swerve delivers. It's an account of the recovery of Roman writer Lucretius's book On the Nature of Things, a manuscript that, like Beowulf, only reached us in modern times because of a chance survival of a single copy in a key place.

Unlike Beowulf, whose full significance was only understood when J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a pivotal essay about it in the 20th century, On the Nature of Things was transformative during and after the Renaissance.

Why? Oh, that's what Greenblatt loves telling us -- because On the Nature of Things is, in many ways, the root of the scientific, no-gods approach to nature that has been productive of much, perhaps most, of our present knowledge.

Now, Lucretius was no smarter and little more accurate than previous philosophers, like the pre-Socratic Ionian Greeks. His guesses were not based on deep observation, if only because he lacked the instruments that allowed modern scientists to see more of what is really going on in nature.

The real value of Lucretius was that he excluded all divine explanations from his account of how nature works.

Regardless of your faith in God, or lack thereof, this is an absolutely vital step in the development of science.

Why? Because as soon as you introduce God into the explanation, you eliminate science. "Why does this happen this way?" "Because God wills it so" is a complete conversation. Topic closed. All questions are moot. Science is over.

Science must keep transcendental causation out of its calculations in order to make calculations at all; it must restrict itself to that which can be tested by physical means.

However, as any real scientist -- or logician -- knows, this also means that science cannot prove or disprove a divine role in the natural world.

Science must start with the premise that it will only look for non-divine causation; to think science can then prove its premise shows ignorance of logic.

Divine causality, especially in the Aristotelian sense of final cause or purpose, may or may not be present; science cannot say anything intelligent on the matter; it can only be known by other means.

The problem with Greenblatt's book is that he is a true believer in the non-existence of God. It is one thing to say that Lucretius's attitude opened the door to serious scientific endeavor, and quite another to say that Lucretius's godless worldview is true.

Yet that is what Greenblatt says. This immediately transforms The Swerve from a book of historical biography (or biographical history) into hagiography, a life of a saint: a book written by a true believer to celebrate those who contributed to the triumph of the faith.

In fact, The Swerve, while it celebrates Lucretius, is the opposite of On the Nature of Things, in that it purports to know -- by faith alone, since science cannot address the question -- that there is no possibility of divine purpose in creation.

This book is a creed, a faith-celebrating personal testimony. So if you happen to share Greenblatt's faith, you will get feelings of joyful triumph; if you happen not to believe in his creed, you will get weary of the endless witnessing and testifying about things which cannot be addressed or known either by scientists or by historians.

Which is fine. People who believe in a religion are entitled to write books for each other's edification and enjoyment. If you're a believer in atheism, this is a faith-promoting book for you and your church.

If you're not, it really has little of value that could not have been covered by a much shorter essay on the history of the survival and impact of Lucretius's masterwork. I wish I could have read that book by Greenblatt; too bad he didn't write it.

*

If you are heading to the DC area any time soon, don't miss the chance to visit Old Town in Alexandria.

It's a real shopping district, filled with stores and restaurants you won't see in any mall.

I've watched with sadness as other such districts, like Georgetown in DC and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, succumbed to money.

Here's the pattern. People discover a retail district in a (usually) somewhat older and rundown part of town, where low rents allow unique shops to thrive.

These start-ups or mom-and-pops or specialty stores are not selling to the rich, they're selling to people who want to be surprised and delighted by items they can't find anywhere else.

But as word spreads and visitors flock to the area, the giant retail chains spot an opportunity and start coming in. They offer to pay outrageously high rents, or simply buy the buildings outright. They evict the shopowners whose uniqueness brought the customers in the first place, and replace them with the same stores we see in every mall in America.

The few shops that remain face sharply higher rents and go out of business. Soon they're gone entirely, and there's no reason to visit there, since you already have the same stores in your hometown shopping mall.

That's why I never go to Georgetown anymore. Why should I? Likewise, the Third Street Promenade has almost nothing anymore except some topiaries and street musicians. A few interesting shops survive on the side streets, but even these are quickly being replaced by the chains.

Old Town Alexandria, however, seems to have a city government that understands that you have to regulate capitalism very closely in order to preserve the very things that make the city worth visiting.

You can still walk King Street to and from the river, and find restaurants, galleries, and shops that exist nowhere else.

I shuddered to see a couple of chain stores. Just because the city government made them stick to the architectural style of the neighborhood does not remove the curse.

The chains always want a bigger store, which kills the whole ambience. What makes these special shopping districts work is that the storefronts are tiny. You get lots and lots of different shops on each block.

Put in an Anthropologie or Gap, however, and you've wiped out five or six of those storefronts. It becomes a longer walk between stores, and at the end of the walk, what do you have?

Still, the shopowners I asked about it said that there seems to be no movement to allow any more of the big-money chains to come in and kill Old Town. We'll see if they can hold out.

It's so tempting, you see, to look at the big money and say it's progress, that it'll increase the tax base, that the chains show prosperity or the big time or some such nonsense. And the landlords can't think why they should continue to charge low rents, when the big guys could pay them so much more.

Yet the whole downtown area depends on those low rents to keep the shoppers visiting!

It's like the idiotic thinking that wiped out most of Greensboro's downtown and replaced the street frontage with huge single-purpose utterly boring things like banks and hotels and office buildings -- the opposite of a downtown.

You have to subsidize, or at least offer real breaks to the low-rent landlords and shops that drive the whole engine; instead, Greensboro charges them higher taxes!

Low rents, small spaces, and unique stores: that's what makes a shopping district thrive as a destination. Old Town still has it. Greensboro does not. So the small shops continue to die, even as the city government congratulates itself because the bars are thriving. Bars do not make a downtown into a destination.

Go to Old Town and see what I mean. I've written about the Torpedo Factory before, a riverfront artists' co-op that is worth touring as a gallery whether you purchase anything or not.

I recently walked the length of King Street and didn't even have time to stop in at the Torpedo Factory, however, because I kept getting sucked into toy stores, bakeries, and art galleries.

I walked the street both ways, so I wouldn't miss anything on either side of the street -- but if you get footsore, there's a free trolley. There are good hotels right on King Street, as well, in case you want to make Old Town the center of your visit to the DC area. (And the whole place is only three minutes from the beltway!)

I recently had lunch at Vermilion Restaurant, where I had a sandwich that can only be called an egg McMuffin on steroids. The real prize of the lunch, for me, however, was an olive appetizer with cooked olives -- delicious. I can't wait to get back to sample the dinner menu.

I'll confess that I spend my longest visit in Principle Gallery, which specializes in one of my favorite genres of art -- hyper-realism and abstracted realism. My wife and I visited once before and fell in love with the art of GC Myers, a painter of symbolic landscapes with a bold earthtone palette.

A piece of his has stood now for years above the fireplace in our family room, where it is the focal point as you walk down the hall. It's a place of honor -- and we can't bear to rotate any other piece in to replace it, even temporarily.

Myers makes it a point to keep his originals low-priced enough that regular people can afford them, though this means he must paint many of them! He's a hard-working artist -- but with a powerful vision, and art that rewards long contemplation.

Myers is not alone, though, and if you want to see why I love Principle Gallery, visit their website. This link will take you straight to the list of artists. Just click on each artist's name and then look at all their pieces in turn.

From Ray Donley's Renaissance pastiches to Joshua Suda's darkly humorous trompe l'oeil jests, from Alejandro Rosemberg's hauntingly deep portraits to Jason John's symbolic dramas, from Jeremy Mann's and Valerio D'Ospina's rainy urban scenes to Martin Poole's and Brandon Cook's luminous rural skyscapes, from Treacy Siegler's bold-palette domestics to Brian Martin's darker and realer, sky-heavy suburbia, and on to the stunning still lifes of Judith Pond Kudlow and Larry Preston -- I find myself wishing I could surround life with works from almost every artist in the gallery.

One of the best things about Principle Gallery's website is that they aren't selfish with the art. Many galleries deliberately use video rather than still photography, so that you can't simply copy the image and save it on your computer.

Those other galleries don't seem to realize that when I copy the image and tile it as wallpaper, it means that I'm living with images from their gallery as part of my working life.

When it's time to buy a piece for a wall in my house, whose work do you think I'll remember? The artists whose pieces I can only see when I visit the website? Or the ones that I have been living with and enjoying day after day, year after year?

*

Charles L. Hull is another artist whose website reflects the philosophy of letting people have his art to enjoy, free of charge, on their computers -- knowing that when they are choosing art for their walls, they'll come to work they already know and love.

Hull comes each year to the Crafts Fair at the Coliseum during the Thanksgiving weekend, and over the years I've had a chance to get to know him and his wife and daughter, who work the booth together.

Hull is an artist with his camera, and his beautifully precise photographs of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other things are presented in sizes that make them highly affordable and eloquent on the wall.

He offers six-by-six-inch frameless canvases that can fit into odd places that are usually devoid of art -- or interest! Anyone who has been in our eat-in kitchen (our "dining room" holds a baby grand and a bunch of art -- we eat where we cook) has seen Hull's photos high on the walls over every door.

The beauty of the bounty of nature, of the garden and the orchard, as Hull presents it, is now a part of our daily lives, the background scenery of every meal.

But we also hang his nature photography; this year I could not resist a large canvas of his Angel Oak photograph.

Charles L. Hull is the only photographer whose work we display so prominently, if only because he isn't just someone who points his camera at beautiful things -- he frames and shapes and composes his photographs with an artist's eye, and therefore earns a place on walls usually given over only to the most interesting paintings.

Yet Hull's work remains so inexpensive that almost anyone can afford at least one of his pieces. Check out his generous galleries at www.cehullphotography.com .


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