REVIEW: Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

Is anyone else thinking that today’s American culture is going through a bit of a crisis? Not only Hollywood – I can’t actually think about the last time I came out of a cinema thinking “Oh, finally a really good movie!” – but also literature, or tv series, even if these last ones are still not that bad. I have grown up watching mostly Disney cartoons, followed by a passion for Hollywood movies developed during my adolescence, and now, after years and years spent watching more or less the same narratives being repeated over and over again with just slight changes, I have grown more tired of those themes so loved by American producers, of those happily-ever-after endings or those banal storylines focused on the same social and family plots that should be shared by a global audience.

In the last few decades we have finally witnessed a flow of culture going not only from the US and Europe towards the rest of the world, but also the other way round: cultures that until that moment could not have gone through an international expansion because of historical and political barriers, now have opened – more or less – to the West and have started exporting intercontinentally their cultural products. First of all, Asia, with the Japanese and Korean phenomenon. And that is why I did, too, take some time to step back and turn east, hoping to find new inspirations and stimulus. It seems like a cliché, but that is what you experience when first reading a manga, or watching an anime: you feel thrown into a different world because of people’s behaviour and sensibility.

Japanese poster of Garden of Words

Yesterday evening I watched The Garden of Words (2013), directed by Makoto Shinkai, also director and writer of the more famous Your Name. It is surprisingly a short movie, it lasts only 46 minutes, and tells the story of Takao Akizuki, a 15-year-old boy whose dream is to become a shoe maker (not like our teenagers, who want to be footballers or youtubers). On rainy days he always skips school and goes to Shinjuku Gyoen park, in central Tokyo, where he takes shelter under a small pagoda to draw shoes. One day, he finds another person sitting in the park, Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-years-old woman with whom he starts a strong friendship.

What can you say about this anime? I am not sure either, I am still trying to find words to describe it. One thing for sure is that I still feel melancholy and sadness: Japanese movies have this talent in making you feel small and lonely. The movie is in fact based on the traditional Japanese word for ‘love’ – apparently one of the kanji that now signify love (恋) in the past was written as 孤悲, or ‘lonely sadness‘.

In the end, that is the essence of this movie, that love, yes, can overcome every barrier and age gap, but that in the end loneliness is a fundamental part of everyone’s lives. You could meet people on the way that could change your life and make you grow, but future aspirations and dreams are always the priority. And it was Shinkai himself that said in an interview that loneliness is not treated here as something that has to be fixed. On the other hand, the movie wants to give support to all those people that feel bad at social relations.

Still image from Garden of Words

And maybe this is even a more educational way of seeing life, not giving in to passion or fondness, the right opposite of what Disney teaches. And that is also why I feel discomforted by this movie, because the ending doesn’t follow my expectations, but only because my way of seeing has been shaped by our own Western media. And as soon as I watch something that sends messages that are different from what I would expect, I don’t know what to make of them. When I interpret the whole movie as melancholic, others with different points of view could see it as educational or inspiring.

Still image from Garden of Words

Just to compare, it is as if at the end of Snow White, she left the prince and went to the city to open a pie shop because her calling in life is making people happy with cakes. It would be weird, right? But at the same time, it could teach children to be more realistic and practical, push them to think what to do with their lives. In the end, I don’t think it is a matter of right or wrong, it’s more about cultures and traditions. For me, it’s amazing how just a 46-minutes-long anime can reveal so much about Japan.

BACK TO THE MOVIE ITSELF animation is amazing, to recreate rain more realistically as possible they chose to use a mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI (computer animation), that is why it is so astonishingly real. The soundtrack is quite good, apart from the ending song that was waaay too cheesy (and loud) and maybe a bit inappropriate for the dramatic but emotional moment. Lastly, I feel that characters have not been developed that much, and don’t have much depth. But at the same time, not a lot more could have been done in 46 minutes.

Still image from Garden of Words

And here the main question: why only 46 minutes? Not enough money? Not enough time? I would actually love to see a longer version of it, less rushed at the end and with more time to understand develop the characters.

But animation is really what makes it so wonderful, and what pushes me to advice it to everyone interested in knowing more about Japanese culture.

REVIEW: Bill Viola / Michelangelo

Aaand for art lovers, we’re back with another review of an exhibition! (This review is also on Youtube, click here to see it!)

I spent yesterday morning at the Royal Academy of the Arts in Piccadilly, London, at the exhibition ‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, death, rebirth‘, which opened on January 26 and will be on until the end of March.

Michelangelo’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540 © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo’ is an exhibition where video works from the visual artist Bill Viola are put in conversation with drawings made by Michelangelo (which – note – are owned by the Queen!!). I must say I was quite sceptic, it’s not something common to see works by one of the most famous artists of the world exhibited together not only with contemporary artworks, but with videos! I wasn’t sure about this contrast, but at the same time it was made by such a famous institution that I had to see it, at least. I also started appreciating more and more video art – my love for everything digital is getting stronger – so I decided to give it a chance.

I am actually still struggling in deciding where to start, it is not one of those straightforward exhibition where personal interpretation doesn’t really matter. In this case, the themes explored touch us all, and I suppose that the whole experience depends on how we perceive those particular themes. What I felt during the exhibition and that didn’t fade during the rest of the day is… I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a sort of peace, simple, natural, but not positive; there is melancholy, there is fear, and death to some extent.

Viola’s Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 – Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

(I probably didn’t get the part about rebirth, did I?)

Bill Viola was born in 1951 in New York, and he’s one of the first generation of artists that started working with the digital medium thanks to the introduction of portable and cheap cameras in the 60s. I feel that one of the most important elements of his practice is to understand his view of ‘time’, which he considers one of the central revolutions of image-making – he also compares it to the introduction of perspective in Renaissance art. And time actually has a central role in his videos, which are usually extremely slow-motion scenes representing people in different contexts, often underwater. And it is that same, soft sound of being underwater, that sense of slowness, that follows the visitor through and out of the exhibition, as if time had been stretched. At the same time, his videos are continuously looped, giving a sense of suffocating eternity.

Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ, c.1532-3 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Viola’s art explores different themes, often having philosophical and spiritual significance. He engaged with Renaissance art (he went to Florence to study during his education), with religious mysticism, and he combines contemporary technology with ancient tradition. He seeks to explore life, death, religion. Viola suggested that films could “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”.

However, while he explores these themes, it is not entirely clear what he wants to say, what his artworks are suggesting the viewer. No doubt that they easily attract the eyes of the audience because of the subjects and the aesthetic; they invite the viewer to stand still and forget the world for a few moments, but then? What is there after this? Does he want to recreate a sort of mystical experience? Does he want to tell a story? Is he sharing his view of the world? Or he actually didn’t want to do any of these things, and just underline the connection between life and death?

Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992, right, opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo – Photograph: David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts
The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John the Baptist (the Taddei Tondo), c1504-5 by Michelangelo © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Moreover, the conversation between his works and Michelangelo’s is, sometimes, forced, and the dialogue created is not achieved completely. The Nantes Triptych, formed by three different videos representing a woman giving birth, a body floating in water and Viola’s dying mother, is installed in front of Taddei Tondo (1505) by Michelangelo, where the Virgin Mary is comforting baby Jesus, scared at the sight of a goldfinch – symbol of the crucifixion. If from one point of view the two artworks seem to be in a close connection because of the coexistence-of-death/life-theme, on the other there is something unconvincing about it – isn’t it too straightforward? And what is the connection between Viola’s view of daily life – a man floating underwater – and Michelangelo’s?

And the same happens in the other rooms where the artists’ works are installed together, the dialogue is not convincing and appears just thanks to the clues in RA’s information boards on the walls. To me, it seems that, despite the shared themes of spirituality, materiality and life/death, Michelangelo’s works were diminished. It is as if they were reduced to the most appropriate interpretation for this particular exhibition, and for Viola’s video.

At the same time, I liked the show: Viola’s videos need to be experienced on a big screen, with the right light and the right atmosphere, in order for the audience to enter in contact with the artwork itself. I must admit that it does require some time, but it reveals itself to be a poetic experience. Especially when you accept the stillness of the video, and you start realising that you, first of all, have to experience the exhibition itself with slowness and calm in order to fully appreciate it.

But it is also important to notice that, in those rooms where both Michelangelo’s and Viola’s work were installed, the drawings totally eclipsed the videos because of their undeniable beauty.

I mean, it’s Michelangelo.

Oscars 2018: too politically correct?

I know, I am a few days late, taking some time to reflect on the outcome of this Oscar night was very much needed!

I woke up last Monday morning to find out that Green Book had won as Best Motion Picture. With a perfect timing, I had actually watched that move the night before with a few friends, and one of the first things that I thought while watching it was ‘No, it’s too funny, it is not going to win’, so my bet had fallen on Cuaròn’s Roma. But, God, I was so wrong!

Green Book

My immediate reaction was really, really, really negative. I don’t think that Green Book is not a movie worthy to win as Best Picture. It is witty, it makes the audience laugh, it easily moves with its banal-but-reassuring happy-ending, and undoubtedly it is a lovely movie to watch. But no, Best Picture is waaaaay too much. And I wasn’t expecting the Oscars to be SO politically correct.

For those of you who haven’t watched Green Book, it is set in the racist United States of the 60s around the real story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italo-American living in the Bronx, who becomes the chauffeur, and then friend, of Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a sophisticated Afro-American piano player.

 When I think about last years’ winners, there was something that differentiated the winners from the mass: I didn’t like The Shape of Water, way too sappy and surreal, but at least the direction was something. I could feel that it was going to win, certainly because of the love-wins-over-difference theme but also for other formal and aesthetic arrangements. Same for Moonlight in 2017, it was again the typical, socially engaged story for the Oscars, but at least there was something more.

This time, on the other hand, I didn’t feel Green Book had nothing extraordinary. I liked it, I laughed, it also moved me. It highlights an issue which must never be forgotten, but c’mon, Best Picture?? I would have approved more if The Favourite had won, but sorry, lesbians in the 18th century are not as important as racism in the 60s.

Still image from The Favourite

And, from one perspective, the Oscars are an American price, so it is understandable that they give voice to their ‘local’ (if it can be called local, since it is exported in almost the whole world) culture and try to send messages that touch mainly – but not exclusively – Americans. And nowadays, with Trump and the 2020 elections, it is more than necessary to continuously highlight and bring to memory the past in order not to make the same mistakes.

(And it is amazing how, for the past six Oscars editions – excluding in 2016 – the award for best director was always won by a Mexican director: Alfonso Cuaròn in 2013 and 2018, Alejandro G. Iñarritu in 2014 and 2015, Guillermo del Toro in 2017.)

Kathryn Bigelow accepting the Oscar for The Hurt Locker

But, on the other hand, isn’t the Academy Award an institution celebrating filmmaking and honoring remarkable artists of the film industry? Is it appropriate to be this politically correct in an institution that, formally, promotes first-class cinema? And then, if the Academy gives so much attention to social and nondiscriminatory themes, why is it that only one woman in history, Kathryn Bigelow in 2008, won an Oscar as Best Director?

I want this to be the starting point for a quiet debate in your minds, as it is happening in mine. I still don’t have an answer, and if half of me is more and more disappointed each year that the Academy rewards movies for the themes and not for the movie itself, on the other hand I don’t feel like I should totally demonize what happens.

As always, I would love to hear what you think!

REVIEW: D. Gilroy’s ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

*this review contains spoilers*

Velvet Buzzsaw has been released on February 1 on Netflix. When I first watched the trailer, advertised everywhere, I couldn’t believe that, finally, one of the most famous digital media platforms was that interested in the contemporary artistic world to make it the protagonist of one of its new releases.

And not just a random movie no one cares about, but with a tremendous cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (…do I really have to say who he is?), Toni Colette (Abigail Breslin’s mother in that wonderful movie that is Little Miss Sunshine), Rene Russo (Thor) and Natalia Dyer, also known as Nancy Wheeler from Stranger Things. Oh, and John Malkovich as well! What could possibly go wrong?

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’
© Claudette Barius, Netflix

Actually, a lot. Watching the trailer gave me the idea that the guy that wrote the screenplay – actually the director himself, Dan Gilroy (The Nightcrawler) – wasn’t entirely sure of what he was doing. The trailer itself is divided in two parts, one with club music in the background to introduce the posh and classy environment of art, the second quickly turned into a horror movie, with brief shots of someone being strangled, someone having a car accident and then being kidnapped by monkeys in a painting (yeah, I know what you are thinking), with Gyllenhaal voice in the background explaining/spoiling the whole plot.

A movie like this could only be either a cult or a disappointment, most likely the latter.

But let’s go into details. The first part has tons of promise: it is witty, provocative, it attracts the viewer into this creative nest of vipers showing appreciation for one another only until they find the right way to destroy each others. All the main characters are introduced with an initial scene shot at the Miami Art Basel fair: we see critic Morf Vanderwalt (what a name), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as he peers at arworks behind his stylish glasses, ready to destroy the careers of every artists he is not convinced by, who falls under the charm of Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a really hideous character (believe me) working for Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), owner and founder of one of the most prominent galleries in LA only looking to make more and more money – the same desire driving all the characters in the movie.

Unfortunately, it seems that Gilroy forgot that characters need to be developed. They are inconsistent and several scenes are illogical and meaningless. First of all, the artist impersonated by John Malkovich, who doesn’t seem to have a precise role in the plot and whose scenes seem to be in the movie for no apparent reason.

Morf sees for the first time Dease’s works

The plot progresses when Josephina casually finds the corpse of her neighbour, who happens to be an artist no one knew about who lived isolated in his apartment, constantly creating new paintings. She sees something in those artworks and takes them home. Vanderwalt judges the canvas as ‘visionary, mesmeric’ and Haze gallery promotes and sells them to the public. The only issue is that Ventril Dease (the dead artist’s name) had left clear instructions that each and every one of his works had to be destroyed and never commercialized.

But, c’mon, there’s so much money to be made! No one cares about his last note.

Gretchen’s arm gets eaten by the Sphere

The artist’s curse (?) starts falling upon all those who have a role in selling his works to the public. Bodies start piling up. First the technician installing his artworks (he’s the one killed by monkeys), then a rival art gallery owner (hanged by a mysterious hand coming out of the ceiling), and then my favourite, Gretchen (Toni Colette), an art advisor who sticks her arm in one of the holes of Sphere, a work of art, and… well, her arm gets severed in a splatter scene that reminded me of Scary Movie. She bloods out on the gallery floor, and the next morning everyone assumes her corpse to be an artwork (a really realistic one).

At this point I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something at the computer screen. I laughed because the computer wasn’t mine.

The plot then becomes even more clueless, until everyone dies. In the last scene, John Malkovich draws random figures on the sand of an unknown beach, aware that they will disappear as soon as the waves cover them, and BOOM there you have the meaning of the whole movie: art for money is no good. Art for art’s sake is the answer.

John Malkovich drawing on the beach

Even if I still don’t get why an art satire like this had to be disguised as a thriller, I agree, paintings have always had an aura of mystery, let’s only think about Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The movie truly had a lot of potential and Gilroy – or maybe someone else – could have really done a wonderful job with it. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, especially because of those scenes meant to be scary.

An important mention, however, goes to Jake Gyllenhaal, who is the true star: his acting gives visibility to a character that would have otherwise been stagnant, like the others. But unfortunately he is  not enough to make Velvet Buzzsaw a good movie.

Sorry Jake, still waiting for your next good movie…

And you? What did you think of Velvet Buzzsaw? Let me know in the comments below!!

REVIEW(ish): T. Emin, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’

‘Ms. Emin’s nihilism is so intensely passionate that it amounts to her life force. It is carried (…) primarily by language (…). In this day of multiple media and blurred boundaries between disciplines, it still seems that she might be less an artist than a writer, whose autobiography and hard-won philosophy of life would work best in book form. But in whatever form Ms. Emin chooses to work, one thing seems clear: she’s all voice.’ Roberta Smith, NYT

Yes, I know, I haven’t chosen something easy to write about, especially being this my first article.

Today Tracey Emin is one of the most controversial contemporary artists, some say that her works are ‘too much’: too much depression, too much sadness, too much passion. She knows how to provoke the viewer, she knows how to make us feel. It is as if she was saying ‘You can choose whether to open yourselves to my artworks and accept whatever emotions they may cause you, or you can go on living emotionless your gray and dull life’. Because despite all the tragedies she went through, her life is a blaze of colours.

Tracey Emin with My Bed, Tate Britain, 2015 © Guy Bell

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London, and she is one of the most well-known British contemporary artists of today. Her arguably most famous work is My Bed, exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and which represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The bed (yup, the artwork title is quite self-explanatory) exhibited was the actual bed where she spent hours and hours smoking, eating, or having sexual intercourses in a quite difficult period of her life. For this reason, her artwork attracted not little media attention: it wasn’t just a bed, it was a bed surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, sheets full of weird stains, used condoms and empty cigarettes packets. Some thought ‘I didn’t come to an art gallery to see used condoms!”, but thankfully a lot more people appreciated the underlying intensity of her sorrow and despair.

Oh, yeah, she is also famous because in 1997 she appeared drunk on TV in the discussion panel of the program ‘The Death of Painting’ (…or ‘Is Painting Dead?’, according to The Guardian). I actually looked for the video but couldn’t find it (please, share the link if you do!).

The entrance of the exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, 2019 © Virginia Bianchi

Tracey Emin’s ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ is now on at White Cube Bermondsey until April 7. If you’re in London, GO AND SEE IT. I mean it. (If it wasn’t clear enough, it was quite a long time that I wasn’t that emotional about an exhibition).

The artworks exhibited are how Tracey translated her sufferings into material, artistic objects. Each and every one of them (and they’re quite a large number) is a punch in the stomach of the visitor. Starting from the first room, where fifty self-portraits taken during her sleepless nights of insomnia are hanged on the walls, the intimacy of her devastated glances made me feel naked and uneasy, almost as if the ghosts haunting her nights were in that same room, with me.

Insomnia Room Installation, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi

Those very same ghosts are the ones that appear in the next exhibited artworks: her passed away mother and her unborn child… or actually children – in the exhibition only one abortion is fully mentioned, but she had two: ‘After three [abortions] you start going mad. I’ve had two and I’m borderline.’

The ghosts of motherhood and femininity pervade the rest of the exhibition: the two naked bronze sculptures laying on the floor, leaving us to wonder whether they are unborn foetus or despairing figures; the paintings, representing female figures drawn with such an anger that sometimes they just seem splashes of blood on the canvas; or the silent video she made filming slowly, with a deathly calm, her mother’s box of ashes. The last piece of the exhibition is a 22 minutes-long video where she tells us of her first traumatising abortion in 1990, and of how that experience has had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her strength, once again, consists in how she doesn’t hide, how she explains in full details how it went, how she calmly doesn’t spare us anything of that story.

In one document, contained in one of the two vitrines collecting intimate and improvised writings from her archive – some are also on sheets with the logo of hotels where she was staying -, she writes ‘Always so alone, so scared – so not wanted.’ And she has that incredible power that only very few artists have nowadays, of making the viewer feel discomfort as if her despair was theirs.

But, of course, only if you are open to embrace her works. That is why she is such a controversial artist: by thinking rationally, by examining her technique, one will never get to the bottom of her works. I feel it to be a bit like looking at a Pollock and saying ‘My child could have done that!’ One also need to consider the fortnights of tears the author spent creating that same artwork you are admiring today.

No Love, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi
(from left) I watched you disappear. Pink Ghost, 2018; I was too young to be carrying your Ashes, 2017-18; You were still There, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi