‘Thor: Ragnarok’ – a triumph for comic books

Having just seen Thor: Ragnarok, I came away with a number of differing thoughts.

One was that it was like a series of graphic novels, and took just about as long to watch as it would have to read. Secondly, was how much these fantasy films owe to George Lucas. A third, building on Lucas, is that what had been imagined or sketched out on paper, can now be created on screen. Is this a good thing for sparking the imagination?

Thor: Ragnarok is a long movie with fits and starts of humor, and lots of carnage. I am not sure if anyone who hasn’t watched the other films in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would quite get the side jokes but the main plot is pretty straightforward. If you have a knowledge of the Norse myths – Odin All-Father, Thor, god of Thunder, Loki, god of Mischief, Hela, the goddess of Death – then you can follow along.

Like storytellers for hundreds of years, Marvel has reworked the Norse gods, first, for their comics books, and then the movies, this movie tells yet another version of the legends. Thor is noble and humorous (thank you, Chris Hemsworth), Loki is untrustworthy but always pulls through (thank you, Tom Hiddleston), and introducing Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) who pulls off an outfit sleeker than that of Cat Woman (Oops. Wrong comic universe.) Ragnarok is the foretold destruction of Asgard.

There are times in this film that you end up wishing the end of the world would come faster.

I realized roughly halfway through the film that Thor: Ragnarok had the rhythm of comic books. You could break this film up into five or six segments, all ending on cliff-hangers, and have an entire series of printed comics or television programs. I had noticed this happening in an earlier film, but now it’s far clearer.

In the early days of adapting DC and MCU comics for the screen, filmmakers didn’t have the digital means to truly recreate comic book mayhem and magic so they worked around the problem with plot and characterization.

Now they can recreate the fantasy of the comic books and they do with lots of special effects. Some times these effects seem gratuitously long to me.

Special effects bring me back to George Lucas. Known for his filmmaking, Lucas  established Industrial Light and Magic to create the digital special effects of Star Wars in 1975. ILM’s never looked back. These days, there are other special effects groups around the world (and most worked on this film from the credits), but in many ways, Lucas was the one who started it all. When you see digital cities, you’re likely reminded of Coruscant in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). When fire is held in someone’s hand, you can go back to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince‘s sea of flame which was done by ILM. So, thank you, George Lucas, for bringing us on the silver screen what could only be created in our imagination when we read.

Is having a passive visual experience a good thing for the human imagination? I’m sure that debate will rage forever. In the past, new works sprang from reader’s imagination. Shakespeare built on an Italian story to create Romeo and Juliet. The legends of King Arthur were embellished by the monk Geoffrey of Monmouth. Hell was pretty much defined in the Middle Ages by Dante  Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, volume one, The Inferno.

Now writers’ and artists’ imaginations will be sparked by what has been created visually by others, not by what might come from within. Good or bad? Time will tell.

In the less-philosophical world, enjoy Thor: Ragnarok. Stick around for the end of the credits. It’s worth it.

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Divine Felines and #NationalCatDay

Let me turn you on to something.

On October 29, this Sunday, it’s @NationalCatDay which looks like just an excuse to indulge in feline adoration. As if the 74,059,000 owners, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, need an excuse.

I love cats. (I love dogs as well, but I have my finger on the scale for cats. I have friends who have their entire fists on the scale for dogs so we’re even.)

When I went to Istanbul in 2015, I found a city overrun with cats. Respected and loved by the Turks, stray cats fed by the locals (who enjoy mouse policing) and many tourists who enjoy the purr! So I wrote a piece about my trip, including a slide show.

The, in 2017, out came #Kedi, an independent film on what? Cats. The cats of Istanbul in all their glory. Cat lovers it will be released on November 14th on Amazon.com. Just in time for Christmas.

In my piece on the re-opening of the Freer Gallery of Art  here in Washington D.C. where they have a brand new exhibit of “Divine Felines” cats in ancient Egypt.

 

You will l notice that there are two pictures of dogs in this collection. The Freer|Sackler exhibit includes canine influences in Egypt as well.

So now, at the end of this fantastically busy month of October, we have #NationalCatDay, celebrating our feline buddies.

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In honor of that, I’ll share my favorite cat picture of this year: Chunky who has a “taste” for Apple iWatches.

Chunky was up for adoption at the local Petsmart where I volunteer. Lively and a true purr engine, he was taken home by a good family. I only hope they were PC users.

Finally, so sorry not to be updating this blog more often. It’s not that I haven’t written. It just hasn’t been posted. I will attempt to be more timely.

Happy #NationalCatDay !!

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D.C.’s gateway to Asia finally re-opens

It’s been a long two years since the Freer Gallery of Art, the nation’s premier gallery of Asian Art was open on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

“What began as a prosaic need to upgrade mechanical systems in the Freer allowed us to reinstate this building to Freer’s pristine vision,” said Director Julian Raby, of the Freer Gallery. Freer believed in “points of contact… He believed in commonalities – of shared sense of beauty across different peoples. an inspired belief in universalism in art.”

Director Julian Raby of the Freer Gallery of Art

The Freer Gallery was the first museum built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Detroit industrial  Charles Lang Freer donated his collection in 1906, but the museum first opened in 1923 after his death. The Freer, along with its sibling museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, form the National Museums of Asian Art.

Among the new exhibits at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art are “Divine Felines,” a peek at the cult of the cat in Ancient Egypt from the Brooklyn Museum, “Encountering The Buddha” is a vast expansive look at the many faces of the Buddha and “Terminal” a contemporary exhibit by Sobodh Guptais. Finally, there was “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.”

It’s possible to spend hours browsing the lush displays in “Encountering the Buddha:Art and Practice across Asia.”

 

Heads of the Buddha

Stone heads of the Buddha show the different ways he was conceptualized in different cultures including India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand.

Along with the stunning sculptures and golden art, there is a digital film created for the exhibition of a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka.

There is also the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room with 243 objects from Chinese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Mongolian artists.

The Tibetan Shrine room

Don’t overlook “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.” Over 60 bells, some of which date back to the Chinese Bronze age circa 1800 BC, and as recent as 9 A.D. Elaborately designed, the bells range from an inch high to almost three feet.

A reporter tests out the Chinese Bells exhibit

What is the most striking is the interactive aspect of the exhibit. Two tablets on one wall show the difference in the ring of the bells, Chinese and European, through the different pitches.

Bells were used in warfare as well as court music. A wall panel highlights the treasures found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. He was buried with the instruments of his orchestra, including sixty-five bells. Oh, and a number of women who might have been his musicians.

In “Divine Felines,” obviously cats are the masters. The Egyptians revered the cats, given them status as royalty or even gods. Many know of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess or Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess who is at the door of the exhibition but did you know that there was a feline goddess Mafdet from the 3rd century BC?

According to the exhibit, she was “believed to guard worshipers against snakes and scorpions and to fiercely protect the pharaoh and the gods.”

In the agricultural landscape of Egypt, the cat was revered for its usefulness in killing vermin such as mice and snakes but also for her devotion to her children, and protector of her owners. After death, they were often mummified and buried in coffins.

One word of warning. Above the cylindrical mummy of a cat is explicit detail about the x-rays of the broken bones of the kitten within. The explanations might be upsetting to young visitors. The mummy is from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Not to be neglected, there are several dogs in the exhibit as well. No they aren’t given equal time. The Egyptians prized their canines giving them protective powers and regarding them as guardians of the dead.

But this exhibit belongs to the cats. (Want to see dogs? Go to the National Gallery of Art across the Mall. The Europeans loved their dogs.)

The “new look” at the Freer is aimed at not just exhibiting their collections but exploring of the links between Asia and America.

The Freer Gallery of Art cleaned down to their original terrazzo floors and re-designed the ceilings to provide “diffused and reflected light.” The many changes were discussed in my earlier posting here.

The museum’s exhibits were changed to show they weren’t “just an accumulation of stuff from a certain period. It’s a mini exhibition. Each gallery has a theme and a title,” said Raby.

According to Chief Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, Massumeh Farad, even the signage on the items has been changed. Instead of saying, Bowl, ewer or figure, “they have enticing titles that immediately introduce our visitor to the principal idea.”

For example, “A group of 14th century enamel glassware from Egypt is introduced as part of Cairo Nights since they were part of Egyptian banquets,” said Farad.

2017-FS-Lohan-Confucious-1

Details of the only existing work by Fanlong (12th century). A Confucian, a Buddhist Luohan, a tiger, and earth demons.

Lovers of quirky details should check out the wonderful scroll by Fanning in one of the galleries that has a Buddhist Lohan, Confucian scholar and a monkey. Oh, and earth demons. Don’t miss the happy demons.

Among other chances, the Gallery is beta testing a Freer “Highlights Tour” about their galleries. They will be in seven languages:  Chinese, Korean Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Persian and Spanish. They are also introducing podcasting across the exhibitions. One of them is on the Apocalypse “which considers themes of destruction in Asia and how these have served as a means for   renewal  and creation.”

For those with limited time, look for the new red labels to get “a sense of what the gallery is about.” It will be a fast tour of the collections.

Numerous sponsorsworked with the Gallerys to put on the exhibits. Mars Petcare provided for the “Divine Felines”, and the Robert H. No. Ho Family Foundation of Hong Kong for the continuing support of “Encountering the Buddha.”

The museum’s opening was celebrated by having the classical 300 foot facade become a screen for of Freer’s trips and Asian art, a night market in the Illuminations, including dancing and music.

The Freer Gallery of Art is at 12 St SW and Jefferson Drive on the National Mall, Washington DC.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery ,1050 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC

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A ‘refreshed’ Freer Gallery of Art coming in October

Freer Gallery of Art Director Julian Raby discusses renovations. The Gallery re-opens Oct. 14.

Those into Asian and Middle Eastern art know all about the currently-closed Freer Gallery of Art and its partner, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

During a tour of the Freer’s renovations, Director Julian Raby spoke about many changes for the classic Italian-Renaissance building on the National Mall. The museum will re-open with a bang on October 14.

He spoke of taking it in a new direction and refreshing “what we offer in the building.” Raby emphasized that they were eager to “bring back the original aesthetic of the building. This is about taking it back.”

Charles Lang Freer was a Detroit magnate who, in 1905, proposed donating his Asia and South Asia collection to  the Smithsonian, which initially rejected it since they were concentrating on science. Despite this, the Freer Gallery became the first building of the Smithsonian system for fine art opening in 1923. The white-stone building is built around an open-air courtyard which include sculptures and a fountain. The museum houses Freer’s collections including screens, scrolls, jade and his extensive collection of artist James McNeill Whistler paintings, letters and drawings, and the very popular “Peacock Room.

One of the Freer’s new directions is the use of the museum’s display space. Instead of long-standing exhibits, “every single one of these galleries…will be treated like a mini-exhibition; what’s the big idea, what’s the hook title, what are the highlight objects, and how do we talk about these objects for a relevance for today,” says Raby.

Cleaners at work at the Freer Gallery of Art

The original terrazzo floors from 1923 have been “revealed” and cleaned. Raby said, “The (Eugene and Agnes E.) Meyer auditorium is historical… and (has gone) from analog age” to the “digital age. We can simulcast. We can beam into other institutions.” He has kept the original seats to “insure the almost perfect sound quality” of the auditorium the same.

Some members of the Freer have already moved back in. “The conservation department is now in their digs,” said Raby as a woman with a cart holding a mother-of-pearl Asian box moved through the crowd.

While the walls are repainted, the new slate baseboards are still missing since they are “stuck in Customs,” says Raby.

It’s is not only the galleries that will be overhauled. Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art, spoke about the “most popular, the most visited” gallery.

The green and gold-gilt Peacock Room with its extensive collection of pottery is “installed exactly the way he installed them in 1908.” Freer loved things with iridescence on them, and acquired one of the most extensive collections of ceramics in 1907. One is “so covered with iridescent it’s difficult to see.”

An iridescent bowl in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Peacock Room

Interestingly enough, in light of contemporary events, some of the antique ceramics comes from Raqqa in Syria, the self-styled capital of the Islamic State.

Glazer also spoke of a new acquisition drive to buy more blue and white porcelain of the period to “recreate the chock-a-block massing of the Victorian original” display. If they can’t get contemporary pieces, they may do “3-d” clones of objects in the collection, in the hope that someone might donate an original to replace the clone. Raby joked it was part of the “adopt a pot” campaign.

Two small bronze statures, by August Saint-Gaudens, better known from the monument to the Civil War’s 54th Regiment in Boston and the Henry Adams’ funeral homage to his wife, will be reinstalled in the courtyard after being cleaned using new techniques. Using dry ice blasting to take off the aged wax coatings, Labor Supported by Science and Art, and its partner, Law Supported by Power and Love, will be re-coated with thin layers of wax, gently buffed, and then re-installed.

Finally, the two massive 14th century wooden Guardians will return to guard the corridors. Raby said that he’d always wanted to have a kids sleepover Night at the Museum-style “with the Guardians coming to light at midnight. ” He added with a smile, “Spooky.”

Before being taken down during the renovations, a Guardian loomed outside the Peacock Room

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Updated to remove spoiler warnings.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will make a lot of money but would have made more with a coherent story. The film’s  promise is lost amid various conflicting competing plot lines. It has all the feeling of being written by committee with a checklist of “scenes you must have,” “expensive special effects,” and include all the minor characters as well as the major cash cow – Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.)

It starts with young Henry Turner (Brandon Thwaites) wanting to save his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a.k.a the Captain of the haunted ship, the Flying Dutchman, from eternal death. Henry can do this by finding the Trident of Poseidon which breaks all marine spells.

Over the next couple of hours, Henry works towards this goal. Along the way, he’s tripped up by run-ins with several British officers (all of whom look alike and all want to hang him,) the pirate Jack Sparrow (who is stealing gold and a building, in that order) and Sparrow’s nemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spaniard.

Salazar had wanted, when alive, to rid the Caribbean of all pirates. He dies facing off against a young Sparrow, but lives on magically through the power of the magic compass. Now, through a clumsy plot point,  he’s freed from the watery depths and wants his revenge.

The many plots then descend into an endless tangle of “you must have this scene,” include “these characters,” and have a chase scene (or three), and, don’t forget to include  Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who was Sparrow’s enemy, then friend, then enemy. Yes, he’s here too, and the opening plot? Oh, that sunk somewhere about the half-hour mark.

The young beautiful heroine, astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is a top graduate of the Caribbean’s 1800s-STEM courses. She’s about to be hanged (probably for spurning the advances of the British officer but that’s unclear) but she escapes the prison and ends up with Sparrow, then is nearly hanged again, and rescued again… She’s around to move things along and be a love interest for Henry as the free-spirited, intelligent Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) was for Will Turner in the first 4 films.

I came away with the definite impression that the writers are going for what they think is the “new spunky young woman” ideal but not making it really work.

All of this decorated with fabulous special effects. The pirate ships are beautiful. When Salazar’s ghostly pirate-hunter smashes down on his enemies crushing them it mind-blowing. The drowned Salazar himself is gruesome. The costumes are good for upcoming Halloween stores including Carina’s corseted gowns (of no particular period.)

So the main story is to find the Trident to save Will Turner? Or is it saving Jack Sparrow from Salazar’s revenge? Or is it making sure Henry and Carina get to get together? Or is it… well, what is it?

Now for the Biggest Fattest Spoiler and Irritation: both the friend who accompanied me and I were waiting for a showdown between the Flying Dutchman and Salazar — two lost ships full of magical dead men with competing purposes – the saving or killing Henry, Carina and Jack Sparrow. Now THAT would have made sense.

Nope. Nada.

Disney had the ingredients and could have made it a worthy next film in the series.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a disappointing, frustrating mess.

Come on folks, get it together!

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Forget lovingly handmade gifts – Amazon wins

This is not a nastygram towards Amazon.com or the USPS. Not at all. It’s is a realization. Only big business can afford to mail stuff, so buy from them.

I just spent $20 to send a package across the U.S. via Priority Mail. The contents are a gift which I hope the recipients will enjoy greatly.

However, if I wanted to have it tracked, that would be extra cash. The cardboard box itself was an extra cost. Insurance would have been even more.

For business, the ultimate lure is no mailing costs and only big business can afford to do that. The rest of us just pay cash or give up.

Frankly, it would have been much cheaper to find it on Amazon, and send it.

I run into this every time I send something larger than a letter, or send a package abroad. Why bother mailing things abroad when I can go to Amazon.com in that country, and just order it up?

The answer to the latter is that sometimes you want to give something that’s unusual. Something not off-the-rack. Something that will be perfect for that birthday boy or girl selected from a small business. In which case,  be prepared to spend as much mailing via UPSP, FedX, UPS (choose your poison) as you would buying that gift.

In the old days (when dinosaurs roamed) there was USPS sea mail. You sent it months ahead of time, and it arrived in time at a reasonable rate. That doesn’t seem to exist any longer.

I wish there was a solution. Why bother thinking ahead to a present that matters if you have to budget in twice the cost?

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Utamaro-A glimpse into Japan’s sexual ‘floating world’ of yesteryear

Thank goodness for sex, otherwise humanity would miss so out on so much great art.

A one-of-a-kind exhibit, Inventing Utamaro, opens at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington D.C. April 9th. Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s large painting, Moon at Shinagawa, owned by the Freer Gallery of Art, has been joined by two other related paintings, Fukagawa in the Snow and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara. 

Don’t let the prim-and-proper names scare you off.

Utamaro, born in 1753, specialized in paintings and wood block prints about the ukiyo or “floating world” – the ‘entertainment’ area of Edo (now known as Tokyo) that included the well-organized and legal brothels.

Yes. We’re back to sex. But, non-explicit, so don’t be scared to bring children to the exhibit of a stunning triptych of Asian art.

Guest curator Julie Nelson Davis of the University of Pennsylvania  teamed up with the Freer Gallery of Art’s senior curator of Japanese art James Ulak for the exhibit.

This is the world of elegant, educated seduction for profit. The paintings are  inhabited by exquisite women clad in vibrantly colorful kimonos, some holding children, all happy. Cherished pets run about.  The painted cherry blossoms flutter like the real ones on the trees outside the museum.

The three oversized paintings – one scroll, the others, screens — are an idealized, artistic  view of the world of the sex workers of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is likely set in the quarter where thousands of prostitutes entertained their clients. The Moon at Shinagawa is set an ‘entertainment’ house. In the Fukagawa in the Snow, the women were entertainers. Davis pointed out that the women’s kimono bows tied in the front, signified they were prostitutes.

This was not the reality of the sex trade in that world. The Sackler includes an accompanying exhibit points out that in reality,  “many women died during their time of service” with the “average age of death was twenty-one.”

Utamaro was a popular commercial artist also who produced wood block prints, and folded illustrated books. The Sackler has one of the carved wood blocks on display.

It’s worth picking up the small pamphlet put out by the museum to understand why the topics were chosen by the printers. In line with the censorship of the period,  prints  could only “represent approved subjects” such as “beautiful people” and “famous places.” No politics.

Who the triptych of scrolls were made for is uncertain but research suggests they may have been created for Zenno Ihei of Tochigi in the late 1780s. The trio were apparently painted at different times over fifteen years. They were first exhibited together at the Joganji Temple in Tochigi in Japan in 1879. The noted collector Charles Lang Freer bought “Moon at Shinagawa” in 1903.

Viewers are unlikely to ever see them together again because paintings of the Freer Gallery are not loaned. “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” came from the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, and “Snow at Fukagawa” is from the Wadsworth Atheneum Musem of Art in Connecticut for this singular exhibit.

The exhibit runs from April 8th to July 9th, 2017 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

 

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