Design  |  Features

Exceptional Art: A Look Back at 2013

January 26, 2014  |  10:30am

We asked Braxton Pope, a producer whose 2013 output was exceptionally varied—a narrative film (The Canyons), a documentary (The Source Family), music videos (MGMT’s “Cool Song No 2,” Passion Pit’s “Constant Conversations” and “Carried away”), a fashion short film for Roberto Cavalli, an art film directed by Mexico City-based artist Yoshua Okon, and a promo for Yeezus—to sum up the parts of pop culture that had an impact on him this year. His response was as diverse as his work.

I’m primarily a producer of feature films but have increasingly migrated to music videos, art shorts, documentaries and other forms of visual content that can be shot during the lengthy gestation period of movies. My experience with so many artists in different media made me realize that it would be difficult to benchmark a year of cultural production with a list of movies alone. Everyone cites the same batch, deserving though they may be. I didn’t want to toss index cards scrawled with Twelve Years A Slave, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, All Is Lost, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, Blue Is The Warmest Color, et al. into a hat and then, like the world’s most obvious magician, pull them out one by one for a year end tally. Instead, below is an index of varied content that I found exceptional.

Art:
The James Turrell exhibit at LACMA
My first encounter with Turrell was casual, in the hallways of the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles where he installed flickering television lighting schemes. A proper introduction to his work occurred later at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, an excellent venue for contemporary art. I’m still angling to see the skyskapes of his hollowed out volcanic crater near Sedona, Arizona. Michael Govan said it is “as important as any artwork ever made…I think it’s one of the most ambitious artworks ever attempted by a single human being.” Turrell shrinks the astronomical and places its wonder before you. He’s been a source of persistent intrigue for myself and my father, and we often concoct plans to try and gain admission to Roden. His work with light is so unusual, a genus unto himself; it’s like opening the door to a room of perception that you not only haven’t set foot in before, but that you didn’t even know existed.

Music:
Kanye West: Yeezus
Mention Kanye and no one can retain a mask of neutrality. Kanye is my friend, so I’m undoubtedly biased when it comes to discussing who he’s as a person—I find him to be thoughtful, polite, extremely smart and wildly compelling. When it comes to his music, though, I don’t feel I lose objectivity: Yeezus is a great, great album. The astringent sonic textures, the surprising and shifty architecture of the songs, the recombinant DNA he doctors on each track. I thought Lou Reed’s analysis was some of the best writing on music I have ever read. It’s deadly smart: http://thetalkhouse.com/reviews/view/lou-reed. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Yeezus tour is a work of considerable imagination, an artfully conceived spectacle that, after seeing it in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand and in Los Angeles at Staples, moved me with its scope, design, aesthetic and all those elements which I know Kanye cares about. He often talks about a taste profile and the marriage of music and visual performance showcases his ideas in superb form.

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
I get a lot of grief for liking VW as much as I do and I can understand why, given the taxonomy of Ivy League culture references that inform many of their songs. Also, if rock bands are supposed to be in some sense dangerous, then they’re woefully inadequate. Led Zeppelin commits roman acts of sexual barbarism with mud sharks in Seattle and Ezra Koenig is someone you can invite home to meet your parents for Sunday dinner and be assured he will wear an appropriate cardigan. The music, though, is melodic and striking and contains a diversity of thoughts; the lyrics now gravitating toward more substantial themes. Callow youth could not craft a song as melancholic and beautiful as “Hannah Hunt.”

Lee Hazlewood Industries Box Set
Lee’s duets with Nancy Sinatra are basically the sexiest pop music ever made. And if there was anyone I could hire to narrate my dreams, it would be Lee, with his psychedelic baritone.

Music Videos:
Some of the music videos that stuck with me this year included the FIDLAR video “Cocaine” starring Nick Offerman, Eric Wareheim’s Major Lazer dada grotesquerie “Bubble Butt”, the chilly technical perfection of Fincher’s stylish Justin Timberlake video for “Suit and Tie.” I produced two videos whose directors I believe are deeply talented and will make important feature films soon: Isaiah Seret (MGMT “Cool Song No 2”) and Ben and Alex Brewer (Passion Pit “Carried Away”). The video that captured my imagination the most, that I watched more than any other, was Cat Power’s “Manhattan” —a spare, simple song musically, with evocative lyrics. The video is a combination of floaty, ethereal Chan Marshall drifting from on high through NYC streets interspersed with verite footage of her in the subway, at recently closed lower east side art bar institution Max Fish and walking in a park. There are notes of perfection in the spirit and execution of this video. So good.

Video Essay:
This Kogonada video for Sight and Sound
It explores neorealism and what it means to embrace longer takes, dropping a filmic anchor during scenes, letting the drama unfold at an unhurried pace. De Sica explores the absences, the moments after conventional cutting, lingering on the subtleties from which cinematic life is shaped. A side-by-side comparison of two films is easily one of the most illustrative examinations of the filmmaking process I have seen.

TV:
Breaking Bad
This is no great insight but the gradual transformation of Walter White from cancer struck teacher and devoted family man to Meth kingpin and ingenious gangster is one of the greatest character studies in the medium. The show displayed a considered aesthetic, incredible performances and is a true work of art in every aspect. Where The Sopranos departed with ambiguity, Breaking Bad went boldly into the desert night, concluding all storylines and achieving a closure that was surprising yet, in retrospect, felt inevitable.

Mad Men
Given American storytellers infatuation with violence, I’m continually astounded by how insanely compelling this show remains without gunplay, murders and all the fascinations of the Scorsese, Tarantino, Coppola set. I read the pilot script many years ago and knew I was in the presence of greatness. Daniel Mendehlson’s essay in The New York Review of Books, which claims it is nothing more than a trifling soap opera was one of the most infuriating underestimations of any artistic work I have ever read. I was so incensed when I read it that I foolishly shot off an email to a college pal who is an editor there saying, in essence, wtf? There is a demonstrable genius to Mad Men and, though I keep looking, I detect no signs of storytelling fatigue.

Adam Driver in Girls
I really like Girls and I think Lena Dunham is an important talent. Adam Driver is so good, however, that I have to single him out because there is something about his odd meter when delivering dialogue and his handsome yet untraditional looks and the way he expresses himself that is mesmerizing. Easily, I think, the most interesting character on television.

Twitter:
Here is the bottom line: two people, both comedians, can conclusively be said to have mastered twitter. Rob Delaney and Julieanne Smolinski. I can’t say whether that peculiar talent will translate at the same level in other mediums. If it doesn’t, I don’t mind, because I have abiding admiration for both and their ability to generate so many clever, outrageously funny, highly economic observations throughout the day.

Delaney is unspeakably filthy, yet his observations are informed by an ethical and socio-political perspective. He has a moral clarity that commands my attention. He also coined the unprecedented construction for male sexual excitement, “enchubbens”, that has imprinted on my brain. I mean, who could invent such a term? Could Alfred Kinsey? Virginia Masters? What about Henry Miller or Anais Nin? Bob Saget? Ernst Grafenberg in a Berlin clinic perhaps? No. Only Rob Delaney.

Smolinski makes so many smart, sharply funny comments about such a wide array of life concerns that she compels you to keep dipping your cup in her river of observations. Her confrontation with New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz over the clue “wack” and corresponding answer “Illin” is hilarious. Rare is the gift of expression that entices you to read whatever it is an author writes. Someone needs to give her a pay cable TV show, if they haven’t already.

Tumblr:
Cinephelia and Beyond
It is an invaluable resource for cinephiles. It requires tremendous resolve not to spend hours on the site every day. Chock full of great cinema history, interviews, videos, essays, commentaries.

Film:
This is comprehensively covered in awards magazines mailed to me, studio parties, film society award nominations press conferences, blogs, critic essays, etc. There are so many worthy selections, I will just mention one film that moved me deeply: Blackfish. It wasn’t because of any formal daring or innovative filmmaking technique, it was simply a powerful story told in a skillfully straightforward and honest manner. Watch it with The Cove. It will make you respect and appreciate Orcas and hate Seaworld and enlarge your appreciation for marine life and our natural environment.

Speeches:
All people interested in film should watch Steven Soderbergh’s retirement address to the San Francisco International Film Festival. Soderbergh unpacks what it is to be a filmmaker at this transformational moment and what he would do if he was in charge of a studio. During this time he released a noirish, short burst novel on Twitter (via @bitchuation) titled Glue and launched a website, Extension 765, full of curiosity, thoughts and stuff he likes. I emailed him and inquired about a position with Miggins, whom you learn about on the site. Soderbergh replied that the organization is monolithic and Miggins is ornery, but that he would see what he could do.

Books:
My Lunches With Orson
Welles is the ultimate cinema genius. I can’t think of anything he couldn’t do. An innovator, both visually and sonically. When I was a very young child I remembered him appearing on commercials during NFL broadcasts, shilling unexceptional wine, looking like a late issue Marlon Brando, his weight ballooning to celestial proportions (some drunken outtakes here). It wasn’t until I was older and started investigating his oeuvre that I began to appreciate the scale and dimensions of his contributions to film art and the many ways in which he was decades ahead of his time. A massively entertaining read.

Short Form Content:
This is a lo-fi video explaining how to obtain and love bed bugs. I enjoyed its sensibility. This is an essay about photographer Richard Mosse’s film, The Enclave shot in The Congo with 16mm infra-red film stock developed with the US Military in the 1940s, which transforms the reflection of chlorophyll in green plants into a spectacular, lurid, surreal pink. The results stun.

Follow Braxton Pope on Twitter @braxtonpope.

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