The Trash Can Is A Treasure Trove

“For the first three months, I place each student at a table with a thousand pieces of white paper and a trash can underneath. Every day they have to sit at the table for several hours and write ideas. They put the ideas they like on the right side of the table; the ones they don’t like, they put in the trash. But we don’t throw out the trash. After three months, I only take the ideas from the trash can. I don’t even look at the ideas they liked. Because the trash can is a treasure trove of things they’re afraid to do.”
― Marina Abramović, Walk Through Walls: Becoming Marina Abramovic

Cate Blanchett in “Waiting for the Artist”

I have always loved documentaries. Now in this age of streaming – documentary watching has become like drinking from a firehose.

One time, I can’t remember where… probably a college film festival in the 70’s I saw a documentary by Stan Woodward about grits. This was probably the first transformative documentary I saw – I was a different person (at least slightly) after I saw it. I wrote about this years later, many years ago, in my first blog and lamented the fact that I couldn’t find the thing anywhere and had to be satisfied with only seeing it once. A kind reader mailed me a VHS copy.

Of course, it wasn’t as good as I remembered.

Now, in this best of all possible worlds, we don’t only have documentaries… we have mockumentaries. If done well these too can be… if not transformative at least moderately entertaining. That might be all we can ask for anymore.

There is even a series of mockumentaries, “Documentary Now!“, on IFC. A new season is under way, and the latest one is brilliant. It is called “Waiting for the Artist” and is a riff (a very close one at that) on the famous work “The Artist Is Present” about the famous (and famously insane) performance artist Marina Abramović.

Somehow, they convinced Cate Blanchett to portray Marina Abramović – and she is spot on.

If you have IFC, be sure and check out “Waiting for the Artist” – it hits the perfect place between lunacy and pathos and even has a bit of a point to it.

And the ending is really, really funny.

Youtube has a copy of the original Marina Abramović documentary. Marina is even crazier than the character in the mockumentary.

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

 

“Thus, when I say about myself that I am a genius, it is not self-praise, but a statement to describe a type of mind that: whatever it does in any field, it does well. A mind that peruses in many fields will comprehend better, and many things more, than one that is absorbed in only one. It becomes a universal mind.”

—–Stanislav Szukalski

Struggle, a sculpture by Stanislav Szukalski

 

We cut the cord today. Bye Bye to cable television. Good riddance. I have watched the Boob Tube… the Idiot Box too much all my life.

I still watched too much – there is still Netflix… and Amazon Prime Video…. and Sling… and a multitude of crazy channels available through the Roku … and even the antenna. I finished off an episode of Doctor Who (I have a strange yet slight crush on the New Doctor, as long as I don’t watch too much) and an episode of The Alienist.

Then, checking the documentary section of Netflix, I chose a Netflix Original Documentary, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

Holy Moly… what a rabbit hole.

Stanislav Szukalski was a sculptural prodigy born in Poland in the late eighteen hundreds who showed great promise even though he was partially blind from staring at the sun. At 12 he moved with his family to Chicago.

This began a bifurcated life – of an eccentric artist in the United States and a fervent nationalist in Poland. He developed an unfortunate streak of racism and anti-antisemitism in Poland in the 1930’s. He became well known and successful until everything was destroyed in the German bombing of Warsaw in 1939. Other than a few small sculptures in American hands – his entire body of work, thousands of sculptures, drawings, and other artworks – was destroyed. He and his wife escaped at the last minute with only two suitcases and moved to Los Angeles.

Penniless, he survived on doing odd jobs for the film industry, and became friends with famous screenwriter Ben Hecht and the family of George DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s father. In 1971 Glenn Bray, a publisher and collector of oddball art, became fascinated with the story and work of Szukalski and was stunned to find out he was not only still alive but living 5 miles away from him. They became fast friends, Bray introduced him to a circle of artists, mostly underground comics illustrators, and began to film extensive, lengthy interviews with him.

And now, all this has led to Leonardo DiCaprio producing this Netflix Documentary using a lot of Bray’s interview footage. It’s a wild and woolly tale, with references all the way from the Nazis to Zap Comics to The Church of the Subgenius to DiCaprio to Easter Island.

Yeah, Szukalski thought that all  human civilization originated in Easter Island and that all evil was the result of interbreeding with the Yeti. Really.

Not a big fan of his ideas here – but I love his art. There isn’t much out there – one bronze has been recently cast, but so much of his work was destroyed in the destruction of Warsaw. He whole life, ideas, and artistic output was warped beyond recognition by the terrors of the twentieth century.

Shame really – there is real talent there… eccentric talent, to be sure… but enough artistic genius to go around. I would like to see his work. Maybe a trip to Chicago – there is some stuff at the Polish Museum of America there.

Jig

I remember the first time I saw Riverdance on television, many years ago. I was channel surfing and stumbled across some random show on PBS. There was this line of people standing stick-straight with their arms stiffly at their sides, hopping up and down in a strange complex way. I knew nothing of Irish Dancing or anything else. My thought at the time was, unfortunately, “Uh-Oh, White People Dancing, this can’t turn out well.” Over time, I did learn better.

This new year has started, as do so many, with me getting sick. My careful resolutions have been thrown out already in a flood of virus induced respiratory difficulties. I actually don’t feel so bad, but I can’t stop coughing and if I can’t stop coughing, I can’t sleep. I missed a half-day of work, only the third time I’ve left work sick in thirty years (and the other two I was blind which I considered a good excuse). This time I was so tired I was scared I was going to make a mistake and somebody would get hurt.

So the other night I crept out from my room to sit up on the couch, swigging from a bottle of vile green liquid, and watching a bit of Teevee until I was exhausted enough to try and go back to bed. There was this movie on, a documentary, a film by Sue Bourne called Jig. It was fascinating enough that I hit the DVR record button so I could watch it the next day, with my head on more or less straight.

Jig is about the world of competitive Irish Dancing. At first, it’s a little disturbing – with the wigs and elaborate costumes on the little girls it has a “Toddlers and Tiaras” vibe going on. But it doesn’t take long to realize that these kids are learning to do something special. Every one of them is driven by the dance itself. They are going all over the world to compete… and they want to win, but what they really want to do is dance. They want to dance as well as they are capable of.

And that is something to enjoy and respect.

One important part of the film that I recognize is the dedication of the parents to the aspirations of their children. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on stuff like that, especially kids’ soccer. Thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of hours on practice, travel, tournaments. It’s easy to ask what do you really get out of something like that. It doesn’t matter. There is no choice… you do what you need to do.

In the documentary one father gives up his lucrative doctor’s practice in the States to move to England so his son can get better instruction in the dance. His son, Joe Bitter talks about his set dance. He says that it is so difficult that if he dances it cleanly it will be the best dance ever done.

The dancers… the kids handle the pressure pretty well, but man, take a look at the mother’s face in this clip while she’s watching her daughter dance. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

Any closed world like that of competitive Irish Dancing seems odd at first sight. But, sitting there on my couch like Jabba the Hut, coughing, I could not help but tip my hat to those kids and all their dedication and hard work. If you look closely and fairly you can see that they are trying to fly and coming a lot closer than any of us.

Irish Dancing Blogs

Between the Folds

The second floor of the Crow Collection of Asian Art is separated into two galleries. These are connected by a glassed-in passageway that stretches above the fountains and stairs below. For the last few years this passage was filled with hundreds of tiny origami cranes made by schoolchildren and hung in a folded paper cloud. I really liked this and was not happy to find that it was taken down. I have no idea if they are going to repeat the installation.

Origami Cranes at the Crow Collection of Asian Art

I wanted to ride my recumbent for some exercise but didn’t have much time. So I looked around the web for a video to watch… one that offered some interest but that wasn’t too long. Documentaries sort of meet this requirement so I found one on streaming Netflix called Between the Folds. It was a PBS film about Origami.

Other than the cranes in the Crow – and the time when Lee was about six and sent me out for a book on paper-folding – I never have thought about Origami, but the documentary was fascinating. There were artistic paper folders – from some that used thousands of folds to construct realistic sculptures to one guy that was trying to make the best work of art he could with only one fold. There were mathematicians interested in using the intersecting art and science of creased paper planes to illuminate secrets of the universe.

One of these guys, to be honest, grated on my nerves a little. He is Erik Demane and he is a second generation professor at MIT. He has that self-serving shit-eating grin that all those home-schooled, MIT genius grant winning, got my Ph.D. at twenty guys always have – or at least what they show on their PBS documentaries. He said something that really got under my skin. He talked about how he only did things that “Are Fun.” “If something isn’t fun it doesn’t interest me.”

That bugs me because I always feel that activities that are important are never “fun.” If in doubt between two courses of activities, the one that is “less fun” is always the correct one to choose. I’m not talking about relaxation or amusement or recreation – but neither was he. He was saying that he chose his life’s work based on what was “fun.” To me, that’s a waste of his rather tremendous potential.

But I can’t really be aggravated at the guy. After all he is a professor at MIT, amazing all the incoming freshman girls with his abilities to fold paper. I bet he plays the ukulele at cocktail parties. He has a good beard.

But most of all, I’m serious now, he posts one of his classes online. I have always wanted to take a math course at MIT and now I can. That looks like fun. I only wish I could find the time from all the other, important stuff I have to do.

Here's some origami I did. I'm working on a story and I decided to origami my draft. The design is called, "This is a bunch of crap."

Anvil!

Anvil!

Anvil!

I’m trying to get everything back into some sort of order (back? Like it ever was) but it seems hopeless. I did a twenty minute idea Pomodoro and easily filled four pages with stuff I need to get done. Even my Netflix is out of control. I have disks hidden under unread books and my queue is so overgrown and unwieldy that when a movie arrives, I stare at it in confused disbelief, wondering why I put it on there in the first place. Still, if it comes, I have to watch it… don’t I? I mean, you can’t just send them back, unseen.

Anvil

Album Cover - Metal to Metal by Anvil

So today, I sat down at my secretary and watched a Netflix disk, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. I have no idea why I requested it, no memory of where I heard of it, but it was good…. very good.

It is a documentary of a heavy metal band, Anvil, formed by two nice Jewish boys from Toronto. They had a tiny taste of some hair band success in the eighties, are cited as an influence on some much more successful bands such as: Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, and Metallica, but otherwise have been toiling in obscurity (not relative obscurity… but real obscurity) for thirty years since.

Lips, the lead singer, delivers catering packages to small schools, the drummer, Robb Reiner (not Meathead… not the director) appears to work odd construction jobs – the other, less senior band members seem to be homeless people.

Forever the victim of bad breaks and worse management – they take vacation and go on a disastrous five week tour of Europe culminating in a grand concert in Transylvania where 174 people show up at a venue that holds ten thousand. They never get paid for anything. Their dysfunctional tour manager completely wrecks everything up – but back home after the tour they still play at her wedding reception (of course, she married the guitar player).

The movie plays a lot like a real-life Spinal Tap – even to the “Big in Japan” finale. There are some obvious nods to the famous mockumentary – if you look close, there is even an amp that “Goes up to eleven.”

They struggle in futility. Lips says, “One of the main reasons that Anvil hasn’t really gone anywhere is that our albums have sounded like crap.” Robb Reiner shows some talent as a painter. I like his landscapes… but am not a big fan of his study of a German ledge toilet. Lips tries to make an extra buck as a telemarketer at a shady sunglass company run by a fan of the band, but he realizes he is too nice a person to sell crap over the phone.

What makes Anvil! worth watching is the human side. These two guys have stuck it out for thirty years of abject failure in their careers and still are hammering it out. I think the point where you realize the humanity contained in the story is the scene where Lips’ older sister loans them the money to go to England and record their thirteenth album. It’s really their last chance, she knows it’s going to fail (and I’m sure she can’t really spare the cash) but she also knows she has no choice. He may be a loser heavy metal wannabe in his fifties… but he’s still her little brother.

Anvil Album Cover

Anvil Album Cover