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Archive for December, 2016

shy-1

by Sam Juliano

Deborah Freedman’s Shy is the most metaphysical picture book of 2016.  It is also unique in that the prime allure of its captivating art are alternating hues that are attuned to the various settings and climates traversed by our incognito protagonist and the lovely purveyor of song that brings him out of his self-imposed limbo.  Children of course will be hankering to know the identity of this book spine stowaway, but those of any age who come upon this most unusual of works will find the color washes exotic and intoxicating, almost setting aside the book’s indelible mystery.  Of course Freedman never allows the delicate, minimalist narrative to divorce itself from the shadings that define place and atmosphere far more compellingly than straightforward drawings.  This is the kind of picture picture book that Terrence Malick might come up with, but the talented Ms. Freedman has brought a wholly new dimension in creating a book that gives the full spectrum of color a vigorous workout.

The basic mise en scene is established in the opening spread: Shy was happiest between the pages of a book.  A curving arrow leads from that statement to the book’s spine, where this most extreme of introverts learns all about the world through books.  Much like Henry Bemis of The Twilight Zone’s most celebrated episode “Time Enough At Last”, a bookish bank teller who revels in spending all his free time hidden in an underground bank vault reading the classics, the object of Shy’s title is more than happy and content to learn about the world from the most claustrophobic of vantage points.  In the end Freedman’s enigmatic  cross between Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins undergoes an acute metamorphosis, moving from self-imposed shackles to the most adventurous of free spirits.  Freedman’s Dawn of Man opening is etched in muted yellow, with only the faintest  light brown tracks to denote internal activity.  There is a distinct air of serenity in this hue, one any celestial entity would be loathe to intrude upon.  In the second canvas a pile of books, categorized in the text as fantasy adventures are visible.  The books Shy loved the most were about birds, though of course the prime allure of these graceful air borne creatures is their singing.  In any open book showcasing the blue sky, a yellow bird glides.  At least Shy can negotiate the jeweled colors and acceleration. (more…)

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willa

by Sam Juliano

Question:  What female writer, one of America’s greatest literary figures, was born shortly after the end of the Civil War, is most famously known for writing novels about growing up on the prairie and of the indomitable women who overcome the challenges of an arduous existence, usually wrought with some level of impoverishment? 

At least nine out of ten respondents wouldn’t blink as they intone the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This much-translated woman of letters was after all born in 1867, and her “Little House” books have sold millions of copies around the world.  Surely there can be no question of her preeminence as the prime purveyor of the simple life, growing up in log cabins, and overcoming a series of tragic events that are woven into books that are largely autobiographical.  Yet, Wilder authored her books for elementary school students and her themes, though genuine and affecting, are one-note.  That she is an exceptional writer who continues to be read widely cannot be challenged.  But no, she can’t be considered one of the nation’s greatest literary figures.  The correct answer to the above question is Willa Cather, who was born in 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Her Plains Trilogy (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia), her Pulitzer Prize winning One of Ours and her later Death Comes for the Archbishop are always mentioned on lists of the greatest American novels ever written, and her superlative of short stories The Troll Garden includes one of the most celebrated of all short stories, “Paul’s Case.”  In all probability Cather’s only equal would be Edith Wharton, though arguably short story masters Flannery O’ Connor and Kate Chopin and one-hit wonder Harper Lee can be broached in these terms.  Like all the greatest writers, Cather’s themes were often psychologically complex, her world view rarely attuned to all around her. (more…)

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fan-1

by Sam Juliano

Some may be inclined to label it a cross between Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden and Tim Burton’s exquisite 1990 dark fantasy film Edward Scissorhands,  but in the end the defining spirit and essence of the staggeringly beautiful The Night Gardener by the Fan Brothers is fully attuned to the concept of passing on a special gift that will benefit succeeding generations.  What happens in this sparsely worded but spaciously illustrated book is tantamount to a re-birth, a transformation, where creativity permanently replaces a longtime acceptance of the norm.  It is a story about how an adult can pass on to an impressionable child the gift of a lifetime.  The deceit of waking up to behold a new and astonishing treat from Mother Nature was of course integral to the narrative of Charlotte’s Web, where crowds from all over came to see the latest miracle at Homer Zuckerman’s barn.  Though there isn’t a time frame explicitly asserted in The Night Gardener, the copyright page spread suggests the late 40’s/early 50’s  by way of the car models and favored apparel.  The opening sepia toned canvas turns out to be far more significant than it first appears to be, as it evokes a seemingly normal, everyday American town before the changes that will make it wholly extraordinary.  We learn that the name of the street is Grimloch Lane, and that those who reside there are engaged in their own affairs – grocery shopping, carrying young children or transporting home tools by foot.  It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see it in Thorton Wilder’s terms, though the name suggests something of the stagnant variety.  Under the watchful eye of a young girl, everyone heads off in their own direction.  If this was a mystery book, it would be difficult not to name the sinister looking fellow with his head down carrying a briefcase as the likely perpetrator in whatever events are to follow. (more…)

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nocturnal-animals-1

© 2016 by James Clark

      One of the defining features of contemporary history consists in design elbowing art out of the exclusive spotlight it has enjoyed since the days of living in caves. A hundred years ago, at the dawning of surrealist art, sensual proclivities stemming from the motives of the Romantic era saw fit to imbue the constructs of practical life with functions of vision hitherto regarded as profane, as distinct from the sacred status of artistry.

Film art has evinced a fascinating ambiguity in face of this notable shift. The overt craft-design content of that métier has bolstered a priority of design calculated to speak to the more modest pleasures of craft. Those avatars of that industry who could see the point of dovetailing with theatre art have tended to access film schools and their repository of traditional humanistic vision.

Whereas many of the stalwarts of that catch-as-catch-can business have done very well for themselves in reaffirming a tried and true territory, there have been noteworthy exceptions of those with a background of architecture, graphic, industrial and fashion design, surrealist painting, advertising and rock music who march to the sound of a different drummer—a march decidedly at odds with a Renaissance no longer excitingly futural. A recent figure on this horizon is Tom Ford, who, like Ridley Scott, has been and continues to be a player in the world of marketing. (more…)

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hudsucker-4830

by J.D. Lafrance

It had to happen. After an impressive run of critically acclaimed independent films, culminating with Barton Fink (1991), which won the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the Coen brothers – Joel and Ethan – made their first Hollywood studio film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), with none other than uber producer Joel Silver. Most film critics were unimpressed with the final result and if hitching their wagon to Silver was the Coens’ attempt at appealing to a broader audience that too failed as the film flopped at the box office. What the hell happened? It certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying as The Hudsucker Proxy starred a trifecta of stellar acting talent with Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Hell, the Coens even enlisted their long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Sam Raimi to co-write the screenplay.

As if eerily foreshadowing the film’s fate, the opening voiceover narration observes the protagonist’s destiny: “How’d he get so high and why’s he feeling so low?” I’ve always felt that The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coen brothers’ most (unfairly) maligned film, which is a shame because it has a lot going for it, including witty dialogue, incredibly detailed production design, some jaw-dropping set pieces, and their usual rogue’s gallery of doofuses, blowhards and snappy wiseasses. This film should be seen as the Coens’ affectionate homage to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
(more…)

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mighty-e-1

by Sam Juliano

Might-E is a story about an introverted Indian-American girl since birth who needs no more than some symbolic prodding to break through her shell and develop some much needed social skills.  The author, Jordan J. Scavone equates those with dynamic personalities to superheros like the Man of Steel, who can “leap buildings in a single bound,” are “faster than trains” and possess the strength to lift an elephant over their heads.  The book’s illustrator Caitlyn Knepka showcases three adolescents who possess these skills, with each boasting one of these propensities.  As a young girl who wasn’t even able to negotiate someone looking at her without bursting into tears, Emma dreamed of herself as a cape wearing superhero, the very antithesis of what she was, an easily frightened toddler reduced to sucking on a pacifier in a toy room.  Emma’s father gave much studied thought at finding a solution to this lamentable impasse, finally exclaiming Eureka! to a sudden jolt of imagination he referred to as “brilliant.”   The time to launch the new strategy was set at Emma’s fourth-birthday, when she is given a blue box with a  purple ribbon as a present.  She is a bit suspicious at first, but soon enough unwraps the paper and box to find a purple mask and pink garment that when worn will enable her to transform into “the mightiest superhero the world has ever seen!”  The illustration where she first dons the elastic mask and the one when she is sen confidently in full garb in a double page spread projected in streamer laden celebratory mode represents Knepka’s finest work in the book.  Emma, arms to hips, cape extended exudes a defining air of confidence. (more…)

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bagley-1

by Sam Juliano

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Aside from a tragic passing there can be no more traumatic event in a young person’s life than the heartbreak caused by relocation.  While the emotional sting of separation almost always represents a temporary setback -there are after all new relationships to be made- it nonetheless provokes despair and desolation.  The way to combat this time of emotional upheaval is often the same way people deal with other unexpected or unwelcome happenings – to be creative, to remember and honor all the wonderful times shared, in short to work diligently to keep the friendship alive by maintaining communication.  Jessixa Bagley’s Before I Leave initially presents this wrenching theme as a fearful proposition, one fraught with skepticism that even positive energy may be unable to dim.  Bagley came to the project with big shoes to fill, as the book represents the follow up her debut Boats For Papa, a rapturous and deeply moving masterpiece about love and loss that was said to be a likely Caldecott Medal or Honor nominee in the hugely competitive 2015 calendar year.  Yet the talented author-illustrator from the Pacific Northwest refused to lighten up, and came back with another provocative, poignant and melancholic theme, one as universal and topical as her prior work. (more…)

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