Monday, December 1, 2014

"National Gallery" Documentary - Pictures of an Exhibition

I didn't know quite what to expect when I went to see “National Gallery,” a documentary about the British National Gallery, the other night. I knew that its runtime was three hours and wondered what kind of approach would be able to carry a film about an art museum for that long. Talking heads wouldn’t do. And a conventional BBC-like treatment I thought would come off feeling like an extended art history class.

"National Gallery" does succeed, in spite of its length, and one thing that makes it so successful is allowing the people of the National Gallery - the docents, the experts in art restoration, and museum officials - to tell us about the museum in their own words, while speaking to their usual audiences: grade school classes, museum patrons, and fellow museum bureaucrats assembled around a backroom conference table. When the filmmakers do resort to talking heads, they use the clever device of filming other filmmakers doing interviews with museum staff.

As I watched “National Gallery," I began to see a structure in the way the elements of the documentary were being assembled. The backroom meetings are the dull underpainting for the picture that the director, Frederick Wiseman, paints for his film. Restorers, woodworkers and cabinetmakers, as well as docents and instructors, form other layers of the composition. And a layer of human faces is built up over the course of the film, each face applied like a brushstroke by the camera as it flits back and forth between the pallet of faces in the pictures hanging on the walls and the pallet of the faces in the crowd examining them. All without commentary or narration.

What a fitting approach to a documentary about an art museum, not as a classroom lecture, but as a painting in its own right. “National Gallery” allows us to contemplate the museum, much as we would a work of art.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Luc Besson's "Lucy" - Girl Gone Transhuman

Avast, there be spoilers here!

How often does an actor, other than Morgan Freeman, get an opportunity to play God twice in one year? In the new sci-fi action-thriller “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson takes another at bat at being a near deity. Her first try was as an OS, an artificial intelligence who was the disembodied paramore of Joaquin Phoenix in the movie “Her” released last fall. This time around the fully-bodied Johansson (thank God for that) plays the Lucy of the film’s title.

When we first meet her, Lucy is a party-girl living an apparently carefree life in Taiwan. That is until her low-life boyfriend handcuffs her to a briefcase loaded with a new recreational superdrug CPH4 and, without her knowledge, dispatches her into the lions’ den of a murderous, transnational Korean nacro-gang headed by Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Mr. Jang, it turns out, has designs on Lucy’s body, not in the usual way, but as a covert system to deliver CPH4 to one of a number of far-flung distribution points on the globe.

Not surprisingly, things don't go as either Mr. Jang or Lucy expect, and soon CPH4 leaking into Lucy’s abdominal cavity begins to work its chemical magic on her brain. After crawling around on the ceiling in a frenzy in a scene reminiscent of the “Exorcist,” a frightened, whimpering Lucy calms down considerably and, realizing that her survival depends on her recovering the rest of Mr. Jang’s CPH4, sets out on a bloody journey that includes sticking it to Mr. Jang in more ways than one.

This all could be a nice premise for a well-conceived science-fiction action-thriller, which “Lucy” is not. Instead, the writer-director Luc Besson imbeds this good idea in a lot of sciencey drivel and tries to anchor Lucy’s transformation from human to more-than-human in a relationship that develops between her and researcher and neuroscience god, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman).

We are introduced to Professor Norman when he stands before a rapt assembly of neuroscientists lecturing them about the factoid that humans are at the pinnacle of biological evolution, since they alone have been able to tap into as much as 10% of their mental capacity.  (The percent-of-our-brains trope is put to much better use in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.”) Not content with sharing just that piece of misinformation, Norman goes on to ponder the wondrous (and impossible) things that may come when we progress as a species to using a larger and larger fraction of the neurons we have squirming around in our noggins.

It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing in these scenes, the continued propagation of this silly and unfounded 10% myth about the human brain, or the repeated cuts to Professor Norman’s slavish audience, hanging on his every word as though they were his winged-monkey minion waiting for a command to do his bidding.

My gripe here is not with suspension of disbelief. As I've discussed in another blog post, all sorts of silly ideas can be employed effectively as premises to set science-fiction stories into motion. But, like good supporting actors, these counterfactual elements should introduce themselves early in the performance and then step out of the limelight to give the principal performers plenty of room. Instead, in “Lucy” the percent-of-our-brains canard insists on hanging around near center stage. We get hit over the head with it time and time again as Mr. Besson reminds us exactly where Lucy is in her brain-fraction progression, ticking off the percentages like some sort of thermometer in a public television fundraising drive.

What’s missing in all this is the dramatic tension that, by all rights, should be at the core of this story and that is how Lucy’s headlong rush toward mental perfection necessitates the withering away of her emotional self. And, by all rights, Lucy’s anchor in the world of human affairs, should not have been the distant and avuncular Professor Norman, but her flesh-and-blood (and sexy) companion, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), the French police inspector, who reluctantly takes up her cause but eventually becomes her committed friend and ally.

The connection between Lucy and Del Rio is suggested when she explains with a kiss why she is keeping him as a companion, even though she has grown so powerful that she doesn't need his help anymore. But, sadly, this relationship is hardly developed, in spite of what appears to be a serviceable chemistry between Johansson and Waked. The result is that a taut and suspenseful film featuring these two characters at its center is saddled with a subplot that, from what I can tell, only serves to bring Morgan Freeman into the picture to underwrite its box-office success.

More disappointing, though, is how poorly Scarlett Johansson is utilized in the title role. Her transition from human to beyond-human happens far too quickly. A brief phone call with her mother early on serves as a requiem for the life that Lucy is leaving behind as she is impelled, like it or not, toward transcendence. What should have been a wrenching and soul-searching second act of the movie is relegated to little more than one scene. And, although Johansson uses the limited time to good effect, it offers her short shrift as far as real acting goes.

So, after a well-executed turn as a helpless and frightened young woman at the beginning of the movie, Johansson takes on the mien of the soulless automaton that Lucy is fated to become. Aloof, with wide eyes and fixed gaze, she marches zombie-like through the remainder of the film toward Lucy's inevitable godhead. There’s not much acting for Johansson to do here.

How this lapse in attention to his main character may have come about is suggested by the “meaning of life” revelation that Lucy delivers just before her apotheosis. As she travels to the distant past and masters the progression time, moving people backward and forward in Times Square at whim, Lucy comes to the realization that time itself is the central element of our reality, whatever that might mean.

The movie's title “Lucy” refers to a hominid ancestor of ours that lived in Africa’s Afar Triangle some 3 million years ago, it also bears resemblance to the director's own name, Luc. Perhaps Besson is reminding us of the power that he has as a writer-director in manipulating the way a film unfolds, rapidly moving his characters backward and forward in time with God-like ease. That’s all well and good, but he should remember that it’s nice to slow down and get to know them better in all the commotion.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Bet that Financed Atlanta's BeltLine Pedestrian-Bicycle Transit Loop

View of construction from the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail (Marc Merlin)
Although Atlanta's BeltLine, a pedestrian-bicycle-transit loop circling Georgia's largest city, was a vision described by Ryan Gravel in his master's thesis while a student in architecture at Georgia Tech in 1999, what made it a reality a dozen years later was some visionary creative financing.

Where would the BeltLine supporters find the money for the project? There was no way on Earth that the City of Atlanta would be able to come up with the billions - yes, billions - of dollars that it would take to make the BeltLine happen. And there was no way in Hell that the State of Georgia - which had never deigned to give Atlanta's struggling transit system MARTA a dime - was going to pitch in to help out.

The solution, called a Tax Allocation District or TAD, involved placing a bet on the BeltLine's success.

The property around the proposed BeltLine route was not being put to much use - which is part of what made Gravel's idea feasible in the first place - and, as a consequence, was not generating much tax revenue. Yet, school systems, among others, had claim to the meager taxes that were being collected.

If the BeltLine turned out to be successful, the property values in its vicinity would increase significantly. No one had claim to the corresponding increase in property tax revenue, at least not yet. The TAD was a way for the BeltLine to stake that claim.

Since the way school systems are funded was implicated in this kind of financing scheme, there were legal hurdles that had to be jumped. It was decided that TADs required an amendment to Georgia's constitution, which in turn required the approval of its citizens in a statewide referendum. TAD supporters were mobilized and the amendment passed, although not by very much.

All it takes is a walk along the Eastside BeltLine Trail today to witness the amount of renovation and new construction completed or in progress to see how handsomely the TAD wager has paid off. It stands as a reminder that all sorts of creativity have to be brought to bear to make visions for large-scale public projects like the BeltLine a reality.