(Visual) Notes on Culture
(Right: Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait, 1895. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Herni Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, 2006. Directed, written and produced by Carroll Moore. Narrated by Kevin Kline.

Made to accompany of traveling retrospective of Rousseau's career (especially his scenes of jungle fantasy), Moore's film does an admirable job at presenting the man's life and work in a scant 30 minutes. Kline's familiar voice is lively, even serious when need-be, telling us of the enigmas that make Rousseau one of the more endearing artists of the belle époque. Born into the lower middle class, Rousseau started as a hobbyist who made commissioned work for friends and acquaintances, or merely painted in between his work as a civil servant. A conservative man with strongly nationalist views, he nonetheless made images of exceptional daring. His view of the wild world outside of France combines the logic of the daydream with the easily-found myths of the popular culture of the time. Despite never having been to the exotic lands he paints (unlike Gaughin), Rousseau taps the sensationalist press, adventure stories, and the world exhibitions that Paris staged in order to make his mark.

The most interesting aspect of Rousseau's artistic life centers on his lauding by avant-garde circles. Picasso owned some of his works. Guillame Apollinaire told tall-tales of his exploits. Later, Andre Breton and the surrealists identified with dehistoricized readings of his paintings. Rousseau, a petit-bourgeois intent on building a career, embraced their love despite his differing views.

The documentary provides plenty of fact and sifts through much of the fiction, though as an autonomous object, does little outside of an already-perfected mode. Far more interesting (based on existing reports) is Ken Russell's Always on Sunday (1965, BBC), which uses the contemporary painter James Lloyd to dramatize the idiosyncratic life of the artist.
  QOTW: Life
I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom.

- Erich Fromm, 1965.
  Video Game Curatorship

Art exhibitions have been curated on video games (as relics for a museum, historical curiosities, or as memorabilia), and gallery space has been allocated to art inspired by the legacy of video games. But games themselves as portable exhibitions? The future has already arrived.

I recently purchased Taito Legends (2005) on a whim because of its discounted price. I was not disappointed. Compilations have existed for years. One of the more exciting aspects of the recent generation of game consoles has been the ways in which they have rescued (some would say, milked of value) the games of past eras. Since storage space has exponentially increased, so too have the number of games that can fit on a compilation. 20+ titles, even if old, are a bargain for the cost of one disc.

What is new (to me at least) are the possibilities that these discs present in terms of providing historical material in conjunction with the games. Taito Legends takes tentative steps toward this idea - poster art, a company history, and other various visual documents are part of the package. While this has been the reality for DVDs for years (commentary, supplemental essays, the accumulated efforts of film fandom and scholarship), it is relatively revelatory for games. True, most of the material on the Taito Legends disc is promotional and apologetic, but I can foresee a time where dissent and accommodation both accompany a collection of games. An art exhibit, with dynamic possibilities, mass-produced on a large scale? Sure sounds interesting to me!


This is a first attempt at an on-going look at zine culture. Wikipedia provides a nice overview of the history of the zine, available here. The Lowbrow Reader is an incredibly funny slice of oppositional thinking. While unquestionably a part of zine culture, it stands out by virtue of its high production values. Most of its contributors seem to have experience as professional writers, but the emphasis here is on the casual, distasteful, and less mainstream. Recognizable names abound - issue 5 contains a comicbook/essay on The White Stripes, a symposium on Chevy Chase, and a salute to Don Knotts.

The contributors have a smart sense of the comic tradition (broadly conceived), giving credit where credit is due, but also calling out bullshit where it rears its ugly, crappy head. Joan Rivers garners a remarkably astute write-up by editor Jay Ruttenberg, pointing out her the bizarre circumstances of her comedy and its reception. The excellent accompanying artwork seals the deal.

By far the most fascinating piece comes from Jeff Ward, with illustrations by Mike Reddy. "Silent but Dead: A Guide to the Lesser Known Silent Comedians" is a brilliant piece of speculative, alternate history. We all know about Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd...pioneers, fictures of popular imagination. But what about Norman Clive (estranged from his trio of Laurel & Hardy & Clive) or the pocket-sized Pinky Chalmers?

The Lowbrow Reader delivers subversion with a sense of history and purpose. The scant $3 is a bargain! Check them out.
  QOTW: Day of the Dead
I suspect that the almost total incomprehension (more precisely, refusal of comprehension) with which Day of the Dead has been received is simply the result of its late date: by 1985 we had already entered the era of hysterical masculinity that countered the radical feminism of the '70s, Stallone and Schwarzenegger were already major presences, and the reactionary horror movie had already fully established itself. No one wanted to hear about how science and militarism were male-dominated, masculinist institutions threatening to destroy life on the planet (Day's essential theme, even more timely today than it was then, though no one seems willing to pay attention any more). Though made by a man, it stands (and will probably be recognized as, when it is too late) one of the great feminist movies. It is also, for me, the last great American horror film.

- Robin Wood, Preface to Freud's Worst Nightmares
  Thoughts on Contemporary Horror
A diagnosis of contemporary horror. Just follow this link.
  A Salute to Taschen
Art books are an expensive passion. The fine paperstocks, copious illustrations, and large formats usually mean shelling out the big bucks. Astute readers may know that this is not always the case.

I'm not talking about stealing, nor buying books used. Rather, Taschen Books, one of the world's largest publishers of books on the arts, film, design, and popular culture. The story of the company is almost as strange as some of the item in their catalogue. Benedikt Taschen had a very large comic collection, and openned up a small store to begin selling it off in 1980. When things looked bleak for the international comic game, Taschen bought 40000 remaindered copies of a book on Magritte and sold them at a cut-rate: the bargain art market arrives. Since then, the company has expanded, but the idea remains the same - high quality, affordable art books. They have diversified a bit over the years, but their core practice continues.

Many of their books are deceptively cheap, appearing on the bargain racks at booksellers like Borders without ever having been "full price." Since they print in several difference languages (and often release only one edition of a book in a given language), this saves them some confusion. They do have some editions and titles that are costly (their 75 pound Muhammed Ali book is only of the most expensive things to ever be issued an ISBN).

Perhaps their greatest strength has been in discovering, promoting, and distributing the work of living, contemporary artists. For a field of inquiry that usually operates on a "great man" theory, this practice (profitable or not) challenges basic assumptions.

Visit them at http://www.taschen.com.
  Quote of the Week: Personality
Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.

~ Salvador Dalí
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