The Films I've Watched This Year #22

Film  After spending the last hermitage week reading books, this week I surrendered myself to new media and spent most of it in front of my iPad mini visiting art galleries in far flung cities via the medium of free audio guides. Search the otherwise awful to navigate iTunes app stores for terms like "exhibition" and "museum" and of course "audio guide" or for various institutions by name and you can find a wealth of these tours primarily designed to enhance a visit to a building or show but which, in the best cases, feel like an entertaining and educational experience in and of themselves.  Here's the list:

The Guggenheim (New York)
Maitland Regional Art Gallery (Australia
Tate Britain
Paris 1900 (at the Petite Palace in Paris)
Made in the USA: American Masters From The Phillips Collection (Washington)
MOMA Abstract Expressionism (New York)
Degenerate Art (Neue Gallery in New York)

With a few more that I didn't finish because it became apparent pretty quickly that you really did need to be in the space for the tour to make sense either because there weren't any pictures built in, required you to actually be in the space for the content to appear thanks to location mapping or simply not enough content to make the process worthwhile.  They're also mostly, for obvious reasons, designed for the iPhone but tend to be mostly iPad compatible even if turning to landscape mode (or turning the iPad on its side) doesn't lead to the picture or video filling the larger screen.  I've seen a lot of content this week which must be tiny and barely legible on a screen the size of a cassette box.

Unlike standard bespoke audio guides, the ones with calculator digits and buttons, most of these, as well as offering the option to put in a number, also provide a list or index of the talks on offer which are usually in the order which the curators expect people to walk around the exhibition which means its possible to follow the narrative, with introductions to sections and the key examples included.  Essentially without the exhibition itself it's a glorified slide lecture and voices vary in degrees of naturality from curators obviously reading from a preprepared text to actors and professional voiceover artists repeating their words.  I think I heard Suzi Klein on the Paris 1900.

There are two here which are pretty outstanding.  The Guggenheim app is designed to update with new content as each new exhibition opens, but the tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York building is well worth spending an hour with as it explains the architect's philosophy, the controversial history of the building which wasn't initially well received by artists and the issues surrounding its many restorations.  As well as photos of the various areas, it includes reproductions of blueprints and related documents as well as short videos panning across the interior and poking into the areas referred to in the narration and interviewing artists about the challenges of creating installation art there.

The app on this list which seems to genuinely embrace the potential of these audio guides is the one which accompanies MOMA's Abstract Expressionists.  Seemingly including all of the objects in the exhibitions, its possible to arrange them in hard chronological order so that you can experience the history of the movement from its birth onwards and see the moments when each of its exponents found their voices.  But the key element is again the videos which don't just explain what the paintings are about but also how they're painted, from the choices of medium to the sheer effort involved, with demonstrations of how the artist would have applied their work to the canvas.  Sublime.

Apart from the Soderbergh's the only other filmic experience I really had this week was with the National Film Board of Canada's interactive docudrama app Circa 1948 (available here) which takes the format of the first person shooter, mixes it with the old point and click adventure and turns the user into a ghostly presence in post-war Vancouver exploring a bankrupt hotel and the skid row area, listening to a series of snatched conversations between characters straight from noir films but transposed to a Canada deep within the post-war depression.  For all the Hollywood trappings, the sense of place is annunciated by the multi-accented cast and paintings of George VI on the domestic walls.

There are forty-four conversations to find, snatches of theatre in which we're offered hints of wider narratives but few resolutions to the stories of corrupt cops, marriages on the slide and primarily the fate of war veterans who the state is unable to support and who will be made homeless once the hotel closes.  The characters appear as ghostly wisps within a fantastically detailed environment, conversations triggered after clicking highlighted objects.  But it is resource intensive, the app crashing on numerous occasions on what I've come to realise is one of the earlier iPads and now and then a glitch causes the user to fall off the set, which drifts into the sky like a scene from Inception or The Matrix.

Che: Part II
The Girlfriend Experience: Director's Cut.

As expected, Che II did explain some of the structural issues I had with the first film or the first half of the film called Che though it's also still fair to say I was pretty bored in that way that you sometimes are with films in which you understand what the director is trying to do,  in this case staying away from the conventions of biography and anything related to Guevara's interior life or iconography (confirmed by the accompanying interviews), can see the effort which has gone into directing the piece what with all the time spent in the jungle and the artistry of the getting a Red One camera to do that but unable to really engage with anything beyond that.

All of my chronological watching challenges have had these kinds of moment though I don't think it's the equivalent of Hitchcock's Topaz or Allen's Hollywood Ending.  It's not a complete disaster, there are sill moments like the Matt Damon cameo, Che's asthma and anything with Franka Potente which are pure Soderbergh.  There are just too many moments when stuff happens, then more stuff happens and some more stuff happens and nothing quite connects together even though unlike some films, you know that it's supposed to.  But like I said last week, I will be watching both films again back to back, just to see.

The Girlfriend Experience: Director's Cut, on the other hand, is straight into my top five Soderbergh films.  I wasn't greatly enamoured with the theatrical cut of TGE, which is cold and strangely uninvolving and loses focus whenever it strays away from Sasha Grey's escort into the somewhat random incidents featuring her boyfriend.  All of that's been rectified in this version prepared specially for the BD, which cuts out the improv session amongst the blokes on the plane, substitutes a few of the conversations with material from different takes and either through happenstance or focused Eisensteinian choices gives Grey's character much more warmth and nuance.

Having not see the original for a few years I was able to watch the redux with somewhat fresher eyes.  It's not until rewatching the other version with the commentary that I noticed that Soderbergh removed all the scenes touring the weekend hotel, so that the first time we see Chelsea is outside while she's receiving the bad news which makes the whole thing even more emotionally draining, especially when she says she's cold.  The director also injects a greater sense of how the treatment of the reviewing monster effects her, making her seem a touch more vulnerable but still emotionally strong.  I'm certain that if Soderbergh had made the same choices on the cinema cut, the film would have been much better received.

The commentary's excellent too.  It's a two hander between Soderbergh and Grey that only rarely matches the pictures but manages to cover the breadth of the production, the research he and Grey did in speaking to escorts about their work and adding that material to the script, Grey acting process and how Soderbergh accommodated her lack of experience despite the tight schedule (at one stage filming an ordinary, but flirty conversation between her and another actor while pretending to prepare to shoot the scene resulting in some of the best scenes in the film), how all of this differs from her usual work in the adult film industry and her ambitions to produce and direct herself.

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