Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The (Sudden but Inevitable) Return of No Quarter (Part V)

Missed me? Yeah, it is that time of year again, when I take a cruise through this year's collectible quarter series. And this year, like the previous four, we are in the midst of the America The Beautiful series, which is also called the National Parks series, and this year, we actually have five National Parks in the running, and none of the National Monuments, or National Forests, and National Nature Preserves, or what have you.

And in the years I have been doing this, the quality and skill of the carvings has increased. The nonsensical jumble of icons of the early state quarters seems a thing of the past, and the sculptors have gotten the hang of showing depth in the very shallow surface of the coin. There are fewer really bad coins out there, which makes for better coins but boring commentary.

As in previous years, we rate this year's crop with the following rating system:
Way Cool = A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
Makes Video Arcade Tokens Look Good = E

Interestingly enough, there is a bill in front of the GOP-controlled House called the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act (EPICNMA) which intends to limit the powers of the Presidency to create new "units" to the National Park Service and to subject new measures to Congressional approval, since that organization does such a fine job at such vital matters as Federal Judges and jobs bills.

But that's ongoing. Let's turn over our papers and begin.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee

I could make the obvious Beverly Hillbillies joke, but to be honest, the home state of the Clampett clan is not identified in the program (though Granny talks about being brought up in Tennessee, so there's that). I want to instead point out that this coin actually goes to effort of putting a building on the coin, a challenge for all these national parts and forests which concentrate on the natural wonders.

But this is a good example of the advancement in quarter-sculpting tech. This coin has no less than five different planes shown on it - The empty sky background, the far mountains, the tree line, the cabin, and in the extreme foreground, the split rail (or snake) fence. A sense of motion is provided by the hawk on the wing, though this adds yet another element. This is a tall order for such a small area to pull off, and the result feels a little more cluttered than it should. It get points for pushing the technical envelope.

Not Bad = B

Shenandoah National Park - Virginia

A similar challenge shows up for the Shenandoah National Park. Like the Smokies, this is beautiful country, and I recommend that, should one get the chance, they stand on one of the peaks and just watch the undulating hills spread out before them like a green blanket cast over your kids toys that you don't want to pick up. But the trouble is, how do you bring that to the coin itself?

Virginia solves the problem with fewer planes to deal with - a wide sky, the mountains, and a promontory in the foreground from which to view the wilderness. There is also a hiker, almost unnoticed, to the right of the coin (house right, not stage right), approaching the promontory before him. The rocks themselves overshadow him (and the little rain cloud over his head - hey, is he depressed? Is he thinking dark thoughts? Should we be calling a ranger for an intervention? Is there a number to call? Quick, he's getting near the edge! Stop him before it's too late!).

Not Bad = B.

Arches National Park - Utah

This is my favorite for this year, and shows that you can do a National Park Quarter in a simple, straightforward fashion, portray the area, and still make it all work. Now, Arches benefits here from an iconic image - no one is going to mistake this for St. Louis or a McDonald's. And which Arches has a number of arches on its grounds, this one, Delicate Arch, is the star that gets all the press time. This arch is the cute blonde girl who sits with her friends at the lunch table and smiles shyly but you know really doesn't have any time for you (or am I just projecting, here?)

And the Arches coin is presented in a straightforward, iconic style, literally taking a picture of the site and transferring it over to the coin. The horizon runs nearly across the center of the coin, dividing it into ground and white space, and the arch rises into that space. A good job.

Way Cool = A

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Colorado

No, I didn't know about this place either. It was a National Monument in 1932, but didn't make National Park status until 2004 (it was promoted to National Park status by President Bush, who also added seven other "units" to the National Park Service, to which there was no outcry from either his party or Congress, of course). Great Sand Dunes lacks the icons of a Yosemite, a Yellowstone, or even and Arches. It is a cool place, geologically. They are the tallest sand dunes in the country, and formed by the winds lifting the soil out of the Rio Grande before they lose interest and drop the sand out here.

(And I was surprised they didn't go for Dinosaur National Monument, but the cool stuff from that is apparently in Utah, and, of course, Utah already has its iconic look with the arches. Those snooty, snooty arches).

But the problem is, what makes the place interesting is that these are sand dunes. Really big ones. When means they are both ever-shifting and they are sand colored. Both of those traits are extremely difficult to capture on a coin sculpture, and as a result, at first glance, it looks like any other western park quarter. We don't know how big the dunes truly are - they could be a mountain range in the distance, since we tend to show that a lot.

However, perhaps seeing the problem, the sculptors engaged in almost a bit of whimsy here. In the foreground is a father and child, which sort of humanizes and redeems the coin in a way that the Shenandoah quarter does not (You're still worried about the guy on that coin, right?) The child has the ultimate symbol of this place -  a little plastic sand bucket. The symbols of beach vacations everywhere, even in Colorado.

Meh = C

Everglades National Quarter

So, here's a reverse situation - all a lot of states have to show is a big mountain, a huge promontory in a pine forest or towering over the other promontories. What do you do when your National Park has a maximum natural elevation of eight feet, max? Welcome to the Everglades, America's best swamp land.

The quarter plays off its strengths, and pushes its waterfowl. In this case, it reveals that it is the winter nesting ground of the kaiju monster Rodan. OK, actually that is an anhinga (yeah, I had to look it up), also known as the snake bird or water turkey. Both of which sound like cooler names, but you know the Monster Manual will use anhinga because they need more monsters beginning with the letter "A". Sharing the space with the anhinga is a spoonbill, which most people know from the fact it looks like a stork playing the castanets. It is actually a very good choice in the face of all the other mountains/promontories/sand dunes that the other states have to deal with.

And we're lucky that the Everglades got in the front half of the lineup, here. If it was any further back in the calendar, sea-level rise would force them to settle with a blank picture, and the notation "Not Forever-glades".

Way Cool = A

And that concludes this year. In general, they're getting better as they go along. Next year We get such stand-out vacation spots as Bombay Hook, Kisatchie, and Homestead National Monument. And I become very relieved that Wikipedia exists.

More later,

Monday, March 24, 2014

Play: Buttoned Down

 The Suit, based on The Suit by Can Themba, Mothobi Muloatse and Barney Simon, direction, adaptation, and music by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawcyk.  Seattle Rep, through 6 April.

I know, you expect me to rail against the idea of a tour company, any tour company, treading the boards of a theater with "repertory" in its name. But to be frank, the fact that they have launched no less than three well-produced home-grown productions across my bow this year has left me mellow to the point of acquiescence. And so we have The Suit.

It is an interesting, if short, play. For a tale that from it credit seems to require most of Europe and parts of Africa to adapt, its plotline feels slight. A young bride (Nonhlanhla Keswa) commits adultery, her lover leaping out of a window and leaving his suit behind. The husband (Ivanno Jerimiah), as punishment, insists the suit be treated as an honored guest, to be seated at dinner, to be fed, to be taken on walks. At first the punishment feels odd but mild, but proves hopeful and effective for a brief moment, but ultimately breaks both individuals. Jordan Barbour picks up the spare as almost everyone else that impacts the couple’s world, serving as friend, lover, confidant, and as narrator.

But wound around the tale is the story of South Africa’s apartheid, of the institutionalized oppression of a people. It lives at a point of time that could not easily move to another location, and as fixed as its characters, but neither compares nor contrasts with the action of the play itself. It is the weather, grey and omnipresent. Where the play shines, though, is in its music. A trio of musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Christine, and Mark Kavuma) provide both baseline and comic relief. Keswa has a rich, vibrant, amazing, wonderful voice that brings the audience alive. And Barbour at one point lays out a passionate version of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, which seeks a linkage between his far country and ours.

The stage itself is simultaneously stark and intimate, chairs and props serving multiple duties, populated by the principles and the supporting band (and at one point, members of the audience, building that connection). Throughout, the presentation strives to build the connection between audience and actors, and thereby deepen the tragedy.

The tale itself has an opening bracket but no closing, akin to Taming of the Shrew, the start of the tale, but nothing to follow, no final words. It is open-ended in its tragedy, powerful in its finality. It is a short story put into the form of a play, a one-act that is elevated by its music and and its magic. And that’s enough, for the moment.

More later,

Friday, March 21, 2014

Film: Art Project

Tim's Vermeer, Directed by Teller

Yeah, I know. I seem to be nothing but reviews at the moment. I suppose that this is because I am in a
review sort of mood. Plus the fact that my life is otherwise rather boring at the moment, though it is boring in a good way. Getting stuff done, hanging out with people, playing games, reading. Boring can be very good sometimes.

And in this case last week I decided on a weeknight (gasp!) to go a movie (Gasp!) by myself (GASP!) up in the U-District (meh). In this case, it was a tidy little film of the type that I didn't want to drag friends out to - Tim's Vermeer, about a guy who paints himself a Vermeer.

The Music Lesson by Vermeer
And the film was playing at the Sundance theater, and the last time I had been to that building it was for the Firefly sneak peak, so we're talking, what, nine years or so? Yeah, I'm not one for much repeat business. But I do note that the theater has been upgraded to a high-end, comfortable-chair, over-21-so-we-can-serve-alcohol venue. I arrived early, and as a result spent about an hour upstairs in the lounge by the gas fireplace, eating a pizza, nursing a cuba libre, and reading Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters. So I was pretty relaxed even before the movie.

Ah, right, the movie. Tim Jenison is successful inventor and founder of NewTek, which did Video Toaster and Lighwave 3D. Creative, ingenious, and having both time to pursue his ideas as well money to aid in any pursuit he takes an interest in. And he decides to paint a Vermeer.

And he's not forging a Vermeer, but rather using the Vermeer (The Music Lesson) as a model in an attempt to figure out Vermeer's technique. Vermeer is best known for his photo-realistic style and his soft, almost golden light. How did he capture these effects on the canvas? Jenison, an avowed non-artist, seeks to duplicate it.

The artist David Hockney put forward the theory in his Secret Knowledge (2001) that the more realistic painters of the 16th and 17th century achieved their results by use of increased technology and research in optics and lenses. Indeed, my book of Vermeer prints from 1997 makes mention of the camera obscura as a technique, a simple device that consists of a dark room with a hole in an end. The reflected light present the image of the outside world in a ghostly, inverted image.

What Jenison has done is take these theories down to the ground level and examines the possible applications of this technology. First he fits the aperture of the camera obscura with a lens to sharpen the image. Then, he ingeniously uses a small mirror to duplicate the images, one line at a time. There is no sketchwork, no underpainting. merely duplication. He is coloring the image he sees at the edge of the mirror onto the canvas. Finally (as he discovers during the course of the film), he replaced the blank wall the image is focused on with a convex mirror to sharpen the image further. It is an optical three-bank shot that allows him to photocopy the image by hand.

There's more to it than that, of course. He could have taken a reproduction of The Music Lesson and copied it directly in this fashion. Instead, he recreated the scene in the picture and then painted that in order to confirm that the distortions visible in the final product are the result of the methodology. Which means he created a studio with a northern exposure, had the costumes shown in the painting made, built the furniture, tracked down suitable pottery and musical instruments, and built a virginal (an early harpsichord). He ground his own lenses and mixed his own paints in the manner noted. And then, having done all that, started to paint, a long and detailed process of painting what he saw and matching the color along the mirror's edge.

The movie is that journey, of Jenison's attempt not just to reproduce, but to get it right. To create a proof-of-concept that this was a legitimate "lost technology" that could have been used by painters of the era. And the presentation captures and holds the attention. Jenison himself comes across as reasonable, engaged, and down-to-earth. He is balanced by Penn Jillette's narration (Teller directs), which provides the level of excitement bombast necessary to declare, yeah, this is a big deal.

Vermeer himself is a bit of mystery here throughout - there is record of his birth (I think - his father carries a different surname), and of his entering the Guild of Saint Luke, the painter's guild in the Low Countries, but no record of his apprenticeship in Delph. That may just mean  he spent his apprenticeship elsewhere, as those were more portable days. And while he was made the head of the Guild, he did not found a school or train others to follow in his style. At the time, he did not enjoy the popularity of the Dutch Masters of the era, and while his work was rediscovered in the 19th century, in my research I keep seeing the teeth-grating definition that he was a "provincial" artist of "genre" works.

I any event, a good film, and one that you should get out to see, or to at least queue up for the Netflix release.

More later,