Nomaville: Art Thief

Sleeping Nude with Open ArmsBlack market art world – bad news. First there are the art thieves, a hoary bunch of lycra-clad thugs who believe their chosen line refines them beyond the specter of criminality. When they’re not plucking paintings off museum walls, they’re in the gym doing Pilates, their steel eyes far-away and dull, hypnotized by the electronica pulsing in their iPods. Then, there’s the endless chain of middlemen, a motley assortment of aficionados and malcontents, generally European, always impeccably dressed – they’re the sacrificial lambs when the bullets begin to fly. Each has a philosophy with which they rationalize their particular brand of crime – some are Robin Hoods for the jet set, others claim a grudge against bureaucratic intrusion into the art world. Others have a knack for tracing everything back to the Nazis and have convinced themselves that they’re righting some wrong or other. Most of these middlemen are welterweight scholars with undergrad degrees in art history, forensics or economics though I’ve met at least two who studied journalism. This brings me to “Hal,” my J-school contact, now courier, who phoned last week with an alarming offer.

His voice was staccato over the line, sentences broken as if he were looking over his shoulder while speaking. Even through the static of his pre-paid cell I knew his breath was rank with coffee and cigarette smoke. I was sure he hadn’t slept in days. Couriers never do. They’re always on the run, whether they’re working or not.

“‘Sleeping Nude with Arms Open.’ You in?”

“You’ve got five seconds to change the subject before I hang up.”

“I just need your bed for a few days,” Hal hedged. It took a moment before I remembered “bed” was art thief slang for stowing a hot canvas. Credit that to Vincenzo Perugia, the Italian who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 and kept it literally under the covers for a couple of years.

“I’m hitched, Hal. Went legit.”

“Thanks for the invite,” he hissed, “Where do I send the flowers?”

“Wasn’t a funeral, Hal.”

“Forgive me, I get confused. ‘Specially when a buddy of mine leaves me off the guest list, I figure he must have bought it.”

“Five seconds, Hal.”

He clucked his tongue.

“Modigliani, mate. Just two nights. She’ll never know.”
I heard his rust whiskers scrape the receiver, pulled tight by a leather smile.

Amadeo Modigliani painted “Sleeping Nude with Arms Open” in 1917, three years before he died, both tubercular and poor. Contrary to his miserable end, the painting (alternately known as “Red Nude”) is lush with life – a woman, supine, atop a red duvee, her arms open and above her tousled dark hair, her pose sensuous, knowing. It never seemed she was sleeping as the title suggests. I think she’s faking it. I like that about her. The painting first caught my eye as a postcard I purchased in a stationary shop while skulking in Abbot Kinney. I needed wall art at the time and seeing as my digs were small and my decorating budget smaller, five and half by four and a quarter, was a fit. The nude in question, however, appealed to me most because she was a dead ringer for a woman I’d known briefly back home in Lumaville, a woman whose orbit I’d later have the good fortune of intersecting again. A woman, in point of fact, I married several years later. I’m just sentimental enough that Hal’s call with the real deal put a slow fade on my better judgment. More later…

Title Blight at the Movies

Pre Fab FourThere is a phenomenon that occurs with enough frequency in cinema that it might some day merit its own film studies class. I am, of course, thinking of that portentous breed of upper division course stitched together from the dross and shavings of previous lesson plans and festooned with such grandstanding titles as ?The History of the Mustache in Cinema? or ?Eisenstein?s ?The Battleship Potemkin?: Why We Yawn.?

The course description of my class would read something like ?The grating practice of alluding to the titles of historically-based character?s creative work in lieu of credible dialogue.? Example: In ?Backbeat,? a bio-pic based on erstwhile artist Stuart Stutcliffe?s days with pre-fab four Beatles? days gigging Germany?s Reeperbahn,? the Ringo Starr character?s dialogue is spotted with song titles Lennon-McCartney had yet to pen. After a grueling set: ?It?s been a hard day?s night.? Been working hard? ?Eight days a week.? It?s a marvel the screenwriters didn?t have Ringo do something as distasteful as strolling into a Hamburg synagogue and saying ?Hey, Jude.? One would think that the (no fewer than) three screenwriters could take a sad line and make it better.

Admittedly, drubbing a forgotten flick may seem a rather twee preoccupation for a writer, especially since its the heads of other writers that I?m ultimately hammering. Indeed, I can usually tolerate a single overtly self-conscious reference (I mean, it happens to me every time I introduce myself), but as Diana Ross might have said in her star turn as Billie Holiday in ?Lady Sings the Blues,? ?God Bless the child that?s got its own.?

?Title blight,? as I?ve decided to call it, borrows from the world of literature as well and is equally effective at constipating a movie. In Alan Rudolph?s exploration of 1920s Parisian expatriate life ?The Moderns,? poetess and salon granddame Gertrude Stein reproaches freshman novelist Ernest Hemingway with the pithy ?The sun also sets, Hemingway? a riff on the title of his breakthrough novel ?The Sun Also Rises,? itself borrowed from Ecclesiastes 1:5: ?the sun also ariseth? (who knows where the biblical scribe cribbed his notes, but then, shouldn?t it have been the ?Son also rises??). The fine arts are also pillaged for dialogue, as when in ?The Taste of Yellow,? an actor playing Vincent Van Gogh is asked what has caught his eye as he glowers out a moonlit window. ?Starry, starry night,? he replies, which is particularly grating since the phrase is the title of the Don McLean song inspired by the artist, not the actual name of his painting ?A Starry Night.? I cringe doubly.

The Sonoma Valley Sun Also Rises

Pre Fab FourThere is a phenomenon that occurs with enough frequency in cinema that it might some day merit its own film studies class. I am, of course, thinking of that portentous breed of upper division course stitched together from the dross and shavings of previous lesson plans and festooned with such grandstanding titles as “The History of the Mustache in Cinema” or “Eisenstein’s ‘The Battleship Potemkin’: Why We Yawn.” The course description of my class would read something like “The grating practice of alluding to the titles of historically-based character’s creative work in lieu of credible dialogue.” Example: In “Backbeat,” a bio-pic based on erstwhile artist Stuart Stutcliffe’s days with pre-fab four Beatles’ days gigging Germany’s Reeperbahn,” the Ringo Starr character’s dialogue is spotted with song titles Lennon-McCartney had yet to pen. After a grueling set: “It’s been a hard day’s night.” Been working hard? “Eight days a week.” It’s a marvel the screenwriters didn’t have Ringo do something as distasteful as strolling into a Hamburg synagogue and saying “Hey, Jude.” One would think that the (no fewer than) three screenwriters could take a sad line and make it better.

Admittedly, drubbing a forgotten flick may seem a rather twee preoccupation for a writer, especially since its the heads of other writers that I’m ultimately hammering. Indeed, I can usually tolerate a single overtly self-conscious reference (I mean, it happens to me every time I introduce myself), but as Diana Ross might have said in her star turn as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “God Bless the child that’s got its own.”

“Title blight,” as I’ve decided to call it, borrows from the world of literature as well and is equally effective at constipating a movie. In Alan Rudolph’s exploration of 1920s Parisian expatriate life “The Moderns,” poetess and salon granddame Gertrude Stein reproaches freshman novelist Ernest Hemingway with the pithy “The sun also sets, Hemingway” a riff on the title of his breakthrough novel “The Sun Also Rises,” itself borrowed from Ecclesiastes 1:5: “the sun also ariseth” (who knows where the biblical scribe cribbed his notes, but then, shouldn’t it have been the “Son also rises?”). The fine arts are also pillaged for dialogue, as when in “The Taste of Yellow,” an actor playing Vincent Van Gogh is asked what has caught his eye as he glowers out a moonlit window. “Starry, starry night,” he replies, which is particularly grating since the phrase is the title of the Don McLean song inspired by the artist, not the actual name of his painting “A Starry Night.” I cringe doubly.

Why, I implore, must my colleagues in the screen trade demean the biz with such bilge? Why, you might ask, do I care? The short answer is “because.” The long answer, besides my natural aversion to hackery (or perhaps fear of committing it myself), is that I would rather write coupon copy than see my own bio-pic end in the mode of, say, Polanski’s “Chinatown,” with a character morbidly intoning “Forget it, Howell, it’s Nomaville.”

Planet News Now with Kimi Sato

Step it up.Last week saw the launch of Planet News Now with Kimi Sato, an intergalactic space vixen and broadcast personality who reports on global news from the vantage of a satellite orbit. The project is one of several multimedia endeavors we’re rolling out under the FilmArt3 banner at Three House MultiMedia (the parent company of the Sonoma Valley Sun, where I’ve evolved from lifestyle editor to some order of in-house auteur). Sato is the conception of Cheryl Itamura for whom I pen the daily faux news podcasts. Please review Planet News Now at our YouTube channel.

Background on the conception of Kimi Sato.

And the nominees are…

Been meaning to mention that, as of last week, your humble hack is a national finalist in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual nod to the news racket — in this case in the “Food Writing/Criticism” category for a publication with a circulation greater than 60,000. This would be the North Bay Bohemian for which I penned a wine column when newly loosed in Wine Country and exploring my penchant for plonk on the company dime. I’m flattered, of course, and proud to represent the Boho in this capacity, though it’s to editor Gretchen Giles who deserves the real credit — she reminded me that drinking and writing is a cliche, but writing about drinking is a paycheck. Cheers to that.

View the complete list is here.