Saturday, March 28, 2009

I recently got a chance to take a tour through some of the exhibits at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens' Astir neighborhood. The museum is a multi-level former movie studio which was once part of the still-functioning Kaufman Astir studios. The museum focuses on relics from the history of three media: film, television, and video games.

The guide took us first through the museum's second floor, which featured exhibits paying homage to important figures in cinematic history as well as showcasing some artifacts that were used in famous films. There was a wall full of pictures of stars of yesteryear, but many of them were tough to recognize because they weren't in dressed up with the kind of makeup and clothing we've come to associate with their most well-known screen characters. One of the most striking examples of this was a portrait of mustache-less Charlie Chapman, dressed in casual 1940s attire, looking very much like any good-looking male movie star and nothing like the famous charicatures he became famous playing, mostly in silent cinema. They also had (get this): the original Chubacca mask from the Star Wars trilogy. That was one of my favorite things to see. Upstairs on the third floor, the emphasis was on the technology used to make motion pictures over the years. There was a wooden movie camera made before film gages and frame rates were standardized. They had a giant camera from the earliest days of television when the technology didn't yet exist to record video, so shows could only be broadcast live. We got a demonstration of the kind of sound layering that happens in post-production for modern Hollywood blockbusters. And there was even a hands-on game where participants could make a short animated cartoon using a primitive and once-common method.

It's cool to know that there are people out there who make it their business to preserve and make public relics from the rich history of the great 20th (and 21st!) Century medium. Ten or twenty years from now, it'll be interesting to go back and see what movies that in 2009 haven't even been made yet, end up end up achieving classic status and end up having props and the like put on display by the museum.

Basquiat (1996)

Director Julian Schnabel set out for a film ruled by contrasts. Plain, white, pure and refined Soho art galleries where art aficionados schmooze with Andy Warhol and drop half a million dolloars on original paintings, versus grafitti-covered New York streetscapes filled with wild youth whose raw creativity literally sprays onto walls. The eccentric, unkempt lead character versus hoity-toity conisuers of high art. A number of tracking shots, following characters in the film along sidewalks with street art in blazing colors, interspersed with intimate close-ups of characters dining in the finest restaurants in town, help give a sense of this contrast.

One medium shot, during the film's opening sequence, is framed so that we see the young art promoter who would later “discover” Basquiat, reading on a bench in a park, as Basquiat emerges, out of focus and in the background, from a cardboard box which for some time he called home. Framing the shot this way may have been a way to visually capture the emergence “from nothing” or an art icon.

There are a number of scenes in this film that take place in art galleries. In several of those scenes, the young Jean Michel Basquiat is emerging as an important figure in an art world that is much bigger (literally and figuratively) than he is. A relatively wide angle lens is used to exaggerate the distance between Jean Michel and heavyweights of the New York art world who are in the room with him, as well as to make the large, cavernous space of the galleries appear more immense and imposing than it really is.

Saturday, March 7, 2009