You Don’t Know What You Got ‘til it’s Gone
Daliland & Beyond Paper
By Marc Glassman
Mary Harron, director
John C. Walsh, script
Starring: Ben Kingsley (Salvador Dali), Barbara Sukowa (Gala Dali), Christopher Briney
(James), Zachary Nachbar-Seckel (Jeff Feholt), Suki Waterhouse (Ginesta), Andreja Pejic (Amanda Lear), Rupert Graves (Captain Moore), Alexander Beyer (Christoffe), Mark McKenna (Alice Cooper), Ezra Miller (Young Dali), Avital Lvova (Young Gala)
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad.”—Salvador Dali
If Salvador Dali hadn’t existed, a cynical art critic would have had to make him up. He’s the ultimate expression of surrealism to the point where the Surrealist Movement officially threw him out. Always dressed theatrically when making public appearances, in robes or striped coats, bedecked with fancy jewelry, and brandishing his trademark moustache with its tips pointed towards his hypnotic eyes, Dali cut a phantasmagoric presence wherever he travelled. And travel he did, accompanied by his imperious wife Gala, to Figueres in the mountains of Spain, his homeland, and to the legendary St. Regis hotel in midtown Manhattan, where they wintered for decades.
The Canadian born but truly international filmmaker Mary Harron has made a career courting art and controversy with such works as I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page and Charlie Says (about Manson and his notorious Family). The scandalous life of Dali is perfect fodder for her and Harron’s husband John C. Walsh, who clearly relish the social and political mores of Manhattan in the decadent Sixties and Seventies. It’s a period when sex, drugs and rock’n’roll merged delightfully with the upper-crust art and society set who indulged themselves in the music of Alice Cooper, The Velvet Underground and David Bowie, the post-hippie fashions of burgundy leather, knee high boots, belted trousers, patchwork dresses and floral mini-skirts and the all-night parties.
Right in the middle of all it was Dali, colourfully dressed, extravagant in his demanour and given to gnomic pronouncements about himself and art: “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” And “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.” For Daliland, Harron’s latest chronicle of the amoral Seventies, she has cast her artistic leads perfectly. Sir Ben Kingsley sinks into the role of Dali as if to the manner—pace, manor—born and for his Gala, Harron has placed the sharp European beauty Barbara Sukowa, a former muse of Fassbinder and von Trotta, and now a New York resident. What Gala wants, Gala gets, in the sado-masochistic romance between the Dali’s.
We follow Gala at parties where she flirts extravagantly with her lover Jeff, possessed of a small brain and a large voice, who is playing the Broadway lead in Jesus Christ, Superstar. In the meantime, Dali, who plays with grand passions but never actually engages physically with anyone, spends time with the beautiful transgender celebrity Amanda Lear, who eventually becomes a successful disco queen in Europe. Once again, Harron has cast perfectly: Andreja Pejic has the requisite charm and gender orientation for the role. In fact, nearly everyone has been chosen successfully, from the sophisticated Rupert Graves as the Dali couple’s manager to Suki Waterhouse as a suitably gorgeous but vacant party girl.
There is one problem, though, and it’s a major one. Christopher Briney, a young and quite handsome man, plays James, a fictional figure, who is working for Dali’s New York gallerist and finds himself seconded to work as the great painter’s assistant while finishing his up-coming show. Briney is attractive and affable but he’s not interesting or perceptive enough to act as the film’s narrator, or “fifth business.” Ezra Miller, most famous as the superhero The Flash, was supposed to play the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; instead, he plays the young Dali in a few lovely flashback scenes. Unfortunately, Briney’s James leaves a huge vacant space where the drama and comedy of being with a complex surrealist should be. The result is the ultimate irony: a bland film about Salvador Dali.
It’s still to fun to watch, of course, and Kingsley is spectacular as Dali. If you love art and Manhattan and the Seventies, there’s still much to enjoy in the film. But it could have been much more.
Beyond Paper (Au-dela du papier)
(Canada, 130 min.)
Dir: Oana Suteu Khintirian
By Marc Glassman
Featuring: Oana Suteu Khintirian, Noa Davidovici, Maria Kodama, Maria Sebregondi, Brewster Kahle, Marilena Suteu, Sid Ahmed Habott, Abderrahim Hanchi, Dr. Sha Xin Wei, Dr. Ioan Stoica
What is happening to the world’s memory and thought as books are abandoned in our embrace of all things digital? Oana Suteu Khintirian, a Montrealer who is of Armenian and Romanian heritage, pondered the global shift as she plunged into a deep dive of family memories provoked by receiving a cache of love letters that are over 100 years old. Looking at the cursive hand written notes, written in Armenian, she began to feel a passion for the past, evoked not just by words but by the sensual power of paper and ink, hardly reproducible today. It set her on a quest to examine what we have lost with the gradual abandonment of paper and books and libraries and what can be preserved in the new Internet culture.
Khintirian’s investigation got her to many places around the world. In Mauritania, deep in the Sahara desert, she encountered Chinguetti, a nearly abandoned trading site, which houses 13 libraries and over 6000 Islamic manuscripts. Khintirian spends time with the dedicated Habott family, who have held onto the vast library for more than two centuries against the desert winds and the indifference and occasional anger of their society, which hardly embraces the legacy of over a thousand years of writing and thought. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, she gets Maria Kodama, the widow of the eminent writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges, to read from his fantastical “The Library of Babel,” which conceives of a universe of thought contained within a library. Buenos Aires is also the city, which houses El Ateneo Grand Splendid, perhaps the finest designed and built bookshop in the world—truly the proper metropolis to have been the home of Borges—and a necessary location for the film.
Over the course of two hours, Khintirian takes us to Copenhagen, Milan, Paris, Montreal, Bucharest and San Francisco as her trek to understand books and paper in a digital society continues. In a charmingly nerdy style, she speaks to philosophers, librarians, profs and archivists as she strives to understand the history of books and whether they should be maintained in contemporary society. In Milan, she spends time with Maria Sebredgondi, who founded Moleskine, a company which produces gorgeous notebooks that can be used to write or make visual art–and has become a huge international success.
Khintirian travels to San Francisco to talk with Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive founder, who is almost sheepish in describing his accomplishments. Kahle has been working on the Archives for over 40 years but it still isn’t a success in his eyes: there is much more that needs to be digitized and made accessible to viewers. Kahle’s reservations are mirrored with those of Dr. Sha Xin Wei, who understands the loss of paper and ink and books, which can’t be reproduced digitally. The many fonts available on computer lack soul—a fact, which is aesthetic and probably spiritual.
Letters and books are physical objects which can be shared with family, friends and lovers. Oana Suteu Khintirian hasn’t just made a film, which ultimately endorses paper and book and libraries. She’s made it about family: a cousin and spiritual sister, who publishes books in Bucharest features prominently as do others who are deeply moved by the historic romantic letters and a scholarly tradition that goes back for generations. Armenians survived the first major 20th century Holocaust in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and latterly the new country of Turkey. Too many have dealt with exile and tragic losses. For Armenians, culture has been a major unifying factor and the love of books and paper and libraries is of absolute importance. Khintirian’s film demonstrates that books and libraries have meaning even in today’s digital age. She’s made a personal essay doc that should be seen by those who love literature, and those who don’t.
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