Notes on the Culture
Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: It’s fall and that means it’s pledge time on public radio. Here are a couple of other ways to support the local arts scene.
Driving into work today, the pealing tones of Bob Oakes kept hammering that it was the beginning of WBUR’s fall fundraising drive. Along with the dread that this week’s commute would be filled with public radio’s necessary but deadly dull solicitations, the seasonal change finally hit me. Perhaps it doesn’t quite feel like fall yet, but it actually is fall, and it’s time to dive into another autumn of arts.
Considering this, I came up with a couple suggested weekend plans for you to ease into a nice, brisk season of getting your culture on.
If the weather’s bad—and even if it isn’t—now is a good time to stay inside and support your local arthouse cinema. Compared to other American cities, Boston still has a wealth of great small movie houses, and I can never stress enough how important they are to our cultural fabric. Not every film can nor should be The Dark Knight (however grand that blockbuster is), let alone The House Bunny.
For example, the Brattle is focusing on this last important subject all weekend with the United Nations Association Film Festival. It’s a collection of feature and short-length documentaries from around the globe, highlighting not just social issues but the human faces and minds affected by them.
Among the varied subjects include Big Tobacco’s targeting of the vast Indian youth market, efforts to address the oppressed roles of women in Uganda and Saudi Arabia, a Chinese orphanage where the children learn to walk a tightrope, and even female Bolivian wrestlers. Plus, you can also check out Beautiful Losers, a documentary about New York’s Alleged Gallery that explores the new generation of artists inspired by street and hip-hop culture.
Screenings will be at both the Brattle and Harvard’s Kennedy School, whose alumni association is one of the sponsors of the festival. But you too can be a sponsor of the theater (so to speak), by checking out the Brattle’s fifth annual Art House silent auction on Sunday night at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. More than 60 artists have donated their works, with bids starting as low as $35.
Of course, if you’d rather a more groovy, avant-garde film weekend, try this local tour of Sixties experimental film. Start early on Thursday, by kicking off your electric kool-aid acid test at the Coolidge, which is hosting a one-night-only extravaganza of late-’60s psychedelic films by local artist Ken Brown. These Super-8 films were the backdrop for Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Velvet Underground when they came to local legendary halls like the Boston Tea Party, and on this night local jazz and rock musicians will be jamming along.
After that, enjoy a Warholian escapade at the ICA, which is devoting a weekend to Factory filmmaker Danny Williams, who disappeared in 1966. This mini-festival features three newly released films showing the activities of Andy Warhol’s famed studio and the Velvet Underground, a band that never seems to go away.
The 70 minutes of footage will be accompanied by music from composer T. Griffin and Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. The centerpiece will be Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, by Williams’ niece Esther Robinson, which won the best documentary prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Robinson herself will be on hand for questions at the Sunday screening.
Then shuttle back to the cozy confines of the Harvard Film Archive, where 30 years’ worth of Warren Sonbert‘s films are being shown. Originally influenced by the Warhol scene, Sonbert moved to San Francisco and developed his own manically magical approach to montage, splicing together whirlwinds of images beautiful and ugly, humdrum and sexual, into almost musical passages.
Rightfully, montage masters like Eisenstein have foremost position in the history books, but it’s the role of cinemas like Harvard’s to remind us of these little-known artists who have also developed the medium in a vital way.
Leafpeeping alla Christina: Of course, if the weather’s nice and you would rather go on a road trip, try taking three hours by car and go to midcoast Maine, where you can immerse yourself in the autumnal world of Andrew Wyeth.
Perhaps the most iconic living American painter, Wyeth has lived half of each of his 91 years up in the Pine Tree State, which is where he painted Christina’s World. You can just picture Wyeth’s work now: the woman in the amber grass, her back turned to you, the wind blowing in her hair has she looks up the hill at an aging farmhouse. Well, you’re going to that house.
Originally built in the late 1700s, the Olson House is graying clapboard manse in the seaside town of Cushing. It was built by a retired sea captain, then modified and inhabited by his descendants for the next 200 years. Wyeth was introduced by his future wife, Betsy, to Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro in 1939, and the painter would go on to create more than 300 studies of the house, the Olsons, and the surrounding acreage on the shores of Penobscot Bay.
The most famous of these paintings was, of course, Christina’s World. Wyeth was in a third-floor attic room, looking down the slope at the family cemetery, where Christina was laying flowers on the gravestones. She had suffered her whole life from a debilitating neuromuscular disease, and so she had to pull herself through the grass by her arms. Wyeth immediately sketched the scene, and painted it from her point of view, looking up at the house. At that, my friends, is how legendary art is made.
When you come around the bend in the wooded road and see the house, it’s hard not to gasp. Somewhere in your art-loving reptile brain, you know this house. Now you get to walk around it and go inside. The house itself is bare, left unfurnished and much more evocative for it. In each room are prints of Wyeth’s watercolors and tempera works that he painted right there; the nails in the walls, the worn doors, the window sashes…they’re all there. But Wyeth not only captured the place physically, but also its dry, haunted feel. I was only casually interested in Wyeth before going, but now I’m a big fan, having walked through the landscape of his greatest inspiration.
And if you remain interested, take a trip up to nearby Rockland. As the area’s largest town, there’s plenty of places there to stay. But there’s also the Farnsworth Art Museum complex, which houses more Andrew Wyeth galleries, as well as the Wyeth Center, which lavishly houses work by his father N.C. and son James in an old church. Yes, if you weren’t quite aware already, there’s three generations of notable Wyeth painters, and it’s fascinating to see how they influenced each other.
Of course, the best feature may be the drive itself: The leaves should just be turning up in Maine, so you’ll get to see nature’s art on the way.
Brahms away: Lastly but blessedly, the BSO is back in town. If you want to do nothing but luxuriate in the symphony, then this weekend is a good time to go, thanks to the program’s choice of Johannes Brahms‘ German Requiem.
It’s his longest composition, written in response to his mother’s death and the attempted suicide of his friend Robert Schumann. It lasts about 80 minutes and is one of the most monumental choral-orchestral works of the 19th century, making it perfect for Symphony Hall’s vaunted acoustics. I expect its pealing tones will still be reverberating in your ears when you go back to work on Monday—which is a far preferable sound than Bob Oakes asking you for cash.