Monday, October 5, 2009

Stray Paper

One summer during college my friend Ty White and I discovered the Film Forum. The Film Forum was an artsy movie house on the fringes of downtown Atlanta run by Bestoink Dooley, of Big Movie Shocker fame, who challenged the mores of the time by showing such radical flicks as "W.R. - Mysteries of the Organism," and "A Clockwork Orange." I'm pretty sure he got shut down once or twice. That's also where I saw "Alice's Restaurant."

Among the other movies we stumbled into that summer was "The Music Lovers," a biography of Tchaikovsky with Richard Chamberlain in the starring role. This movie was taken extremely seriously by others in attendance, and I think developed some kind of cult status, but Ty and I thought it hilarious. It focused on the composer's homosexuality, and IMDB describes it as a "compelling and bizarre story"; little did we realize at the time how well it was typecast.

This was the first of a trilogic biopia of the classical composer genre directed by Ken Russell. The third movie in the trilogy was Lisztomania, starring Roger Daltrey of the Who. This was far and away the most publicized - and roundly criticized - of the three flicks, what with Daltrey in the lead (Russell had directed the movie version of "Tommy" earlier that year). I missed Liszt.

The one that moved me most of the trilogy was "Mahler." I don't recognize a single name from the cast (Robert Powell as Gustav Mahler?), and as near as I can recall we did not laugh once during the movie. It was as though Russell had made the equivalent of a tone poem, in reverse, a moving picture set as accompaniment to the music of the composer.

All of which is to connect to Tift Merritt's photography display in Raleigh last spring (2009), "Other Countries," which was hosted by the Mahler Gallery. I've got a neat little booklet from the exhibition containing copies of all the photos that were on display, along with some of Tift's notes about how the photos tie together with the time she spent in Paris writing the album "Another Country."

I went to the exhibit twice. The first time was the night of the accompanying concert at the Fletcher Opera House in Raleigh, when I was probably still contagious with what may have been the first case of swine flu to hit the Triangle. I'd been at MerleFest the weekend before (as had Tift), where there had been a Mariachi Band, and the first news of swine flu made NPR then. When I got back home, I started getting a sore throat, and the day before Tift's show I spiked a fever. It's even possible I passed the bug on to Tift, who was a bit under the weather a couple days later when she was performing in England. Anyway, not because of the flu but because of the concert, I was only able to rush through the Mahler.

A few weeks later, just before the exhibit closed, I convinced my wife to drop by the Mahler with me, and looked again at the the photographs. I noticed on the opposite wall a montage of scribbled notes lacquered to a canvas; I'd caught a glance of this part of the display the first time through but thought they were some other artist's work. On closer inspection, I discovered it was an assortment of Tift's actual notes as she composed the songs to "Another Country" in her Paris apartment.

Now, I liked the photos, don't get me wrong, there are some interesting portraits, nice geometries, and one or two excellent combinations of portraiture AND geometry. There are a couple of shots I believe from the Rodin museum - the same museum where my wife had bumped a pedestal and very nearly spilled one of Rodin's hands masterpieces onto the floor, where surely it would have broken.

But I was overwhelmed by the bits of text, which were both nicely arranged as a work of visual art, in themselves, as well as a window into the creative heart of the artist.

Tift isn't the only one who can work in a paper medium. My father, whose grandmother taught art in college and whose mother painted flowers on plates, always granted more credit to the artist than any other's line of work, and dabbled himself in the occasional medium (see his historical novel in a previous post). One of my father's diversions was a trip into making paper. His masterpiece, after 9/11 (top, left) hangs in my sister Janet's house. We have one of his several crosses (above, right); I'd argue his best.

Odd that my father would have specialized in paper crosses - he never went to church.