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As an artist who’s been focusing almost entirely on figurative (that is, realistic, not abstract) drawings for the past several years, I sometimes wonder what the point is. Drawing helps me to see the world more clearly, but does it help the viewer to do the same? Doesn’t the most successful realism defeat its own purpose, in that people look at it and say, “Right, that’s a person,” without seeing any differently than they did before? I want to help people to have the experience I have when I draw: to get beyond “Well done, it really looks like her” to “That’s something I never noticed about her before.” I’m not sure realism can get them there.

Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

At least, I wasn’t until recently, when I realized that I am really looking at clouds for the first time in my life. I don’t know how I got to this age without noticing that the clouds are different every day, and every few moments. That they come in an incredible variety of shapes that the nomenclature of cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus doesn’t capture. That their colors are infinitely varied even in simple mid-day light. I do have a pretty good idea what made me finally notice them. It was the paintings of two artists, Diego Rivera and Wendy Miller.


Photo by Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Wendy is an artist I know who lives in my neighborhood, and I saw her paintings for the first time when I moved here in 2010. Diego Rivera’s cloud paintings were unknown to me until earlier that same year, when we went to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City and saw a whole series that he did from the balcony of his patron’s home (Dolores Olmedo herself, if I recall correctly), one evening after another, at sunset. I looked admiringly at both artists’ gorgeous paintings of clouds, acknowledging how difficult it must have been to portray them so vividly, but something beyond that happened inside me. Inside my eyes, I think, or whatever parts of me are needed to perceive clouds, because I see them now.

I do a lot of driving up and down the San Francisco Peninsula. There’s nothing new about that; I did it before 2010 too. Now, though, the clouds up ahead hold wonders for me every day, and now I know firsthand that “merely” painting what we see can open others’ eyes.

It’s the first day of Lent and I’ve decided that my practice this year will be to write daily on this blog. I have let it slip, and I miss the discipline of thought that it requires.

I made mental notes about Gravity back last fall when I found the one showing in San Francisco that fit between my drawing class and my time to take my daughter to music, at a small theater that only showed it in 2D. It being Monday afternoon, it was practically a private showing. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to skip this post, because here be spoilers.


I loved this movie. I know it drives people crazy who know and care what astronauts do. I’m sure I would froth at the mouth about all the mistakes in a movie about ministers, but since I am not particularly interested in astronauts or the proper procedures for maintenance of space telescopes or the International Space Station, I just enjoyed what the movie was really about, to this viewer. It isn’t supposed to be a documentary about space. To me, it’s about grief, and how difficult it is to return to daily life when all you want to do is float away and never feel anything again.

And before I even knew that, at the very first shot, I started to cry. There they were, little tiny people floating in this unimaginably large, indifferent expanse. As the introduction says, life in space is impossible. And then the moviemakers show us people in space. I thought, “That’s us! We’re all floating here in space for a tiny amount of time and then phut,” and I just stayed in that existential crisis for the following two hours. I thought that that was a different emotional issue than grief–me fussing about my own mortality instead of my never-absent dread that my daughter might precede me into death–but several months’ rumination on Gravity have made me realize that maybe they are really the same sorrow.

In the end, ironically enough, it is a very small movie, in the sense that it isn’t epic in scope but about a single person coping with a single event that is not newsworthy or noteworthy to anyone much except her. (I like small movies.) A woman’s young daughter has died. The woman, Ryan Stone, doesn’t know how to go on, or how to want to; she hasn’t touched the ground since. On earth, she achieves this by driving as much as possible, always moving. In space, maybe it’s easier to float, but maybe not; when we first see her, she is fighting nausea, and clearly her distress is not just physical. By the close of the movie, however, she wants to live. She digs her hands into the earth, grateful just to be here, and when she stands up on those shaky legs, the camera looks up at her as if at a colossus. With that shot, Cuarón is saying that Stone is heroic, and she is.

One critic couldn’t resist the pun, and wrote (safely after the winner was announced) about the Academy’s choice between “Gravity and gravitas,” the latter being represented by 12 Years a Slave. I can’t compare this movie to 12 Years a Slave or any of the other Best Picture nominees, because it’s the only one I’ve seen so far, but I cannot agree that Gravity lacks gravitas. The writers named it well. “Gravity” stands for one of the weightiest, most serious losses a person can endure. It is what tethers us to reality and all the pain it brings, rather than our floating in a half-existence. If you wanted to demonstrate gravity in the most prototypical way, you might drop a stone, the main character’s name. And, of course, “gravity” evokes the grave, in this movie about death and coping with loss. The daughter even died of gravity. The writers could have made the cause of her death drowning, or poisoning, or a car collision, but in one of their subtler details, they tell us: she fell. She fell to earth. It is a small movie, as I say, but a grave one, and a joyful one, too, because in the end Stone chooses life and is glad that she has.

I heard lots of good stuff from thoughtful people about Matthew McConaghey’s performance in The Dallas Buyers’ Club, so I have no particular reason to doubt that he deserves the Oscar, but I still wonder about a pattern. I wonder whether anyone who gains or loses a lot of weight for a role, or torments their bodies in some other way, goes into awards season with a head start. For example: McConaughey and Jared Leto this year, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, winners all. The Academy also loves portrayals of characters it views as deeply Other: transgender (Leto), mentally disabled (Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, an Oscar-nominated performance), autistic (Raymond in Rain Man, an Oscar-winning performance).

Underneath it all lie two disturbing, related tendencies. One is the Othering of certain kinds of people. The other is a lack of respect for the craft of acting. In my view, Leonardo DiCaprio is just as thoroughly inhabiting a character foreign to his own when he plays a stockbroker as when he plays a person with a mental disability. Isn’t he? He is not those people. He is creating them. That’s what it means to be a fine actor.

Instead of rewarding acting, or at the very least, overlaid on that appreciation, and in my opinion, eclipsing it, in the Oscars we sometimes see the attitude of the crowd at a freak show. Look at the weird autistic guy! Look at Dustin Hoffman being a weird autistic guy! . . . Look at Matthew McConaughey acting!–No, never mind that, this is more amazing: look at him dieting!

A real respect for the craft would regard the acting, and the tremendous discipline and insight that go into creating a character, as more important than the physical exertions that go into a few roles.

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