Saturday, August 28, 2010


The recent death of Dennis Hopper brought to mind several of the great films he was in, including Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, and Blue Velvet. One film that emerged in 1977 from the New German Cinema was THE AMERICAN FRIEND. It was directed by Wim Wenders and was loosely based on the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND moves with a slow burn and has a dark, tense atmosphere where the characters wander through a no-man's land of deceit. It is a serious film with a suspenseful plot. It is the coming together of a German art film with American Film Noir. 

Hopper plays Tom Ripley as an existential American cowboy. The film opens with him arriving in New York at the loft of a painter who forges work that Ripley traffics back to Europe. The painter is played by Nicholas Ray who was the director of Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar among others. The film also has other directors including Samuel Fuller playing gangsters. It takes place in New York, Hamburg, and Paris and deals with the American influence on post WWII Germany.

Besides moving forged paintings, Ripley also has connections to the underworld and they need someone unknown to carry out a couple of assassinations. Ripley meets a picture framer in Hamburg who he discovers is suffering from a rare and possibly fatal blood disease. The framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, is played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz. He is enlisted by Ripley to carry out the murders in exchange for money that will give security to Zimmerman's family. But is Zimmerman really dying, or has he just been manipulated by Ripley? The characters are not sure of each other and the actors reveal this with short dialogue and distrustful glances. The film depicts a great contrast between two men from different cultures who are drawn into a reluctant friendship. 

Wenders creates a paranoid and tense atmosphere to frame the story. There is a dark, moody soundtrack and the cinematography by Robby Muller is beautiful and ominous with its high contrast and saturated colors.

There are two amazing sequences of suspense that are worthy of Hitchcock. One is in the Paris metro and the other on a train in which Ripley shows up to help Zimmerman complete the hit.

There are also moments of dark humor and scenes that reveal detail and add to the mood, while not necessarily being essential to the narrative. Some of these are the most memorable scenes from the film. One has Nicholas Ray walking on a wall near the West Side Highway. The camera moves to a close-up of him with his black eye patch. "A little bit older, a little more confused." There is also a scene of Hopper laying on his pool table talking into his tape recorder. "The only thing to fear is fear itself. I know less and less of who I am." Another shot shows Ganz working with his frames and embellishing them with gold leaf. Near the end of the film there is a reference to the song Drive My Car by the Beatles, that is absurdly funny.

The film ends with a surreal scene on a beach with a burning ambulance and Ganz and his wife played by Lisa Kreuzer driving off in an orange volkswagon leaving Hopper alone.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND is a rich cinematic experience about spiritual isolation and moral ambiguity in a world where we must make difficult choices to deal with the problems that confront us in life.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Francis Bacon was one of the most interesting painters of the 20th Century. His work was bold and emotionally raw, creating a disturbing and powerful effect on the viewer. Bacon was a figurative painter, but abstracted the human form with slashes of paint that blurred the imagery. Usually, the figures are isolated and encased in glass or steel cages and the backgrounds are usually flat color fields.

His breakthrough came in 1944 with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. He is also known for his Screaming Pope series and his portraits and self-portraits that display his idiosyncratic style. There is a dark and bleak quality to his work that reflects the horrors of the 20th Century.

Bacon was born in Dublin to British parents. In 1935, he purchased a book on diseases of the mouth that contained high quality color plates of open mouths which haunted him and became his obsession. He was also moved by Eisenstein's  The Battleship Potemkin, especially the close-up shot of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps. Many of his works have figures with screaming or open mouths.

At times the work is more overtly horrific and frightening as with Three Studies where the human form has been reduced to a twisted torso with an appendage of a screaming mouth. Red and black are the dominant colors and contribute to the painting's emotional power.

The Screaming Popes, or Studies After Valazquez, emerged in the 1950s. The Pope sits at his throne obscured by a veil all done with Bacon's quick violent slashes of paint. The Pope is not calm, but trapped and screaming almost as if he is in an electric chair. Bacon often alluded to other artists from the past, also creating work based on Van Gogh and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Bacon took the lessons of these great painters and reconfigured them in a post-photograpic world.

Bacon met George Dyer in 1964 which started a tumultuous relationship. Dyer was younger than Bacon and from a tough East End London background. He had a strong physical presence, but was also vulnerable. He was also an alcoholic like Bacon. At this point Bacon's work became more personal and he started painting portraits of his friends and figures in domestic interior spaces. They were somewhat less overt than the earlier work, but still the figures and faces were in motion and twisted with conflict. Dyer was a mess when drunk, but withdrawn when sober and wasn't liked by many of Bacon's other friends. Their relationship deteriorated and Dyer died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1971. This affected Bacon greatly, and he now felt stalked by grief, guilt, and loss. Bacon painted three Black Triptychs about the death of Dyer. Triptych, May - June 1973 is considered the strongest and depicts the moments right before Dyer's suicide.

Some of Bacon's later paintings are less consciously horrific. The self portraits concentrate on anatomy and movement - almost giving an inner and outer view simultaneously. Some of the later paintings depict figures in chairs or interiors with less distortion and for me these are very strong paintings. 

Francis Bacon's work is beautiful and tragic while depicting the darkness and the struggle of everyday existence.

Monday, August 16, 2010



Recently, I saw the Broadway production of FELA about the life of the Nigerian musician and political activist. His life story is revealed through narration by Sahr Ngaujah who plays Fela. The stage is a recreation of Fela's nightclub "The Shrine."

As we arrived with the rest of the audience the band was already on stage. Even before all of the crowd had arrived and the house lights went down, they started playing one of Fela's infectious grooves. The songs are shortened for the Broadway production and this is my one dissapointment with the play. Most of Fela's compositions are anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, or more, in length, and the duration is important in the power of the music.

I first heard of Fela back in the late 1970s when a friend turned me on to his vinyl copy of Zombie. This was my first introduction to Afrobeat which is a complex fusion of Jazz, Funk, High-life, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. African percussion plays a huge role and Tony Allen, Fela's drummer for over 20 years was very important in the evolution of Afrobeat.The music is also informed by the Black Power movement and stories of oppression and the fight for human rights. Zombie was a critique of the methods of the Nigerian military and the corruption of the Nigerian government.

Fela's music uses the "endless groove," where bass, rhythm guitar, and various percussion are introduced one by one, playing interlocking riffs that are repeated throughout the song. The music builds into a layered groove of amazing rhythmic and melodic complexity.The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs, and main melodic themes. Usually, the vocal starts midway through the compositon. Fela's main instruments were saxophone and keyboards, but at times, he also played trumpet, guitar, and drums. His band was huge with many instruments and many female backing vocalists. His concerts were outlandish and wild and went deep into the night.

A couple of years ago I went through a huge Fela period where I bought many of his cds. Here is a list of my favorites.

Open & Close
Everything Scatter
Expensive Shit
Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears, & Blood
Coffin For Head of State

The song Sorrow, Tears, and Blood has a great emotional power as does his later work Coffin For Head of State, which is a response to the Nigerian government attack on his compound where Fela was severely beaten, and his mother was thrown from a window causing her death. His studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed in the attack.

Fela's music is hypnotic and makes you want to groove, while affecting both the head and the heart.

Fela died of AIDS in 1997, but his legacy and music live on.

Monday, August 9, 2010


MAN IN THE DARK is a novel by Paul Auster that examines how we deal with war, tragedy, aging, family dynamics, and how we confront adversity in our lives. Auster does so by creating a multi-layered work with parallel realities. There are many stories in the book, some in real time, some from the past, some invented in the mind of a character, and others that exist in films. All of this is integrated into a seamless narrative where elements reflect and echo themes from other sections of the book. 

August Brill is at his daughter's house in Vermont recovering from an auto accident. He lives with his daughter Miriam and his granddaughter Katya. An insomniac, he tells himself stories while lying in bed trying to block out the trauma of the recent death of his wife Sonia and the horrible murder of Katya's boyfriend Titus. One major narrative he imagines is a war story where America is not in a war in Iraq, but at war with itself, a new bloody civil war between the red states and blue states that has evolved out of the 2000 election. The main character in this alternative world is Owen Brick. He is recruited to kill the man who has invented the war - August Brill himself.

Katya and August watch films all day. Cinema is like a drug to help them forget, and put themselves in another place. They watch intimate family stories - Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion, The World of Apu, and Tokyo Story. They discuss how the films use inanimate objects to express emotional power in their respective narratives.

Eventually, they face their own reality and demons. Stories within stories, tunneling back to the past. How Brill met Sonia, his betrayals of her, their divorce, and eventual coming together again, only to end with her death. Miriam dealing with her isolation after the breakup with her husband. Katya's withdrawal from the world because of her guilt over the death of Titus. Other stories from friends about war and death that foreshadow the horrible murder of Titus.

In the past, I read The New York Trilogy, a set of three novellas that laid the groundwork for Auster's approach to writing. His books can be like puzzles and labyrinths, but also reveal stories of great psychological depth. His prose is lean, clear, and poetic. There are no wasted words. Everything counts. 

MAN IN THE DARK is an intense, stark, and beautiful book about grief, seperation, loss, and how we find meaning in a world that at times seems overwhelming.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Burning Water Review will consist of my own personal reviews of Art, Film, Music, and Books that I have found interesting, moving, powerful, and inspirational. At times I will write about work that is current and at others I will tunnel back to work that had an effect on me in the past.  Since my last name is Trueblood, I thought it would be appropriate that the opening post would be about the HBO series TRUEBLOOD. 

I live in New York and work in digital imaging and teach Photoshop. I also produce my own photo based art and write as well. I have two websites. One is of my personal photography and the other is of my photo retouching work that I do to make a living. There are links to them in the upper right corner of the blog.

I also make extra money working as a New York City cab driver.  Passengers have always asked me about my name and its origin. Once I picked up a woman who told me about Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana. There is a building there called the Trueblood Fieldhouse. Later, while travelling, I passed through Richmond and took a look. With further research, I found it was named after D. Elton Trueblood who was an author and theologian and was the founder of the Earlham School of Religion. My father met him once and had one of his books. In the first chapter he told of how the first Truebloods in America came in the late 1600s. They were Quakers leaving England for religious freedom and settled in what is now North Carolina. Later in the mid 1700s they moved to Indiana. My grandfather was born in Sullivan, Indiana and there are many Truebloods living in Indiana and Iowa. Once I picked up a man and a little girl from Indianapolis and the little girl said there was a boy in her class with my exact name.

Recently, I picked up a young man in my cab who asked if Trueblood was my real name. I told him it was and we talked about the show. He called up a friend on his cell phone and told her - I'm in a cab and my driver's name is Trueblood, isn't that awesome! I took a picture of his license with my cell phone camera.

I have to admit it was fun to see my name on walls and billboards all over New York under the image of bloody lips. The title of the show refers to Tru Blood, the synthetic blood developed by a Japanese company that keeps the vampires living without having to kill humans. This has allowed them to come out of the coffin. Of course some still do kill humans because there is nothing like the real thing. At times it is dark, moody, and stylized, but it is actually a combination of Southern Gothic with a lot of strange Surrealism. William Faulkner meets Dukes of Hazzard meets David Lynch. Besides vampires, it includes characters with psychic powers, drug addicts, rednecks, religious fanatics, people of different races and sexual orientation, all mixed together with trashy American culture and a touch of voodoo. It is hilarious at times, disturbing at others. It has a good helping of sex and violence. TRUEBLOOD is over the top and takes it for granted that supernatural characters exist. The central character Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) has the power to read minds. Now, in its third season other creatures have come out including shapeshifters, maenads, and werewolves. All are vying for power and control. TRUEBLOOD is a critique of how a certain segment of our culture is in fear of anyone who is different from themselves. 

Each episode opens with a prologue that cuts to an amazing title sequence put to the song "Bad Things" by Jace Everett. It reminds me of short experimental films made in 8mm before the advent of video. it consists of Stan Brakhage-like editing - quick cuts, jump cuts, still shots, slow motion, time-lapse, with grainy film stocks and a jittery, rough on the edges feel. The imagery is a montage of swamps, gothic houses, alligators, gospel choirs, cops beating demonstrators, bars, sex, snakes, rednecks, bloody mouths, road kill, praying, stripping, maggots, smoke inhaled into lips, and a baptism. The title sequence to TRUEBLOOD, created by Digital Kitchen, is a mini masterpiece in itself.