TIME remembrance

An Appreciation: The Endlessly Curious Richard Corliss

"He loved movies, but he loved them knowledgeably, judiciously, scrupulously"

Richard Corliss was a jovial, bearish man who was almost always to be found in signature footwear – custom-made sneakers imprinted with the logos of the major Hollywood studios. Can there be such a thing as a rumpled dandy? That would be one way to describe him, his nice mix of informality and urbanity.

Those sneakers used to make me think of NASCAR jumpsuits with corporate logos all over them, with the difference that Corliss wasn’t owned by any of them. He loved movies, but he loved them knowledgeably, judiciously, scrupulously. He could have a fanboy’s enthusiasm for his favorite genres – he was big on Bollywood before Bollywood was cool – but he never checked his brains at the popcorn stand. He was of a generation of critics who disputed cinema the way Lutherans and Papists once faced off over theology. But he was nothing if not a sporting polemicist. He held strong opinions, but he wanted to hear yours, even if — especially if — they differed from his.

Case in point. In 1974, when he was 30, Corliss published his indispensable book Talking Pictures, his definitive study of American screenwriters. (Dedicated, like him, to his beloved wife Mary.) He intended it as a corrective to the rapid rise of the auteur theory and its central belief that a film was almost always chiefly the product of the man or woman who directed it. This may seem self-evident now, when we take for granted that a movie is “by” Stephen Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson. But in the early 1960s, when auteurism was new to the U.S., imported from France by the great American critic Andrew Sarris, few Americans could name more than a small handful of director-showmen – Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, maybe Otto Preminger. The arrival of Sarris, flourishing his first articles and books, put critics like Pauline Kael on high boil. They thought he was too quick to find profound stylistic and psychological unity in the work of minor directors and to diminish the role of everybody else in what is after all a collaborative art. Corliss, who was open to their points but declined to use them to draw blood, wrote his book to bring the best screenwriters back into the picture. But it was typical of him that the man he invited to supply the introduction was…Andrew Sarris, his friend and former professor. And the book only benefits from the nuanced preface from the very man whose philosophy it sets out to adjust. With Corliss, even earnest controversy was just another big tent.

There was something eternally boyish about Richard, even after he hit 70, and not just because of the sneakers. When he wrote on Time.com most weeks about the box office take for last weekend’s releases, he still seemed like the kid he once was in Philadelphia who used to obsess over major league batting averages. But film criticism isn’t moneyball. It’s a calling that requires judgments where mere numbers may or may not correlate with the quality, nuance, power and, hey, why not, the magic that movies can possess and deliver. Having at his disposal the magnificent resource he once called “that moldy old library of film trivia, my brain,” he was, as a critic, trenchant, vigorous, witty and surprising. His reviews, like his conversations – and he loved to talk almost as much as he loved to write – were free of cant, herd thinking and jargon, full of grace notes, the beau ideal of critical writing. And he was endlessly curious about whatever was coming next. A decade ago, he wrote that “Life is a continuing film education. And I remain a very impressionable lad.” How many of us there are this morning, his countless friends and admirers, who wish he was still here, at the head of the class.

Read more about Richard Corliss here


The Parisian Sex Toy Christmas Tree Is the Latest Great Art Scandal

'Tree' By Paul McCarthy - Monumental Artwork At Place Vendome In Paris
Chesnot—Getty Images Paul McCarthy's artwork called "Tree" is seen at Place Vendome on October 16 in Paris, France.

The American artist Paul McCarthy gets some Frenchmen aroused

The first time I saw a picture of the inflatable sculpture Tree, standing 79-ft. high (24 m.) in the Place Vendome in Paris, I thought it was an abstract version of your basic conifer – a Christmas tree reduced to its simplest signifier, a triangle-shape, like one of those pine-scented cardboard air fresheners that hangs by a string. Then I noticed the artist’s name, and I thought: “Oh, it’s by Paul McCarthy, so it’s actually a giant butt plug. In the Place Vendome.”

For those of you just entering the conversation, “butt plug” would be the term for a variety of sex toy the purpose of which is easy to figure. The term has now entered the lexicon of millions of people who didn’t know it just a week ago, largely because McCarthy’s sculpture made international news over the weekend when vandals disconnected its air supply and then cut the cables supporting it. Soon the tree toppled and had to be removed from the august plaza. By that time the sculpture, which was installed as part of Fiac, an annual Paris art fair, had become a cause célèbre on right-wing French media, where it was described as a deliberate affront to French culture. A week earlier, when the work was officially inaugurated, someone at the scene slapped the artist in the face and ran off.

Places, everybody — it’s time once again for an episode of that venerable social tradition, the art scandal. McCarthy is used to being at the center of them. A well-known Los Angeles-based artist, now 69, he’s made a career of violating taboos, opening the lid on dark boxes and wallowing, sometimes literally, in bodily fluids and excretions, or at least things that look like them. One thing we’ve known about him since his earliest videos in the ‘70s is that the man has absolutely no fear of ketchup. Or mayonnaise. Or excrement. A few years ago he produced another inflatable sculpture, sometimes called Complex Pile, that’s an unmistakable mound of the stuff. When it was displayed last year as part of an outdoor sculpture show in Hong Kong, it deflated in a sudden downpour. That’s what heavy rains will do to a pile of poop.

Artists have been fooling around with our bodily wastes and nether regions as the final frontier of the forbidden for a long time. Andy Warhol and his studio assistants made his series of Oxidation paintings by urinating on copper plates. In 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni issued 90 sealed cans that carried the words Merda d’Artista – meaning Artists’s Shit. He claimed that each of them contained just that, though no one really knows, since they soon made their way into the international art market at high prices and no one is willing to open one to see what’s inside. That would turn their expensive artwork into… well, you know.

Why would an artist go there? For Warhol, pissing was probably a way to satirize the macho mystique of the Abstract Expressionist art that Pop Art had overtaken. For Manzoni, canning his own bowel movements — if that’s what he did — was probably his way of satirizing the art market. (Mission accomplished!) McCarthy’s motives have always been more complicated. The forbidden isn’t a sideline for him. It’s his consuming obsession. His life’s mission is to facilitate the return of the repressed. Like Karen Finley, the performance artist who mobilized cultural conservatives in the early ‘90s by smearing herself with chocolate and having intimate relations with a yam – and who surely knew McCarthy’s work — his videos are full of himself and his collaborators performing acts intended to gross out the viewer and violate taboos. Last year he mounted a giant multi-character performance art and video production in Manhattan in which a woman playing Snow White was sexually abused by demented versions of the Seven Dwarfs. (McCarthy has a thing about desanctifying Disney characters.) There was also an unspeakable act involving a roast chicken.

So Tree is one more example of McCarthy’s standard operating procedure. It’s also a way of lampooning the pretensions of monumental public sculpture generally, as Claes Oldenburg did almost 40 years ago when he created that giant steel clothespin for Centre Square in Philadelphia. Except of course, that was a clothespin, with its associations of clean laundry. McCarthy’s sex toy is all about the unclean passages of the body, which he then manages to associate with Christmas, simultaneously our most sentimentalized, commercialized and even politicized holiday. (The war on Christmas!) Tree isn’t even the first time McCarthy has conflated the Yuletide with a sex toy. In 2001 he made a sculpture of Santa flourishing one for the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The grateful citizens of Rotterdam balked at putting it in front of their concert hall, its intended site, but eventually found a less exalted place for it.

Ordinarily McCarthy’s work is installed in a museum or gallery, a kind of aesthetic decontamination chamber, where it’s viewed by an audience prepared for what they’re about to experience and willing to tolerate its gross content as part of the trade off necessary to seeing whether he has something to tell us about ourselves. But when his art escapes into the public square, the reactions aren’t always so measured. An artist devoted to provocation can’t be surprised if his work provokes. This is not meant to condone an act of vandalism against art – much less slapping around the artist. But McCarthy has a sense of humor. How could you not when you come up with the idea to put a giant sex toy in the Place Vendome? He must have loved it when no less a grande bourgeoise than Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, came to its defense. “Art has its place in our streets,” she said, “and nobody will be able to chase it away”.

Actually, McCarthy has decided not to reinflate Tree, at least not in Paris. Too much grief. But doesn’t that let the vandals win, to, as the mayor put it, chase it away? I say up the ante — bring in Complex Pile next. Why should Hong Kong have all the fun?

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