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Tuesday 26 June 2018

Wagner, Hofmann, Loos – The Furniture Design of Viennese Modernity, Imperial Furniture Collection, Vienna, Austria 9.5* out of 10

This exhibition at the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna shows the protagonists as furniture and interior designers in the context of a network of intellectuals and business people who furthered their development by giving and getting them commissions.  Open until 28 October 2018, it is the most enjoyable and interesting exhibition I have seen so far this year on Vienna around 1900.  If you live in Vienna or plan to visit the Austrian capital, don’t miss it.

This year, many museums in Vienna are putting on special exhibitions in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the Habsburg Empire and the death of several important representatives of “Viennese Modernity”. These include painters like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and architects/designers like Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser. 

Internationally, the painters are very well known. The architects and designers who developed a Viennese Style contemporary with Art Nouveau and the English Arts and Crafts Movement, less so. Yet their aesthetic has remained influential well into our time.

An excellent exhibition at Vienna’s Imperial Furniture Collection, which concentrates on three architects of Viennese Modernity, Otto Wagner, Josef Hofmann and Adolf Loos now allows visitors to Vienna to get to know them and their furniture and interior designs in the context of Viennese cultural intellectual and fashion life of the time.

The exhibition shows stunning examples of furniture and interior design by the three protagonists, presents the people who commissioned them to design their apartments and tells the stories of companies such as Thonet, who turned beautiful designs into reality. It shows the networks of Viennese salons and intellectuals in which Wagner, Hofmann and Loos moved and thanks to which they obtained many of their most important commissions. These include such interesting characters as the Austrian writer and cultural critic Karl Kraus, Bertha Zuckerkandl a journalist who kept an influential literary salon and Eugenie “Genia” Schwarzwald, a writer and pioneer of education for women in Austria. A vivid picture of a striving future-oriented rather optimistic Vienna emerges, in which mainly Jewish intellectuals and business people are involved in commissioning work from the non-Jewish Wagner, Hofmann and Loos. Sadly a few years later, many of their clients will perish in the Holocaust, others manage to flee Vienna in time to escape this fate and go into exile.

Apart from wonderful examples of interiors and pieces of furniture, supplemented by contemporary photographs, the panels are full of stories and quotes that enlighten, entertain and create a vivid context for the exhibited pieces and show cooperation and competition among the protagonists on a very human level. All the panels are in German and English. The quality of the translation is excellent.

This exhibition is the most enjoyable interesting I have seen this year on Vienna around 1900. It is a pity, that the well-researched and beautifully written accompanying catalogue is only available in German.

The exhibition at the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna is open until 28 October 2018. If you live in Vienna or plan to visit the Austrian capital before that date, don’t miss it.

Unfortunately, like the accompanying catalogue, the website of the exhibition is only in German but all the panels in the exhibition are in English as well as German.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Tully, Film 2018, written by Diablo Cody directed by Jason Reitman 8.5* out of 10

"Tully" succeeds as a personal drama with funny moments that puts the spotlight on the experience of a woman in an educated middle-class household in the US trying to raise kids and manage a family. Charlize Theron's understated performance as Marlo,  a wife and mother on the edge of a nervous breakdown, trying to hold it together is outstanding.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingstone) live in the suburbs near New York City. They are in their late 30s and have two young children Emmy (Maddie Dixon –Poirier) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has mild behavioural problems, and a third child is on the way. Like many middle-class families Marlo and Drew are just about managing financially. Drew is absorbed in his work project, while Marlo is struggling with her pregnancy and running the household. When Marlo’s financially successful brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a “night-nanny” to help Marlo through the first weeks of the baby’s arrival, she first says no, but later changes her mind. Tully (McKenzie Davies), the young attractive night-nanny arrives and not only takes care the new baby but also of Marlo. Thanks to Tully taking care of her physically and spiritually, Marlo for the first time in a long while has time to take a breath and think about herself and assess her situation in a new light. As Marlo revisits her life and younger self she becomes ever more confident and adventurous; but gradually her initiatives start to cross conventional lines and not only Drew is starting to question where all this will lead….

"Tully" succeeds as a personal drama with funny moments that puts the spotlight on the experience of a woman in an educated middle-class household in the US trying to raise kids and manage a family. Meanwhile her husband struggles to provide the financial means, a good university education and an expert-level white collar job. This being an American film, it simultaneously questions and celebrates the virtue of self-reliance rather than engaging in social criticism let alone in questioning of the economic system. In Europe, one cannot help but compare the situation Marlo finds herself in, with women in countries such as Sweden where generous provisions for parental leave are designed to give both mothers and fathers sufficient time and money to organise family life in a calmer and more balanced manner. 

“Tully” stands out above the more standard Hollywood fare, as an unusual, intelligent and suspenseful story. Yet, like Hollywood often does very well, it successfully bundles humour, drama and emotion. Strong writing, excellent acting performances and competent direction combine to hold the audience attention and emotion from beginning to end through some moments of uncomfortable viewing. Charlize Theron's understated performance as Marlo, a wife and mother on the edge of a nervous breakdown, trying to hold it together is outstanding, and McKenzie Davis is excellent as her not quite perfect young helper in the title role. “Tully” is worth a visit to the cinema.

Friday 8 June 2018

The Cleaners, Documentary Film 2017, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, 8.5* out of 10

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the social media. By focusing on the individuals in the frontline of examining extreme content they show the human drama and thereby raise the systemic issues in an accessible and impressive way. 

The Cleaners in the title of this documentary are the people on the frontline of social media who view posts, photos and videos and decide whether they need to remove them. To make this decision they view content which has been identified by some Artificial Intelligence software as potentially problematic and refer to policies they have received from the clients of their employer, among them Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google-Alphabet). These global market-leaders of social networking have outsourced these task, but by ordering it to be done, they have explicitly assumed a certain editorial responsibility for. Their software, policy manual, and the outsourcer they have chosen are there to ensure that certain types of content posted by anyone of their billions of users will be removed if it is “unacceptable”. Examples of the unacceptable are child pornography, terror propaganda, lots of types of lewd nakedness and certain forms of lèse majesté, particularly if images or representations of prominent figures involve lewd nakedness or sex.

The job of the cleaners involves being relentlessly assaulted by the most brutal and disgusting pictures and videos. From child rape to ISIS beheadings, a cleaner must view thousands of disgusting pictures every day and decide which of these they need to remove and why. 

The go-to country for finding an outsourcing company to do this job are the Philippines. One can only speculate that it is the combination of low wage cost together with its “Christian values” of this former Spanish and US colony that has something to do with the Filipinos and Filipinas being considered the most suitable work-force for this task. The cleaners who are recruited are mainly smart though, well educated, young people who are in the front-line of the most popular social media being paid USD 1.--  to USD 2.-- per hour.

The film presents five former “cleaners” who, despite the non-disclosure agreement they have signed with their former employers, articulately explain what they did, why they did it, how it made them feel and what impact performing this task had on them in the long run.

The social media giants and the outsourcing companies are secretive about the “cleaning” aspect of their operations; therefore, the pioneering work done by Block, Riesewieck and their team to bring to light how this work is performed in the frontline and by whom, is not only a scoop, but also a valuable contribution to the important debates concerning social media, fake news, freedom of expression and its limits. By focusing on the cleaners and their experiences and giving them ample room to present themselves, warts and all, the filmmakers have made a documentary that feels like a psychological drama. This approach makes their documentary interesting for a very wide audience beyond those who are interested in social media. In fact, it shows how ordinary people with whom we can identify and empathise try to cope under extreme conditions. Some of this makes for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing.

Block and Riesewieck have also found former mid-level managers from the social media giants who speak very eloquently and clearly about real live examples of the challenges they faced and how they tried to cope with what often were unprecedented situations. The testimony of Nicole Wong formerly responsible for policy in this area at Google and Twitter lays out the complex issues she was faced with very well.

Their documentary is least interesting when they show examples of people and cases who generate the posts that the cleaners must deal with, but thankfully this part of the documentary is not overlong. The case for Facebook posts containing hate-speech being mainly responsible for the escalation of the conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Myanmar was not convincingly made,

With The Cleaners, Block and Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the new media. By not adding a commentary voice, they avoid telling the viewer what to think, thereby making the impact of what the protagonists tell us even stronger and more direct. The research behind the documentary cannot have been easy and is clearly of high quality. The Cleaners is a remarkable first effort and one can hope for more great documentaries from these filmmakers. 

With the rapid development and convergence of new technologies (Artificial Intelligence, picture and film editing tools) the task of the human cleaners may soon be replaced by software while the challenge may soon be overtaken by ever greater manipulative technologies used to appeal to people’s emotions.  Nevertheless, The Cleaners is the timely product of the kind of documentary journalism which should be reinforced and multiplied. Organisations to which film-makers can turn for support (financial, technical, commissioning and more) have a crucial role to play here. Independent Public Broadcasters like the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF and the BBC in the UK have played an important role in making this documentary possible. They and the others are to be congratulated and supported for successfully fulfilling they’re role of critically examining important political, social and economic developments in an accessible and suspenseful way.

The Cleaners is a documentary, that holds the viewer’s full attention, informs you, makes you think and will stay with long after the final credits. Highly recommended.

Saturday 2 June 2018

Heartburn, Novel (1983) and Audiobook (2013), written by Nora Ephron, performed by Meryl Streep 9* out of 10

In Heartburn Nora Ephron worked deep hurt and an awful sinking feeling into a hilarious book with many pithy observations and useful cooking recipes. What can be more compelling than reading this book? Listening to the audiobook of Meryl Streep performing it as a soliloquy.

In Heartburn Rachel Samstat tells the story of the break-up of her second marriage. Rachel is a food writer and her second husband is a journalist in the Washington of the 1980s. The Washington of the time after the story told in the recent movie The Post, the Washington of the time after the story told in the not so recent movie All the Presidents Men: post Nixon, post-Watergate, post the heroics of the two journalists who unravelled the Nixon White House, Edward Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But that is not what Heartburn is about. What Heartburn is about, is a woman being left in the lurch by her husband. 7-months pregnant, she is fighting the battle against letting herself become a victim for the rest of her life using the weapons at her disposal: an acute sense of observation honed by a successful career in journalism and a great sense of humour, occasionally self-deprecating, often hilarious, always from the heart. 

What makes Heartburn stand out is that with all the journalism and with all the humour, the deep hurt and that awful sinking feeling of “how do I ever get out of this one without going into a never-ending spiral of bitterness and decline” is palpably there behind the truly funny and hugely entertaining telling of the story. 

So, what can be more compelling than reading this book? Listening to Meryl Streep performing it as a soliloquy. And this enjoyment can be yours, if you get Heartburn performed by Meryl Streep in audiobook form. 

A few words about the genre Audiobook, which and which has enriched my cultural life after I discovered it, about a year ago. I always get the paperback or Kindle version, as well as the audiobook; sometimes I read along while I listen, or perhaps I listen while I read. At other times, I read, then listen (often while pottering about the home, doing my laundry, preparing breakfast), then read again. An audio book performance can be much more than having a book read to you; it can be an art-form in its own right. Heartburn performed by Meryl Streep is a case in point.

Although a novel, Heartburn is quite closely based on true events. In her second marriage Nora Ephron was married to Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein / Watergate fame) who had an affair with Margaret Jay the very tall wife of the then British Ambassador to the United States and daughter of the former British Prime Minister James Callaghan. But that, although considered very interesting at the time, is very much by the by as far as what makes this novel and Meryl Streep’s performance a great read and listen.

After writing Heartburn, Nora Ephron went on to write great screenplays of romantic Hollywood comedies, including Heartburn (starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson), When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail. She died much too soon of Leukaemia in 2012. The 2017 film The Post (starring Meryl Streep) was dedicated to her memory. 


Audio Book:

Nora Ephron