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Posts Tagged ‘Robert De Niro’

Remembering the Artist-Robert De Niro Sr.The other day I watched the HBO documentary Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr., a film produced by actor Robert De Niro to better illuminate the work of his late painter father.  Robert De Niro, Sr. had been a rising star in the New York art world of the 40’s and early 50’s, working in a style that was expressionistic and abstract yet still representational, very much influenced by earlier painters such as George Rouault and Henri Matisse.

He gained some fame early with an acclaimed solo show at the Art of the Century Gallery ran by Peggy Guggenheim who later began the museums bearing the Guggenheim name.  But fame was fleeting as the art world’s flavor of the month changed from the figurative Expressionism which he maintained as the primary vehicle for his artistic voice  to Abstract Expressionism in the 50’s  to the Pop Art of the 60’s.  He was left toiling in a style that was viewed as outdated  while others who he may have viewed as inferior talents or at best equals were lifted in the spotlight, earning the fame and fortune that he sought and  thought his work deserved.  This left him bitter yet to his credit, he remained faithful to his style and his own artistic voice.

It’s an interesting portrayal of the artist in general, touching on many areas that resonate with anyone who works in a creative field and struggles to make their work visible to the world.  His resentment in having his work, which represents everything he understands himself to be,  marginalized is a feeling that many artists will find familiar.  I know that I have felt that same bitterness, that same resentment at times in my career.  But I have come to recognize that it is simply part of the deal I bargained for in becoming an artist, that my work would sometimes find itself as a flavor of the month and at other times simply exist as a possible favorite for a few.

An artist in the film explained this with a great analogy, saying that artists are like characters on a stage in a play.  The spotlight moves around the stage and sometimes falls upon you but soon passes on to the next character and that moment in the spotlight is gone.  But if you persist and stay consistent and in character, eventually the spotlight will cycle around to you again.  He felt that much of De Niro’s life was in between those moments in the spotlight.  And for some, like De Niro, that can be a very difficult thing with which to live.

For me, that was the thing I took from this film, that as an artist you cannot control, the spotlight, cannot control how your work is received or perceived.  You can only do that work that comes from your core– staying consistent and in character, true to your inner voice– and bide your time on the stage, hoping that the spotlight will once again come around.  I fit does, great.  If it doesn’t find you, you have the solace of the work itself, knowing that you have maintained your vision,  and the hope that it will find a champion, as De Niro Jr, is for his father,  in its life after you are gone.

I encourage you to watch the film.  It’s an interesting look at an interesting painter in an interesting era.

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You come across some goofy stuff when you’re looking up things.  I was looking up some info on screen icon Robert Mitchum, for instance, and ran into some really interesting nuggets that surprised me.  I’ve always been a fan of Mitchum and his distinct brand of movie masculinity, the sort of which is absent in today’s cinema.  He looked like a man, not a movie star.  Moral ambiguity was not present in his screen portrayals.  The good guys he played were good guys and the bad guys bad.  Really bad. 

He was the first Max Cady, the evil ex-con intent on destroying his prosecutor ,  in Cape Fear and brought new meaning to the word menace without the embellishments that Robert DeNiro needed in his portrayal.  Then there was his lead in the beautifully creepy The Night of the Hunter as Reverend Harry Powell, the serial killing minister with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles.  He brought a realism to these parts that took away all implausibility.  I saw both of these films as a kid and they scared the hell out of me because, unlike horror films where you could rationalize away the fear, the evil in these films could be right outside your door with a smile on his face.

Okay, he was a great actor.  But it was some of the other details of his life that caught my eye.  I discovered he was one of the “wild boys of the road” during the Great Depression, young men and women, often no more than 15 or 16 years old, who were cut loose from their families during those dire times, told that they were a burden on the family and that they must go out on their own.  It was estimated that during the peak years of the Depression, when unemployment was over 25%, that there were over 250, 000 of these wild boys riding the railroad boxcars and hitchhiking around the US seeking work and a better life.  It was a life of violence, depravation and hardship, one that is a little known footnote to the history of that time. 

After leaving this life as a hobo (the term is supposedly derived from hoe boy when migrant workers followed the crops by riding the boxcars) Mitchum found himself in the world of movies and never looked back.  He was a star of the highest magnitude for many decades until his death in 1997.  Part of his legacy are a few albums he recorded of  songs from his films,  including the title song from  Thunder Road, which was a country hit for him in the 50’s.  And no, it’s not the same song as the Springsteen song.  But my favorite album of his has to be Calypso- Is Like So…

Mitchum came to know and love the music of the Caribbean  while filming there in the 50’s.  Whether this love required him to make such an album is questionable but the fact remains, he did.  It may not be your taste but credit the guy for not giving a damn what you might  think and just doing it.

Give a listen…

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They showed the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors on television last night.  It’s always an interesting show, highlighting the careers of some of the most enduring and venerable performers and entertainers.  A virtual who’s who of our culture over the last half century.

For me, this years group of honorees was as good as it gets across the board.  You had high culture with operatic hero Grace Bumbry, jazz culture with the ever hip piano of Dave Brubeck, rock and roll with Bruce Springsteen, the world of comedy from Mel Brooks and the ultimate in dramatic acting from Robert De Niro.  What an incredible group.

One of the highlights for me was the absolute look of joy on Dave Brubeck’s face as his four sons joined in to play a medley of his compositions.  The night fell on his 89th birthday and he seems to be a testament to the longevity of those who are able to follow their passion.  I don’t know squat about jazz but what I feel is that Brubeck’s work has appeal across the spectrum of listeners out there.  There’s enough stellar playing and complicated rhythms to satisfy real jazz fans yet it’s incredibly accessible to the less savvy, like me.  Great stuff.

Of course, the other was the tribute to Bruce Springsteen.  I’ve been a big fan for well over 30 years and it’s been interesting to see how he has transformed into an elder statesman of  popular music.  I think that Jon Stewart hit it right on the head for me when he spoke of Bruce’s willingness to empty the tank for his audience every night as being the thing that most struck him and influenced him as a young fan.  I know seeing Bruce when I was younger made me hungry to find something, anything, that would make me feel that same passion and commitment in my own life.  Something where, like Bruce, I could give everything I had.  The medium wasn’t important.  It was all about the spirit of the effort, the total dedication to your own vision.  That is always in the back of mind when I see him, even today.

I remember writing a letter in the 70’s (long before e-mail) to Dave Marsh, the Rolling Stone editor who had just written an early bio of Bruce, describing how the music affected me.  I was working in a factory and couldn’t see anything on the horizon but when I listened to Bruce I was no longer a loser, a factory drone.  I had hope.  It was very much how Jon Stewart described his own experience.  Marsh responded with a lovely handwritten letter, that I still prize today, telling me how he was moved by my letter.  That, too, served as inspiration to search further, to give more.

Thanks, Bruce, for the inspiration.  You deserve this honor…

Here’s nice version of My City of Ruins from night’s show, performed by Eddie Vedder.  Enjoy.

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