"Giants in the City": Inflatable Sculptures at Bayfront Park

Bayfront Park
Photo by Richard Cavalleri/Shutterstock

When Alejandro Mendoza flies, his carry-on luggage includes the usual items: a toothbrush, spare eyeglasses, a 35-foot sculpture.

As the creator of a nomadic public art exhibit called "Giants in the City," the Cuban-born, Miami-based artist totes massive inflatable sculptures to urban spaces around the world. But when there isn't a show in Monaco, Aruba, or Mexico City, the sculptures — a nearly 50-foot arm grasping for downtown towers, a cloud pulled down from the sky and trapped beneath a net, and others — are deflated, wrapped in cling film, and piled under a desk in the backroom of Mendoza's Little River studio. They look like a cross between forgotten wash-and-fold bundles and steamer trunks from some lumpy alternate universe plastered with airline destination tags.

"I began in 2008 with a single 18-foot sculpture that I thought was massive," Mendoza says. It was a large baby bottle upholstered in cow spots and squirting a slick of milk that visitors could lounge on. "Now, though, we have giants that are taller than four-story buildings."

His studio has enough paint spattered on the floor that he could probably pry the tiles loose and sell them to collectors. A haze of incense and Salem smoke hangs low among the knickknacks that are raw materials for his mixed-media wall sculptures. ("No one wants to fill a house with coffee tables, but homes are made of walls," he explains.) There's a shelf with glasses — more shot glasses than any other kind — for visitors to use, and the front door is blocked by a pile of white and gray fabric.

"I love this," Mendoza says. "Look at what it is." He taps a thick, tanned finger on a photograph of a white-and-gray pyramid small enough that it could hide under the mound of fabric and no one would be the wiser. Though some of the "Giants" are Mendoza's own designs, most are collaborations with artists who need Mendoza's technical knowledge to turn an idea into, say, a colossal love seat that can hold 15 people and requires a ladder. In the case of the pyramid, it will be filled with lights of shifting colors and intensities.

"It's really tricky to design something soft," Mendoza explains. "You have to control air to get a shape, and flat shapes don't exist when you fill something with air. Convex shapes don't exist. And sometimes you need to design something inside the Giant, a smaller Giant, to get the shape you want."

Mendoza and his artists have faced some unusual design challenges. Allison Kotzig might be best known in Miami for her dioramas of ravenous, anthropomorphized vaginas. It was a subject to which she had hoped to return for this weekend's exhibition in Bayfront Park. The show is part of DWNTWN Art Days, a three-day festival of more than 125 tours, panels, and often-unclassifiable art events held in downtown Miami and sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority.

"The original idea was for it to be something really colorful with moving legs. Because it was so big, people would just think it was a spider, not a giant scary vagina monster," she says wistfully, sounding farther away than her studio in Slovakia, where we reached her by phone.

Alas, the limitations of the materials and physics prevented families from picnicking in the shade of a looming legged sex organ. So Kotzig looked elsewhere, to the ubiquitous hedges she has seen in Palm Beach. Her massive inflatable hedge "deals with the barriers between social classes — barriers that not only keep people from looking in but also prevent the people who live inside them from looking out."

Kotzig has subverted that barrier by cutting a window into her hedge and, at least in the Monaco edition of "Giants in the City," children in particular enjoyed climbing on and through it.

"With most public art," Mendoza says, "you know it is expensive. Usually it's very heavy. They are made to outlast you, and it's easy to be afraid of them. And they are 'important,' so you can't touch them.

"But the first reaction people have to the Giants is to touch them. It's fabric and air, and the air is the same air you breathe. I think they remind you of when you were a kid, of balloons and balls and the things you play with. And now you're bigger, but you're in front of an even bigger toy and you can play with that."

From arrival onsite to a full installation, Mendoza is now practiced enough to install a dozen Giants in less than three hours. Speed is important to him because it means someone passing an empty Bayfront Park on her way to work might walk through during lunch and find it magically full of strange and colorful shapes. As a contrast, think of Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer's 340-ton boulder that took 11 nights and an estimated $10 million to install in Los Angeles. Parties gathered by the roadside to toast the rock and take pictures with it as it passed.

"The Giants can talk about ideas without the weight of history," Kotzig says, "as opposed to something permanent or in a city square that might have its own importance."

T. Wheeler Castillo, an artist and codirector of Turn-Based Press, will lead art walking tours this weekend that are, like "Giants in the City," part of the annual DWNTWN Art Days. One of the stops he'll make is at George Sánchez-Calderón's CenTrust, a reclaimed 15,000-pound chunk of granite with the scandalized savings and loan's logo carved into it that Sánchez-Calderón installed on a downtown sidewalk late last year.

"It was being saved to use as granite for a countertop, but George, knowing about its connection to this really dark part of Miami history, decided to use it for something else, as a signifier," Castillo says. "It was a piece of our history before, and now it is becoming a piece of our city in a new way."

Back in his studio, as a cigarette burns in an ashtray, Mendoza uses the hem of his old skateboard shirt to clean a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He enjoys that his installations encourage people to form ad hoc communities and believes their literal and figurative lightness allows them to engage people in a way wholly separate from what one has come to expect of large-scale public art.

"In Aruba, I remember a lot of people sitting on the grass with their backs against the Giants, reading or chatting on their phones," Mendoza says. "They just wanted to be close to them, I think."

Many of the sculptures inspire interactivity. One by Cuban artist Angel Vapor includes an interior chamber that visitors can lounge in as the blower whips air around them. Miami artist Yamel Molerio has created a 45-foot-long, 15-foot-tall wall designed to be tagged and painted by street artists as it travels around the world.

"You just need to turn off the blower, and the landscape is going to be the same as it was before," Mendoza says. "We're so impermanent, but hopefully, we are permanent in your mind."

He pauses to exhale cigarette smoke and watch the plume change shape in his studio's lights.

"When I visit Bayfront Park during the rest of the year and the Giants aren't there," he says, "it's missing something. Right now, it's empty."

"I-95 South" Art Show Combines NYC and MIA

Evan Robarts grew up in Miami Beach and moved to New York more than a decade ago to pursue a degree in sculpture. These days, the 30-year-old artist has a studio in Brooklyn and often visits his hometown. This provides the perfect vantage point to view the staggering changes to the landscapes of two of America's premier art scenes.

"The Miami Beach I grew up in has changed completely," he observes. "And the same commercialization and changes are happening now in Brooklyn... I feel displaced and caught somewhere in the middle."

Robarts' sense of displacement and long family history in South Beach — his grandparents owned a local hotel in the 1950s — is reflected in an untitled work he created during a recent residency in Miami that will be on view this week at Lincoln Road's ArtCenter/South Florida, which is presenting "I-95 South." The group show pairs three Miami and four New York artists ranging in age from 24 to 33.

The exhibit, which also features locals Johnny Laderer, Gustavo Oviedo, and Luis Pinto and New York's Tyler Healy, Dean Levin, and Kyle Yanagihara, offers a unique opportunity to compare the work of emerging talent in both cities.

"These artists' works are influenced by their environment — whether by the underground art and music scene, the urban landscapes of Brooklyn or Wynwood, or their proximity to each other within the walls of their studio," says ArtCenter's artistic director, Susan Caraballo.

Robarts' part of the exhibit features three boogie boards he purchased at a Lincoln Road tourist trap. He cut out the middles and inserted flat-screen monitors. Each one loops a short video taken with a cell phone. One of them pictures the scummy surface of the Gowanus Canal, which is located near his Brooklyn studio and is one of America's most polluted waterways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Another video shows the glossy floors of the midtown Miami Target store gleaming under fluorescent lights in a way that suggests rippling waves. And the third depicts palm fronds gently swaying in the breeze.

"South Beach has become consumed by the commercial tourist and nightlife industry, and much of its history has been glossed and developed over," Robarts says. "I shot the video of the canal near my studio, which has caused some of the highest cancer statistics in the nation, to show how unchecked development destroys the environment, which ironically is what is happening here as well."

Growing up, Robarts was fascinated with archaeology. His grandparents, Martin and Goldie Goldwyn, owned the Century Hotel on Ocean Drive at Second Street during the '50s, and his uncles Harry Pere and Max Katz owned and operated the Congress and Ocean Blue hotels on the beach from the '40s until the '60s, the artist says.

His mother, Phyllis, is a preservationist who has lived in the same Sunset Islands home the family has owned for the past 50 years. He left town to attend New York's Pratt Institute, but was given a recent chance to work here when the art center granted him a residency.

One of Robarts' sculptures now showing in ArtCenter's main gallery, titled Student Body, was fashioned from found desk chairs and reconfigured to appear like a menacing black insect scuttling across the gallery floor. Today, he often uses found objects in his sculpture. The urban areas where he scrawled graffiti during college have been a source of the unusual materials he often employs.

"I still return to the same locations, no longer to do graffiti but to excavate and pull things out from their grave into my studio," Robarts says.

"The factors that determine what I take back are entirely aesthetic, materials that not only have patina but whose structure and color strike a nerve. Bike frames, mufflers, balls, floor boards — the list is infinite. There is a grace inherent in decay."

ArtCenter is also showing "On Location: Artha Project," the result of Robarts' weeklong residency as well as those of Healy and Levin. Additional works appear at the center's nearby Lincoln Road space, Project 924. The Artha Project is a private residency program located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the trio works together back home. At ArtCenter, the threesome was given carte blanche to experiment.

"The time we spent at the Project 924 space was really exciting because I didn't have a prepared body of work to exhibit," Robarts says. "Tyler, Dean, and I came up with the show a week before the opening. No gallery in its right mind would ever allow this, but ACSF takes chances, and I think that's what sets them apart."

On a wall across from Robarts' sculpture is Miami artist Gustavo Oviedo's Periodic Table, a painting on a recycled canvas featuring strange hieroglyphics. The bottom section of the work, which was created over a four-month stretch, depicts what appears to be mutant marine life. "I finished it after I bought my first boat and was scuba diving to look for objects to use in my work," mentions the 32-year-old local, who grew up in South America and France. "These days I use my boat, a 16-foot runabout I call the No Rush, as my studio and have become more focused on shooting underwater video and collecting discarded objects I find in the ocean from Haulover Beach to Key Largo."

At ArtCenter, Oviedo, who paints his trademark symbols on murals in Little River and Wynwood, is also exhibiting Coladas, a sculpture created from Styrofoam containers of café cubano he downed while creating the painting in the show. "I drank all those coladas while making the painting at my old Bakehouse studio," Oviedo laughs. "After a while, they were stacked up everywhere, and I became curious over the possibility of making a 'residual' piece that I could connect with the painting in a show."

Also interesting at ArtCenter's main gallery is the work of Miami's Johnny Laderer, who's originally from Bartow, Florida. He used tennis balls cut in half as a mold to create faux oranges, limes, and lemons. They reference the fruit stands he encountered while driving through Central Florida. Some farmers, he says, use fake produce in front so the real citrus doesn't spoil. "The land, the sea, and the history of the people," he says, "are what inspire me."

"Time" at the Bass Highlights Banned Books

The Bass
Photo by Zachary Balber

Manny Prieres isn't a big literary guy. The 40-year-old graphic designer and artist was born in Spain after his parents relocated there from Cuba. As a teenager, he attended Southwest Miami High School, where he often painted album covers on jean jackets for friends and developed his drawing skills.

But more recently, he's taken to drawing literary works — from the Bible to The Satanic Verses — that have been banned, burned, or considered controversial. His work captures the spirit of the age that spawned these outlawed classics.

Now Prieres' striking drawings of these taboo tomes are on view at the Bass Museum of Art as part of "Time." The new show presents international and local talent exploring interpretations of time through projects that feature everything from painting, photography, video, sculpture, and objects of design to performance.

"The 29 drawings are lined up in chronological order," Prieres describes. "In that timeline, you will see The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1984, Howl, The Satanic Verses, etc., and automatically see a timeline of change and revolution. You can see the challenges we faced at that particular moment and how ideas that once were considered dangerous become cultural sublimation."

Isolated in a first-floor gallery at the Bass, Prieres' solo project is called "It Was a Pleasure to Burn." The works, created in shades of black, are the size of the dust jackets or first-edition covers that inspired them. They explore notions of censorship, postwar counterculture, the history of printing, and the power of mass communication.

At first, they appear machine-made, but closer inspection betrays the artist's hand. He creates his drawings using graphite, gouache, and board, resulting in starkly elegant and layered surfaces. Prieres says the dying craftsmanship of bookmaking also influences his work. He creates each work in an edition of five, all precisely hand-drawn with an impeccable draftsman's eye.

"Some of these books deal with religious mysticism, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, war, and politics," he explains. "I have read about ten of the books. My favorite in the series are 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World. These books each have to do with a dystopic society where fascists seek to control the populace. In them, you'll find parallels with how the NSA is spying on Americans today."

Prieres, who approaches the books he appropriates as if an anthropologist doing field work to study contemporary society, says his father, Manuel Sr., is an author who has penned several volumes about Cuban exile politics. "He was very involved in regional politics and was often invited to speak as an authority on El Exilio on Radio Mambí and write articles for the local press," the artist recollects.

Prieres says a childhood encounter with Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book left a lasting impression. "When I was about 11, my cousin Peter saw Hoffman's book in a bookstore and stole it," Prieres laughs. "When he first showed it to me, the book was still controversial and a little scary. Hoffman wrote about scamming the government, planting marijuana, how to get food stamps, that sort of stuff. I now own a first edition of it."

The artist chose black as the primary color for his drawing because of the raft of cultural connotations. "It conjures many associations. First there is the whole blacklisted, blackballed reference... and then there's the good-guys-wear-white-hats and bad-guys-wear-black-hats thing, down to skin color."

Prieres points to volumes such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Howl, noting that both were once taboo but now are an integral part of the American literary canon. "When Allen Ginsberg wrote [Howl] at the beginning of the sexual revolution, those who were seen walking with a copy would be labeled perverts because of the poet's homosexuality," he says. "Today most of the nation is on the way to accepting same-sex marriage."

Prieres, who is one of a handful of local artists who moved to Los Angeles last year, says he rarely considers politics when choosing books to draw. Instead, he says, he bases his choices on how subcultures used them to convey a message.

"I'm really interested in reading Revolutionary Suicide next by Huey P. Newton, the cofounder of the Black Panther Party. Here you have a group of people organizing stuff back in the early 1970s that was completely stifled by the U.S. government. Now look at us today with a black president. Who would have thought it?"

(More Than) 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

LoanDepot Park
Courtesy of the GMCVB
There are 81 reasons not to visit Marlins Park. They’re called home games. Until Jeffrey Loria sells the team to a group of owners who give a damn about winning, the Fish will almost certainly continue to swim in Major League Baseball’s pond of relative obscurity. Lucky for us, the taxpayers responsible for the ballpark’s construction, Marlins Park (1380 NW Sixth St., Miami) has become one of the city’s premier entertainment venues. And this Saturday, it’ll become the city’s largest pub when the inaugural Miami Beer Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. More than 50 breweries from around the world will be onsite, serving endless samples of the finest craft beers from around the planet. “The best thing about our festival is that we are pushing for every brewery to send reps for their beer,” MBF promoter Dan Silverstein told New Times in November. “That way, not only will you be enjoying the best every brewery has to offer but you can also be educated about the different types of brew and what goes into making them.” And don’t forget about the food trucks. “Together with the best food trucks in Miami and the unique setting of being under the retracted roof of Marlins Stadium in the heart of Little Havana,” Silverstein says, “there is no beer fest in Miami like this.”
Sat., Jan. 19, 6 p.m., 2013

Squeaking by with an Obama-size victory margin, Paul Thomas Anderson's thrillingly strange The Master tops 2012's Voice Film Critics' Poll, ahead of Kathryn Bigelow's electrifying hunt-for-bin Laden procedural Zero Dark Thirty. Although set some 60 years apart, both films offer portraits of a traumatized America trying to reassert itself in the aftermath of a grueling war, the button-pushing "processing" sessions of the former echoed in the "tough interrogations" of the latter. Both filmmakers are also prior poll winners — Anderson in 2007 for There Will Be Blood and Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. But the true victor here is arguably Megan Ellison, the billionaire's daughter who financed The Master and ZDT despite their length, complexity, and the spotty box office records of their uncompromising directors. May she live long and prosper.

View the 2012 Village Voice Film Poll results.

In an even closer contest, only a single point separated Bigelow's film from third-place finisher Holy Motors, an ecstatic return to form by French critics darling Leos Carax that emerged prize-less at the Cannes Film Festival but here easily trounced the official Cannes winner, Michael Haneke's Amour (#6). Starring the chameleonic Denis Lavant (who placed second to The Master's Joaquin Phoenix in our Best Actor contest) as a shape-shifting man of mystery who cycles through a dozen identities over the course of a single day, Holy Motors was also one of several strong finishers that directly referenced the filmmaking or film-viewing experience in a year when critics (in these pages and elsewhere) continued to debate whether cinema was dead, dying, or perhaps being reborn.

Whereas Carax's freewheeling sketch film grew out of his inability to find financing for a litany of stalled projects, Jafar Panahi's equally ingenious This Is Not a Film (#5, and winner of Best Documentary) was inspired by a different sort of artistic paralysis: the 20-year filmmaking ban imposed on the director by Iranian authorities in 2010. Shot for a few thousand euros on a "prosumer" digital camera and ultimately smuggled out of Iran on a zip drive hidden inside a cake, Panahi's whatsit (digifilm? unfilm?) could be considered the antithesis of The Master, which Anderson chose to shoot in the nearly extinct 70mm film format long ago used for road show engagements of big-budget musicals and wartime epics. (In order to screen The Master properly, some cinemas had to renovate their projection booths.)

Meanwhile, Hungarian master Béla Tarr issued his self-professed cinematic swan song, The Turin Horse (#8), on black-and-white 35mm film stock, featuring apocalyptic images of windswept desolation that at once recalled D.W. Griffith and anticipated "Frankenstorm" Sandy. Another celluloid purist, Portugal's Miguel Gomes, whipped up a heady brew of old-school cinephilia and postcolonial reckoning in the half-silent, all-intoxicating Tabu (#10). Also placing in the top ten were Wes Anderson's return to live-action filmmaking (and his biggest hit since The Royal Tenenbaums), Moonrise Kingdom (#4), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's nocturnal policier Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (#7), and Steven Spielberg's microcosmic biopic Lincoln (#9), which complemented ZDT in its study of the slow, serpentine crawl of progress through the corridors of American government.

Presumed Oscar heavyweights Life of Pi and Les Misérables finished a distant #32 and #56, while Peter Jackson's 48-frames-per-second The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey earned just one mention — as 2012's worst film.

As usual, the official results tell only a partial tale. If we fire up the venerable Passiondex™, ­J. Hoberman's patented algorithm for divining the films that elicited the most fervent feelings (pro and con) from the electorate, a new hierarchy begins to emerge. Taking into account only the weighted ballots (76 of the 86 cast), the Passiondex multiplies a film's average score by the percentage of voters who deemed it either the #1 or #2 best film of the year or chose it as the worst. Applying this Hobermath™ to the top 20 films in this poll, Quentin Tarantino's exuberant slavery burlesque, Django Unchained (#17), immediately leapfrogs to the top of the list, followed by Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, The Master, and Zero Dark Thirty. Also getting a major Passiondex boost, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (#16) rises to sixth place, and Jacques Audiard's maritime melodrama Rust and Bone (#20) moves up to seventh. But if the Passiondex calculation is extended to the entire poll, a most unlikely "winner" emerges: comedian Bobcat Gold­thwait's reality-TV sendup God Bless America (#53), cited by four of its five voters as either the single best or single worst movie of 2012. Add it to your Netflix queue and decide for yourself.

In other results, Rachel Weisz repeated her New York Film Critics Circle win as Best Actress in Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea (#11), while The Master racked up additional victories in the Director and Supporting Actress (Amy Adams) columns and Tony Kushner notched a win for his Lincoln screenplay. Despite having its share of vocal detractors, Benh Zeitlin's post-Katrina fable Beasts of the Southern Wild (#13) easily claimed Best First Feature. But the man of the hour — and the year — is clearly Matthew McConaughey, who bested Lincoln's Tommy Lee Jones in the Supporting Actor race as the serenading strip-club impresario in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike (#25) and also earned votes for his work in Richard Linklater's Bernie (#18) and William Friedkin's Killer Joe (#33), as well as multiple mentions in our Breakthrough of the Year category.

Back in 2008, reviewing McConaughey's performance in the limp adventure comedy Fool's Gold, I wrote that "there's something depressing about watching a 40-something refugee from a Jimmy Buffett concert spend two hours of screen time trying to get rich quick." In 2012, though, the actor was nothing short of exhilarating each and every time he appeared onscreen, and there is more to come in 2013, with the promise of a juicy supporting role in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and the lead in a longtime pet project, The Dallas Buyers Club, about a homophobic Texas electrician diagnosed with AIDS. That alone feels like a reason to believe in the future of movies.

View the 2012 Village Voice Film Poll results.

O Cinema Wynwood
Courtesy of O Cinema
There are plenty of reasons O Cinema earned the distinction of Best Art-House Cinema in New Times’ annual readers’ poll for the second consecutive year. Sure, O Cinema brings unique films from around the world to its screens in Wynwood and Miami Shores. But it also supports Miamians who make movies. Case in point: I’m Not Gonna Move to L.A., the monthly film event O Cinema hosts with the Miami Indie Film Club. At these gatherings, members’ short films are screened and judged; audience members have the chance to ask questions of directors, editors, and cinematographers; and prizes are awarded to the most outstanding shorts. In this world of overpriced cineplexes, $12 for one movie looks even more ridiculous compared to a mere $9 for ten films plus a party atmosphere and plenty of Miami style. This month’s I’m Not Gonna Move to L.A. takes place Wednesday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Call 305-571-9970 or visit indiefilmclubmiami.com or o-cinema.org.
Wed., July 3, 6:30-9:30 p.m., 2013

4chan Camgirl Loli-chan Grows Up

Loli-chan is a modern-day Rapunzel locked inside a South Miami fortress of rust and weeds on a dead-end street. She rarely leaves a guest house that sits in a jungle-like yard overrun with six peacocks and half as many junked cars. Ten paces away is her parents' place. Wooden boards and strips of tin foil cover its windows.

This damsel in distress is a chubby-cheeked, blue-haired, five-foot-and-a-quarter-inch, 20-year-old womanchild in a push-up bra and jeans with stylish zippers that zigzag across her curvaceous frame. She doesn't drive and has never lived apart from her folks, except for an ill-fated year at a private university in North Florida.

Loli and I are chatting on a quiet Friday afternoon when, suddenly, her Razr phone lights up blue. Her half-moon eyes turn to dinner plates when she pulls it to her dainty ear.

"We don't have guests in our house, and you can't either!" her mom shouts in Colombian-accented Spanish so loud I can hear it. Then she tells her daughter this place is no "putería" — whorehouse.

Loli gulps a glass of Smirnoff Ice Green Apple Bite and tries to calm herself. Her full lips swallow the tears as she translates: "I was told to end my social engagement and that I wasn't allowed to have people over."

Standing nearby is her boyfriend, who cooks a mean eggplant Parmesan and tidies their shared space. Lucien has short, strawberry-blond hair, wears a "Don't Tread on Me" tank top over his slender frame, and punctuates almost every sentence with "bro." The 22-year-old explains that Loli's dad is probably paranoid because the last time she invited a friend over, it ended badly. After taking a particularly nasty brand of hallucinogenic known as 2-CE, Loli ended up in the hospital, he says.

Now visitors are infrequent and unwelcome. "They have a lot of handguns, bro," Lucien says of Loli's mom and dad. "You should probably leave."

The real reason for the parental paranoia is this: Loli is a pedophile celebrity who began cultivating a following when she posted photos of herself online at age 13. She made her name on 4chan, the famously anarchic bulletin board that turned 10 years old this past September. She befriended hundreds of men who would correspond with her daily over Instant Messenger. A few tricked her into taking her clothes off, which increased her popularity. At one point, a handful of fansites existed solely to share her images.

She is what's known online as a Chan — one of maybe 20 girls who became famous in the mid-'00s for posting photos of themselves on image boards. Many men developed a lifelong obsession with the youngest Chan, whom they named after the book Lolita. Although some of these young women have gone on to achieve mainstream or cult fame, Loli now spends her days living a cloistered and fearful existence, stripping for dimes in front of her webcam.

When her parents gave her an HP computer at age 11, no one could have predicted she would end up suspended from her Catholic school, committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital's psych ward, and resorting to sex work as an adult.

Loli isn't a big drinker — and rarely imbibes anything with an alcohol content above 5 percent — but now she's uncharacteristically downing her third beverage in 15 minutes. She's doing it for courage.

Slumped over on a cream-colored couch, she admits how the whole mess began: "I used to make friends over the internet because I couldn't have friends in real life."

As I head to my car, an aged beagle with a Ping-Pong-ball-size tumor behind its right ear follows me down the meandering driveway. Even the peacocks jut their heads threateningly. Although I've agreed to return, the message is clear: Stay away from Loli-chan.

Before there were sexpots, there were coffee pots. The first internet celebrity was a first-come/first-served coffee machine shared by computer scientists at Cambridge University in England. The faculty members who sat next to the machine could smell a new pot as soon as it was prepared, which allowed them to bogart the brew.

In 1991, the faculty set up a camera that would allow people sitting in other rooms to view the coffee pot remotely. They aimed to level the playing field. But after they posted a link to the Trojan Room Coffee Cam online, it received 2 million hits.

It was proof that people will watch anything, even boiling water.

The first legitimate camgirl came five years later. Jennifer Ringley was a pretty blond Pennsylvanian who set up a live stream from her dorm room at Dickinson College. The 20-year-old broadcast herself 24/7, chatted with fans on message boards, and kept publicly viewable diaries. Ringley told the BBC that 100 million people would log on each week to watch her muse about romance and perform mundane tasks. She would have sex on camera, but Jennicam wasn't explicitly pornographic; it was a documentation of her life.


Although Ringley and other early camgirls of the era were in their 20s, camgirls slowly began getting younger. "It [became] about this fey little girl, Hello Kitty kind of thing," says Theresa Senft, author of a book on the subculture called Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks. "They all seem[ed] to have those big eyes and pale skin and to fit the bill in a much more cartoony way than a pinup way."

The story of Loli begins with a 15-year-old girl named Olivia, who became known as Cracky-chan online. At 2:17 in the afternoon on January 6, 2005, an image appeared on 4chan of an unconventionally beautiful girl with a red-painted nose. Looking coyly into her webcam, she flashed a simple message written on her upturned palm: "Sup 4chan."

Originally intended as a site to share anime and manga images when it was launched in 2003, 4chan is now known for its affiliation with the hacktivist group Anonymous (whose members somehow got 4chan's founder, Christopher Poole, voted Time's Most Influential Person of 2008 by manipulating the poll), its memes (pretty much anything that's ever gone viral began there), and its offensive content (as Senft, the academic, said: "For adults, 4chan is sort of the ninth circle of Hell.")

Cracky would post photos that were, in a word, dark. First, there was a series in which she smeared her face with menstrual blood. In others, she would take on personas, like that of a gothic nurse. Often, Cracky seemed lonely and sad, which made her instantly endearing to anime nerds. The fact that her costumes made her look like a character also bred an obsession.

Stalkers then tracked down the girl's online journal, which was filled with more photos that were shared among collectors like priceless treasures or rare trading cards.

Cracky appeared on 4chan only a few times before the stalker-like mob forced her self-imposed exile from the web. Today, she has pretty much disappeared, so it's impossible to know her motivation for posting. But generally, it's clear that 4chan's camgirls were experimenting with their burgeoning sexuality and competing with one another for male approval.

Although every camgirl has both fans and mockers, none has received as much attention as Cracky. She hasn't posted any images since 2007 and is now in her mid-20s, but her fansites are updated regularly. Old photos are posted with comments such as "how do i not be obsessed with cracky" and "She must be at least twenty now. Probably living a nice life. Friends, etc. I want to die."

"I think a big part of [the Cracky phenomenon] was misogyny," says one of Loli's friends, who goes by the name Camel online. She explains many of Cracky's fans were otaku, those who become obsessed with anime to the point of becoming shut-ins. These fans treat camgirls as cartoon protagonists, trade their pictures like playing cards, and develop elaborate backstories for their "characters," the pale New Jersey native says. "It was extremely rapey."

Just as Ringley inspired a legion of "livestreamers" who would spend years of their lives on cam, Cracky encouraged a new generation of artsy and insecure millennials to become live-action cartoon characters on the internet. She became the de facto figurehead of a splinter subculture. Today, a handful of fansites are dedicated to bringing her out of hiding. The homepage of one site, Dear Olivia, reads like an open letter: "This page is to show you how much you have impacted our lives. We want you to know that we care about you. We hope you care about yourself! From having fun imitating your great sense of style, to becoming obsessed with various perceptions of you... we have met friends and people with similar interests because of you."

Young girls, too, became obsessed with Cracky. Instead of plastering teen heartthrobs or boy bands across her childhood room, a 13-year-old Loli would Scotch-tape images of Cracky on the walls. She says that as an adolescent, she had sexual fantasies about the mysterious girl but also dreamed that one day she'd garner as much adulation. Most of the friends she has today are fellow "Cracky-fags" whom she Skypes and sometimes visits. "There's a whole religion around her," Loli explains. "People call her the Sky Queen."

Why did the Cracky phenomenon take off? "Because her photos weren't slutty, these guys elevated her to some sort of holy figure," offers Camel, who posted nude pictures of herself as a preteen after suffering sexual abuse and now studies business at a Canadian university.

Camel explains that a Chan name is given by the online community to only the most beloved camgirls and that hundreds strove for that designation between 2005 and 2007. She didn't make the cut. "In the end, I wasn't cute enough and didn't put enough presentation into my photos [to earn a Chan name]," Camel says. "And thank goodness for that."


Loli-chan was born in March 1993. Her first memory is of dressing up in a blue and yellow Snow White costume when she was 2 years old and posing for pictures. Her father, Jaime, would often build forts with Loli, ensconcing her in a comforter that, he said, would protect her from the outside world. Mother Ilene was a legal assistant, and the two ran their business in an off-white house they shared with five cats and a dog. (Because exploitative images of Loli still circulate on the web, her name and those of her family have been changed.)

Grandfather Jaime Sr. was a day laborer turned literature professor turned lawyer. He lived in a home on the same street and inspired Loli with a love of learning, but he passed away when she was only 8. Loli was an excellent student according to her 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher, Maria Ruiz-Legg, who remembers a brilliant writer enamored with the book Grendel and its protagonist, "a misunderstood monster kind of guy."

Loli and her older brother, Todd, were always kept on a short leash. Although they lived in an idyllic neighborhood lined with bougainvillea, Loli was never allowed to ride her pink Barbie bike without an adult around. She was also taught not to associate with neighborhood kids.

As a quiet child in elementary school, Loli enjoyed drawing with her best friend, a tanned girl who always wore her dark-brown hair in a single braid. All of that ended just before middle school, though. One day the friend said she was only using Loli for her collection of how-to-draw-manga books. "I always thought she drew better than me, so that was weird," Loli says.

Jaime and Ilene never enrolled Loli in activities or sports, which suited her just fine — she preferred to stay indoors and play videogames anyway. So she retreated into the world of Gaia Online, an anime-themed message board that caters to children. She was 13 years old. Her parents placed no restrictions on the time she was allowed to spend in the family's computer room, and she was left to her own devices. Loli would post on Gaia for hours, trying to make her avatar perfect.

"I wanted little digital clothes for my little digital person," she remembers. "So I sent someone pictures of my boobs and vagina."

She had experimented with sex on Yahoo Chat the year before, when she was 12, having sexually themed conversations with strangers. So, she reasoned, it wouldn't be that much weirder to take the next step. The whip-smart Loli also realized it could be lucrative.

One day, she went into her parents' bathroom and took close-up photos of her anatomy, which she then traded for a green Mandarin gown worth 12,000 "Gaia Gold" pieces that she used to dress up her avatar. "Honestly, I felt nothing," she says.

Loli says she became a social outcast in her Catholic middle school after admitting she was an atheist. She found it easier to make friends online, where her social awkwardness was mediated by distance and the barrier of a computer monitor. It wasn't long before another e-friend, Josh, introduced her to 4chan.

The lanky and pale-faced boy told Loli that 4chan was more fun than Gaia, but explicitly warned against posting pictures because the forums there were filled with pedophiles.

There were lots of jokes about such men on the boards, but Loli didn't take the rumors seriously. She began posting photos of herself a year later, thinking the older guys would be amused that "an actual 12-year-old" was reading their vulgar posts.

The first shot she uploaded to 4chan was benign; Loli had the same cherubic face she has today, but with long, light-brown hair and bangs. She looked even younger than her age, and that fact was exaggerated by a backdrop of dolls and teddy bears. The message written on her upraised hand was "Sup /b/" — a reference to the site's board for random, non-anime postings and an homage to Cracky's "Sup 4chan" introduction. Soon people began referring to her as a Chan, which both empowered her and fueled her desire to post. She says she became addicted to the attention, like a drug, and would check comments on her photos as soon as she got home from school every day.

She hadn't yet read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita but understood the implication.

"I got given the name Loli because I looked even younger than I actually was," she says. "And while I initially thought it would be funny, it turned out I was the punch line."


She posted her screen name on the board and was courted by hundreds of men per day. She would chat with them for hours in the family computer room, where she had arranged the tower so it would block her parents' view of the monitor.

Loli-chan's images weren't pornographic; many were even innocent, such as a video in which she rapped the theme song from the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In fact, that was part of the appeal for many of the fans who found her endearing.

But for some people, those images were just a precursor to something awful waiting to happen. One day, Jacqueline Singh, a private military contractor in Iraq who frequented 4chan, decided enough was enough.

Loli had posted a photo of herself wearing a uniform bearing her school's logo. Singh called the school and told administrators about what their young pupil was doing online.

Just after Loli began eighth grade, her parents were called into a meeting with the principal and head priest.

The conversation at home afterward was awkward, Loli recalls. Her mom and brother sat there silently as her father told Loli all of her internet privileges were being revoked.

"It was basically super-embarrassing, and he framed it in terms of me posting pictures for pedophiles, which wasn't the way I looked at it," she says. "Unfortunately, I saw my parents as my enemies and thought they would never understand, and I had the attitude that I was gonna keep taking pictures and save them and post them all when I was 18."

But Loli didn't wait that long — she just moved her internet presence deeper underground, where her parents didn't know to look, and posted when they weren't around. She would upload images on places such as ChanSluts and check up on what she thought of as her "fan club," which then numbered in the hundreds. (Even today, thousands of her photos are plastered across the internet on image boards.)

Her first online boyfriend was upfront about the fact that he was 30 years old, even though she was only 14 at the time. The two dated for eight months after chatting for a year. Loli never knew what her beau looked like until one day she received a picture of a fat, nerdy guy with curly dark hair. It disgusted her, and she ended the relationship.

The second boyfriend called himself George Peard and claimed to be only a few months older than Loli. He sounded young the one time they spoke on the phone, but his sexual interests proved otherwise. He would constantly describe sexual fantasies he had about his 11-year-old girl cousin. "George" would pressure Loli into sending special photos, such as her in a skirt or wearing pigtails.

Way before sexting became the topic of national conversation, girls like Loli were setting the prototype for self-exploitation. And because they did so in the nascent days of the internet, no one could have anticipated the consequences. Today, entire academic journals exist to study the effect of the web on attention-seeking kids, but nothing like that existed even a few years ago. The Chans provide pretty much the only longitudinal study on the fallout of oversharing.

And though parents today are at least a little internet-savvy, their counterparts in the mid-'00s weren't clear on how seedy the web could be. With no one watching, girls like Loli used the internet to explore their sexual curiosities. Chans posted pictures of themselves in a liminal period between the invention of the web and the time when adults became as knowledgeable as their offspring. To Catch a Predator — a TV show in which host Chris Hansen entraps would-be rapists — is pretty much a pop-culture trope these days. However, the kids of the previous generation received little to no warning about such men.

Even though the mounting evidence against Loli's boyfriend George was overwhelming, the 14-year-old still felt a certain amount of inertia. "I felt obligated every month on the same day that we started dating to send him a set of pics," she says. "He never explicitly asked, but I thought I was doing it in gratitude for him dating me."

After George persuaded Loli to send nude pictures, he posted them on 4chan. Other posters quickly derided her as a slut. She never dated anyone online again.

One day when she was 16 years old, Loli met a scrawny boy named Lucien in a cemetery near her house. She had to sneak out to see him at first. But after a year, her parents agreed to meet him over some turkey clubs at a local Denny's. Loli was enamored with his good looks, his jokes, and the fact that he knew nothing about 4chan. Soon she made him her first real-life boyfriend and began calling him by the pet name Lucien-chan.


"I want my relationship with Lucien to have been my first, but I had these pseudo-relationships first," she says. "It wasn't them I was in love with — it was the idea of them they tried to represent."

Zach is drunk enough on good Scotch that he has switched to swigging Old Grand-Dad whiskey straight from a plastic-capped bottle. It's an economical decision, says the pudgy 38-year-old, because it all tastes the same after a certain point. He's wearing an old East German officer's hat. At 1:30 in the morning on a Tuesday — a school night for the University of Rhode Island senior — he pulls up a video he's seen hundreds of times.

Zach puts down the antique C96 Mauser he's brandishing to click Play on a YouTube video of a preteen Loli spinning around in a plush computer chair. As she squeals with delight, a smile creeps across Zach's face, and he pushes his ratty shoulder-length brown hair away from his eyes for a better look. His bloodshot eyes begin to gloss over.

"Isn't she cute?" he muses, although it's not clear whom he's asking.

Zach is one of the many fans with whom Loli regularly Skypes. There are also a handful of other hard-core obsessives who send expensive gifts such as DSLR cameras and oddities like dresses and maid outfits befitting a doll. (Zach sends mostly books.) One fan who lives in England even has a stick-and-poke tattoo of Loli's face on his forearm, she says.

But for all the men she keeps up with online, an untold number of others hoard her photos, a fact that haunts her every time she steps outside. A 44-year-old doctoral student at Temple University named Rod Vosburgh was one of them.

In October 2006, FBI Special Agent Wade Luders posted a link on the pedophile message board Ranchi under the alias "Bongzilla." Although it was advertised as a hard-core porn video featuring a 4-year-old, the URL really led to a computer program that would track the IP addresses of anyone who clicked it. Vosburgh, a Holocaust expert, was one of the people who tried to download the video.

The FBI obtained a warrant for Vosburgh in February 2007 by tracking his location and concluding he lived alone. The day of his arrest, agents were on guard for a reprisal, because they knew their target owned more than a dozen guns. Upon hearing the sound of scraping metal emanating from inside Vosburgh's home in Media, Pennsylvania, they positively freaked.

The agents knocked on his front door for more than 30 minutes, yelling that someone had vandalized the alleged pedophile's car. But the attempt to lure him outside didn't work. Finally, Vosburgh appeared and apologized, saying he'd been using the restroom.

He had, in fact, been in the bathroom. Court records show that smashed thumb drives were found floating in his toilet. Although Vosburgh was found with an AK-47, shotguns, assault rifles, semiautomatic handguns, revolvers, and cartridges, what officers thought to be a gun was really the sound of their target dismantling his computer tower.

The feds couldn't restore the thumb drives, but they were able to locate an external hard drive containing two illegal images of underage girls. The child porn almost seemed like a footnote, considering they also found nearly every other kind of smut imaginable. There was an overwhelming amount of "child erotica" — images that showed young kids posed in suggestive ways that aren't overtly sexual. Among them was a cache of more than 2,015 Loli-chan images.

According to the FBI: "Loli-chan is the name of a 13-year-old girl who posts pictures of herself on imageboards and enjoys hearing from her older male fans. In these images, Loli-chan is, for example, licking a lollipop; in the bathroom wearing a robe and making a kissing expression; in a swimsuit at a pool; in a Mini-Mouse [sic] outfit; in a school uniform sitting on the floor barefoot; and sitting clothed on a toilet. In many of these images, the girl is holding signs that say, 'I'm thirteen,' 'Google your own porn,' 'kock swerve is gay,' [and various other vulgar, nonsensical phrases.]"

Prosecutors said Vosburgh's possession of these images was proof he had a sexual interest in young girls and that his clicking the booby-trapped link wasn't an accident. A jury agreed, and Vosburgh was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release. He tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal in 2010.

Zach, the 38-year-old college student, also insisted he wasn't a pedophile when I spoke with him by Skype on a recent Wednesday evening. He merely feels protective of Loli, he says, and considers her a friend.


He first came across Loli-chan images while serving in the National Guard as a chemical warfare defense instructor. Immediately, he was captivated. Shortly thereafter, someone posted a photo of the then-13-year-old's house with the threat, "Here's where I'm gonna kidnap her."

So Zach started the site LoliChanArmy, which gathered dozens of computer-savvy fans who were dedicated to finding and erasing personal information about Loli's real-life identity before predators could find it.

Now he regularly sends her books and wishes she would put more "practical" items, such as lock picks, on her Amazon Wishlist. Most recently, he sent Loli an ax so she could defend herself against stalkers. ("He thinks I'm like a comic book character or something," Loli explains. "I'm like WTF do I need an ax for?")

"I have an overwhelming urge to protect her and make sure she's OK so nobody harms her," he explains. "My instruction to her was to put that ax into an attacker as fast as she can, as many times as she can, and as hard as possible."

Zach's primary interests are collecting Nazi paraphernalia and talking to Loli every day on Skype. When he has extra cash, he pays her to read aloud from Carl Sagan books and the Bible, $2.50 per page.

He's doled out about a grand this year to Loli and has no obsessive feelings toward any other Chan.

"[Cracky] posts all this info on a place like 4chan trying to get popular and then freaks out when she accomplishes that goal," he says. "At least [Loli] isn't afraid to own the consequences of her own actions."

Loli lives with the consequences of her youthful folly every day. When most people see a small child with an older man, they likely assume it's a kid hanging out with her grandfather. Not Loli — she carries both pepper spray and pink polymer knuckles on her key chain in case such kids need a rescuer. She still cringes when she remembers classmates in high school who would confront her by saying, "Hey, don't I recognize you from online?"

Her paranoia peaked when she attended college in North Florida. She began hearing voices that alternately asked her to post more photos of herself and told her she was worthless.

Loli withdrew right before finals week of her freshman year, moved back home, and was involuntarily committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital's psych ward for nearly a month. After racking up a $31,000 bill, she was placed on a strict regimen of lithium, which she now takes three times a day.

To pay off her huge hospital bill, Loli began modeling on MyFreeCams from her messy home. On her computer desk sits a webcam and a letter opener inscribed with the saying, "When you're right, no one remembers, and when you're wrong, no one forgets." She's become a kind of internet welfare queen — subsisting on money and gifts sent by her former fan base. "I didn't think anybody would recognize me on there, but within a day, people were posting about it on 4chan," she says.

There's one fan who likes to tip her for making her bed and another who pays to see her unmake it. She doesn't mind those requests, but she freaked out when one anonymous viewer asked if she would pretend to be his 14-year-old daughter and cry. (She banked about $1,500 in her first two days on MyFreeCams, but business has slowed, and overall she has earned $4,000 in eight months.)

She also vacillates between fear and anger. Two months ago, she posted her learner's permit with her home address on a message board as if to say, "All right, fuckers, if you're going to get me, do it already!"

Perhaps most telling: For the past four years, she's been dating Lucien, who keeps a Glock in their bedroom and hopes to become a cop by December.

Still, it's difficult for Loli to accept her descent into relative obscurity. She wishes she could monetize her minor celebrity and become self-sufficient. That aspiration is complicated by the fact that her resumé is basically empty, excepting a seasonal job she held at a grocery store a couple of years ago. But while Loli is sort of stuck in a state of arrested development, other camgirls have successfully moved on.

There's Loli's friend Niki, a former wannabe Chan, who is working on a series of Cracky and Loli etchings as her art school thesis. The project will tell the story of the two camgirls' rise to fame and the ways technology can lead to psychological disorder. "I ultimately felt more comfortable being recognized for works on paper rather than photos featuring myself," Niki says.


Allison Harvard, also known as Creepy-chan, posted photos that circulated in 2005 — the same time as Loli's. In 2009, she finished second in the 12th cycle of America's Next Top Model. The judges never mentioned 4chan on the show, but they made frequent references to the 25-year-old's "massive social media following."

Today there are also girls like Catie Wayne, a teen who became widely known as Boxxy and received more than 25 million hits on her YouTube channel after her internet "career" launched on 4chan in 2009. She, too, monetizes her personality, by selling ads on her personal website. She even makes appearances at conventions and encourages interaction with fans, which harks back to the earliest camgirls.

Is Loli jealous of the more successful Chans? "I don't really think I deserve to be idolized, so I'm not mad or hurt that people don't like me anymore," she says. "I guess my dad is right, and people only liked me because I was a little kid and they were all pedophiles. So it's something I should never have done."

She recently contacted the administrators at ChanSluts and had them take down most of her posts. She's trying to erase her internet presence and hopes to enroll at Miami Dade College and study illustration. Although the thing she likes best about herself is her physical beauty, she wants to be known for something other than her looks.

"I've never really given myself a shot at life," she says.

But if Loli stops posting, she will be missed. As one anonymous poster recently lamented on ChanSluts: "Poor loli. did it to herself by being so loveable for all these years. take a puff and chill out loli. im sure everything will be fine. and if not. millions still love you."

The Bass
Photo by Zachary Balber
Eve Sussman first stunned the art world with her film 89 Seconds at Alcázar, which earned critical raves at the 2004 Whitney Biennale. Sussman created her opus under the flag of the Rufus Corporation, a collaborative of artists, performers, musicians, writers, and other creative types she founded as part of a long-term project in 2003. The evocative 12-minute film was based on Diego Velázquez’s enigmatic 1656 painting Las Meninas and became the first in a series of opulent, sensory-challenging works in which the artist re-envisions masterpieces from history into large-scale operatic reenactments. “Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation,” on view at the Bass Museum of Art (2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach), presents the artist’s breakthrough film along with The Rape of the Sabine Women, Sussman’s masterful feature-length video-musical that reinterprets the eponymous Roman legend with unforgettable grandeur. At the Bass, Sussman and her crew have re-edited the movie and are presenting it as a five-part installation simultaneously projected throughout separate museum galleries where spectators become engulfed by the onscreen action. In the sprawling production, Sussman reimagines the founding of Rome as a Cold War-era period epic in which the Romans are cast as government agents, the Sabines as a butcher’s daughters, and some of the conflicts among them unspool in a classic modern ’60s dream house overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Wednesdays-Sundays. Starts: April 21. Continues through Aug. 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave Prizes Radiance Over Life

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler. The story it tells, a true one, is horrifying: In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free, educated black man from Saratoga, New York, was kidnaped, sold into slavery, and transported to Louisiana. His captivity lasted 12 years. To survive, he had to hide the fact that he could read and write, which prevented him from contacting not only his wife and children but also any of his friends in the North who might have helped him.

Northup recounted his story in Twelve Years a Slave, a piercing memoir published in 1853. The title alone is austere and direct, almost painfully elegant, and that must have been the effect McQueen was going for too. His interpretation of Twelve Years a Slave is beautifully shot (by Sean Bobbitt), contrasting the all-too-visible evil of mankind with the occasional ribbon of pretty sky peeking through the Louisiana trees. The story is told with calm clarity, its pace stately and respectful in accordance with its subject matter. John Ridley's script hews closely to the language and details of Northup's book. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti all render their services in villainous roles, playing, respectively, a twisted slave owner; a megalomaniacal, murderous overseer; and a sleazy slave trader. It's all so perfect, so right.

But is there any blood in its veins? 12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor — plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role — it's a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender's creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor's Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon's anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.

That's a style, a choice. Filmmakers — the best ones, at least — think and feel through images, and the artisanal remoteness of 12 Years a Slave isn't such a surprise when you consider McQueen's two previous features, Hunger, a beautifully controlled picture about Bobby Sands' hunger strike and death, and Shame, a meditation on sex addiction that's as obsessive and single-minded as a lady-killer looking for his next conquest. McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeon-like room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction.

There's no reason a movie dealing with an ugly subject should be ugly itself. And there is an upside to that remoteness: McQueen isn't out to punish or scold us with his filmmaking. Northup's story is anguishing, and McQueen seeks only to tell it; he knows there's no need to bludgeon us. But compared with Lee Daniels's The Butler, a movie about another angle of the African-American experience, 12 Years a Slave is buffed to a dry, prestigious sheen. You could go to a European cocktail party and profess your love for it without having to apologize. Try doing that with The Butler, a messier movie with an unapologetic pop sensibility — it features a supporting turn by Oprah, after all. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's alive.

12 Years a Slave works so hard to be noble, but it doesn't have to: Ejiofor is there to do all the heavy lifting. Too often stuck playing astrophysigeologists in Roland Emmerich movies, Ejiofor brings all of his gifts to bear here. His subtlety is the earth-moving kind: He could probably shift a mountain simply by arching an eyebrow. Northup's book is written in the slightly formal, manicured language of a well-educated man, yet its directness is heart-stopping. "I was heartsick and discouraged," he wrote, describing his despair after suffering the first of many brutal beatings. "Thoughts of my family, of my wife and children, continually occupied my mind. When sleep overpowered me, I dreamed of them — dreamed I was again in Saratoga — that I could see their faces and hear their voices calling me. Awakening from the pleasant phantasms of sleep to the bitter realities around me, I could but groan and weep." 12 Years a Slave takes the spirit of that prose and arranges it with painstaking, distracting care for the camera. Ejiofor carries it inside him, hidden. And still, the light shines through.

Amour Is Michael Haneke's Barren Perfection

Tower Theater
Photo courtesy of Tower Theater

Two things are certain in life. One is that death will come for every one of us. The other is that every film Michael Haneke makes will have a fair shot at the Cannes Palme d'Or. Amour, Haneke's much-garlanded latest, is set almost entirely in a well-appointed Paris apartment, amid the cathedral hush that is the director's preferred working condition. As ever, Haneke shoots in a style that is reserved and restrained — in a word, cold. Although it is in color, I remember Amour in black-and-white.

Endemic to Haneke's dry, ratchet-turning movies is the anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event — let's call it the "IAE" — an event in which the incipient horror of the human condition pops out from behind the veneer of civilization, an event that the veteran Haneke viewer understands, upon going in, is part of the contract. The IAE breaks the brittle surface of Haneke's style, and the bracing plunge after the crack of the ice delivers a harsh lesson. His pedantic, castigating filmmaking is a vehicle for these lessons, which have never yet confirmed man's high opinion of himself. The unit of the shot or the scene is rarely a source of pleasure or pain or conflict or resolution or beauty or individual life, only a flat and neutral plane against which the harsh truth can stand out all the more starkly.

With Amour, Haneke places his IAE out front. The police burst into a locked apartment and discover a corpse — skin purplish-white and crumply like parchment, neatly laid out on a bed — that appears underneath the film's title.

After this opening, which leaves little doubt as to what's in store, we're introduced to an elderly couple, Georges and Anne. She looks familiar; so does their bedroom. But for now, they are happy, returning home from a piano concert to their bastion of civilized mutual contentment. (There is a vague threat from the outside world — someone has recently tried to jimmy their front door.) As with the couple playing a guessing game with opera CDs at the beginning of Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, Georges and Anne's natural environment is the world of high culture; she is identified as a former piano teacher, like Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, and Huppert appears here in a supporting role as the couple's middle-aged daughter. Furthering the sense of continuity, this Georges and Anne are the latest link in a chain of Georgs/Georges and Annas/Annes who have run through Haneke's filmography, as Claude Chabrol rearranged the triumvirate figures of Hélène, Paul, and Charles through his work of the late '60s and '70s.

Amour begs such comparisons to the Euro art house heyday, for Anne is played by 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour), and Georges by 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant (My Night at Maud's, The Conformist), and our memories of their past films color our response to the all-too-familiar tragedy that they will endure, seen in detailed, clinically documented stages. Georges and Anne's long connubial harmony, which their daughter's memories attest to, is thrown into discord when health problems suddenly leave half of her body collapsed and useless. This is the first in a succession of attacks that forces Georges to minister to his diminishing wife through her slow decline, his fierce will for her to live pitted against her increasing will to die. Haneke elides the moments of crisis, focusing instead on details of daily caretaking, the process by which a home slowly becomes a hospice. I don't recall the words je t'aime being spoken in the two hours of Amour, but they are constantly reiterated in acts of consideration, tenderness, and tending to toilette.

An intensely private actor capable of almost embarrassingly confessional moments, Trintignant is at his most touching as a man vainly trying to decipher his wife's blurred speech so as not to let go the thread of their lifelong rapport ("There are so many stories I never told you," he says). When Georges dismisses a condescending nurse to defend what's left of his wife's violated dignity, the outrage blazing from his eyes attests to Trintignant's undiminished power.

This humble yet soulful performance is a triumph over not only the humiliation of sickness but also the punitive monotony of Haneke's cinematic deathbed vigil, filmed in static compositions that stare through the apartment's nested series of doorways as Georges putters in and out of frame. The centerpiece involves Trintignant chasing a stray pigeon trapped in the apartment, presumably significant of his wife's soul (I hesitate to use the word with regard to such a flatly materialist film), longing to be set free from earthly fetters.

Haneke's elegant reserve is meant, perhaps, to allow viewers the space to contemplate the leering face of death, a sort of cinematic memento mori. During the film's lulls, I found myself remembering movies, thanatological and otherwise, that had given me something more to chew on: A snatch of Schubert's "Impromptu in G-flat Major D899 No. 3" in Amour recalled the same piece's use in Bertrand Blier's 1989 Too Beautiful for You; the process of slow physical breakdown depicted through abrupt narrative jumps, Maurice Pialat's ferocious 1974 Le Gueule Ouverte; the subject of an aging couple, Leo McCarey's 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow, a film so mawkish as to suggest there might be something worthwhile in sharing one's life with someone else before the return to dust. This year alone already brought Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps, a mysterious, funny-sad film poking around the empty spaces left by death.

In keeping within its limited boundaries, in applying an unflinching style to an inevitable process, Amour has a certain perfection to it, but what Haneke expresses thereby — that culture is no protection from the final horror, that death be not proud — is so meager as to make it a single-minded, barren perfection. Haneke remains, by his rules, infallible. So what? A movie in which incident is as spare as it is in Amour certainly can be great; a movie in which ideas and feelings are so sparse cannot.

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