Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

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Release: Friday, October 14, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

If you have never heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, you are primed for a transcendent experience in Sky Ladder, a Netflix exclusive that delves into the personal and professional life of this blisteringly original Chinese contemporary artist.

In this quietly unassuming but bold and visually-oriented documentary from Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland; Touching the Void) we’re introduced to a modern Picasso, a visionary who expresses himself on the largest scales imaginable, through pyrotechnics and gunpowder. Across the world he has bathed cities in the light of his colorful, provocative works — the Illumination project in Berlin; the opening of his Ninth Wave exhibit in Tokyo; the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; a message of peace and unity in a post-9/11 New York — and though the film is ultimately concerned with the artist’s fourth and most recent attempt to realize the most elaborate and challenging project of his career, the Sky Ladder, it finds time to showcase many of his other elaborate works along the way.

While tracking the progress of Guo-Qiang’s looming super-project in the present tense, Macdonald reaches back into the past, giving the artist plenty of room to breathe so he feels comfortable sharing his experiences growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Guo-Qiang is every bit the intellectual his exotic displays of organized chaos suggest he might be (and every bit the kind of creative free thinker Mao Zedong wished to eliminate under his regime), but more importantly he’s a man who has traveled a long and weary road. Not only is he a deep thinker and among the marquee names that have helped increase the visibility of modern Chinese artists, but the man is also easily relatable. He is a devout family man, willingly sharing his stories with his eldest daughter. Later we see him making a visit to his father, who has been stricken with a serious illness. The Sky Ladder project is also dedicated to his late grandmother, who died a month after watching it come into fruition in June of 2015. She was 100 years old.

Macdonald balances elements with a deft hand, making sure the creation around the creator doesn’t become preoccupied with the way it presents itself. This is a quietly profound story dealing in complex themes like Chinese culture, philosophy and government censorship whose framework stays on just the right side of simplistic. After all, Macdonald needn’t have slaved over finding ways to spice up the material. Guo-Qiang’s canvas — typically metropolitan skylines — does the work for him. His explosion projects punctuate the narrative with bursts of revitalizing energy as we sift through all of the elements that have come together in just the right way for the man to make a living out of blowing things up.

And yeah, about that . . . why explosions? Some context might be helpful: gunpowder, thought to have been discovered by 8th Century Taoists in search of immortality, was identified by the Chinese as the earliest chemical explosive (“fire magic”) before Europe and eventually the rest of the world began to fully realize its potential utility. We’re all familiar with its most common usage. Guo-Qiang explains how growing up in the Fujian province of Quanzhou led to his fascination with the stuff. Gunpowder in China has many practical uses, be they celebratory or otherwise. He noticed that its combustible properties could be channeled into positive forms of self-expression; to him the possibility of creation was just as readily apparent as that of destruction. These epiphanies would alter the course of his personal and professional life forever. Where he once followed in the footsteps of his father, a calligraphist and painter of some note, Guo-Qiang would soon start blazing a path all his own.

There are a great many reasons to get into this documentary. Firstly, it will require no more than 76 minutes of your time. I’ll say it again, too: this is a sensory experience to the point where the account feels more cinematic than journalistic (one can only imagine what this would have been like to watch on the big screen). Sky Ladder is not only a great escape into the wonders of modern art, it’s also an education. This is the epitome of redefining what art is and what it can be. The caveat to his form is its temporariness. Given that fireworks never seem to last long enough, the amount of resources and energy he pools into realizing these often fleeting visual spectacles tends to boggle the mind.

To top it all off, there’s a strong psychological component to the way his live shows and the grander scope of the narrative coalesce. For Guo-Qiang, many of the barriers he has had to overcome in his life have been political. It’s a shame, if entirely unsurprising, that we learn not everyone has been so eager to embrace him as a god among men. His form is entirely dramatic and can’t be packaged in traditional museums. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if, like me, your experience with “explosion projects” is more or less limited to your local Fourth of July displays, you absolutely owe it to yourself to discover what this uniquely hypnotic, visual feast has in store for you.

Recommendation: Must-see documentary for the artistically minded. (And even those just looking for “something cool to watch on Netflix.”) Incredible displays of immense complexity, color, power, emotion and originality. I have never seen anything like this before. Interested in more? I recommend visiting Mr. Guo-Qiang’s official site here

Rated: NR

Running Time: 76 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.upperplayground.com 

TBT: Independence Day (1996)

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How’s the weather where you are today? It’s a drab, rainy afternoon here in Knoxville, with no sign of the clouds really making an effort to allow us to see some big bright explosions in the sky later. For some reason, the weather never seems to cooperate around this time, but maybe that’s just my poor memory failing me. I sure hope they don’t end up shooting off fireworks regardless, because standing there in the street staring up at a bunch of colored clouds is not what I would imagine to be the best celebration of America’s birthday. Regardless of the fireworks show, the rain can never stop a good blog post from happening. And in honor of it being July 4 (even though I’m British and really have no room to talk), I’d like to send everyone back to a time and place where Roland Emmerich actually made a really good movie. Well, I guess ‘good’ is a relative term; I really can’t imagine him topping this epic disaster film. 

Today’s food for thought: Independence Day

Independence-Day

Release: July 2, 1996

[VHS]

While Emmerich makes it quite easy to rail against his style of direction —  the use of campy situations, cheesy dialogue and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action sequences to excess — here’s the one movie that really seemed to make the most of all of his trademarks to deliver a smash hit that we can go back to again and again. Although it’s a little odd to label some global catastrophe as an event that’s typically reserved for the United States following their successful break from British rule, there’s no doubt this movie is one of those that can stand the test of time. It may be cheesy, it may be bombastic, but man is it a fun film.

Perhaps no Emmerich film has been as loaded with iconic imagery as this global-scale disaster film. We have the moment when the ships appear in our atmosphere: the loud groaning of the crafts coming to a halt over major metropolitan areas, the embankment of clouds an inferno of friction with the force of these gigantic slivers of metal making their dramatic entrance. Of course there’re the aliens themselves, which — correct me if I’m wrong — were rather well done considering the date on this film. You have the great cities of New York and Los Angeles getting obliterated in one of the most memorable attack sequences of any movie (certainly upon New York City); Lady Liberty left face-down in shallow waters following the attacks, a sight that is far more perturbing than seeing her engulfed in 100-foot drifts of snow like she was in The Day After Tomorrow.

And then, of course, you have the cast, with Will Smith being the icing on this blockbuster cake. You could argue the storyline borrows very heavily from a lot of other sci-fi/disaster films but without these significant elements and visuals, Independence Day would have very little with which to plant its seed in our memories. Quite simply, it would be as forgettable as Godzilla, or as asinine as 2012. But this film from the late 90s actually does have staying power, and not just based on its overt (if not slightly abused) sense of patriotism.

“Should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) addresses a fleet of fighter pilots accrued from all over the globe in the early morning light before launching the largest counterattack ever attempted on the technologically-superior extraterrestrials. Yes, because a year from now we are all going to move on from apartheid, starvation and wars over water and other base needs. . .we will be a human race indeed reborn. This digression really doesn’t mean anything, though. It’s just a thought. The point being: there’s a strong high we experience in watching the humans stage a massive attack against the almost inconceivably brilliant aliens. With the release of this movie around July 4, 1996, that particular birthday for America might be more remembered for that than anything else. Emmerich deserves a little pat on the back for that.

Even though the film approaches unremarkable, generic status with its larger-than-life ambition, it still manages to anchor two enjoyable personal journeys — those of David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith). David is a brilliant mind but a terrible underachiever. His father Julius (Judd Hirsch) is a hilarious filter for our curiosity as to what exactly his major malfunction is, and quite honestly he could be one of the more memorable performances in the movie. As for Smith’s role, he’s stuck playing the young gun who’s got plenty to prove for himself. He’s good at these kinds of roles, but it’s certainly not a new discovery. Still, he is a great fit for this film, particularly when push comes to shove and he’s face-to-face with one of the alien invaders. And how’s that for another iconic image — Smith sitting on the fallen craft, smoking a stogie and ripping off a couple of quips about the fallen alien? He almost dies in the pursuit of this thing, but he’s just annoyed that he had to put his barbecue plans on hold. Oh, the cheesiness. But in this case, I am willing to accept it. It really works.

As does the beyond-ludicrous concept that Levinson devises in the film’s clumsy-getting-clumsier third act. How exactly does one expect to give a machine a ‘virus,’ as he purports to be able to do to the mothership, which hovers on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere? Oh wait, it was a computer virus. With any luck, the “technologically superior” race of beings that have provided our armageddon have PC’s and not Macs — Apple has really established itself as one of the leaders in virus-resistant technology. While completely filled with plot holes, the unification of David and Captain Levinson is somewhat rewarding and a whole mess of fun to experience when they are jettisoned into space. They do their job, but of course problems arise. (I did mention this film’s predictability, right?)

At worst, this plot is more riddled with holes than Swiss cheese; at best, it’s an impossible but irresistibly spirited testament to humanity’s unwillingness to throw in the towel, even in the face of certain annihilation. Emmerich’s directorial lunacy reaches a fevered pitch during the Area 51 scene in which our Commander-in-Chief makes contact with the captured alien by speaking in English. The alien communicates via its many tentacle-like appendages, coiled around the vocal chords of a human victim — in this case, an eccentric scientist. (The moment that guy says something to the effect of “As you might imagine, they don’t let us out much….” and then begins laughing uncontrollably, I knew this guy was destined for great things. . .) The alien wishes death upon everyone and everything, before unleashing a terrible sound that somehow gets stuck in only the President’s brain and no one else’s. Again, one must overlook such gaps in logic, because to do otherwise would be…well, you just wouldn’t be a true patriot. Even as dumb as this scene is, when I first experienced it as a kid, I was actually deeply disturbed. It was between this moment and the surgery scene.

Independence Day may take its fair share of bashing, but there’s no denying how much fun it was. Still is. I haven’t revisited it in quite some time, but it might be a real fun journey back in the time machine to the days before CGI really stepped up in quality. That said, there are plenty of moments throughout that succeed without being Transformers-quality. Seeing the city of Los Angeles laid to waste was rather disturbing. Watching the various ships crash landing to Earth at long last was satisfying to no end. The aliens themselves looked menacing.

I only have one question to pose for Emmerich, though: what happened after 1996, man???

I also have one piece of advice that might help counteract your crumbling image: don’t you dare go through with this next idea. For if you truly celebrate humanity, you won’t do this. Of course, I’m no director and I shouldn’t be dishing out advice to those with experience, but I shall again play devil’s advocate……..should Emmerich have created an alternate ending, it should have gone something like this:

3-5Recommendation: ….I’m pretty sure most of us have seen this blockbuster by now. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Celebrate America’s birthday with this loud, raucous and oversized military science fiction thriller. You (probably) won’t be sorry.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 145 mins.

Best Scene: