Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Local Color- a movie about Painting

When watching the preview of Local Color, you may notice this is basically an arty version of Karate Kid- with less ass kicking action. Also, it ended with little chance for a Local Color II. Still, as a realist painter who has experienced the "master / apprentice" relationship, I knew that this movie, if done well, would have some special meaning. Since it was written and directed by an actual painter I figured a lot of typical art myths would be left out and replace with a bit of truth. For the most part I was satisfied with the results.
I certainly believe that art must be "uplifting to the human spirit"- a theme often cited in the film. Of course these days art often is not uplifting and most don't think it needs to be. Modern art is often too self indulgent to be uplifting. Today's artists spend a lot of its time pointing out the bad, the evil and the shocking. They also spend a lot of time pointing at themselves, in a "hey, look at me!" kind of way. Often this art is little more than pornography for the intellectual.

This movie is a low budget, small, independent film that is semi-autobiographical. It is not a documentary, so things have been adjusted and tweaked to make this movie watchable and entertaining. It is very sentimental and formulaic. As I like sappy movies, I did not mind. It has a lot of jargon and shop talk that my not be interesting to non-painters- but I found it pretty amusing. Some real gems of dialog were delivered by the "master" character- "If there is no beauty, there is no art". This character is one that I would love to hang out with. It would be a blast to sit down with Seroff, discuss art while sipping a bottle of some strong alcohol, trashing the ridiculousness of the art world. Being a pretty hard core curmudgeon myself, I identified with him totally.

This film is well acted by Armin Mueller-Stahl and Trevor Morgan as the two main characters. It is directed with passion and has some wonderful cinematography, but........... you knew there was going to be a but, didn't you? ............... I did have some issues with this film.

There were a lot of small problems in this movie. The Seroff character was a bit all over the place emotionally. He had some strong convictions- maybe too strongly portrayed. While his outlook may be based on truth, did not allow me to believe the friendship with the Ron Pearlman character- a art dealer type character that was filled with all the bile and crap you see in your typical modern art lacky, salesman type that can go on for hours using large words about nothing. I suppose the this relationship was an attempt to show that we can disagree about art, but still love each other. That is a lovely sentiment, but I can't imagine he would have suffered these ridiculous discussions for a second. It would be safer to discuss politics or religion. Even Mr Miyagi would have kicked his ass.

A summer studying painting under a master painter is barely enough time to skim the surface of what it takes to be a painter. This barely enough time to consider yourself a serious student of anyone.

There were some other small issues, but the big, over riding problem with this movie: The paintings portrayed in the file as being by this great Russian Master were terrible. They had none of the qualities that one sees in fine painting. Now, you may say, "It was just a movie. Give it a break!"
Well, if the message of the movie was not so strongly stated, if the modern art world was not so viciously attacked by the Seroff character, one would not mind that his work was only slightly better than the work you see in your typical hobbyist art fair. Seroff talked like someone who had amazing training- much more than a summer's worth. He spouted wisdom like a person that had years of classical training, involving time drawing from casts and master drawings. Hours spent drawing the nude figure. Serious time spent in the studio of a master painter that is not passing on his 'talent', but offering technical information that he himself received from a master- and so on- and so on. Seroff, who after years of working out the complicated problems of painting on his own, after some good training, talked like a painter.

Once you see his "art" you do not see that wisdom realized in paint. There is not the mastery.
These paintings are saleable in today's market, they may even win a local art show or two, but are they great works by someone with classical training? Not even close.
The film is full of paintings supposedly by the master in which the color was not true, with no real light effect and non existent drawing. If the film maker had used the paintings by George Cherepov, the actual painter he studied with and whom the character Seroff was based on, the movie would have had more weight. There are tons of really good landscape painters working today that would have loved to lend their work to this project, but unfortunately the director decided to use his own paintings. Concerning the director Gallo's work, we can give him a bit of a break- as he has had very little training, and has not really worked at it professionally. I am not saying that he is not capable of good work, he just needs to continue good training and some serious time spent painting in the field- or do what he does best- write and direct film.

For this movie and its message to be powerful, it needed powerful work. It needed work by a master- real or imagined.
The paintings did not carry the message, and in fact hurt it. This is too bad, as I was totally buying the message. I am all for discussions that undermine the hollow work of most modern painters. Some breathtaking work by an amazing landscape painter would have really made the argument all the more strong.


Marion said...

My biggest complaint was the SIZE of the canvas shown as plein air. That guy would have frozen to death painting that HUGE canvas out in the snow!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am disappointed to hear that, it might be a fatal flaw. Perhaps most people won't know the difference, and it will still carry a useful message of the value of our historical painting and its continuation.
How big was this snow painting that Marion refers to? What freezes an artist in Cincinatti may only chill one in New Hampshire.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

The outside painting was one of the better paintings- maybe because it was never really shown close up.
It was only about a 30x40. About the size of a Redfield.
It is a doable painting, just not in a day. Though Redfield claimed to be able to finish one this size in a day. It would be a feat, though it is doable.
I couldn't do it because I am not a fan of the cold. You crazy folks on the east coast though.....

Anonymous said...

it's a very good piece you wrote. in one sense, i am sorry that all of us anticipated the movie's faults months in advance of seeing it. on the other hand, it speaks well of whatever passes for our common sense.

particularly sad is your discussion of the fruitlessness of one summer's work, in terms of visible accomplishment, regardless of how hard you work, or how brilliant your teacher. it's simply the nature of the business. to pretend otherwise is to undercut what was apparently the very heart of the movie.

BeatricCaldwell said...

I loved the review, it makes me really want to see this film now.

Tim said...

A glass half empty, or half full?

Thank you for writing the LOCAL COLOR review, you obviously put considerable thought into the effort. I'm delighted that you and your friends/students could attend our screening.

I too wondered if we would see works by Cherepov, but it turns out that all of the paintings (hundreds!) were created by the film's director, George Gallo. So I can understand how that may detract from a true artist's appreciation of the film. But, knowing that Gallo did not pursue a career as a painter tempered my expectations in that regard. Besides, I'm a cinema person, not a painter.

My principal reasons in bringing the film to Cincinnati really had nothing to do with the qualitative fine points of the artwork shown in the film, although your suggestion seems logical and would have enhanced the end product.

Rather, I was attracted by theme of pursuing one's passion in life, whether in the nascent stages of one's career as in John's case, or toward the end, as we saw with a revitalized Seroff.

Indeed, it is not an extraordinary leap to see the use of painting and art in the film as a metaphor for the totality of life experience. This was refreshing because so many formulaic 'coming of age' movies focus on sexual awakening, romantic relationships, some type of catastrophic crisis, finding a 'job' in some glamorous career field, etc.

But LOCAL COLOR did not go in that obvious direction, which makes it unique -- how many movies do we see about a young person who wants to be a painter?

The importance of learning from those with experience and the process of mentoring receive skant attention in today's lowest-common-denominator mainstream movies. In LOCAL COLOR, the inclusion of these attributes compensates for some obvious flaws.

While perhaps lacking verisimilitude with regard to the paintings used as background pieces in the film, what resonates for me is the ode to nature's beauty. Cinematographer Michael Negrin did a remarkable job with the exterior shots. The sunsets and full-range takes combined a broad palette and depth of field known well to the human eye, but infrequently captured with a camera.

The tall grasses rolling in the wind blended seamlessly into stands of shrub and tree -- hard edges and linear outlines were amazingly absent. Obviously, Negrin understands filters and editor Malcolm Campbell worked wonders with color correction and enhancement in post production. But I believe the stunning results were no accident -- they, along with director Gallo, knew exactly what they wanted.

And I must say a few words about the lighting in the interior shots. The consistent use of shadow in both profile and full face framing was incredibly effective. I challenge anyone to pinpoint the lighting sources for the farmhouse kitchen scenes. If you can view it again, watch as Seroff is chopping vegetables at his butcher block -- a gloriously diffused luminosity, that hints of up-lighting, radiates from counter height or lower -- a beautiful effect seldom rendered so effectively.

The strong performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl (himself a painter), and the excellent production values (design, cinematography, editing) set LOCAL COLOR apart from the Karate Kid genre, enhancing the 'follow your dream' message. Read more about the film at

For more sweeping vistas, eye-filling landscapes and intriguing cinematography, consider some of the CWC films coming in October and November: The rolling hills and grasslands of the Great Steppe, in Song from the Southern Sea; the urban density in My Time will Come and What a Wonderful World, shot in Ecuador and Morocco; the rural Chinese countryside in Getting Home; urban Sofia in stark black-and-white in Zift; and the French countryside in The Summer Hours.

Hope you can join us at CWC for films you will not see anywhere else.

Tamera said...

Dear Richard,

I enjoyed your review. Watching the film I wasn't too hung up on the paintings. I did think "Those are master works?"
In some ways I almost would have liked his paintings not to be shown. So that eacher viewer of the movie could imagine what they would think his paintings would look like. From a technical concern everytime they show Jon the student painting en plein air he's more "lightly dabbing" at the rate they show him painting it would have taken him all summer just to make one painting. All this aside, I really love this film, and am thankful that Cincinnati World Cinema brought it to us.

Anonymous said...

I have a photo of Mr. Cherepov painting a 20x24 canvas in plein air in the winter fully bundled up with hat, coat, and gloves, . He did many snow scenes and they were often in the 24x30 size. He was a big practitioner of painting on location.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Thanks for the comments.
I agree, it was just a movie, and maybe one cant get too hung up on the quality of the work, but that was one of the main points I think. "THis stuff is Shit" as the Seroff would often point out. "This is beautiful" or "this is masterful". If you are going to make such a statement, it had better be. Now, if most people cant tell, that is too bad. Folks these days often cant tell the difference between mastery and an expressive amateur effort. I saw a show recently judged by a Museum director, who obviously has no idea how to judge the difference between professional and amateur.

Yes, Cherepov would have painted outside in any weather as should be the habit. Unfortunately, your typical painter would not want to be in the elements, starting and finishing it in the studio from a photograph. We wonder why painting has gone down hill?

I would also like to add that I found and checked out a book by Cherepov. Discovering oil painting, by George Cherepov published by Watson-Guptill Publications in 1971. ISBN: 0823013456
Check your local library if you are interested. There is some good information in the book.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought George Gallos painting were much more alive, vivid, and artistic than the original works of George Cherepov that I view on line. Now granted you can't get a real life rendition of what a painting really looks like live, but I compared both artists work on the computer and Gallos stands out as much more exciting, interesting and alive with color.
And I'm an artist too, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.