On July 4th: The art of decency

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s first dramatic movie since her Winter’s Bone ushered in Jennifer Lawrence eight years ago, is among the best and most resonant films to appear this year. The movie, beautifully filmed mainly in Oregon, involves a disaffected and widowed Marine veteran aptly named Will, played by a brilliantly constrained Ben Foster. A simmering paranoid, Will takes his loyal teenage daughter Tom – acted by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie with a halting precocity that’s perfectly tailored– off the grid, living rough in a state forest. They’re corralled and nudged by kindly social-services types back into civilization. The girl, unaffected by the gruesome trials of combat, takes to normal social intercourse, appreciating the community she’s been missing. “The same thing that’s wrong with you,” she tells Will, heartbroken but resolute, “isn’t wrong with me.” Her father remains defiantly antisocial. The plot’s loose focus is how they work it out, which touches sharply on larger father-and-daughter motifs and on the often irremediable trauma and alienation that war inflicts on those who fight it. In an era of repellent nastiness and amorality, though, Leave No Trace is foremost a paean to decency and humanism, which it implicitly reclaims for the bulk of white working-class people reflexively associated with Donald Trump.

It is mostly they who populate the movie. Granik deftly sets up numerous tropes – stern and ostensibly overbearing volunteers, the girl alone encountering the boy alone, a suspiciously friendly truck driver, guys on loud motorcycles and ATVs in the woods, a redneck matriarch, and indeed a father who sleeps next to his daughter – that normally constitute baleful threats in movies. Then she dashes your cynical assumptions. But there is no explicit, in-your-face political messaging here. Granik is admirably self-disciplined about showing rather than ever telling; that’s what makes the film so good.

On set of Leave No Trace with Director Debra Granik

On an existential level, Granik illuminates the persistent tension between human isolation and interaction, respectively represented by Will and Tom. This theme connects with the work of Alberto Giacometti, now on display in a magisterial retrospective at the Guggenheim. The enigmatic and eclectic yet unfailingly exacting Swiss artist, especially in his iconic whittled sculptures, portrays people as figures intent on claiming and maintaining discrete physical space in the world, and by extension perhaps a right to psychically quarantine themselves, yet continually crossing paths. His sculpture Piazza captures this notion well. The limiting case is war, which threatens everyone’s space and paradoxically requires a group response to preserve each person’s private domain. Hence Giacometti’s best-known work, the hauntingly galvanizing 1947 sculpture L’homme au doigt Pointing Man – portrays his patented thin, lonely figure who, in the wake of war, is now compelled to reach outward, both to accuse and to beseech. The antidote of community may be too late for the victims, but not for their survivors.

“Giacometti,” installation view at Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald

Granik too sees an intimate connection among decency, community, and survival. In one of the most tranquil scenes of Leave No Trace, an apiarian community volunteer whom Tom befriends educates her about interdependency while tending to her own hive. The woman notes that because she has earned the bees’ trust they won’t sting her, which in turn would end their lives, and instead go about their productive collaborative business under her stewardship. Joseph Zito explores kindred ideas in his typically probing and inventive exhibition “Plus Ten,” at Lennon Weinberg. A fledgling beekeeper, Zito, according to the press release, sees the endeavor as “a perfectly calibrated, though fragile, example of environmental and social infrastructure and a satisfying metaphor to generate a body of work.”

Joseph Zito at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

In that spirit, he built ten clear pine hives and bestowed one each on ten fellow artists to embellish however they wanted, with an eye to presenting them as the products of both the individual and the community. The artists’ interpretations include a cheerful evocation of the bees’ activity (Carolanna Parlato), broadly celebratory takes on the natural collective (Gary Mayer, Glenn Goldberg), and more remote associations with beauty (Katherine Bowling, Edward Burke).

Joseph Zito at left with Jill Moser, at right with Marthe Keller
Joseph Zito, at left with Carolanna Parlato, at right with Eric Brown

But the dominant impulse seemed to be to register order (Eric Brown, Marthe Keller, Damon Brandt) or outright control (Jim Lee, Jill Moser). Bolstered by pensive yet upbeat watercolors and large canvases, Zito, in his own Dire Distress, gains an elegant, crowning clarity for this nuanced show in painting on a hive – a symbol of community – a small but pristine fragment of the Stars and Stripes. Acknowledging our severe national decency deficit, he holds out some hope for shrinking it. That’s a wise sentiment for what really ought to be a subdued Fourth of July.

Giacometti,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Upper East Side, New York. Through September 12, 2018.

Joseph Zito: Plus Ten,” Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Chelsea, New York, NY. Through August 17, 2018.

Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik from a script adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini and based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Related posts:
Giacometti in Bushwick: “Art, reality and the myth of life became one”
Stern verve: Joseph Zito at Lennon, Weinberg
Art and Film: Giacometti’s petulant eye
Your July Horoscope! by Crystal “Kitty” Shimski
Happy Fourth of July (with Jack Tworkov)!

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