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Nolan and Escher at the MFA

17 May

 

What Artist M.C. Escher And Filmmaker Christopher Nolan Have In Common

To complement the perception-warping lithographs of M.C. Escher currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, curator Carter Long and the smart folks over in the MFA’s film department have put together “Math, Mind and Memory,” a retrospective of Christopher Nolan’s films. The program launches on Wednesday, May 16 with Nolan’s debut, “Following” (1998), and concludes on May 31 with the British auteur’s 2014 planet-hopping odyssey, “Interstellar.”

If the crossover connection between surrealist graphic designer and alternate reality-conjuring filmmaker doesn’t immediately make sense, consider Escher’s continuous stairway to nowhere, “Ascending and Descending.” Its endless bend of perception and geometric form could easily be mistaken for a storyboard cell pulled from Nolan’s dream-thief thriller, “Inception” (2010), in which streetscapes and buildings get folded in on themselves, even inverted, creating an endless maze of concrete and tarmac that beguiles as it overwhelms. (The film plays on May 24 and 25.)

On the left, M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending." On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan's "Inception." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)
On the left, M.C. Escher’s “Ascending and Descending.” On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)

More thematically, the Dutch artist’s famous “Drawing Hands,” where one hand sketches the next into existence while that hand conversely draws its creator, plays with the sense of time and origin. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum visualized in evocative 2D (though the deeply layered shadowing lends a rich 3D effect). Something similar is explored in Nolan’s “Interstellar.” The humanity-saving space mission sails off into the fourth dimension of time and space density, creating a scenario in which children out age their parents. (“Interstellar” screens May 20 and 31.)

The retrospective, which includes the latter two of Nolan’s popular Batman films, “The Dark Knight” (on May 26) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (also on May 26), rightly recognizes the director’s box-office brilliance. Who else makes thinking-man thrillers that regularly gross more than $500 million? But the MFA series also more aptly shines a light on Nolan’s early efforts and influences.

“Following,” shot in noirish black and white and on 16mm guerrilla style, unravels agendas within agendas as a wannabe writer (Jeremy Theobald), who follows random people for muse material, gets tangled up with a dapper petty criminal (Alex Haw) and an aloof woman with a Marilyn Monroe-perfect coif (Lucy Russell). The ever-twisting plot complicated by love triangle implications cast wafts of Danny Boyle’s gritty early work, “Shallow Grave” (1994), and is a clear blueprint for Nolan’s sophomore effort, “Memento” (2000). Continue reading

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Porter Square Redesign

11 May

Protected bike lanes aren’t in final proposal for traffic changes coming to Porter Square

 

A human wall formed at an April 26 bicyclist protest in Porter Square to dramatize the need for protected bike lanes to city transportation officials. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Final plans for traffic safety improvements in Porter Square were presented Tuesday, updated from a form presented Jan. 18 but not erasing fully the strong opposition by residents and cycling activist groups.

The presentation had the square’s current five-phase traffic signal cycle (including one for pedestrians only, and another to leave the mall parking lot) still being replaced by a simpler three-phase cycle.

A left exit from the Porter Square shopping plaza through a zebra-striped pedestrian pavilion will remain; the January plan showed it being eliminated, with the exit blocked by cement planters – a proposal called cheap and ugly by many in attendance.

In addition, a pedestrian island between lanes of traffic where Somerville Avenue meets Massachusetts Avenue will remain, shifted a bit toward the T stop and widened some. The move is meant to better distribute motor vehicle traffic and allow for implementation of buffered bike lanes, which have gridded white paint separating bicycle and motor vehicle traffic. The buffered lanes are planned for both sides of Somerville Avenue.

“We want to move forward with this plan,” said Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, to a crowd of about 75 at Lesley University’ University Hall, “but that does not preclude future safety enhancements.”

The project would run “over the next few months [during] construction season,” he said.

Barr said plans were altered based on input from the community and an April 26 protest by the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, but he still received criticism from cycling activists who felt their message went unheard.

“Worthless,” is what one angry attendee called the plan, and city councillor Quinton Zondervan asked senior traffic engineer Patrick Baxter repeatedly why there could not be plastic flex posts – the primary demand of the April protest – where the city planned to put buffered bike lanes. An April 30 council order, though passed with some debate, also hoped for more extensive steps toward bike safety.

Baxter said trucks coming trough the snaky area would shear off posts in the curves, drawing criticisms from one upset cyclist that the city was “prioritizing trucks over bikes.” As part of the April protest, people formed a human wall in the Somerville Avenue bike lane buffer area to prove protected lanes were possible – and cars and bikes passed by without incident, using the lanes on either side of them.

Changes to the square were spurred by two deaths in 2016: Psychotherapist Marcie Mitler, 63, was hit by a car at 5:56 a.m. Feb. 18 while walking at Somerville Avenue and White Street, and died later at Massachusetts General Hospital; Ironwood Pharmaceuticals employee Bernard “Joe” Lavins, 60, was hit by an 18-wheel truck at 8:08 a.m. Oct. 5 while bicycling on Massachusetts Avenue across from the shopping plaza and pronounced dead at the scene.

Agnes Varda

7 Mar

A Pioneer Of The French New Wave, Filmmaker Agnès Varda’s Career Spans The Playful And Pointed

Filmmaker Agnès Varda with street artist JR. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)closemore

Filmmaker Agnès Varda has seen and done much in her life — from witnessing the German invasion of France during World War II, to becoming the female face of the French New Wave, to hanging out with enigmatic Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison and, now, being recognized with a Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard.

Varda, who was born in Brussels and spent most of World War II on a boat off the French port of Sète (where her mother was born), stumbled into film. Bestowed with the birth name of Arlette Varda, she changed it at the age of 18 — something that other famed French filmmakers of the time like Jean-Pierre Melville and Chris Marker did as well. A photographer by trade, Varda returned to Sète to shoot pictures for a friend who was physically unable to make the journey to the Mediterranean fishing port.

That photographic mission inspired Varda to make a cinematic postcard of the area with Philippe Noiret (“Cinema Paradiso”) cast as a man trying to reconcile a rocky marriage. The result was the 1955 film “La Pointe Courte” — the title referring to a small, water surrounded quarter of Sète. Shot using natural locations on an incredibly modest budget — and reluctantly edited by fellow filmmaker Alain Resnais who was working on a similar effort at the time — the film is widely considered the forerunner of the French New Wave. Continue reading

Porter Square Alterations

3 Feb

 

Planned changes in Porter Square allow left turns from White Street and close one shopping plaza exit. (Image: City of Cambridge Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department)

Traffic safety improvements in Porter Square would remove the pedestrian island where Somerville Avenue feeds into Massachusetts Avenue; close an exit from the mall allowing for a left-hand turn onto Massachusetts Avenue; and make the left turn from Massachusetts Avenue onto Somerville Avenue a single, dedicated left lane, replacing a center southbound lane that can be either left or straight.

The goal is to simplify the nest of intersections surrounding the mall and T stop and make it safer for all – drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department representatives said. The current five-phase traffic signal cycle (including one for pedestrians only and another to leave the mall parking lot) would be replaced by a simpler three-phase cycle.

The changes, intended to be low-cost and and come as soon as spring or summer, were shared Thursday with around 100 people gathered in University Hall at Lesley University, presented by Phil Goff of Alta Planning and city engineer Patrick Baxter. Continue reading

Neon Blaze

12 Jan

 

Kensho Technology’s sign over 44 Brattle St., Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The bidirectional bike lane on Brattle Street has company in controversy since Kensho Technologies, a growing player in the machine learning and analytics market targeting the finance, health care and national security sectors, has alerted residents and visitors to its new digs at 44 Brattle St. by erected a giant, electric blue neon sign – an intensely bright beacon that one passer-by described as an “optical oddity.”

Nowhere else in the historically zoned Harvard Square are there any such stark illuminations. The Kensho moniker stands out even more against the sheer spareness of the glass-encased building it occupies and the wintertime darkness that consumes Brattle Street at night.

The sign went up just over a week ago.

According to Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, it is not in violation of any code or ordinance. “The Kensho sign was reviewed by [Community Development and Inspectional Services] and found to conform with the provisions of the sign code. The City Sports signs on the exterior of the building will be replaced with Kensho signs also,” Sullivan said, referring to the remains of the sporting goods store that closed all of its 26 stores in 2015.

“The other issue,” he pointed out, “is the commission’s lack of jurisdiction over interior features generally.”

The city has lagged in writing and adopting coherent outdoor-lighting laws since invasive light complaints came before the City Council and city planners at least a decade ago; the lack of ability to limit illumination leaking from building interiors has been cited by many as a weakness of the most recent efforts. In September, a despairing councillor said the city would be better off adopting a resident-written law from 2013.

Some are concerned about the precedent set by the tech company’s branding. “Kensho’s new neon window sign points to the need to reconsider standards for both exterior and interior signage in the Harvard Square Conservation District,” said vice mayor Jan Devereux, who believed a study group was in process to review the conservation district’s guidelines.

The lights can be dimmed, Kensho said. But inside its offices, workers seemed literally above any complaints.

“We hadn’t had any such feedback as of yet,” said Bhavesh Dayalji, head of client operations for the company. “We’re happy to be part of revitalizing Harvard Square, as more and more retail spaces are left empty. We’re also one of the largest employers of engineers in the Cambridge community and excited about some of the plans we have for the future that will benefit the wider Cambridge community.”

Most innovation ventures in Cambridge settle in and around Kendall Square, and much of the office space that Kensho now occupies, as Dayalji points out, had been vacant for some time.

One observer in Harvard Square seemed to appreciate what Kensho had installed, calling it “a sign of the times. You’ve gotta keep up.”

 

The films of Jean-Pierre Melville

3 Dec

6 Films To Celebrate French Noir Master Jean-Pierre Melville’s Centennial At The MFA

Serge Reggiani in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Doulos," released in 1962. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures)closemore

If he were alive today, Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great faces of French cinema, would be 100 years old. (He was born in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1973). To commemorate the filmmaker’s 100th birthday, the Museum of Fine Arts is running a retrospective of the auteur’s work.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name (and too many Americans are), Melville minted chic, noir-ish gangster flicks that have been widely cited for their influence and echoed in the hip, popular works of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and John Woo. Melville also was a contemporary of, and collaborator with, many of the iconic directors of the French New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s — namely Jean-Luc Godard — and employed many of the great French actors of the time, most notably Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.

Now revered for his unique style and approach (he made the fedora and the trench coat as synonymous with the French gangster genre as dusters and 10-gallon hats are to the American Western) Melville almost didn’t become a filmmaker. Born an Alsatian Jew by the surname Grumbach, he fled to England after the 1940 German invasion of France. Later, he returned as a member of the French Resistance. His nom de guerre was indeed copped from the “Moby Dick” author, who the young freedom fighter held in high regard. After the war, Melville applied to become an assistant director, but his license application was denied so he launched his own production company. The rest, so to say, is cinematic history. Melville produced a spartan 14 films — nearly all fine cut gems. Continue reading

Update on Evergood Market

3 Dec

 

The storefront and fixtures at Evergood Market remain intact at 1676 Massachusetts Ave. nearly a year and a half after the store closed. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The Evergood Market space, empty for almost a year and a half on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares, is being held so it can become another neighborhood grocery store, an owner said.

The 1676 Massachusetts Ave. property was not being actively marketed because Stone Investment Holdings is in negotiations with a butcher and grocer to occupy the space, but specifics couldn’t be given because terms and bank loans were all in flux, said Nancy Stone, one of the principals of Stone Holdings.

When asked about the fate of the property if the deal feel through, Stone said she was committed to bringing a similar business to the space – around 8,600 square feet between the ground floor and a basement.

Evergood shuttered in July 2016 after 67 years of operation, and residents of the Agassiz, North Commons, Radcliffe and Avon Hill neighborhoods have been wondering what will become of the space.

Residents have been frustrated by months of non-responses from the property owners and managers. Some who knew grocers interested in the space shortly after the store closed told identical stories of being stymied when attempting to make contact.

“The whole thing is indeed a mystery,” said Pattie Heyman, a Neighborhood 9 resident. “Why this store would be left almost a year and a half in the same condition with no cleaning up and a total eyesore is beyond my comprehension.”

Stone Holdings also owns nearby properties housing a Starbucks and the swank eatery Shepard. Marc Levin, part of the management team at Chestnut Hill Realty, acts as the leasing agent, but repeated inquiries as to the status of the property and its availability were ignored by Levin. His assistant said the property was not Chestnut Hill business and that Levin would need to respond to the query directly. (Initially the property’s availability was advertised in the window listed by UBA Realty, but eventually it came down. A call to UBA pointed Cambridge Day to Levin.)

The store’s founding family, the Scholnicks, sold the store 16 years ago to manager William R. Carr. Two years later, Carr died. His wife, Diana Carr, took over the store and its financial challenges, but aging equipment and deepening financial pressures took their toll, leading her to close the store.

The unchanged storefront and lingering fixtures inside serve as a reminder of the loss to the community. “As a regular customer I miss a grocery where I can pick up food to make dinner,” resident Sarah Block said.

The nearest grocery stores are Star Markets on Beacon Street in Somerville and in Porter Square.