Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trolls: Surreal Kids' Film Operating on Multiple Levels

Trolls was not on my radar. Not even remotely. My boys are 16 and almost 10, so the film disappeared in my blinders like a thousand other things out in the wild that become invisible because of their sheer ubiquity.  But one night when I was watching trailers on my Apple TV, my youngest son asked to see the Trolls trailer. I obliged him but paid it little mind, mostly because it was still off my radar, and because of the torture I endured when sitting through films like Doogal back in the day...way back when I took my oldest son to see everything when he was younger.

So fast forward to the other day. I'm in Target and I see Trolls, so I grab the bluray for my son. I knew he wanted to see it, and he's typically not into asking to see too many films. I still figured I'd just give it to him and that'd be that. Trolls would likely be seen by him and vanish onto his shelf with Sponge Bob and other kid movies. Now I want to explain here that I love kids' films. I am a huge fan of most Pixar films, Hayao Miyazaki films, Monster House, Wallace and Gromit, The Iron Giant, and more.

Trolls, I assumed, was not going to be a great kids' film. It just seemed like the huge amount of excess chum that gets developed and made. Another property to generate toy sales, etc. And it definitely is that, but it's more than that too. Trolls, in my opinion, is operating on multiple levels. Many kids' films do the kid humor thing and also have jokes in there that only adults will get. This is because adults make these films and they insert humor for themselves and the adults they know will be seeing the film with their children. That's why some of the better kids' films are awesome. They cleverly operate on this dual level and keep two age groups entertained simultaneously. Trolls does this masterfully, especially with music.

On the surface Trolls is a simple story about a group of bad giants called Bergens. The Bergens want to eat the happy colorful trolls, like pills, to be happy. One angry, melancholy troll, Branch, warns the extra happy troll queen, Poppy, that they are too complacent, and the Bergens will catch them if they are not careful. Fast forward and many get captured, so Poppy and Branch need to team up to attempt a rescue. Seems simple enough. They also find a miserable Bergen named Bridget. She's the nicest Bergen, but all the other Bergens crap on her constantly. She is secretly in love with another young Bergen, Prince Gristle. This is where the film trends into interesting territory...

A few trolls help Bridget and make her look prettier. With their elongating colorful troll hair, they make her a wig. While on her head they also coach her what to say to Prince Gristle to give her confidence. This is extremely reminiscent of Ratatouille and Inside Out, in which characters in or on someone's head help them in some way. In Ratatouille, Remy helps Linguini and they form a mutually beneficial relationship. In Inside Out, different emotions help a young girl, Riley, as she goes about her day-to-day activities. When a few emotions go missing, Riley exhibits erratic and depressing traits uncharacteristic of her. In Trolls, all the Bergens are eternally depressed and miserable. They feel something external that they eat (little happy colorful trolls) will make them happy. Eventually, the small group of happy trolls help Bridget to get confidence and not be gloomy. In the end they help all the Bergens to break free of endless sadness they only feel can be fixed by eating trolls, and they realize they can be happy from inside with no external help.

Along the way, Poppy gets sad and turns gray, and all the trolls turn gray along with her. Branch finds his inner happiness and helps Poppy to break her sudden melancholy during an awesome cover of the Cyndi Lauper song, "True Colors." In the end the Trolls and the Bergens are happy—all except Chef and one troll who betrayed the other trolls. These two bad apples/emotions get eaten at the end by some giant creature.

Overall I find the film to be about various forms of depression and possible solutions.

I enjoyed the film, the story, the sub-stories, the mostly retro music, and the characters. The next aspect I loved is the look and feel of the film, which I feel is an amazing end result of decades of fine art, pop culture, more art, more films, and more fine art. Below is a progression, the way I see it, from surrealism, to Dr. Seuss, Mark Ryden, and onward, each influencing the next either directly or indirectly.

Classic Surrealist fine art

Surreal Dr. Seuss Art

Pop surrealist art by Mark Ryden with obvious influences from Dr. Seuss and pop culture.

More contemporary pop surrealist art by various artists

Current Dr. Seuss CGI films which has been influence by Dr. Seuss, pop surrealism, and Mark Ryden

Stills from Trolls which has been influenced by all that came before. :)

I feel Trolls is an unintentional surrealist masterpiece that's the culmination of decades of art each influencing the next. As I watched the film, I could not help but wonder what the original surrealists would have thought of the film if they could have seen it. If you can watch the film and try to remove any modern frame of reference in understanding it's a kids' film, it becomes entirely absurdist and almost abstract. Watching the film and absorbing the simple story, the subplots, the music, the look and feel, the compositions, the hyper-real computer animation, I concluded the film is an artistic masterpiece. As popular culture and art continually eat themselves and produce more and more absurdist films like these—films that are not as self-conscious and self-aware as films geared for adults—I think greatness can unintentionally result, as it has here.

Check it out. I could be wrong, but I still believe it anyway.

Monday, January 2, 2017

FujiFilm instax, Leica Sofort, and Instant Cameras after the Death of Polaroid

Instant photography died, sort of, back in 2009 when Polaroid announced it would be ceasing production of its film. Back then I helped to organize a small Polaroid show as the brand passed away. Eventually the Impossible Project would resurrect Polaroid, sort of, and produce several new film stocks along with vintage cameras, and even a new one. Although the brand and existence of Polaroid is still around, it is not the same. Polaroid, back when Warhol used it, was not just cool because of its instantaneous, shitty, mushy quality (now imitated ad infinitum digitally), but because it was available everywhere. You could find it at drug stores, rest stops on the Jersey Turnpike, Target, Walmart, gas stations, etc. It was used by relatives who cared little for photography until they found themselves at a graduation or a birthday party, and would stop en route to grab a pack or two of Polaroid film. While the Impossible Project is awesome, it is prohibitively scarce, only available online, crazy expensive, and by becoming exclusively artsy, it loses the ubiquity that made Polaroid Polaroid.

Now all is not lost for the common folk wishing to jump onto the instant photography retro train without pissing away $27 for 8 exposures of 600 type film that used to cost $8 only 10 years ago. Like vinyl at Barnes and Noble, instant photography, too, is having its resurgence. Fuji, which has always made instant film alongside Polaroid, has a few small cameras available. Polaroid too, (I'm unclear about the commercial distinction between Polaroid and the Impossible Project) has a couple of cameras that shoot either the new zink paper prints or the more traditional prints that roll out with the familiar white frame. The Fuji instax film that's commonly available is smaller than even the traditional 600-style Polaroid film. The current image size is roughly 2 1/2" x 1 3/4". It's markedly smaller, but that's fine. The quality is good too, and the prints with the white frame are approximately 3 1/4" x 2 1/4". Nice and small for carrying around. And since digital, cell phones, and Instagram seem to have the market cornered with square format images, it's nice to get some horizontal images with instant cameras. Also, because the film is smaller than traditional 600 Polaroid film, the cameras available that take the FujuFilm instax mini film are smaller and flatter, too, than the old bulky Polaroids.

You can find a whole range of instant cameras on Amazon now, even classic Polaroids. But if you want to use common film—the stuff that is sitting on the shelves at Target or Best Buy—you will want a camera that takes Fuji Instax film. The zink cameras are common too, as is the film, but it's new technology, not retro. The Fuji cameras come in several different models. Some are retro-styled, some are more bubbly and kid-like.

The new crown jewel for the newly-emerging retro instant camera market is the Leica Sofort. It's $300 and more than twice the price of the Fuji cameras that take the exact same film, but the Leica Sofort is a thing of beauty. It feels like an old Instamatic and a Polaroid had a kid together. It comes in three colors and Leica will even be selling its own black-and-white and color film. Remember though, the very common Fuji instax film works perfectly well in the Leica Sofort. The Sofort has a simple LCD screen for its few easy-to-grasp settings. There is even a mirror on the front of the camera to help you take selfies, because that's what we all do now. I've also read that the Leica Sofort is a rejiggered, rebranded rework of the Fuji camera. That's fine. If you don't want to drop $300 no one will force you. Grab one of the Fuji instant cameras instead.

If you want to plunge into the instant photography world, now is the best time. You'll find easily-accessible film, several camera companies to choose from, and you'll also have the ability to introduce your kids to the vintage visual medium that Warhol, Basquiat, and Hockney elevated into an artform decades ago.

FujiFilm instax film shot on the new Leica Sofort

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

15 Minutes of New York Times Fame

Adam Furgang, 16, standing on a wooden sculpture next to his friend
Michael Reed, on the playground of the Electchester apartments
 in Queens in 1986. 
About a week ago a close friend saw online that The New York Times was requesting "readers' images that capture what it's like to grow up in the five boroughs." She knew I grew up in Queens, so she sent me the link.

Only a few weeks before this I had finally gotten around to picking up a negative scanner so that I could get many of my older film images digitally-scanned and online. When I saw the Times request, I had conveniently already scanned many of my old favorites. I submitted two shots to The New York Times. 

After my submission, I sort of forgot about it. Then, in under a week, I was contacted by Amy Zerba at the Times, asking for more information because the shot of my friend Mike and I had been chosen. It appeared online this past Friday. Scroll down on the Times web page link to see my picture. Today my photo was in print in The Metro Section. 

Not too shabby? Needless to say, Mike and I are thrilled that we made it in. We were 16 back then. God, time flies.  —AF

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The AI Art Robot Invasion Is Coming

Hide your pencils and paint brushes. The art robots will be here soon to replace you!

Robots have replaced factory workers. Robots are now roaming hospital halls.  Robots are writing articles. Robots are now bartenders, pharmacists, farmers, cashiers, and even an entire McDonald's in Phoenix is run by robots. And naturally, there is the coming robot army that will enslave us all.

But what about art? Will robots ever create art? 

Art I made "using" the iPhone app Prisma. The first shot
on the top left is from my photo. I did the face painting too. 
The rest in the series is all Prisma.
The short answer is, yes. And I'm not just saying this to make a fuss and kick dirt in anyone's face. I am an artist myself. I went to an art high school and an art college. The gut reaction behind anything we humans do with our brains and hands is to state, with confidence, that a robot will never be able to generate what we can. It feels right to say that we are entirely unique. We are special. We can't be imitated. 

The truth is a bit harder to swallow. First off, robots are humanity's creations. Like the HAL 9000 in Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey they are an extension of us. As we figure out the mechanics of the universe more and more, often using mathematical algorithms to do just about anything, the computers and the software that runs on them work better and better.

In simple terms, an algorithm is a self-contained set of step-by-step instructions to be performed for a specific task. The math, programming, and junk can get awfully complicated. Once quantum computers become common it will progress even faster than they already are. 

"Bonnie and Corinne" by robot cloudPainter
from George Washington University.
The bottom line is that art is not immune to the coming robot takeover. As an artist myself I never much liked the highbrow snooty air of superiority that revolves around the profession. Sure, artists are cool. We're quirky. We make oddball life choices and spend years honing our skills. We're just people though, and what we do is not terribly complicated when you examine it like any other task humans perform. We would like to think it's special. 

So as the computers get better doing what they do,  all of what humanity does will eventually be imitated by the robot machines we make. And eventually the imitations will become indistinguishable from work done by a human's hand. If you don't think it's coming, I'd like to point to the naysayers who said film would never be replaced by digital. Kodak is gone. Digital cameras started out as entirely lacking the warm chaos of film.
We are now at a point where you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between film an digital. And you can accomplish this now with off-the-shelf cameras sold at Target and Best Buy.

And you'll always have people trying to define what is and is not art. Those are my least favorite
Google's AI neural networks created these images
and is blowing minds as it goes. This is just the start too. 
AI robot art is in its infancy. Imagine where it'll be 
in 30 years time?
kinds of people—self-appointed gatekeepers who try to narrow the spectrum of what is and is not allowed in the world. All the while, technology and creative people chug along, churning out new and innovative creations. 

If you are an artist, you can rest easy for now. But changes in technology happen fast, so I'd suggest embracing the future rather than fighting it. One day soon you might have a robot artist apprentice who might be able to churn out art done by imitating your unique style.

Try and imagine drawing from a photo or a live image and using a special pen that communicates your style to a computer. Now that computer has learned your style, perhaps, and can imitate it with new photos. If silly old me can conceptualize this, you can be sure there are already great minds at work on this somewhere. 

Creativity will always be relevant. Don't worry about that. We're not about to become the Eloi yet. 

Computer or robot-generated art will likely become much more common as time goes on—the same way photography has become entirely common because of cell phones. Professional photographers are still around. For the moment. :)

But rather than it just being you who can take pictures, paint, or draw really well, there might also be a robot who can create art. Maybe rich artists will be the first to own them. Or maybe it will just start slowly and innocuously like with the Prisma app that filters photos into lo-grade art styles. Apps get updated. They get better. And soon they are churning out high-quality results. 

This soon-to-be-available art robot might be something you can pick up at Target, like the kitchen mopping robot pictured above. You can buy this mopping robot right now. A robot that mops your floor. 

Keep your skills honed and sharp. You might one day be teaching not just your kids how to draw, but your phone too. Still not convinced? Here are a few articles to set you straight.

Google’s Artificial Brain Is Pumping Out Trippy—And Pricey—Art

Humanoid Robots Are Getting Really Good at Making Art

15 incredible pieces of art created by robots

Robot Art Raises Questions about Human Creativity

7 awesome ways quantum computers will change the world

Below is some art I did from a selfie and a few apps. What is possible with a few clicks is mind boggling.
Progression using a selfie photo, the Prisma art app, Google's online 
Deep Dream Generator, some back and forth between the two.
More back and forth, Photoshop, and Lightroom.

Close up

Final Abstract art from selfie.

Friday, July 22, 2016

My Favorite Melancholy Films

Herein follows a list of some of my favorite melancholy films. The list is by no means exhaustive, or all inclusive, nor does it contain every favorite melancholy film of mine. This is a first blush list off the top of my head. 

The reason I enjoy watching these films is because, paradoxically, they make me feel good. Although I love many types of films, realism and character-driven stories are my first true love. Honest, well-developed plots and characters should attempt to explore all emotional aspects. No one is devoid of conflict and melancholy.

I'm starting with my absolute favorites and working my way from there. 

Never Cry Wolf 

This is my favorite film of all time. The film follows a biologist into the wild as he searches for a link between the decline of the caribou population, with wolves being the expected culprit. The film is slow. The photography is fantastic. The music is amazing. And the protagonist winds up being very introspective, learning more about himself than he does about the world around him. A masterpiece. 

Winter Passing

Another favorite of mine. The film follows the troubled female protagonist, Reese Holdin, back home as she considers collecting her famous writer parents' love letters and selling them to a publisher for 100K. Upon returning home she finds her father living in a ramshackle shed after her mother's suicide, with two troubled younger caretakers living in her childhood home. The film has echoes of J. D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye, with names like Holdin, a troubled protagonist coming home, nervous breakdowns, and suicide. It even had a few primary color choices here an there that help set the mood on film. An overlooked masterpiece. 

The Big Chill

Lawrence Kasdan's masterpiece is about a group of 30-something friends coming together after a friend's suicide. I've loved this film since I saw it as a kid in the 1980s. Eventually, I lost my best friend from childhood to suicide, adding another poignant layer to this film. I never tire of this film and I am always down to watch it again. 

Inside Llewyn Davis

After decades of fantastic filmmaking, the Coen brothers manage to top themselves fantastically with this nod to folk music. The film has a slightly surreal looping feel and explores being an artist without any marked monetary success, recognition, or direction. Suicide is also a theme in this film as Llewyn Davis's musician partner has killed himself before the events of the film take place. This aspect of the film mirrors The Big Chill. Great writing, photography, acting, and music make this film a contemporary classic. 


Woody Allen's homage to Ingmar Bergman is a bleak and lonely film. The film revolves around three adult sisters after their father decides to leave their troubled mother. The film is slow. The dialogue feels very real. And the film ends on a very downbeat note. I love it! 

Husband's and Wives

Woody Allen himself has mentioned Husband's and Wives as one of his own personal favorites. I agree. The film follows four middle-aged friends after one couple decides to separate. The film is an entirely honest and unflinching deconstruction of what it can mean to be married. Infidelity, loneliness, isolation, fantasies, arguments, and reconciliation are all peppered throughly throughout this fantastic film. 

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Another great Woody Allen film follows a group of people marred by disfunction, loneliness, murder, suicide, infidelity, and generally depressing malaise. One of Allen's best. Woody Allen has many more great films that could easily be added to my list. I'll stop here though. 

The Royal Tenenbaums
All of Wes Anderson's films are great. He's yet to make a bad film. The Royal Tenenbaums, for my money, is his best. The funny/sad film follows a dysfunctional family where three middle-aged children return home after their father fakes his impending death to try and make up for a troubled past. The opening five minutes of the film are better than most directors' entire catalogue of films. Wes Anderson is the greatest American filmmaker alive and never shies away from depression, drugs, suicide, death, infidelity, sexual disfunction, and the overall conflicts that he uses to make some of the greatest films I've ever seen. Perfect writing, photography, acting, songs, and mise-en-scène are always present. 

Wonder Boys

Based of the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, Wonder Boys centers around a group of writers during a weekend writing festival at a university in Pittsburg, PA. Writer's block, sexual confusion, suicide, infidelity, theft, divorce, and a dead dog weave throughout this wonderfully comedic film. A personal all-time favorite of mine. 

Being There

Being There follows a simple-minded older man, Chance, who is thrust out into the world after living as the isolated gardener of an older, wealthy man. It's implied that he was possibly the wealthy man's illegitimate child. As the film unfolds, Chance wanders aimlessly and manages to avoid desolation by finding his way into the good graces of a wealthy dying banker and his wife. The film explores how chance and luck are often behind the directions our live's take. The protagonist's willingness to accept what comes his way without question is also behind his good fortune. Despite the good luck of the main character, the film still has an overall melancholy feel that deals with death, adult sexual needs, and the randomness of life. 


A largely unknown film explores the writing of Franz Kafka. A mysterious castle, bureaucracy, terrorism, loneliness, writing, and science punctuate this exploration into the human condition. 

The Double

A recent favorite. This film is an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel of the same name. The film revolves around an introvert protagonist with a bleak existence. He comes to meet his doppelgänger who possesses all the traits he wishes he had. Introversion, suicide, loneliness, isolation, unrequited love, and the directionless trail life often takes are all explored in this wonderfully sorrowful film. :)

Smart People

This film revolves around a dysfunctional literature professor who is coming to terms with the death of his wife. His intelligent college-aged kids, burned-out adopted brother, and a lonely female doctor all help to bring this small unknown film together. Death, incest, dysfunction, drugs, loneliness, and intelligence with no wisdom pepper this film and make it a hidden melancholy gem. 


A documentary that explores the dysfunctional life of the famous cartoonist, H. R. Crumb, his family, and his art. Beyond my simple description, you should just go see this fantastic film right away.

Little Miss Sunshine

A very funny film that follows a family while they attempt to bring their awkward daughter to a beauty pageant. Suicide, nihilism, divorce, bankruptcy, sexual disfunction, infidelity, jealousy, nervous breakdowns, and financial insecurity are just a few of the themes that weave through this wonderfully bleak film that uses comedy brilliantly to soften the subject matter. 

Ghost World

Ghost World follows two aimless female high school graduates as they come to terms with social and societal pressures to conform. 

American Splendor

The film follows the bleak day-to-day existence of the real-life cartoonist, Harvey Pekar. A lost voice, loneliness, dysfunctional people, cancer, creative problems, and financial issues all work well together in this wonderful film. 

Thanks for reading.