MoMA QNS and Minority Report

Yesterday I went to see two much-hyped recent openings, both drawing

capacity audiences. Both, I have to say, were disappointing, although

only by their own very high standards.

Michelle, Stefan and I were not the only ones attracted to a particularly

insalubrious part of Queens by the prospect of free admission to MoMA’s

home for the next three years. The museum

strictly limited the number of people inside, which resulteda round-the-block

queue. I’ve encountered such things at the 53rd St location as well,

but there it’s a lot easier to shrug and decide to come back some other

day: once you’ve made the schlep out to 33rd St and Queens Blvd, you’re

not likely to simply turn around and go back.

The much-vaunted approach on the 7 train, by the way, is very disappointing.

The theory is that painted black-and-white blocks on the roof of the

museurm slowly form the famous MoMA logo as you near the station; the

practice is that you glimpse it for a couple of seconds before it’s

hidden behind the station wall. (And we even made sure to stand right

at the front of the train, looking out through the forward-facing window,

to get the best view.)

Inside, MoMA’s gone for the White Cube approach with abandon. Not only

is every wall in the gallery a bright, flat white, but the lighting

is perfectly even throughout: no spotlighting of masterworks here. The

space used to be a staple factory, but unlike other conversions (the

Saatchi gallery, Tate Modern) very little of its former state remains.

There’s no exposed brick, no poured-concrete floors with markings betraying

the recent removal of old light-industrial machinery. Rather, there’s

a big, versatile space perfect for displaying outsize contemporary art:

Richard Serra, say, or Ilya Kabakov.

The problem, of course, is that MoMA already has a very good space

for displaying contemporary art in Queens: it’s called PS1, and it does

its job extremely well. MoMA QNS is meant to be the home-away-from-home

of the greatest collection of modern art in the world, and indeed the

schedule of exhibitions lined up for next year starts off with Matisse

(b. 1869), Picasso (b.1881), Max Beckmann (b. 1884) and Ansel Adams

(b. 1902). These are not artists who need huge white walls: all of them

benefit from intimate settings.

MoMA QNS is showing "Collection Highlights" at the moment,

which I think is basically all the postcard bestsellers from the 53rd

St shop. The Desmoiselles are here, of course, along with Starry

Night and Cezanne’s Bather, and all of them, even the huge

Picasso, are dwarfed by their surroundings. MoMA should have been more

sensitive: while the contemporary art here was, as a rule, made to be

displayed in such a setting, the 19th Century paintings feel as though

a string quartet was trying to play Wembley Stadium.

The problem is actually worse, interestingly enough, when it comes

to the Abstract Expressionists, and particularly the pair of De Koonings

on show. Abstract Expressionism, of course, was all about bringing painting

up to an unprecedented scale: when these works were painted, they would

completely dominate any room or gallery in which they were shown. Here,

however, they’re stuck in a corner, almost as an afterthought, and have

lost all their ability to dominate through sheer scale.

And while I applaud the death of Alfred Barr’s Reithian Olympianism,

the pendulum seems to have swung far too far in the opposite direction:

the first exhibit you see here is half a dozen dusty cars. It’s Guggenheim

programming, but without Thomas Krens’s magical populist touch.

The magical populist touch of Steven Spielberg, meanwhile, is something

we are increasingly having to take on faith. It’s been nine long years

since the last time he

directed one of the truly

great escapist

films with which he made

his name, and his attempt to get back on form with Minority Report

is only a partial success.

Spielberg is too self-conscious now. That was excusable in A.I.,

because he was chanelling the great Stanley Kubrick, one of the most

self-conscious directors ever. But if I’m watching a sci-fi Spielberg

actioner starring Tom Cruise, I don’t want to sit back and admire the

cinematography or the artful use of classical music: I want to be on

the edge of my seat, enjoying the thrill ride. In short, I want Spielberg

to rise to the challenge set by John Woo in M:I-2. But he doesn’t,

and I suspect he can’t.

There are a couple of exciting sequences near the beginning, although

the first relies far too heavily on the old man-against-the-clock trope,

and the second is often visually incoherent. But then we leave the action

behind and far too quickly get bogged down in plot and exegesis which

fails even to explain what’s going on. (Stefan’s

right: although we learn that Cruise has been set up, we never learn

how. And the whole film seems to be predicated on the assumption that

if you live in DC and want to murder someone, you will go to astonishing

lengths to murder them in DC, where murder has ostensibly been eliminated,

rather than simply getting away with it elsewhere in the country, where

it hasn’t. And there are half a dozen other huge plot holes I could

enumerate if I cared.)

"Everybody runs," says the film’s tag line, and Cruise helpfully

repeats it here. But it doesn’t mean very much, and in fact he doesn’t

do a lot of running. (One of the great Spielberg touches, and there

are a few in the film, is the point at which Cruise evades detection

from dozens of police officers looking for him in a shopping center

by standing still right in the mall’s single most visible point.) What

Cruise does do is switch dizzyingly backwards and forwards from being

Tom Cruise Supercop to being Troubled Druggie Dad. The whole subplot

about how he has never recovered from the loss of his son adds nothing

to the film except an excuse for Spielberg to get all schmaltzy on us

and show off some clever special effects when Cruise starts doing drugs

and cueing up 3D recordings of his beloved Sean.

I didn’t buy Tom Cruise as Tormented Soul in Eyes Wide Shut,

and I don’t buy it here, either. More to the point, there’s no need

for tormented souls in this kind of film in the first place. What I

want is suspense, and there’s precious little of that: after all, we

know what’s going to happen. The only time the precogs are wrong happens

right at the end of the film, and it’s jarring: the wrong person dies,

and we segue straight into an almost comically happy ending. Spielberg

has been given props for making a sci-fi dystopia which doesn’t look

like Blade Runner, but that’s no reason for an ending of quite such

nauseating schmaltziness.

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