Summer Wars

January 9, 2011

Have you ever done math so hard that your nose bled? Summer Wars, a Japanese animated film, is about a young boy who goes on vacation to meet his friend’s family and finds himself accidentally enabling an evil AI to overtake the internet. This boy, Kenji Koiso, is a math prodigy, and, as with most young geniuses, is shy and nervous around girls. He receives a message on his cell phone that is a string of digits. He manages to decrypt it in a single night, thinking it is an amusing puzzle. In so doing, he inadvertently allows an AI to take over not only his account, but a variety of other online functions. To take back the internet from this AI before disaster hits, Kenji must use pure math to decrypt numerical sequences at break-neck pace, hence causing a nosebleed.

The internet in Summer Wars, called Oz, is basically an ultra facebook on which people store all their information, conduct their business, and run their jobs. This means that not only is credit card information on the internet, but also launch codes to nuclear missiles and global positioning systems for satellites. So, if a hacker with bad intentions were to access this site, he could disrupt all aspects of life, from traffic signals to medical information to defense. Which of course happens.



Oz is a wildly colorful, neon pastel-on-white wonderland of wacky animal avatars. The entire space is reminiscent of Takashi Murakami‘s work, blending cuteness, commercialism, and manga to create a coherent alternate reality. In it any function that one would ever conceive to do online can be done. This includes martial arts sparring, which ends up being a venue for attempting to take down the evil AI that overtakes people’s accounts. A note about this AI: it was created at “a robotics school in Pittsburgh,” and bought by the US government. It was never meant to be evil, it just got out of hand.

Luckily, by visiting his friend’s family’s house in the countryside, Kenji coincidentally is in the same house with the creator of the AI and the coolest fighting rabbit avatar owner that Oz has to offer. Said owner is about 11 years old, but can type really quickly.

The film does not entirely center around Oz, it mainly centers around the family, which has come together to celebrate the 90th birthday of its matriarch. The family consists of men who are vocal but passive, and women who are assertive, yet spend much of their time and energy in the kitchen. While the women remain unaware of the imminent devise of the Earth, the men find a way to get a supercomputer into their house, and play video games in such a way as to save the world.

This outside world, although visually not as fantastic as Oz, is nonetheless more compelling for its ability to



contain stories, conflict, depth and food. The film does not explore people’s actual lives getting taken over by the internet, but rather their virtual lives, namely, the information over which they have power. All the numbers and codes with which a person is associated, from his bank account to, say, the access codes to the city sewer authority computers, if one is the head of the sewer authority, are all kept in Oz. Although a person’s identity can’t be overtaken, his function can be assumed and abused. The repercussions reverberate in the actual world. This abuse is made visual by having the AI, whose avatar is a tattooed warrior, knock around the pieces of graphs, topple dominoes with points of data, and rearrange plates containing the commands to traffic signals. Luckily, there are young math geniuses and computer gurus to save the day.

Summer Wars is playing at the Harris Theater through January 19th.


Tiny Furniture

January 5, 2011

Tiny Furniture

The worst thing that can happen to a person after graduating college is to have to enter the adult world. Luckily, this is not always necessary. One can always move back in with her mother, provided that her mother is really cool, lives in New York City, and is rarely home. It also helps when mom has a stocked wine cabinet and a freezer full of frozen appetizers.

Tiny Furniture stars Lena Dunham as Aura, a young woman who has just graduated college in Ohio and has returned to New York with no idea what she is going to do with her future. She stays with her mother for a few weeks as a stop-gap measure before her friend moves to town and they can get an apartment. But living with her mother is the perfect opportunity for her to “figure things out,” meaning hang out with fascinating yet unsavory people. Her best friend from when she was a young child, Charlotte, lives in the neighborhood, and they quickly develop the sort of obsessive friendship that causes Charlotte to be jealous of all Aura’s other friends. Aura also falls in with the two types of men all women should avoid, egoists and men who quote Nietzsche.

Wrong guy type 1

Wrong guy type 1

Charlotte helps Aura get a job as a day hostess at a restaurant, a job that entails taking reservations and flirting with the chef. This chef is the sort of guy that high school girls fall in love with. He is intense and interesting when you’re around, but he doesn’t actually care about you. He is likely using you for your drug connections, as a back-up if his girlfriend dumps him, or just someone to kill time with at work. He makes plans and breaks them. Instead of seeing him as the egoist he is, Aura spends her time analyzing and justifying his every word and action.

The wrong guy type 2

Wrong guy type 2

Meanwhile, a young video maker she met at a party is staying with her. He has a hit youtube channel, where he stars in videos in which he rides a toy horse and quotes Nietzsche. She met him at a party, invited him to see a movie, and found out that he was broke. So of course she invited him to stay in her mom’s house with her while her mom was away. He, too, is using her for her hospitality. And he’s the sort of bad guest who complains and makes suggestions. When the cool mom returns home, her greatest gripe is that this man who is staying in her house is not even sleeping with Aura.

Throughout the movie, Aura seems to become more childish, and relies more and more on her mother. She convinces herself that her mother needs her, so she decides to stay in her mom’s home rather than get her own place. Meanwhile, her sister writes bad poetry that wins awards, and makes cutting yet true observations about Aura’s lifestyle. Aura doesn’t seem to find herself like she had wanted, but to lose herself in a sea of people who have conflicting expectations of her. She makes poor decisions about who to please and how to please them. She tells Charlotte how everyone in Ohio was so sweet and serene, how they baked for fun, but how they didn’t ‘get it.’ It seems that her years away from cruel, self-absorbed people has caused her to remain naïve and easily manipulated. Yet, she is funny, observant and lovable, and ultimately relatable.

Tiny Furniture is playing at the Regent Square Theater through January 13th.


Lisa Platt

December 5, 2010

Lisa Platt began her artistic career in 1998 with paper mache. She also worked with sculpture, and focused on making sea creatures and mermaids. “I am a mermaid,” she says. In 1998, she took some of her work to the PCA shop and they took it on.

Yellow SubmarineMosaics are now her main focus. She creates her own tiles, fires them and paints them, then arranges the tiles, often around found objects, such as rescued wood. Her works are diverse, some focusing on sea creatures, and some showing urban landscapes. Her work “Yellow Submarine” is an example of objects integrated with her handmade tiles. In this work, her submarine is surrounded by water made of Youghiogheny stained glass.

Other pieces of hers focus on city life, such as her piece entitled “Our Town.” In it is depicted a building with “a crazy lady with a big head. That’s me.” The building also contains a transvestite couple, as well as “a single mom with four kids, a fish and a bird.” On the top of the picture is the night sky, and people dancing on the roof. “It’s Pittsburgh”

The “crazy lady” represents Lisa because she is a landlord, as well as an artist and a teacher. She has taught workshops on mosaics, as well as art camp for mosaics. This winter, she is offering a class on paper mache at the Center for the Arts.

Lisa’s work can be seen around the city. She created the mosaic that wraps around the stingray tank at the zoo. She also has a large mosaic at Children’s Hospital. This mosaic features the hospital, the countryside, the city, and the zoo. “It turned out cute.” The mosaic contains, “doctors, nurses, birds, giraffes, monkeys.”

She describes her pieces as whimsical, and this characterization can be seen in a work she made for a former fellow at CMU. He commissioned her to create a work of art to thank his colleagues. She made the pieces with CMU’s mascot the Scottie dog, as well as the CMU seal, and plaid. Each of the four parts represented a different season, and for each season the Scottie dog had on different attire. For winter he had a winter hat, and in summer sunglasses.

“A lot of artists represent themselves in different ways. My interest is to lighten it up. My intent is to make people smile and be happy. I crack myself up all the time.” Her work gets people smiling, from her large mosaics to her ornaments. She sells ornaments of fat cats with whiskers. People bring these ornaments up to the register in both hands, looking at the little faces and smiling.

Lisa was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to Florida in 1979. There she had a variety of jobs, including manager of a ship store in the marina and working on a fishing boat, on which she was the only girl. “They did challenge me,” she says of the experience. Her time in Florida is part of what inspires her love of sea creatures and mermaids.

Other factors have also influenced her art. “I grew up around a wonderful family.” Her dad was a creative writer, and friends of her family were photographers, painters, furniture makers, and people who made money with their crafts. They were “a bunch of bohemians.”

Lisa worked at the zoo for 16 years as the operations manager; she was in charge of the gift shop, restaurant, catering, and special events. She was also responsible for hiring, scheduling, and tracking 150 seasonal employees each year. “My strength is I am good with logistics.” The job was intense and rewarding. It was hard to make the transition from employee to self-employed artist. At the time she made the change, she was managing 10 buildings, working full time and making art. “I couldn’t do it all. I had to back off from something.” It took time to get “used to not going to work everyday for someone else.”

Of the PCA she says, “I love the Center. I took classes there as a kid and young adult in ceramics.” She would especially like to thank Jen Carter, the PCA Shop Manager. “She’s so devoted to the program, which features some of the nicest work I’ve seen in one place. She;s a good, strong manager, lovely person, and talented.”

Of life as an artist,“this is the best time of my life now,” she says.

Visit the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to view Lisa’s work.


Ron Donoughe

November 27, 2010

Ron Donoughe is a Pittsburgh artist known for his plein air method. He finds outdoor locations in and around Pittsburgh, sets up shop, and paints outdoors. Once he has created his painting, he brings it into his studio to create a larger version. He began his outdoor paintings years ago because he “wanted to do work directly from life in an honest way.” He is interested in light and shadow, as well as how colors change over distance.

When he had begun painting, the work he was doing was “clever. It felt like jumping through intellectual exercises,” and did not involve “experiencing the landscape.” He refers to this as “drawing from the interior rather than the exterior.” He switched to the plein air method because the plein air works were “more honest. They felt true to who I was.”

Donoughe comes from a large family and had seven siblings, one of whom is his identical twin. They grew up in the country, surrounded by cows and chickens, “immersed in the landscape.” During his youth he had a variety of jobs, including landscaping and grave digging, which he did with his twin. The graves were hollowed out with a back hoe, but he and his brother had to climb in with shovels to even them out. “It was a crazy job, but the undertaker always tipped well.” They also had a job that involved catching chickens in the chicken coup, which Donoughe describes as “character building.”

house shadowWhen he began outdoor painting, he painted rural landscapes in all seasons. He has since “warmed up to the urban landscape.” Nowadays he paints both urban and rural landscapes. With his twin brother he owns his parents home, which he frequently visits, finding locations in the area to paint. He also paints every day in Pittsburgh. “It’s part of my routine. I go out looking for subject matter. Something will stop me and call out to be painted.” In his urban paintings, he strives to “give voice to areas of Pittsburgh that don’t get a voice visually.” These days he has been painting in Garfield, Lawrenceville, and Braddock.

At the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Donoughe is currently selling his smaller Melt linepaintings that he completed while outdoors. His winter paintings are some of his most famous for the way they show the play of light, shadow and color on snow. He has paintings from every season in both rural and urban environments.

For more of his work visit his website at : http://www.donoughe.com/ or go to the PCA shop.


3 Rivers Film Festival to Feature Local Films

November 11, 2010

The Three Rivers Film Festival features films by and about Pittsburghers.

On Friday November 19th at 9:15 at the regent Square Theater, Mt. Pleasant will play. This film is based on the short story by local author Jim Daniels. The film features a young man who assumed that escaping his home town of Detroit would solve his problems and change his life for the better. College, however, is not quite that simple, and he falls into self-destructive behavior to allay his anxieties. The film takes place over a weekend in Pittsburgh in which the young man confronts himself and his defunct worldview. The film will be preceded by Steeltown’s 2009 Film Factory competition winners, Anywhere But Here, and Roll The Dice.

On Saturday, November 13th at 7:00 at Melwood, The Electricity Fairy will play. This film documents and examines America’s relationship with fossil fuels. The film covers the controversy over creating a coal-fueled power plant in Virginia, and connects that local issue with the national energy debate. The film mixes documentary footage with old educational films and links past policy to our present conditions.

On Saturday, November 13th from 1-6 pm, a symposium entitled Movies And Violence: A Love Affair will be held at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. The symposium will feature screenings, presentations and discussions exploring the allure and omnipresence of violence in film. Violence is not limited to horror and action, but is a key feature in slapstick humor, in drama, and in cartoons. Violence ranges from a box office draw to a key plot point. Its ever presence on the news implies that violence in itself tells a story. Violence is visceral, and it connects the viewer to the film emotionally and physically; violent scenes are often the most memorable parts of films. Watching violence is thus different than watching other films, because the body participates, not just the mind. Violence on television is like the distilled essence of sport, the catharsis of sudden pain, which is disturbing but psychologically necessary. Rather than sitting around the campfire or in the pub, telling stories of war or the hunt, we watch those stories, safely, and vicariously suffer or proclaim ourselves victorious.

On Friday, November 12th at 10:00 at the Regent Square Theater, SYNC’D II will be playing. The show features locally made silent films from a variety of genres. The films will be accompanied by live music by Black Yodel and Bigg Slurpp, a Pittsburgh band.

Go to 3RFF.com for further descriptions and listings.


Anxiety and Redemption at Melwood Galleries

November 3, 2010

Anxiety and Redemption, a collection of photographic works by Kerry Skarbakka,
will be in the Filmmakers Galleries from November 5th through December 5th.
The show is a combination of two series, The Struggle to Right Oneself and
Fluid. The Struggle to Right Oneself is a series of photographs in which Skarbakka
is falling, often from trees, through windows, or off of high cliffs and bridges.
Fluid is a response to global warming, showing surreal underwater images,
many of which are of Skarbakka himself, fully dressed in suits, looking anxious,
helpless or drowned.

Filmmakers interviewed Skarbakka about his upcoming show, and the symbolism,
history, and craft of his art.

Anxiety and Redemption captures the feelings of angst and helplessness that
have been predominant in our culture for the past decade. “Falling is a provocative
metaphor for loss of control,” says Skarbakka. His pictures capture “despondency,
all that pressure we put on ourselves as a society
just to live.” The images are
about “the act of losing control, of giving up control,” and the consequences

The pictures he creates are not altered;everything is shot on location, often
from great heights. He uses ropes, rigging, and landing pads, but has
nonetheless been hurt multiple times in the process, once even breaking a rib.

Many of his photos are serendipitous.”If I come upon a place that I feel may be
interesting, I infuse my
body within the scene with plausibility,” making it look
“as real as possible.” “Some are just going for
it, and some are controlled.” If he
finds an edifice or natural precipice that looks right for his series, he
sets up and
is “in and out quick and fast.” His art is guerrilla, and he doesn’t always have
permission to
shoot in the place he is shooting. “The cops have only come once,
” when he was jumping off a
billboard by the interstate north of Chicago.
The police were concerned about the activity, but more
importantly, about
his large 4 x 5 camera, which they mistook for something more sinister.

The underwater shots are planned out in advance, and involve scouting areas
underwater. The deepest
he has photographed was 100 feet, off the coast of
Honduras. With a team of divers, he dives, shoots,
then places himself in the
scene and shoots again. He wears gear to get to his location, but casts it off

for the pictures, so that the image is of a man in land attire underwater.

Skarbakka started creating the images for Fluid before the Indonesian tsunami
and before Katrina. The
underwater shots represent “the silent result of things,”
and are “more of a warning.” Global Warming
may not always cause us to be
physically underwater, but we will find ourselves helpless in an

Skarbakka grew up on a farm in Tennessee in a Pentecostal family. “The fear of
Death was used for
control. If you died impure, you were likely to go to hell.”
In 1999, his mother died, and he used his
portfolio of her death as his portfolio
for graduate school. His upbringing and the death of his mother
caused him to
think about “transcendence, death, rites of passage,” and experiences that are

“transformative,” themes that have been present in his work since the beginning,
and have intensified
over the last decade.

“September eleventh was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was an emotional,
serious time. The
world changed, and I needed to make serious, sophisticated art”
His works focused on the anxieties
that were no longer internal, but shared
throughout the culture. He combined that “bundled energy,”
along with his love
of rock climbing, martial arts, acting, and sculpture, and placed them into a 2

dimensional surface. For this reason, Skarbakka’s work is physical, visceral, and,
although made of
stills, has a strong sense of movement.

Although the fear and despondency that resulted from September eleventh have
affected his works,
none of his photographs reference that day. They are
symbolic of the feeling of loss of control, on both
personal and societal levels.
His work has, however, been misinterpreted in the past. One of his
shows Skarbakka falling past a window of the Museum of Contemporary Art in
The making of this photograph generated publicity, and many
journalists came to report on the scene.
One journalist who was not present for
the shooting claimed that Skarbakka was imitating people
falling from the Twin
Towers. This story gained traction, and was put in the Sun Times and the Daily

News without the papers doing any fact checking. The story spread to Brooklyn,
where Skarbakka was
living, and caused him to be the victim of death threats and
hate mail. Mayor Bloomberg called his
work “nauseatingly offensive.” He had to
grow a beard and disappear from the public eye. The furor
has mostly calmed down,
especially since Skarbakka’s appearance in April on the Today Show, where
he was
able to “put to peace” the situation. “My work is about crisis in general, not a
particular crisis.”

Anxiety and Redemption will be on exhibit in Filmmakers Galleries through
December 5, 2010. Kerry
Skarbakka will be giving an artist talk on Thursday,
November 18 with a reception from 5:30-8:00 and
the artist talk at 7:00 pm
in the gallery. Admission is free.



September 22, 2010

The 1992 film Orlando, based on the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf, is playing at the Harris theater through the 23rd.

In the film, Orlando, at the time a young man and lover of the old queen, is told by Queen Elizabeth I to stay young forever. He does so, and, in the process, has a variety of the sort of intense and short lived relationships of a young man. As a man, Orlando feels that his passion for a woman is reason for him to possess her. The women in his life tend to disagree, leaving him heartbroken. He falls not only for women, but also for poetry. When he turns to poetry as an outlet for his youthful intensity, he discovers that his feelings, though intense and universal, are trite and laughable when translated into rhymes. There is a certain ennui associated with immortality, and a sense of endlessly waiting for the future, which is said to be brighter and grander than the base and tedious present.

Orlando as a manOrlando becomes an ambassador to Constantinople, and, despite the city’s intrigue and beauty, remains seemingly unphased, even when nearly killed in a conflagration. It is in Constantinople that, after sleeping for 11 days, Orlando wakes up as a woman. She takes this in stride, perhaps due to her having lived such an unnaturally long life already. Of course, the simple fact of being a woman changes her relationship with society. She is at risk of losing her home, an isolated castle in the British countryside, and is proposed to by men who claim that marrying them would be the best way to avoid insolvency and homelessness. At the time in history when she became a woman, it was illegal for a woman to own property, so marriage to a wealthy woman was a business opportunity for the men of her day.

Orlando as a womanOrlando wasn’t just a woman, she was a beautiful woman, and beauty comes with its own set of problems. Men adored her, and wanted to possess her for that reason, much like she had wanted to do when she was a he. Beauty also involves the maintenance of beauty, which in Victorian England involved a staff of cosmetic and clothing engineers. Being a woman wasn’t a simple fact, it was a process.

When we discuss women’s history, we see a progression toward freedom and self-determination, with each generation gaining more ground, yet each stage in the process being lived by different women. The joy of Orlando is that the gradual liberation of women is experienced by the same woman over hundreds of years. She seems to be waiting for the time when she can be treated as an equal to men, when she can retake her home, raise children, and dress herself without an entourage of handmaidens.

This time does eventually come, and toward the end of the movie we see Orlando driving, which, in 1928 when the book was written, was a symbol of liberation for women. The movie ends in the 1990’s, rather than the 1920’s, but brings to modernity the elegance and calm that run throughout the entire movie.