How beautiful do you need to be in the XXI century?

Do you live in 2015? So you need to start behaving like you do.

Start off  by finding the answer to the question in the title of this post and setting your goals with precision and determination.  Start acting, time is not on your side.  Do you need to look (more) beautiful to keep your job,  to find a new job, for your spouse, for yourself, because of the pressure of  the society to look eternally young and fresh, or maybe do you need a correction for a bodily defect? Take a hard look at yourself in the mirror, go through your thousands of selfies, talk to your therapist and make a decision. Examine every section of your body, it’s not only about faces anymore. Everyone seems to be doing this. You will be feeling isolated and disconnected if you don’t start soon.

Just take a look at the profile  pictures of the list of  your friends on Facebook or dating sites you may use: if you don’t use dating sites or apps,  sign up today, you won’t stand a chance of meeting anybody in the real world anymore.  It won’t take you long  to realize that everyone is scraping off a couple of years from their details, if not decades.  If you are 55 – apparently the end of life to date someone online or get a job –  photoshop yourself and pretend you are 45 or younger.

I watched a program on E!  the other day (“Botched”)  in which,  apparently,  these two renowned plastic surgeons fix botches  or errors made by some of their peers. People, especially  in Los Angeles, the Mecca averyone in our culture seems to be looking up to for the new standards of beauty, fashion, lifestyle and voyerism, will not accept the body they were born with any longer. They treat it  as discardable pieces of clothing to be changed and replaced by a new one every now and then as they wish. Wa have started finding it more and more common to expose as much as we can about our private lives through social media, dating sites and reality shows. Therefore,  we need to fit the bill, make the grade. Look beautiful. In the 90s and before, only giant billboards over Times Square could do that kind of magic, launching careers for the likes of Marky Mark  (Mark Wahlberg, who posed for an explosive Calvin Klein underwear campaign). Now the potential to project yourself internationally and become a celebrity is within everyone’s reach, or at least, we think so.

Mark Wahlberg in CK underwear.

Mark Wahlberg in CK underwear.

I watched the doctors’s show on E! in a state of trance and disbelief, and I’m trying very hard not to sound judgmental and self-righteous here. I  struggled to understand how these people feel, what they suffer, the source of their eternal dissatisfaction  with themselves, which makes them undertake the risk of hundreds of painful surgical procedures to add, cut, move, reposition, enlarge, narrow and change body parts as if they were playing with cartoon characters on a drawing software. Worse: they all looked weird and doll-like in the end, far from beautiful, in the classical sense, but maybe these will be the new standards in the upcoming years. My perspective on beauty may be getting dangerously outdated.

One of the patients on the show had gone through a number of operations to make his face look like Justin Bieber’s, his idol. He looked nothing like the original in the end, but he was happy and kept trying. There were certain things he wanted done – such as shrinking his jaws –  that the doctors would refused to do, though. He said he would consult other doctors instead. A woman  with size DDD cups, who could hardly keep her breasts inside the blouse, was angry because the doctors wouldn’t make them even bigger. Nothing will stop her. If she needs to go to Tijuana to have them enlarged by the local doctors who use ice bars for anesthetics, as told by another patient who was trying to reposition her navel and had this nightmarish experience in Mexico- she will not hesitate. There was also the case of a gay man who will not stop at anything to make himself have Barbie’s or Ken’s looks. At first I thought he meant Ken’s, but then, as the program progressed, I was under the impression he wanted something more radical: an amalgamation of Ken’s and Barbie’s looks in his own body.  He looked totally plastic and robot-like to the naive and unsophisticated eyes of someone like me, who grew up by the beach in Recife, in the northeast of Brazil, where people could not be more natural in the way they looked physically.

Human Ken/Barbie

Human Ken/Barbie

A gay friend showed me a matchmaking app named Grindr, which operates as a virtual shopping catalog, showing parts of the body of strangers – usually toned or heavily worked-out headless torsos of young men –  they may contact and meet at the touch of a button. The people will show up on your device screen if they are geographically near you, which, supposedly, adds to the immediacy of the satisfaction and completely eliminates the concept of delayed  gratification. The guys on the app seem to be all the same: if you don’t look like a porn star (they immediately exchange more explicit photos after the first contact is made, so all the physical info is made known), your chances of having someone continue your attempts at making  conversation are meager. And even if you look like a Greek god, I was told, the real contacts rarely happen, as the parts keep canceling and postponing the actual meetings forever. The fear of the real is palpable and insurmountable.

I don’t mean to be nostalgic about the old ways of flirting and dating. They did not work that well either. And there is no way they can compete with the optimization provided by these new dating apps in some respects.  If you are lucky enough to meet the person you contacted through the app outside the virtual world,  you’ll already be armed with a load of information about him/her (most of it fake or distorted, just like in real life, when people talk about themselves). It saves a lot of time. It’s just the new way of doing things. We will have to get used to it.

People have also always worried about how good they looked. It may be only my impression that things may have gotten a bit out of hand now. I wonder how historians will analyze this period we are living now and how all these changes – which actually started back in the sixties – will reshape the human race and its values and behaviours.

Good luck with your bodily alterations.

Jorge Sette.




Paintings in the Movies: Art within Art

I’m fascinated by the game of mirrors and metalinguistic reflections reverberating from the use of art inside art inside art inside art, and all the implications and possible interpretations that result from this spiraling labyrinth. More precisely, this post is about famous paintings that feature in movies either as a direct element of the plot, or, more subtly, as an aid to help compose the fabric of the subtext. I’ll cover 3 interesting instances of clever uses of famous works of art and artistic style in the movies, which always cause a jolt of pleasure in the viewer who recognizes them, and, as a consequence, is able to connect the dots and understand the references.

1. The Skin I live In, by Pedro Almodovar, 2011. Let’s start with this brilliant Almodovar classic, which was heavily criticized when it first came out for its alleged shift of style from what the director had been famous for. Well, if these critics meant the movie adds layers of complexity to Almodovar’s previous works, I couldn’t agree more. However, if they are implying the movie was not funny, I don’t think they got it. It’s hilarious, although in a somewhat dark way. In addition to the humor, one important aspect of the movie is the theme of the contrast between culture and nature, between what is innate and what is fabricated and handed down by civilization; how far can one go to change what is considered natural? Without going into too much detail about the plot of the movie, let’s just say it’s about a surgeon who thinks it’s OK to recreate the human skin in order to improve it. And he tests his theory on an unlikely guinea pig: the man who allegedly abused his daughter, and whom he has turned into a woman, through an unauthorized gender reassignment surgery! Too weird? Maybe. But the point here is to discuss the symbolic meaning of the painting that decorates the surgeon’s mansion in Toledo, and keeps popping up in the scenes where he goes up and down the elaborate staircase: The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538. This painting summarizes the main theme of the movie: the idealization and beautification of the real world. In this case, a beautiful goddess, with flawless white skin, concocted by an artist, conveys the impossibility that she could be recreated outside of this imaginary world. She will not leap off the painting and exist in real life.

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

2. Skyfall, by Sam Mendes, 2012. By far my favorite 007 movie. Everything works perfectly to make this a classic: action-packed opening scene, dreamlike credit sequence showcasing Adele’s song, a lot of fighting and shooting throughout, stunning locations (London, Istanbul, Shanghai), sophisticated dialogue, superb acting. And, as the underlying theme, we are to led to confront the universal and always worrying issue of the inexorable passage of time and how human beings cope with it. The main theme is made explicit in an anthological scene (see video clip below) where an aging 007 meets his new and young quartermaster: Q. They are both at the National Gallery in London contemplating Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838, which depicts an old ship being tugged somewhere to be destroyed. These are the best lines of the blistering dialogue that ensues:

Q:    Old age is no guarantee of efficiency.

007: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Do I need to explain anything else?

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

Q meets James Bond:

3. Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, 1973. In this movie the symbolism does not come from showing a specific artwork. However, you can tell the cinematography and art direction are heavily influenced by the style of Caravaggio. You seem to be watching the application in movies of Caravaggio’s artistic principles: Scorsese, just like his baroque predecessor, depicts the contemporary world (1973 New York) of the Italian Mob, shown in beautifully staged scenes where the technique of chiaroscuro or tenebrism predominates. Every scene seems to have the lighting coming from a single or, sometimes, two naked light bulbs carefully placed to focus on the foreground, where the action is taking place. The background is dimmed or blackened in shadows. The characters seem to behave as modern versions of Caravaggio and his mates themselves, rambling through the dark streets of VII century Rome (represented by 1973 New York) after nightfall, going to taverns (bars, and pool joints) and whorehouses (stripclubs). They are constantly gambling, getting involved in brawls and fights, some of those – in the movie – nicely choreographed to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles songs. In addition to that, you hardly ever see a shot without an element of the Catholic iconography featuring prominently in the setting: images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, photos of the pope and the interior of churches themselves. What would we call this? Post-modern baroque?

Caravaggio's Cardsharps, 1596.

Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, 1596.

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Au revoir

Jorge Sette.