Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 29, 2011 - Sept. 4, 2011: "Art Bender" Edition

NEW YORK—Is there such a thing as going on an art bender? Because that's the way I'd characterize my recently ended Labor Day weekend! In three days, I saw six films (one of them four hours long—without intermission, mind you), two live musical performances and a stage play, with a fair amount of fine dining and drinking thrown in, plus a lot of sleep deprivation in between it all. Hey, no rest for the weary art consumer, right?

Below, then, are the results of that art bender, with my usual brief commentaries. As I'm heading to Toronto at the end of the week to attend my first-ever Toronto International Film Festival, I suspect this weekend is merely a prelude to the longer bender I'm about to embark on.

Do the Right Thing (1989)


Handsworth Songs (1987, John Akomfrah), screened at Film Forum in New York
I hadn't heard a thing about this hour-long documentary/essay film from the Britain-based artist-group the Black Audio Film Collective before seeing this on Tuesday night at Film Forum; all I knew going in was that a) it was being programmed by Light Industry, a Brooklyn-based project devoted to screening little-known classic and contemporary visual and audio work, and b) it was screening at a time and evening I could actually make! So I went...and I was thoroughly bowled over by it. A stimulating mix of sensuous visual poetry and sober sociopolitical analysis, Handsworth Songs takes a dialectical approach to exploring the factors that lead up to the race riots that engulfed Handsworth, a suburb in Birmingham, U.K., in 1985. It's a lot to absorb in one viewing; luckily, it's on YouTube, for all of you who are curious (because the user who uploaded it disabled embedding, here is a link to the first part of it).

Tabloid (2010, Errol Morris), screened at IFC Center in New York
My short take on it says it all.

Red Desert (1964, Michaelangelo Antonioni), screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y. [second viewing]
Oddly enough, I found this, the legendary Italian filmmaker's first color film, even stranger and more elusive on this second viewing than I did on my first, on the Criterion Collection's gorgeous Blu-ray edition; its psychological depths are still mysterious and near-impenetrable. Its painterly visual splendors and sense of aimless drift remain as haunting as ever, though—even more so on a big screen, in the new 35mm print I saw on Friday. (I previously wrote about the film here, by the way.)

Love Exposure (2008, Sion Sono), screened at Cinema Village in New York
This is the four-hour film I referred to earlier...and what a riveting four hours it is, bursting with thematic ambition and narrative audacity, all of it building up to a surprisingly moving conclusion that essentially confirms that, in a surreal world gone seemingly mad with religious extremism and adolescent romantic/sexual longings...well, "all you need is love," as The Beatles famously sang. Actually, Sono's epic puts more much more meat onto the bones of that time-honored sentiment...but anyway...this was about as mindblowing an experience as I hoped it would be based on everything I had heard about it since it screened to great acclaim in New York two years ago at the New York Asian Film Festival. (It's screening two more times until it leaves Cinema Village on Thursday.)

Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis), screened at Landmark Sunshine Theatre in New York
Yes, it's true: I hadn't seen this generational classic before seeing it at a midnight screening Friday night at Landmark Sunshine Theatre. Or, more accurately, I had seen only certain sequences before seeing it theatrically on Friday night. But yes, it's a blast, and a legitimately great film. Now can everyone stop expressing incredulity at the fact that I hadn't seen this in full 'til this weekend? Please?

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, Otto Preminger), screened at Film Forum in New York
Laura (1944, Otto Preminger), screened at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]
Laura is still as wonderful as ever...but in some ways, Otto Preminger's later Where the Sidewalk Ends—also featuring (a markedly older-looking) Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney—is even better. At the very least, this brooding urban Crime and Punishment seems less bound by genre requirements than Laura, with its endlessly twisty plot, occasionally does.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee), screened at Museum of Modern Art in New York
Yet another major cinematic blind spot that I finally filled in on Sunday (and, alas, I had to sacrifice seeing Abbas Kiarostami's complete Koker trilogy at Walter Reade Theater to do it; my lack of sleep was finally getting to me that morning). Yes, it's a masterpiece. No, it most certainly is not the call to violence that critics like Joe Klein feared at the time; apparently those critics were blind to the dialectical aspects of Spike Lee's rigorously even-handed treatment not only of the racial issues he pointedly raises, but even of the characters themselves. (Mookie, the pizza-delivery boy Lee plays, may be the one that starts the climactic riot, but that doesn't automatically mean that character and that action speaks for Lee himself.) If nothing else, it remains a master class in impassioned but fair-minded political filmmaking that never forgets the human figures populating its grand and energetic canvas. (Take note, Paul Haggis.)

Apparently my week in film-watching began and ended with race riots (Handsworth Songs at the beginning, Do the Right Thing at the end). Just felt like pointing that out to y'all.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastorale"/Schubert: Symphony No. 5 (1971/1980, Karl Böhm & Vienna Philharmonic) [second listen]
The Beethoven—one of symphonic literature's most glorious hymns to nature—made for fitting listening in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, especially considering that its fourth movement is intended to be a musical depiction of a thunderstorm, and the finale its joyous, peaceful aftermath.

Pin Ups (1973, David Bowie)
Diamond Dogs (1974, David Bowie)
Neither of these are close to the level of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars or even Aladdin Sane, but I did enjoy listening to them. Pin Ups—a collection of covers of a bunch of cherished tunes from the 1960s—is especially interesting, to me at least, for Bowie's quicksilver changes of vocal style from cut to cut. Apparently he was willing to be a chameleon not only across albums, but within them.

The more I listen to Bowie's music, the more fascinated I become by him, even when he's at less than his best.

Dapp Theory, seen at Blue Note Jazz Club in New York
Michael Driscoll, seen at The Scratcher in New York
One's a jazz group that features atonal harmonies and beat poetry; the other is a folksy-ish, introspective singer-songwriter. Both live gigs featured friends of mine I know personally, so I don't feel I can say a whole lot about 'em here; conflict of interest, you know. I would urge you to at least give Dapp Theory a listen (the group has a couple of records to its credit); I found their sound thrillingly unique, and am looking forward to listening to their recorded output.


Follies (1971, Stephen Sondheim), performed at Marquis Theatre in New York
The more Sondheim shows I see live, the more I'm convinced that a) I should just prioritize seeing his musicals over anything else; and b) he may well be the only composer that wrote any musicals that are still worth a damn today. Certainly, very little I've seen live has matched Sondheim's theatrical wit and mature emotional insight. This searing look at faded glories and middle-age disappointments is no less witty, tuneful and affecting than his earlier masterpiece Company, but man, that "Loveland" climax—in which the romantic battlefield of its two main couples is transformed into an extravagant fantasy landscape in which they are all allowed to articulate what they are seemingly unable to express in reality—is something else entirely. Follies is currently in a limited run at the Marquis Theatre with a cast featuring Bernadette Peters (good) and Jan Maxwell (even better) as the two lead female characters; it's a fantastic production, worth seeing for those looking for real quality Broadway theater.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (2011, Elevator Repair Service), performed at New York Theatre Workshop in New York
There are pretty much only one or two sets in the Elevator Repair Service's version of Ernest Hemingway's classic 1926 novel; changes of mood and locale are suggested mostly through lighting and sound effects, imaginative blocking and Hemingway's own words. Unlike Gatz, the group's nearly eight-hour version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby that they performed in New York last year (and which they're bringing to Princeton, N.J. in December; I've already procured my ticket), The Select presents only choice selections from Hemingway's novel, with these selections presented more or less verbatim from the text. What the Elevator Repair Service's adaptation adds, though, is a dreamlike memory quality to The Sun Also Rises that suggests what inspired Hemingway to write this sad, wistful story in the first place. Plus, the near-minimalist approach encourages a level of theatrical invention that sometimes enhances the text and sometimes merely calls attention to itself.

If you know the book well, The Select won't necessarily enhance your understanding of it...but as an illustration of the source material, it's uneven but often vivid. And that last line of dialogue is still as devastating on stage as it was on the page. (It's running at the New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 9.)

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