Monday, May 14, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, May 7, 2012 - May 13, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This turned out to be a fairly lean week for artistic consumption, relatively speaking. But it was yet another terrific one, for the most part. Read on to find out more about it.

In the Metropolitan Opera House just before The Makropulos Case


The Connection (1962, Shirley Clarke), seen at IFC Center in New York 
On one level, the title of Shirley Clarke's film—playing at IFC Center in a gorgeous 35mm restoration—refers to the reason all of the junkie characters are trapped in that one apartment space: waiting for the man who will hook them up with the drug fix they all so desperately seek. But The Connection is more than just another drug movie. With its depiction of a two-person film crew trying to make a documentary about these junkies, it's also a fascinating interrogation of documentary filmmaking: how the "reality" that many documentaries purport to show can be just as carefully controlled and manipulated as any work of fiction. That Clarke's film manages to be intellectually stimulating and sobering at the same time is a remarkable feat.

RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven), seen at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York [second viewing]
Why yes, I did go see a midnight screening of this at Landmark Sunshine Cinema after seeing The Makropulos Case (more on that below) at the Metropolitan Opera House on Friday night...and so, when one of the bad guys, Emil (Paul McCrane), says "I don't want to live forever," I felt a special pang having just seen an opera all about a woman who basically concludes the same thing after having lived for a whopping 337 years. 

Oh yeah, the movie: It's still as witty, subversive, complex and entertaining as ever. Calling this a "humane" film might be a stretch, but RoboCop is, among other things, a consideration of humanity that threatens to be completely subsumed by technology. The tricky thing about the way Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner tackle this theme is that, even when you're in some ways meant to be emotionally affected by RoboCop's rediscovery of his past as Murphy, there's the persistent underlying irony that we're essentially getting caught up in a machine's effort to piece together the memories of a person who basically no longer exists except as a physical body. When RoboCop, in the film's final line of dialogue, tells the OCP head (Dan O'Herlihy") "Call me Murphy" after he thanks him, we're witnessing not so much a restoration of his humanity as a machine reacting to what he has discovered based on the evidence he's dug up. It's cold logic that leads him to assume the "Murphy" name, and little more. 


Cahoots (1971, The Band)
Moondog Matinee (1973, The Band)
Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975, The Band)
Islands (1977, The Band)
The best (original) song I encountered when catching up with all four of these Band albums, for my money, is the lovely "Acadian Driftwood" from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, an almost-seven-minute epic inspired by the expulsion of the Acadian Indians during the French and Indian War. Moondog Matinee—which is made up of all covers of tunes from the 1950s and '60s—is slight but pleasant enough. And Islands—their "placeholder" before their famous swan song The Last Waltz—drifts away from their roots-rock, uh, roots in ways that I didn't find particularly interesting. A couple of weekends from now, Landmark Sunshine Cinema is screening Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz at midnight—so that may close the book on The Band, for me, if I end up going.


The Makropulos Case (1925, Leoš Janáček), seen live at Metropolitan Opera House in New York
After maybe, like, 15 tries, I finally got lucky this past week and won $25 orchestra-section tickets to a Metropolitan Opera performance through the company's weekly rush lottery! I won it for a performance Friday night of 20th-century Czech composer Leoš Janáček's 1925 opera The Makropulos Case, in a revival of a production directed by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Finnish singer Karita Mattila.

Based on a stage play by Karel Čapek, The Makropulos Case is, at heart, a mystery that concerns the secrets of its main character, celebrated opera diva Emilia Marty (Mattila). How does she know so much about an important will that is part of a century-long land dispute to which she would seem to have only the barest connection? What accounts for her disdainful behavior toward all those who show even the slightest affection or admiration for her? Eventually, we find out the answers to these and many other questions: Emilia Marty, it turns out, is all of 337 years old, kept alive and strikingly youthful (physically, at least) by a potion her father tried out on her as a child way back in the 16th century in trying to create an eternal-youth formula for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Most people would kill for a formula to stay young the way Marty—who, over the centuries, has assumed many different names, all with the initials "E.M."—has; as it turns out, however, Marty has also become emotionally dead inside, having seen so much in her extended lifetime that she has developed a cynical view of humanity that makes her, frankly, want to die rather than stay alive any longer.

Emilia Marty, in some ways, reminds me of a character that popped up during the sixth season of the television series The X-Files: Alfred Fellig, a crime-scene photographer who, in "Tithonus," is discovered to be 149 years old and, by the time Mulder and Scully begin investigating him, is so disillusioned with humanity that he actively seeks his own death. The Greek mythological figure Tithonus, however, is immortal but trapped in old age (thanks to his lover Eos, goddess of Dawn, forgetting to ask Zeus for eternal youth on Tithonus's behalf), and so is Fellig—that's the big difference between them and Marty. But the psychologies that drive them to become deeply disenchanted with the idea of immortality—an idea that most of us living beings might find appealing—are, to my mind, strikingly similar. ("Tithonus," by the way, is one of my favorite episodes of the series; for all you Breaking Bad fans out there, it's one of the many episodes scripted by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. It also showcases a terrific performance from Geoffrey Lewis, who, as Fellig, manages to inscribe a palpable weariness into just about every line reading.)

That X-Files connection is one reason I was interested in The Makropulos Case; Robin Wood is another. In his introduction to Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan...And Beyond, the late, great film critic includes a section in which he tries to make the case that Janáček deserves to be positioned in 20th-century music in a similar way Ludwig van Beethoven is positioned in 19th-century music. As he writes:
Both [Beethoven and Janáček] were revolutionaries, in the aesthetic sense (developing radically new and original idioms, extending the boundaries of musical thought), but also in the political. Both, in their later years, became visionaries (one might compare [Beethoven's] Choral Symphony to...[Janáček's] Glagolitic Mass, though the latter seems to me the more completely successful of the two works). Finally, both were essentially "masculine" composers, far removed from the Mozartian ideal, their music exhibiting to an extreme degree the allegedly "masculine" virtues outlined above [as Wood offered a few paragraphs before, "(strength, courage, activeness, energy,...)"]. (Wood xviii)
Granted, this is a film critic talking, not a music critic—but by that point, I was so enthralled by the clarity of the personal vision Wood was laying out in that introduction that my curiosity about his argument for Janáček's importance in 20th-century music was piqued, especially because I had not heard anything by the composer before coming across that passage.

Well, Janáček's music is certainly distinctive: short motifs rather than memorable melodies, endless amounts of instrumental variety and color, complex rhythmic development, unpredictable harmonic progressions, extreme contrasts between forcefulness and melting beauty. His music isn't atonal, but it sounds strange original nevertheless. This certainly helps during the occasional moments in The Makropulos Case where characters are forced to spout legalese, exposition, etc.: Janáček even manages to make reading a will musically compelling, quite an accomplishment!

The music, however, is put in service of a vision of life and death that eventually, in its last 10 minutes—during an impassioned aria that Marty delivers as she is on the verge of long-awaited death—vaults into the realm of the truly profound. You may well find it inspiring in its own tragic, heavily ironic way—the kind of work of art that has the power to make you reconsider the way you live your own life. Seriously.

As for the production itself, there were two major stars. Mattila, who gave an amazing performance vocally and dramatically, is obviously one—but Anthony Ward's gorgeously, appropriately moody sets deserve to be celebrated on the same level. The fact that I was able to see this terrific production of a great opera in seats that only cost me $25 where it would normally be about 10 times as much is just...awesome.

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