Monday, June 18, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, June 11, 2012 - June 17, 2012


Jonathan Pryce (left) and Alan Cox (right) in The Caretaker at Brooklyn Academy of Music


Predator (1987, John McTiernan), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I revisited this 1980s action classic for an upcoming contribution to The House Next Door, so you will all have a chance to read my full thoughts on the film there when it goes up. For now, I'll just say that, if nothing else, the final showdown between Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the Predator remains one of the greats of action cinema. But there is more to the film than its brilliant setpieces...or at least, I think there is.

We Won't Grow Old Together (1972, Maurice Pialat), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This is the kind of detached observational drama that I tend to coldly respect more than outright love, but seeing brutish Jean (Jean Yanne) and his yearning-but-tentative mistress Catherine (Marlène Jobert) play out their seemingly never-ending two-step of break-up and reconciliation does admittedly make for an intriguing viewing experience. And its final moments—in which home-movie footage of Catherine evokes a whole ocean of regret—do pack a sneaky emotional punch. This is my first Pialat film, by the way.

Doomsday Book (2012, Yim Pil-Sung & Kim Ji-Woon), seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York
Again, this is for an upcoming piece of writing, in this case a projected introduction to the forthcoming 11th annual New York Asian Film Festival, which begins on June 29. So fuller thoughts on this three-part anthology film—this year's Centerpiece selection—await. (Really short version: It's a mixed bag, with Kim's middle segment the best of the three.)

Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier), seen at IFC Center in New York
I finally caught up with this much-praised Norwegian film this Saturday afternoon, after having missed it at New Directors/New Films a few months ago. For the most part, it deserves the plaudits. If We Won't Grow Old Together was about a dance between two characters perhaps desperately trying to delay an inevitable rift, this latest film from Reprise director (and Lars von Trier progeny) Joachim Trier is a dance between a recovering drug addict and his fear of falling back into the abyss of addiction. Trier's film, however, is more experiential in nature (at least, after an opening 15-minute stretch that threatens to sink in its dourness), its highlight being a sequence early on in which its tortured main character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, who was also in Reprise), sits in a café and basically observes the people around him, even imagining the lives of some of the people he observes and overhears. In that sequence, Trier masterfully uses editing and sound to evoke a man's desire to connect with people in the outside world; the rest of the film generates its intrigue on whether he will eventually break through or not. Obviously, I encourage you all to see the outcome for yourselves.


Wagner: Götterdämerung (1965, Sir Georg Solti/Wiener Philharmoniker)
A thrilling achievement indeed, this capper to the classic Decca Ring. Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, man—even just on record, she rocked her final Immolation scene! Now I'm officially, um, "Ring-ed" out. Thankfully, the music event below gave me another earworm to replace it, for the time being at least.

Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62 (1807) / Korngold: Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35 (1945) / Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia espansiva, Op. 27 (1910-11), performed live by Leonidas Kavakos, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in New York
I went into this concert knowing little about the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen other than that, despite living through some of the modernist innovations of his 20th-century contemporaries, he generally stuck to a late-Romantic musical idiom. Upon hearing Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform his Third Symphony, I found myself intrigued but still a bit under the influence of that all-atonal, all-the-time CONTACT! concert I attended last week; in other words, I found it pleasant but relatively safe and conventional. And then I turned to Spotify, located Leonard Bernstein's famous 1965 recording of the same piece with the Royal Danish Orchestra and streamed it. Now I just can't get enough of the piece! It helps that Nielsen seems to have an ear for lyrical, powerful melodies, most pronounced in broadly uplifting opening salvo of its finale. All right, now I'm interested in hearing more Nielsen. (My invocation of Bernstein's recording is hardly meant as a slight against Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night's performance, which was rousing and gorgeously played.)

Cinephiles will know Austro-Hungarian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) from his many Hollywood film scores (The Adventures of Robin Hood perhaps his most famous)...but before he became a famous film composer, he was celebrated by none other than Gustav Mahler for his brilliance as a composer and performer. He wrote his Violin Concerto later in his career, in 1945, and it features melodies from some of his film scores (Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper among them). It's a lovely piece, but again, Korngold works in an unabashedly Romantic vein, so I think I responded more positively to it once I gave it another spin on Spotify (this time through a recording featuring legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the work) rather than in the moment. And again, that is no slight on soloist Leonidas Kavakos, who brought a lustrous tone and plenty of virtuosity to his performance.

And, well, Beethoven's Coriolan Overture is...Beethoven's Coriolan Overture. I've heard it a million times before, and Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic's rendition of it didn't necessarily offer any surprises. Still, it offered a terse and dramatic curtain-raiser for this program, at the very least.

太陽出來了 (1991, 蔡琴)
This 1991 album from the great Taiwanese diva Tsai Chin was her last one from her years (1984-91, roughly) at a local record label named UFO. I've been looking to hear this one for a while now—and lo and behold, thanks to Warner Music Taiwan, it suddenly returned to circulation recently! So I bought a copy...and it turns out, this is actually one of her better UFO albums, of new songs at least (though her albums of classic tunes during that period are consistently fine, her records of original songs were far more variable in quality). Here, she gets to show off a heretofore mostly unknown jazzy/R&B side; the album also features some of her saddest and most gorgeous ballads. Apparently she both started and ended her UFO tenure on strong notes (her inaugural UFO album, 此情可待 (1984), is one of her best). Did I mention that Tsai Chin was once married to late filmmaker Edward Yang? 


The Caretaker (1960, Harold Pinter), performed live at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
This was my first live-theater exposure to Pinter, and I'm still feeling the aftershocks of this initial encounter. The Caretaker is absurd, funny, tragic, poetic and fascinatingly elusive about its themes and effects in ways that challenge and invite an audience to come to it rather than spoon-feeding us ideas and intentions. It takes his time, but in chronicling the mysterious relationships between a mooching vagrant named Davies (Jonathan Pryce); his mentally addled host Aston (Alan Cox) and his younger brother Mick (Alex Hassell), an unspoken sense of numbing stasis and existential crisis eventually, powerfully, indescribably comes through.  And Pryce was in top form; I seriously don't know when I last felt so much joy in watching an actor work onstage. More Pinter, please!

Bloomsday on Broadway XXXI (2012, Isaiah Sheffer), performed live at Symphony Space in New York 
Another Bloomsday (it was this past Saturday), another installment of this annual celebration of the imposing monument of literature that is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). This year, however, instead of a 13-hour-long marathon of scenes from the novel as was the case last year, director Isaiah Sheffer decided to put an emphasis on music in Ulysses, featuring singers performing various operatic arias and traditional airs that Joyce references in his book. Some of it is genuinely illuminating; all of its was at least lovely to hear, and well-performed to boot. That is not to say that Joyce's endlessly inventive prose got short-changed; the comparably abbreviated six-hour evening also featured performances of the complete text of two sections: the "Sirens" sequence, in which Leopold Bloom dines with his uncle while tenor Blazes Boylan meets with Bloom's wife, Molly, as they carry on their secret affair; and the final "Penelope" section, in which Molly ruminates free-form while lying in bed next to her husband. Once again, Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan did the honors with Molly's stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, bringing a rapt intensity to all of its two-and-a-half hours. All in all, the evening accomplished what an event like this ought to accomplish: increase my admiration of Joyce's still-astonishing feats of creative imagination in Ulysses.

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