Monday, July 23, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 16, 2012 - July 22, 2012: "Rising to See the New Batman Movie" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Before I get into this week's log, I believe a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting deaths that occurred at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, overnight on Friday is in order.


I don't have much else to say about this tragic, senseless event except that...well, it sure didn't stop me from going to see The Dark Knight Rises Friday morning. I can't say it rattled me to my moviegoing core all that much either. (And hey, nothing violent happened at my screening.) As far as I'm concerned, this is an isolated incident that speaks to nothing except one individual's deadly insanity, or whatever the hell it is that drove him to do it.

On a lighter note: I watched about seven hours of The Clock in two days (Friday and Saturday). Thus, I now have eight hours and 45 minutes of Christian Marclay's epic video installation under my belt. I'm not even close to halfway there, but progress: It has been made! I hope to be able to find time to offer more of my observations in a separate post.

The Dark Knight Rises (obviously)


Planet of Snail (2011, Yi Seung-jin), seen at Film Forum in New York
I'm writing about this documentary for Slant Magazine, so a link to a review will be forthcoming.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan), seen at AMC Lincoln Square Stadium 13 in New York
I've had a couple of days to chew on Christopher Nolan's latest Batman epic since seeing it on Friday morning, and actually, I think my reaction to it has evolved from indifference to a certain mild admiration. The nature of that admiration has little to do with cinematic or narrative values, mind you; Nolan once again proves himself to be a prosaic image-maker, and his storytelling seems a lot choppier and more mechanical than usual. The film's 164 minutes fly by, sure, but I would have traded a longer length for more moments—like Alfred (Michael Caine) finally revealing to an angry Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what he did with her long-dead love Rachel's letter at the end of The Dark Knight—where actual human feeling is allowed to resonate amidst the narrative's ceaseless headlong rush. Let it not be said that Nolan doesn't have a showman's instinct to go along with his intellectual pretensions, however. When it comes to sheer spectacle, The Dark Knight Rises delivers the bang for your buck you expect; it helps that Nolan seems to have finally learned how to shoot and edit action scenes in a way that one can actually follow (as opposed to the whiz-bang incoherence of the action sequences in Batman Begins).

But it's the film's politics that deserve the most scrutiny—not that they're easy to pin down. For a while, its not-especially-flattering depiction of selfish, ruthless upper-class power brokers suggest more of that so-called liberal bias that many right-wingers complain about; this sense is strengthened when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) basically helps strip Bruce Wayne of all of his riches, forcing him to join the rest of the masses. A comeuppance for the 1%? Not so fast, Nolan says. Turns out the 99% aren't populated by saints, either. With the encouragement of Bane (Tom Hardy) and his henchmen, mob rule overtakes Gotham—and Selina, who had so vehemently sided with the resentful masses, suddenly finds herself horrified by the hell into which her side has plunged this town. Should she just write Gotham off and escape it all, or does she stay and fight for a restoration of order? That's the big question Batman poses to her both explicitly and implicitly. By the film's extended big-bang climax, the people—including a bunch of freed prisoners—are clashing with police officers, and the soul of a whole city hangs in the balance.

Many of the film's detractors seem to be finding the fact that Nolan doesn't seem to come down on one side or the other to be proof of the film's muddled/noncommittal politics. The more I contemplate The Dark Knight Rises on a political level, though, the more I'm inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt that Nolan simply prefers to swim freely in a whole host of gray areas, seeing both sides as tainted in their own ways. Personally, I find this refreshing; if anything, this film is far more intriguing to think about in this regard than its predecessor ever was. So while I hardly think this is a great film, it's...of interest beyond all the noise and bombast.

The set of Kaija Saariaho's Émilie at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theatre


Superfly (1972, Curtis Mayfield)
Back to the World (1973, Curtis Mayfield)
Got to Find a Way (1974, Curtis Mayfield)
Sweet Exorcist (1974, Curtis Mayfield)
There's No Place Like America Today (1975, Curtis Mayfield)
Here But I'm Gone: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, performed live by The Impressions, Mavis Staples, Meshell Ndgeocello, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Sinéad O'Connor, The Roots and many more at Avery Fisher Hall in New York
Seeing the one-night-only tribute concert to the legendary singer-songwriter on Friday night, I've come to the conclusion that Curtis Mayfield, for all his extraordinary gifts and passions, may have been at his best when writing those short, punchy tunes for The Impressions, and wildly hit-or-miss when he gave himself freer rein as a solo artist. The reason why Superfly remains his finest solo achievement is that he was writing for a film soundtrack rather than just for himself, thus forcing him to write songs in the mode of metaphor and storytelling rather than with his usual, sometimes less interesting, directness of address. (By the way, I still haven't seen the Gordon Parks film the Mayfield score accompanies.)

As for the concert itself...well, it was a fun show overall, pulsing with the kind of passion and energy that characterized Mayfield's best music. But the standout performance of the night was saved for last—or, more accurately, second-to-last. In tackling "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go," The Roots pulled something of a bait and switch midway through their version: What seemed like the kind of straightforward cover of the type that had typified the previous performances of the night suddenly turned into a deliriously insane hard-rock reinterpretation. It sounded truly hellish—in a good way, of course. To borrow an overused American Idol phrase, Black Thought, Questlove & Co. truly "made it their own." It was certainly worth seeing the whole concert just to get to that jewel of a performance.

Émilie (2008, Kaija Saariaho), performed live by Elizabeth Futral and Ensemble ACJW under the direction of John Kennedy at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York
After seeing this amazing one-woman, 75-minute opera, one of the things I concluded was that I need to listen to more Kaija Saariaho. A few months ago, I got a first taste of this Finnish composer's music at a Carnegie Hall concert in which the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst performed her Laterna magica, which was inspired in part by the Ingmar Bergman autobiography of the same name as well as by his 1972 film Cries and Whispers. After that concert, I wrote in this blog post that while "I can't say I hear much of the heavy austerity of Cries and Whispers in this captivating procession of atonal sonorities...I do hear a lot of darkly enchanting evocations of light and magic."

Apparently those otherworldly sounds were hardly a fluke for Saariaho. Her score for Émilie features a similarly seductive style, though this time wedded to more concrete material: an extended monologue sung by Émilie du Châtelet, the 18th-century female mathematician/physicist/author that, among her many achievements, definitively translated and annotated Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica into French. As Émilie—bearing a child and suddenly experiencing anxiety over a sense of death coming for her soon (she would indeed die a few days after childbirth in 1749)—ruminates on her life, loves, shameless pursuit of pleasure, passion for knowledge and fear of leaving this earth without establishing a legacy for herself (consider this a historical equivalent, if you will, of Hushpuppy's occasional "How will history remember me?" invocations in Beasts of the Southern Wild), Saariaho saturates Amin Maalouf's libretto with music that seems to come from the spheres themselves; it was a consistent delight to my modern-leaning ears, especially performed as exquisitely as it was by Ensemble ACJW under John Kennedy's direction.

As I mentioned before, Émilie is a one-woman opera. That by itself gives it a special distinction, being that so few of these kinds of monodramas exist in operatic literature (Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung (1924) and Francis Poulenc's La voix humaine (1959) are the only other well-known operas of this type). Obviously, these kinds of works are feats for the solo singer performing it, and Elizabeth Futral was completely up to the task of carrying the show, showing impressive vocal and emotional range as this strong yet vulnerable woman. (The part was originally written with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in mind.) She was supported beautifully by Neal Wilkinson's brilliant set design and Austin Switser's gorgeous video projections, both of which contribute to the sense of experiencing Émilie's wide-ranging interior monologue.

Perhaps the monodramatic nature of Émilie inherently prevents it from being a fuller, richer portrait of this fascinating woman (her justifications for her hedonistic ways could certainly stand to be, uh, interrogated a little, for instance). Nevertheless, I couldn't help but identify emotionally with her thirst for knowledge and openness to new experiences, even when she reflects on her love life. Her final living moments are especially staged in a way that left me deeply moved. One by one, the crystalline formations on the stage (which you can see in the photo that I took above) rise up, one by one, until only two of them are left, both of which have images of fire projected onto them; Émilie faces them and walks toward them—literally walking toward her inevitable demise. It's one of the most sublime things I've seen on a stage so far this year.


I previously wrote about The Dancing Wu Li Masters here, and for the most part, my initial enthusiasm remained undimmed as I read the rest of the book. Gary Zukav's approach to making quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and the like accessible to laypeople is to essentially suggests parallels between physics and religious faith: a belief in a power greater than ourselves, and the quest to try to make sense of our world. I don't consider myself a religious person, by any means (I certainly don't subscribe to any specific organized religion), but I do think I have some spiritual leanings, so any piece of literature that equates the study of physics with the search for a higher power immediately catches my attention. Indeed, that is one of the things I found most affecting about Errol Morris's 1991 film of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (which I wrote about at this blog here): Morris seems fully in tune, in his own way, with the kind of approach to physics Zukav sets out in his book, seeking to depict the spiritual qualities of Hawking's search for the answers to the universe in visual terms. I don't really have much else to say about this book; basically, for those who are interested in getting a better understanding of the study of modern physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters offers a truly inspired and inspiring approach for the uninitiated.

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