Monday, July 02, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, June 25, 2012 - July 1, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Wow, I guess this was an especially exceptional week as far as artistic consumption goes. There's no way I could match it this week—or is there?

A mere précis of the layout of the Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hill on Friday night before the Philharmonic 360 concert

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin), seen at IFC Center in New York
Yeah, this is pretty good. If that statement sounds like I'm damning this extravagantly praised indie sensation with faint praise...well, I am and I'm not. Hype can, for better and for worse, be as big a factor in how one receives a theatrical experience as the film itself can be, and while many of the critics who saw Zeitlin's film at its world premiere at Sundance at the beginning of the year saw it cold (no pun intended, considering the venue), I admittedly saw it at an IFC Center members-only preview screening Tuesday night with all the praise and the smattering of finally-coming-out-of-the-woodwork naysayers in my head. Would I be far more enthusiastic about this film if I didn't have all that hype perhaps inadvertently informing my experience? I can only speculate.

My take on this film, basically, is this: Sure, if you examine its politics hard enough, Beasts of the Southern Wild—which could be interpreted as making an argument for U.S. government non-intervention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, at least if you wish to attach that topical reading to the film—might seem wonky bordering on dangerous. If that's the way you wish to go with examining this film, then it's possible to see Zeitlin's insistence on conjuring a fairy-tale/kid's-fantasy context as an all-too-convenient "out" for such criticisms. And yet, for me, that would deny what strikes me as the film's beating heart: the six-year-old Hushpuppy's (Quvenzhané Walls) relationship with her problematic but well-meaning father, Wink (Dwight Henry). A scene midway through the film—the one that includes the moment in the trailer in which Hushpuppy shouts "I'm the man" to her father—reveals the extent of how Wink has been trying to (over-)protect her daughter all these years. Beasts of the Southern Wild, then, could more charitably be seen as a coming-of-age tale of sorts, as Hushpuppy eventually gains an awareness of a world outside of Bathtub, outside of the seemingly magical haven she once knew and desperately wants to maintain. And on that level, I admittedly found the film affecting. I can certainly see how others might go so far as to find it profoundly moving. Good for them. Me...well, like I said, I thought it was pretty good.

BAMcinemaFest 2012:
The Comedy (2012, Rick Alverson), seen at a parking lot on the corner of Fulton Street and Ashland Place in Brooklyn, N.Y.
V/H/S (2012, David Bruckner/Ti West/Glenn McQuaid/Joe Swanberg/Radio Silence), seen at Broadway Screening Room in New York
The Comedy is essentially a feature-length series of darkly comic sketches centered around a Brooklyn hipster douchebag (Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! fame) interacting with the world around him in ways that are generally abrasive (one of the show-stoppers being an extended scene in which he bribes a cab driver to let him ride a cab). Sounds insufferable—and yet, director/co-writer Rick Alverson hits upon a weirdly empathetic tone that nevertheless manages to maintain a large critical distance from this bored, entitled antihero. Are these moments his endlessly discomfiting way of trying to connect with people around him? Is making crude, irreverent jokes of everything his only way of dealing with the world? The most challenging thing about The Comedy is that Alverson refuses to pass easy judgment on him. I saw the film at an outdoor screening (hosted by Rooftop Films, which hosts outdoor screenings of independent films all over New York), and a funny thing happened the next day: In the midst of the Supreme Court's ruling on President Obama's health-care reform, I didn't feel much like tweeting about this film. It would seem trivial in the face of the more important events going on in the wider world; in other words, I would have felt much like Tim Heidecker's character had I done so. Maybe The Comedy is already having a more profound effect on me than I at first realized.

As for the shot-on-videotape horror anthology V/H/S—well, I don't really have much to say about it beyond what my friend/fellow critic Simon Abrams offered here when he saw it at Sundance earlier in the year. I basically agree with everything he wrote. It doesn't set the found-footage subgenre on fire, but I thought it made for a solidly entertaining time at the movies, especially in that Glenn McQuaid-directed segment with the villain that only appears amidst a sea of video noise. That is some clever shit, given the concept.

New York Asian Film Festival 2012, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
The Boxer's Omen (1983, Kuei Chih-Hung) 
Five Fingers of Death (1972, Chung Chang-Wha) 
Nameless Gangster (2012, Yun Jong-Bin) 
I saw Five Fingers of Death the same day I watched Craneway Event, a 2008 film of the late Merce Cunningham in the throes of visionary creation that was screened as part of a New Museum exhibit focusing on British visual artist/filmmaker Tacita Dean (of which more below). Chung Chang-Wha's influential Hong Kong martial-arts classic—just one of many major influences on Quentin Tarantino, if the film's opening use of the same Quincy Jones Ironside theme song Tarantino used often in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 doesn't clue you in—turned out to be the second great widescreen dance film I saw that day, with Five Fingers of Death featuring some of the most exhilaratingly balletic action sequences ever put on film. It helps that Chung's film has a pretty well-told story and genuinely involving human interest, too

If you thought connecting a Tacita Dean avant-garde documentary and a Shaw Brothers-produced Hong Kong kung-fu extravaganza was weird, then hear this. I saw another Shaw Brothers-produced spectacle, The Boxer's Omen, the same night I experienced Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memorian Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen—two 20th-century serialist works—live at Park Avenue Armory's massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. To my surprise, I think hearing those two works—which, I finally realized that night, is best experienced as a random-on-the-surface procession noises rather than searching for a structure, despite the twelve-tone principles governing them—primed me, in a weird way, for Kuei Chih-Hung's blast of exploitation insanity. Because, really, is it even necessary to follow the increasingly nutty plot of The Boxer's Omen—a film which proudly shifts on a dime from martial-arts saga to gross-out supernatural horror, with daubs of Buddhism thrown in for good measure? The only way to really get anything out of a movie like this one is to just sit back and follow wherever its creative delirium takes you. I submit that that's the same way one ought to approach something like a Boulez or Stockhausen (or John Cage or Edgard Varèse) work. Of course, whether you warm to both Boulez and Stockhausen's atonal language or Kuei's gleefully gratuitous sex and violence is up to you.

And finally, I don't have much to say about Nameless Gangster other than that overall, I found it a pretty gripping gangster/period saga, with Choi Min-sik—the hammer-wielding protagonist of Oldboy, for those who don't know who he is (and who have actually seen Chan-wook Park's brutal revenge saga)—in top form as a gangster who acts like a bigger fish than he is just because he has the right connections. It never really transcends the genre to become a truly exceptional film, but it's entertaining enough.


Extraordinary Machine (2005, Fiona Apple) 
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2011, Fiona Apple)
So yeah, how about Fiona Apple's new album, huh? It's perhaps her most intimate-feeling collection of songs yet, thanks to the stripped-down production/instrumentation. And that "Hot Knife"—quite the infectious, breathtaking closer for an album. Didn't tickets just go on sale for concerts she's doing in October or something? I better go snap that up!

Philharmonic 360—Boulez: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974-5) / Mozart: Finale to Act I of Don Giovanni (1787) / Stockhausen: Gruppen (1955-7) / Ives: The Unanswered Question (1906), performed live by the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, at Park Avenue Armory in New York
Imagine, if you will, a work that requires not just one orchestra, but three, in a space big enough so that the composer could imagine all sorts of spatial musical effects—sort of like music traveling across stereo speakers if you have the good luck of sitting in the middle of it all. Well, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) imagined just such a work in Gruppen (1955-7). Alas, Gruppen has rarely been performed, most concert halls being architecturally unequipped to pull off the kind of arrangement Stockhausen had in mind.

Enter the Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

If you don't know of this venue by now...well, take a look at these photos. It's huge—and perfect, it turns out, for a performance of Gruppen close to what Stockhausen had in mind. And leave it up to enterprising New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert to conceive of a program that included not only Gruppen, but also Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a selection of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Charles Ives's short but brilliant The Unanswered Question. If Gruppen was expressly written for this kind of spatial set-up, the other works were basically re-conceived to take full advantage of this giant performance space.

Case in point: Many have seen traditional performances of Don Giovanni on a proscenium arch of a stage way in front of them, sometimes close-up, sometimes far away. But I would bet that you haven't felt as if you were truly in the opera in the same literal way as I felt in the staging conceived by Michael Counts of the ballroom finale of its first act—with singers walking all around the space, some way in the back of the rafters and slowly progressing forward, others standing right in the center podium, others edging toward the front stage. Forget 3-D: this is practically Don Giovanni in 4-D! Imagine a Wagner epic staged this way!

At the very least, I found it a thrilling experiment—as was the whole concert, really. I already briefly discussed the Boulez and Stockhausen works above, and I don't have much else to add about them (though the Stockhausen has an awesomely eruptive climax of noise from all three orchestras that was the highlight of the night for me). So let's finally touch on The Unanswered Question, which is a six-minute work that features a call-and-response between a solo trumpet and four flutes, in which the trumpet sounds out a motif that gets repeated verbatim, and the flutes respond in ways that become increasingly confused and frustrated until, by the end, they don't respond at all. As this "dialogue" happens, the strings gorgeously drone on softly underneath. Ives offered a program of sorts to explain all of this (for instance, he said the strings represented "The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing")—but it's all easy enough to hear in the music, and it was all brilliantly emphasized by the way Alan Gilbert staged it at the Park Avenue Armory on Friday night: the trumpet high in the rafters sounding out its "question," four flutists in the middle sounding out their responses, and the strings surrounding the flutists on their sides and behind them.

This, my friends, is the kind of adventurous programming prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic need to do more often to stay fresh and relevant—especially when the results are as triumphant as they were on Friday night. To Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic: I thank you, salute you and wish you even greater successes of this sort in future seasons.

As You Like It (ca. 1600, William Shakespeare), performed live at Delacorte Theater in New York
This was my first time ever watching a Shakespeare in the Park production, and I couldn't have lost my Shakespeare in the Park virginity on a better production. Director Daniel Sullivan transposes the action to something like the American deep South, which explains, among other details, the prominence of a bluegrass band that plays some of the songs in Shakespeare's comedy, set in this production to music by Steve Martin (yes, the comedian/actor Steve Martin). Otherwise, though, the text remains intact, ripe for an able cast into which to breathe life. This cast—including elite actors like Oliver Platt (as the court jester Touchstone) and Andre Braugher (doing double duty as Duke Senior and Duke Frederick)—did just that joyously and gloriously.

There was much to commend in this production—it had a beautiful forest set, for one thing (props to John Lee Beatty, the scenic designer)—but for me it all came down to Lily Rabe as Rosalind. It takes a special kind of artistic imagination to not just deliver Shakespeare's poetry in as natural a manner as possible, but to also do so in a way that makes it come alive in stunningly original and unpredictable ways. Every single line of dialogue that came out of Rabe's mouth had me astonished by the sheer sense of spontaneity and freedom in her phrasing. At the risk of hyperbole, this strikes me as the kind of seemingly improvisatory interpretive genius that only the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Leonard Bernstein achieved in the realm of classical-music interpretation. I had never seen Rabe—daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late Jill Clayburgh—act before, though I had heard she stole the show from Al Pacino in a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice a few seasons back. I am chomping at the bit to see her act again.


Klara Lidén: Bodies of Society, seen at New Museum in New York
Tacita Dean: Five Americans, seen at New Museum in New York
I had never heard of Tacita Dean before, but a friend of mine I interact with fairly regularly on Twitter recommended this exhibit—her first major U.S. show—to me. So when I was reminded last week that the show was closing after this past weekend, I decided to make time for it. I'm glad I did.

This British artist, it seems, has a certain preoccupation with trying to capture the beauties and mysteries of artists' creative processes. Art about art? Sure, sign me up! The New Museum exhibit showcases a handful of her film/photographic portraits of artists like choreographer Merce Cunningham; painters Cy Twombly and Julie Mehretu; artist Claes Oldenburg; and art historian Leo Steinberg. Steinberg is represented by five photographs of his hand as he writes; the five photographs feature his hand in different positions, and those photographs are arranged in such a way as to suggest a diagonal line that, according to Dean, is an unconscious evocation of his own 1980 essay The Line of Fate in Michelangelo's Painting. I guess the suggestion is, Steinberg could very well be so immersed in Michelangelo's work that he can't help but inhabit his artistic spirit in some ways. I'm not sure I totally buy it, but hey, as a nonprofessional critic myself, it's certainly a nice thought!

Similar conceptual intrigues abound in her film work (and it truly is film, since she's sticks steadfastly to 16mm). For Twombly, in a 29-minute film entitled Edwin Parker (Twombly's original name), she basically observes the late American artist going about his daily routine: reading the newspaper, having lunch, etc. As is the case with the other films featured in this exhibit, she prefers a slow, contemplative long-take observational style, somewhat Frederick Wiseman-like in effect. Does such an approach yield insights into Twombly's artistic mind? Maybe not in a prosaic sense of explanation or analysis; Dean seems less interested in explanation than in evocation. Seeing Twombly, sitting in a room reading a newspaper, framed through a narrow doorway amidst the peace and quiet of his house certainly inspired a similar feeling of personal reflection in me, for instance.

And of course, there's the aforementioned Craneway Event, a 108-minute document of Merce Cunningham at work leading rehearsals for a 2008 dance event in an empty warehouse overlooking the San Francisco Bay. In Dean's film, Cunningham's dancers are often lit as silhouettes, prancing across a wide (2.35:1, so it appeared to my eye) frame appropriate to the giant rehearsal space itself. Cunningham himself is often seen carefully observing his dancers and taking notes. At one point, Dean points her camera not at any of the ballet dancers, but to a pigeon wandering around the building. The natural world intruding on Cunningham's current dance bubble? However it all adds up, the end result—and yes, I did end up watching all 108 minutes of it—is consistently beautiful to behold, on both dance and cinematic levels; and an utterly mesmerizing in its stillness and sense of deep mystery. More people should see this film, seriously; it deserves to be in something other than a makeshift New Museum screening room!

I also ended up wandering to the second floor for the Klara Lidén exhibit. Lidén, so I learned afterward, is a Swedish artist living in Germany who bases much of her art on, well, garbage: repurposing trash to create art that comments on urban living. She also more directly addresses urban life in some of her videos, one of which features a female figure (Lidén herself, I believe) essentially doing a backwards moonwalk for about four minutes with various types of desolate-looking buildings in the background. If anything, I found her videos more affecting in their own odd ways than her Duchampian garbage cans and ad-poster canvases. Overall, though, I found her work pretty intriguing. Sometimes, it's a wonderful experience to simply come upon certain works of art completely cold; who knows what surprises might result?

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