Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Sept. 17, 2012 - Sept. 23, 2012: "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket" Edition

NEW YORK—A day late with this log, I know...but hey, no dollar short, because it's not like I make any money on this blog.



The 50th Annual New York Film Festival, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
Passion (2012, Brian De Palma)
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold)
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu)
I attended my first three New York Film Festival press & industry screenings this past week. So far, Christian Petzold's latest film is the one that has stayed in my mind the longest. Long after the lurid pleasures of Passion and that atrocious final scene of Beyond the Hills has faded from memory, there remains, for instance, that look of vacillation on Nina Hoss's face just before she momentarily gives into her emotions and kisses an upstanding doctor...and man, the film's final close-ups continue to haunt me in their extraordinarily complex implications. I'm writing about it for The House Next Door, so you'll be able to read more of my thoughts on it then. But it's terrific.

La Jetée (1963, Chris Marker), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Yeah, I finally got around to watching this classic 28-minute short one night last week when I felt bored...and yeah, it's pretty great. For some reason, I hadn't known, going into it, that the film was constructed almost entirely out of still photographs...but, having finally seen a handful of Chris Marker works only recently, this seemed like a very, um, Marker-ian way of evoking memory. And yet, this filter of distance somehow doesn't make the science-fiction yarn it spins any less affecting; if anything, it adds a wholly visual layer of depth to it that just makes it all the greater.

The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson), seen at Clearview Cinemas Ziegfeld in New York [second viewing]
Yes, I now have a recommending "star" next to the title. Does this mean I experienced a "road to Damascus" moment after watching Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus a second time on Saturday afternoon? I wouldn't go that far. I still can't shake off the feeling that Anderson didn't really have a coherent vision for this film going into it, and that the cerebral detachment with which he approaches the story he tells here is, in some ways, a clever cover for under-imagined characters and under-explored themes; an individual viewer can thus project whatever he wants onto the gaps in the narrative and ambiguities in the characterizations (with the occasional on-the-nose line of dialogue to help us out).

Still, the film remains as compulsively watchable and fascinating as ever—and, if anything, I found it more affecting this time around, especially at the film's emotional climax, when we see a tear roll down Freddie Quell's (Joaquin Phoenix) cheek when the "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sings "(I'd Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China" in the manner of a father regretfully letting his unruly son go out into the wild again. Somehow that tear got to me this time around more than it did on my first viewing. The Scientology parallels remain the least interesting aspect of The Master; instead, Anderson, within the context of a historical drama, is returning to the "surrogate family" idea he most memorably explored in Boogie Nights, except now in the Kubrickian manner of There Will Be Blood, and with Joaquin Phoenix a deliberately far less magnetic  stand-in for Mark Wahlberg. And even looking at it from that perspective, The Master is fascinating—or frustrating, depending on your point-of-view—for the way it takes its historical background and ruthlessly pares its focus down to these two characters, Quell and Dodd, and their strange relationship. Are they meant to stand in for larger societal forces, or is Anderson just simply telling the story of these two men? If nothing else, the question of how much of Dodd's affection for Quell is sincere on his part is one that maintains one's interest in this particular aspect of the film.

So I remain unconvinced of the greatness of The Master...but the fact that I'm still wrestling with it suggests to me that there's...something there. Maybe, for now, it's best to just accept my mixed feelings, split the difference and say: "flawed but worthy."


Tempest (2012, Bob Dylan)
Shields (2012, Grizzly Bear)
This past week in musical exploration turned out to be a "catching up with new releases" week (and there's one more I'm aiming to catch up on this week: Elysium, the new Pet Shop Boys record). As usual with the music of Brooklyn-based indie band Grizzly Bear, I enjoyed their newest album, Shields, purely on a musical level; I still have not much of a clue what Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen & co. are actually singing about, and am not entirely sure I really care either. Bob Dylan's songwriting on the other hand, has always been as much about his lyrics—enigmatic as they sometimes are—as about the music, and in his latest album, Tempest, he's as world-weary yet romantic as ever, with a first side chock full of love songs and a second side that deals in dark legends with bitter undertones. It doesn't strike me as any better or any worse than most of Dylan's recent retro explorations of folksy Americana—and is it just me, or is his voice sound even more phlegm-ridden this time around than in even, say, Together Through Life?—but it still shows this iconic artist in fine form.

Curtain call after Einstein on the Beach at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House Friday night


Einstein on the Beach (1976, Robert Wilson/Philip Glass), performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Oh man, was this worth the wait! Thirty-six years after its ground-breaking premiere in 1976 (including two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera House), Einstein on the Beach remains as trailblazing a theatrical experience as ever. It rejects conventional storytelling for a series of abstract, dreamlike tableaux; it forgoes a straight biography of Albert Einstein in favor of visual motifs inspired by his life and scientific theories; and instead of recurring characters or plot points, there are recurring symbols and images. And of course, there's Philip Glass's score, written at the height of his early hardcore-minimalist phase, just before his next opera Satyagraha (1980) ushered in a more autumnal phase in his career. The whole thing is still as delightfully strange and mysterious as it must have seemed to many back in 1976; Einstein on the Beach broke all the rules when it came to opera and opera production (it doesn't even have an intermission during its 4 hours and 15 minutes!), and that spirit continued to animate the work in this recent revival. How many operas do you know that feature essentially a white light simulating a bed that takes all of 15 minutes or so to be raised and then lifted up into the heavens? At its best, Einstein on the Beach has the power to alter your perception of time; so did Einstein himself with his theory of relativity, among his other innovative ways of thinking about the world around us. I don't know if I'd call my Friday night in the company of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's work "life-altering"...but it was certainly mind-blowing.

Shuffle (2012, Elevator Repair Service), performed at Brooklyn Public Library in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Less mind-blowing but about as entertaining: this experimental theater piece from those intrepid folks at Elevator Repair Service, set specifically in one area of the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch near Prospect Park. You know Elevator Repair Service, right? The troupe behind, among other works, Gatz, that 7½-hour word-for-word stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby? Yeah, those guys. Well, Shuffle is a kind of nutty synthesis of the three works of literature—Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury—that they've turned into stage plays: some computer algorithm developed by the two guys behind Moveable Type literally shuffles lines from the text of all three works together and spit them out into iPod Touch devices lodged into copies of the books, which the actors read and act out while wandering around in the library, sometimes with a champagne glass in hand. What's more, you as a spectator to this whirlwind literary mash-up are given the freedom to follow one particular actor around and see what he/she recites, abandon that actor in order to follow another, or just take in the madness all around you. (Sounds like someone at Elevator Repair Service was taking notes at that blockbuster Macbeth-inspired theater installation Sleep No More!)

What does all this add up to? Perhaps the sheer pleasure of not only having literature surrounding you, but also hearing classic bits of literature reconfigured in ways that sometimes illuminated the individual texts and other times simply came off as bits of irreverent playfulness. It may not have necessarily added up to much more than a cool concept, but it was still a lot of fun to eavesdrop. What will those endlessly inventive Elevator Repair Service artists come up with next?

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