Monday, October 22, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Oct. 15, 2012 - Oct. 21, 2012: Decompressing After NYFF Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I chalk up the light load of this past week in artistic consumption to my desire to take it easy after New York Film Festival. Good thing I made some worthy discoveries during this most recent seven-day stretch!

Le Grand Amour (1969)


The Sessions (2012, Ben Lewin), seen at Angelika Film Center in New York
I probably would not have even bothered to see this film if some critics I read regularly hadn't voiced enthusiasm for it; also, a friend of mine was interested in seeing it with me. As it turns out, this isn't bad at all. One might not expect much from a based-on-true-story chronicle of a 38-year-old polio-stricken paralyzed poet/journalist trying to lose his virginity; after all, something like this was recently mined for this jokey/mawkish Oscar-nominated fiction short. Writer-director Ben Lewin, however, takes Mark O'Brien's story seriously indeed, and with the help of his game cast, manages to persuade us to take it seriously as well. The result is far less cloying than one might expect—but then, as he is depicted in the film, and as John Hawkes plays him, O'Brien himself is the last person to give into masochistic self-pity, meeting the challenges of his paralysis with good humor and a genuine thirst for life. And as for the sexual aspects of this story, The Sessions treats sex with a maturity and forthrightness that is rare in most American films, mainstream or otherwise. I wouldn't make any grand claims for the film—aesthetically, it's generally pretty unremarkable—but it's sensitively and sincerely done, and the acting is very fine across the board (though Helen Hunt's exaggerated Boston accent may or may not be a distraction for some).

Heureux Anniversaire (1962, Pierre Étaix), seen at Film Forum in New York
Le Grand Amour (1969, Pierre Étaix), seen at Film Forum in New York
"Pierre Étaix?" some of you might be asking. "Who the heck is that?" And hey, before Film Forum programmed a retrospective of his films, I had never heard of the guy either. Born in 1928, he was a comedian who worked extensively with Jacques Tati on his 1958 film Mon Oncle before getting a chance to make his own films—none of which had been available until recently, in newly restored prints, all of which are screening as part of this series.

As an artist, one could describe him as a cross between his mentor Tati and Buster Keaton in his deadpan acting style, brilliance as a physical comedian and marked lack of sentimentality. Le Grand Amour—the 1969 color feature Film Forum is screening throughout the first week of this series—has all of these qualities in abundance, though not even Tati and Keaton were quite as bold in weaving so effortlessly between reality and fantasy as Étaix frequently does. Of course, the back-and-forth is appropriate for a film that depicts main character Pierre's (Étaix himself, as usual in his films) desire to escape the dullness of his current humdrum domestic existence with his plain-Jane wife (played by Étaix's own wife, Annie Fratellini) and continue the skirt-chasing ways he cultivated before settling down (he especially fixates on a barely legal secretary that works at his office). Pierre dreams about "free love"—a mindset very much in vogue at the time, of course—but does he have the actual guts to pull off such a lifestyle? An unsparing excoriation of male folly, a cutting satire of bourgeois manners, a comedy about the ways romantic desires mess with our heads: Le Grand Amour is all that and more, wrapped in a light, playful package that isn't afraid to delve into full-blown surrealism—most memorably, a dream sequence in which beds are turned into traveling vehicles on roads in the French countryside—to get at its greater emotional truths.

It's quite a discovery, Le Grand Amour—and the preceding 12-minute short, Heureux Anniversaire (which actually won a Best Short Subject Oscar in 1963), is even more impressive in its brilliantly escalating comic mayhem as the main character's attempts to get back home in time to celebrate a marriage anniversary with his wife are met with increasingly hilarious obstacles. I hope to be able to see more of Étaix's work before I go on vacation next week, because after these two films, I'm definitely intrigued.

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922, Ernst Lubitsch), seen with live musical accompaniment from Numinous at Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, New York
Ernst Lubitsch doing a lavish Cecil B. DeMille-style historical spectacle? Well, the filmmaker celebrated for such romantic entertainments such as Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner did it in his home turf of Germany in 1922 with his long-lost epic The Loves of Pharaoh, recently restored to something close to its original version by the same company, ALPHA-OMEGA, that handled the recent "complete Metropolis" restoration (there are still bits of footage missing, all of which are indicated either by explanatory intertitles and/or still images). For those viewers weaned on his American films throughout the 1930s and '40s, the darker tone of this much earlier Lubitsch work might come as a shock—which is not to say it's entirely free of that famed "Lubitsch touch." The Loves of Pharaoh is essentially a soap opera, centering around a love triangle that develops between Egyptian King Amenes (Emil Jannings), the Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes) and the Egyptian laborer Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). But Lubitsch spreads his usual worldly wisdom all around the film, with the fickleness of crowds coming in for as much scrutiny as the ruthlessness of power-hungry rulers. Ultimately, though, it's amour that brings down King Amenes; by its final moments, rarely has a king's retaking of power felt so hollow, as he has lost the woman he loved to someone willing to throw away power for her sake. And rarely has a Lubitsch film been so devastatingly direct in its psychological insights.

I assume The Loves of Pharaoh will show up again—maybe with Eduard Künneke's original musical accompaniment? Not to take anything away from Joseph C. Phillips Jr.'s Alban Berg-like atonal score, a fascinating accompaniment performed live at the BAM Harvey Theater screening by Phillips's 18-piece orchestra, Numinous—but this seems like the kind of grand historical spectacle that lends itself to something more traditional than the disturbed, intimately scaled dissonances of Phillips's score. (Phillips might be the perfect man for coming up with a brand new Metropolis score—though the Alloy Orchestra score I heard when I watched the film most recently at Ebertfest last year was a stunning achievement.) But I do admit that the dissonances, at the very least, sounded quite pleasing to my ears in addition to getting at the more ironic, inward-looking undercurrents of the film.

My crappy iPhone photo of Fiona Apple onstage with her backing band at Terminal 5


Fiona Apple, seen live at Terminal 5 in New York
You all thought her songs were full of angst? Wait until you see her perform those songs live in concert to get a fuller measure of said angst! Onstage, Fiona Apple cuts a fascinatingly jittery profile, seemingly unable to stand still even in front of a microphone stand. The experience of seeing her live was akin to witnessing an artist expressing her own private emotions, with all of us in the audience as mere spectators to the display. "I just want to feel everything," she sings in "Every Single Night" (the first cut from her most recent album, The Idler Wheel...); perhaps that one poignant lyric is a key not to just this compellingly mercurial artist as a singer/songwriter, but as a stage performer as well, with every gesture nothing if not deeply felt in the moment—even the couple of moments where she stood next to a grand piano and, with her back toward it, gyrated like a pole dancer while one of the guitarists did an improvisation. In such a context, perhaps it makes sense that she barely seemed to acknowledge the audience except to say "thank you; I love you all" at the end of her 90-minute set; in fact, she never came back out for any encores. But the sheer spectacle of seeing an artist perform her music in ways you wouldn't get just from her record was enough; that's part of the exciting frisson of the live-concert experience in general.

因為愛你 (1987, 葉歡)
放我的真心在你的手心 (1988, 葉歡)
記得我們有約 (1988, 葉歡)
For now, at least, I'm back in a Chinese-pop phase...and I suspect Ye Huan will probably interest most of you even less than, say, 蔡琴 (Tsai Chin—remember, filmmaking giant Edward Yang's first wife?) or 蘇芮 (Su Rui—one of living Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's favorites, as Platform and Still Life attest). As far as I know, Ye Huan didn't have connections to Taiwanese cinema or television...and yet, Warner Music Taiwan apparently saw it fit to re-release some of her late '80s albums on compact disc this year, so I guess she must be popular in some circles. Anyway, she has a beautifully lyrical voice—somewhat in between Tsai Chin's imperial richness and Su Rui's gritty directness—and most of the songs on her first three albums are solid-to-great (with the exception of one embarrassingly earnest plea for kindness throughout the world right smack dab in the middle of hte second album). (Plus, she's easy on the eyes.) Her debut album is the most consistent of the ones I've heard so far; if any of you are curious at all, feel free to sample it here.

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