Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Members of the Wedding


My latest review for Slant Magazine is that of a Woody Allen-ish ensemble film entitled Richard's Wedding, the debut feature of writer/director/star Onur Tukel (who I know only from his performance as one of three brothers in an oddball indie called Septien, made by Hammer to Nail creator/film critic Michael Tully and given a limited release by Sundance Selects last year). This one's playing at one independent theater in New York—Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater (which, by the way, is a pretty cool theater that, if nothing else, serves amazing popcorn)—starting this Friday, so for now only adventurous New Yorkers will have a chance to see it. Long story—or review—short: I think I tried my best to take the film on its own deliberately abrasive terms, but I found the experience of watching these mostly unpleasant characters ultimately unrewarding. But Tukel accomplishes what he sets out to do, more or less. Take that for what it's worth.

[EDIT (Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 11:57 A.M.): Last night, Michael Tully himself informed me that Richard's Wedding is not Tukel's first feature—he has a few other previous features to his credit. It's just the first in which he takes on a starring role in addition to taking on roles behind the camera. The review has been amended accordingly, and I regret the error.]

Monday, May 28, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, May 21, 2012 - May 27, 2012: Memorial Day Weekend Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Apropos of nothing related to artistic consumption, but related to how I felt throughout this past week: Online dating can be a serious strain on your mental well-being. Take it from me. I won't go any farther than that (in this post, at least); I just wanted to get that off my chest.

Oh, and of course, a moment of silence to remember all those who have given their lives for this country in combat—whatever the cause, for well or ill.


The Last Message (1975)


Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (2012, Matthew Akers), seen at HBO Building in New York
Richard's Wedding (2012, Onur Tukel), seen online in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Reviews for both of these films are forthcoming at Slant Magazine. 

Elena (2011, Andrei Zvyagintsev), seen at Film Forum in New York
Personally, I find myself less impressed by the substance of this film—a slow-burning noir-ish tale of a resentful working-class woman forced to commit a crime in order to keep her (ungrateful) relatives afloat financially—than by its style. Zvyagintsev is very much of the long-take school of filmmaking, and he uses them here to uncannily get us inside the head of the titular protagonist while maintaining enough of a distance for his tough-minded class critique to come through loud and clear. The moment where Elena make a crucial (fatal) decision is done all in one take and keeps us keyed into every nuance of Nadezhda Markina's face during this turning point; it's an austere style familiar from many Taiwanese and Romanian films, but here it is employed in ways that ratchet up tension, mood, one's attention to performance. A solid film overall.

The Last Message (1975, Michael Hui), seen on DVD in East Brunswick, N.J.
It seems, judging by the mere handful reviews of this film I've read, that, among the popular Hui Brothers comedies from Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early '80s, this is one of the less celebrated. Huh. I actually think this is a genuinely great film; it's certainly better than their scattershot first effort, Games Gamblers Play. Here, Hui ventures into the realm of full-blown human comedy, using a sanitarium as a metaphor for the whole world. Those mental patients may be crazy, but hey, in some ways, so are people outside of it, like those performers at the Seaside Hotel in which our two money-seeking heroes, working off tips from a mental patient named Cheng (Roy Chiao), try to find a "princess" that will somehow lead them to untold wealth. As Sam Hui's title song states, the world is full of oddballs; The Last Message is, to my mind, a rich and ambitious celebration of the strange and not always savory things human beings are capable of, encompassing life and death, and mining humor in both. It also dares to put two fairly unsympathetic main characters as the leads; their motives are understandable—both are bored with their jobs and are looking for something better—but after a while, it seems that their greed overrides even a sense of decency (neither have any clue, for example, what to do when it comes to consoling Cheng's daughter after she sees her father die right in front of her). In short, there's a sour undercurrent to The Last Message that I found bracingly subversive in its own way.


Brahms: Violin Concerto / Saariaho: Laterna magica / Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, performed live at Carnegie Hall in New York by Gil Shaham and the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst
The big discovery for me was Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's 23-minute Laterna magica, which borrows its title from Ingmar Bergman's autobiography The Magic Lantern, and which, according to the program note, is meant in part as a tribute of sorts of the Swedish master's 1972 film Cries and Whispers. I can't say I hear much of the heavy austerity of Cries and Whispers in this captivating procession of atonal sonorities, but I do hear a lot of darkly enchanting evocations of light and magic. I don't know much about Saariaho or her music, but this particular work struck me as something like a kinder, gentler version of, say, Edgard Varése's Amériques. I'm intrigued to explore more of her music.

And then there's Dmitri Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, which I also hadn't heard before seeing Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra perform it live. Structurally, it's rather odd: It opens with a long, solemn Largo but follows it up with two quick movements (fast and faster, respectively) that almost threaten to trivialize the tragic import of its first movement. Surely that's deliberate, though. One could see the first movement as Shostakovich's expression of a very private sadness and the next two movements as the jaunty surface that is supposed to cover up that sadness; seen in that interpretive light, the exhilaration of its whirlwind finale takes on a more bitingly ironic character—par for the course for Shostakovich, whose vast and varied musical output is full of veiled ironies (people are still debating to this day whether Shostakovich sincerely meant the triumphant end that he wrote for his popular, and career-saving, Fifth Symphony).

All of this was most beautifully performed by the Cleveland Orchestra and conducted with insight and sensitivity by Welser-Möst. As for the Brahms Violin Concerto, Gil Shaham did a bang-up job as soloist—even more impressive considering that he was a last minute substitution to the program after pianist Yefim Bronfman had to cancel his scheduled performance of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto. That was a shame (I would have loved to have seen that work live), but that makes the excellence of Shaham and the Clevelanders on short notice that much more impressive.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, May 14, 2012 - May 20, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This was yet another light week on the artistic-consumption front...but when you're faced with the kind of weather New York had on Saturday—a beautiful sunny near-80°F day with not a cloud in sight—who would want to stay in a movie theater all day? Instead, I participated in a Brooklyn-based scavenger hunt in the style of the reality-TV show The Amazing Race with a bunch of friends—one of them being Odie Henderson, the esteemed film critic/blogger some of you may know as "Odienator." To wit:

In front of Brooklyn Academy of Music, complete with an attempt to replicate the wave-like structure above us.

In front of the silver-plated Brooklyn Botanic Garden sign, trying to jump for joy. One day I will actually go inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

You get the idea. It was a good way to spend a lovely Saturday.

Now...artistic consumption:

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)


Topaz (1969, Alfred Hitchcock), seen at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
If you missed my attempted, fairly mild, defense of this much-maligned late Hitchcock picture—written for the third-annual For the Love of Film blogathon (which is over now, but that doesn't mean you can't still donate money to the National Film Preservation Foundation; see the link on this blog's sidebar)—well, here's the link again. Or you could just scroll down on this blog's homepage. Either method works.

The Color Wheel (2011, Alex Ross Perry), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This independent film has garnered a lot of praise from critics—many of them around my age, for what it's worth—since it premiered to great acclaim at Brooklyn's own BAMcinemaFest last year, going so far as to place twelfth in Film Comment's "Best Undistributed Film of 2011" list. It finally has a week-long theatrical engagement at BAM that's currently ongoing; I finally saw it on Friday and found myself generally admiring it, with one major reservation that prevents me from being able to fully embrace it the way my colleagues seem to have done.

This, Perry's second feature (after Impolex, an idiosyncratic adaptation of a section of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow which I still have not yet seen), is a road movie with two maladjusted siblings at its heart: JR (Carlen Altman), an aspiring news anchor who is vain, needy, and not even all that talented as a news anchor; and her brother Colin (Perry), an aspiring writer who is too lazy to take the next step toward achieving his goals. After JR breaks up with a professor about twice her age, she forces Colin to drive her to the professor's house to pick up the rest of her stuff.

These siblings clearly don't like each other all that much; JR has pretty much become a family outcast, a fact Colin rarely fails to punt right back into her face. Their dialogue scenes are chock full of wittily acerbic barbs, impressively acted and directed with the rhythm of a screwball comedy. Some of it is indeed uproariously funny. At its best, though, the humor masks palpable pain and insecurity at the heart of both of these screwed-up characters; there are genuine undercurrents of humane empathy to offset the nastiness of what comes out of their mouths.

Perry's visual style adds a level of intrigue to the film. He shot this in black-and-white 16mm and isn't afraid to let the film grain fly rampant on the screen; the gritty effect somewhat recalls the psychodramas of John Cassavetes (call The Color Wheel Cassavetes filtered through Larry David's humiliation-based sense of humor), while the soundtrack features soul music from the 1970s to further the film's oddball retro vibe. The result has an odd hallucinatory feel to it; it's a movie of our time (these characters are basically even less sympathetic variations on the "post-graduate delirium"-infected Aura in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture) that somehow feels outside of it.

The Color Wheel certainly has style to burn...but what of its misanthropic sensibility? Here's a film that has two self-absorbed jerks at the center of it, and then manages to make them relatively more likable simply by virtue of making just about everyone else around them even worse. That fundamentalist Christian motel owner in one of the opening scenes is problematic enough; the extremely broad caricatures reach its apex in an extended party scene towards the end in which JR and Colin find themselves surrounded by former high-school classmates who remain openly and passive-aggressively hostile to them in ways that, for me at least, strained both belief and credulity. Supposedly, the film suggests, these people deserve even more of our scorn than JR and Colin do because, unlike those fake bourgeois nitwits, these two siblings are at least honest about their issues. (Fittingly, the party scene ends with the discovery that a wheelchair-bound guest isn't exactly who he appears to be). If this is really the "experiment in identification" that Perry himself said he intended this film to be in this New York Times interview, then it seems to me he's stacked the deck in order to make it easier for most viewers to gravitate toward JR and Colin, for better or worse. It just seems too easy, and far less challenging than Perry wants you think it is.

To his credit, however, Perry reserves his biggest challenge at the very end, with a brilliantly done 10-minute single take that climaxes (in more ways than one) in a genuinely subversive manner that not only effectively sends shock waves through the last five minutes of the film, but reverberates emotionally and thematically with everything that has come before. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you all, so let me just say that Perry—who, by the way, wrote the screenplay for The Color Wheel with co-star Altmen—finds a deeply fucked-up way to show that, in a world in which no one seems to care about either of them, all they really have is each other. I'm still not sure how I feel about the way the film ends, but I will at least give Perry credit: on that point, he doesn't cheat, and leaves judgments wide, and disturbingly, open.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, Panos Cosmatos), seen at Cinema Village in New York
Here's another movie that affects a retro vibe—though, instead of American independent cinema from the 1960s and '70s, Panos Cosmatos's fever dream of a sci-fi picture evokes the '80s, right down to Jeremy Schmidt's evocative Vangelis-ian synth-heavy score. It makes sense in this context, though, because much of the film is set in 1983—though you wouldn't know it, judging by the fact that most of the action takes place in a futuristic commune named Arboria where Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) holds Elena (Eva Allan) captive.

Beyond the Black Rainbow takes its sweet old time revealing its narrative and character details, though to my mind, if you stick with it, it eventually goes somewhere rewarding. In its earlier stages, though, Cosmatos's film has the quality of a Stan Brakhage-like work of avant-garde cinema; there's a freedom in its visual invention that's so sensuous that it didn't take me long to simply surrender to the film instead of worrying about whether any of these scenes were connecting narratively or not. Honestly, I don't think I've surrendered so completely to a film this strange in quite a while (even with Celine and Julie Go Boating, it took me about an hour and a half before I finally felt comfortable in Rivette's meta-movie playpen). And much of this is just beautiful to look at, with cinematography and production design worthy of those in heavyweight sci-fi forbears like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even now, I'm not even entirely sure I could tell you what Beyond the Black Rainbow is about, or how all its recurring images and symbols fit together. There are strong suggestions that this film is essentially a kind of parallel-rebirth narrative, with Barry and Elena the ones undergoing transformations of sorts. That's something I'd welcome an opportunity to chew on in a second viewing—and I will certainly approach a second viewing of this confounding and gorgeous trip with great pleasure.


Wagner: Das Rheingold (1959, Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti) 
Yes, I finally bought myself a copy of the legendary Decca recording of the first complete studio Ring cycle with Sir Georg Solti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a cast of some of the greatest Wagner singers of the day (Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, and so on). Now, I never have to leave the world I had become so immersed in throughout April while seeing the whole four-opera epic at the Met!

The only observation I have to offer regarding this recording of Das Rheingold is that Solti—rather like Fabio Luisi, who led all the performances in April—is a Wagnerian of a highly volatile dramatic temperament compared to the meditative, long-breathed Wilhelm Furtwängler. That is not to say that Solti—unlike, say, Karl Böhm in his 1966/'67 Bayreuth live recording of the complete cycle on Philips—is unduly rushed; he gives as much attention to the lyrical moments (the opening of the second scene; the finale once Donner summons up the rainbow to Valhalla) as to the dramatic ones. It also has a memorably hateful Alberich in Gustav Neidlinger as a standout in an impressive vocal cast (Walter Kreppel's Fasolt and Kurt Böhme's Fafner, for example, have the appropriate imposing vocal stature next to George London's Wotan). Plus, the recording's risk-taking producer John Culshaw sure came up with a doozy of a sound effect of simulate Donner's hitting the ground with his hammer to summon up the thunderbolt that leads the rainbow-to-Valhalla to appear.

Obviously, listening to a recording of any Wagner opera—any opera, really, some might reasonably argue—isn't a substitute for seeing it live...but this will do until the next opportunity comes to see a different production.


After Dark (2004, Haruki Murakami)
This is the first of Murakami's novels I have read; I bought it cheaply from a street vendor in Greenwich Village a while back and only got around to reading it recently. Maybe this wasn't the best place to start. I assume his other, more widely celebrated novels (like, for instance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) feel far more substantial than this one; Murakami's omniscient-camera gimmick—in which he periodically tries to evoke on the page the feeling of a reader witnessing these events through a lens directing our points of view—feels a bit half-baked.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which I can sense a keen insight into human nature, especially when it comes to lonely romantics. And once again, a novel set entirely during the nighttime that freely evokes the danger and mystery that nighttime can evoke—especially in a big city like Tokyo—can't help but lure me in immediately (again, now you have a partial understanding as to why I love Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels so much). After Dark certainly has enough in it that I still look forward to catching up with the rest of Murakami's output to date.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Alfred Hitchcock's Spy Anti-Thriller

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This is my contribution to the currently ongoing third annual For the Love of Film blogathon hosted by Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. You can read more about what this year's blogathon is funding—something Alfred Hitchcock-related; thus this post—here and donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.]

In trying to figure out what I’d contribute for this year’s For the Love of Film blogathon, I knew I wanted to do something Hitchcock-related—but what? So much ink has been spilled on his behalf over the years that, unless one felt confident that one had a fresh angle to take, it would be overkill to write the umpteenth piece on something by-now-canonical like Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho or The Birds. So I decided to see if I could perhaps come up with something to say about a less widely celebrated film by the Master of Suspense. Immediately, I thought of…

Though some of his late films—Marnie (1964) and his swan song Family Plot (1976)—have been critically rehabilitated since receiving indifferent or cold receptions upon their initial theatrical releases, his 1969 film Topaz remains a problem child for even the most diehard of Hitchcockians, especially coming on the heels of his even less fondly remembered 1966 thriller Torn Curtain. Personally, outside of that one agonizingly drawn-out murder sequence midway through that film (a scene Ang Lee may have had in mind when he staged a similar death scene in Lust, Caution), I can’t even summon up much enthusiasm for Torn Curtain. Topaz, on the other hand…

The disappointing thing about Torn Curtain is that, up until that murder scene, Hitchcock is able to sustain a tone of moral inquiry that lends initial intrigue to missile scientist Michael Armstrong’s mysterious decision to defect to East Germany. What are his real motives for doing so, and even if we knew those motives, would they turn out to be worth all the trouble he subjects himself to? That brutal murder sequence brings those hovering questions home in a deeply sobering way; unfortunately, after that point, the rest of the film becomes a standard chase movie, with Hitchcock showing the barest minimum of interest in the narrative.

Topaz, by comparison, shows Hitchcock in fuller control of his material—material that, like Torn Curtain, deals with espionage, politics and morality. The film’s form, however, is more inventive than the far more straightforward narrative of its predecessor. Screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor’s adaptation of Leon Uris’s bestseller takes a vignette-like structure in depicting this Cold War world of intrigue and deception; there is a central character running through the plot—French intelligence officer André Deveraux (Frederick Stafford)—but the screenplay isn’t shy about straying from Deveraux in order to follow other characters, like French intelligence agent Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) and son-in-law Francois Picard (Michel Subor), for lengthy periods of time. Heck, the whole film begins not with Deveraux, but with Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius), a Russian who defects to the U.S. with his wife and daughter. (Taylor’s screenplay, for all its emphasis on plot complications, isn’t above the occasional colorful character detail, as in the way it makes Kusenov a bit of a hardass, especially when he castigates an American intelligence agent after he’s extracted from Russian clutches by saying “That’s not the way I would have done it.”)

But the film’s cold-sober demeanor isn’t just a matter of the script’s exploratory narrative structure. A sense of omniscient detachment hangs over the film; Hitchcock, for the most part, seems more interested in the bigger picture than in the individual human dramas that play out. Admittedly, some of the dispassionate feeling the film inspires may have as much to do with the uneven performances of its cast than in anything Hitchcock does as a director; it must be said, for example, that, as Deveraux, Frederick Stafford is a black hole as far as charisma goes, making it hard to get too worked up in whatever happens to him. And yet, the stiffness of some of the acting is paradoxically a boon to the film's cumulative effect as something of a deliberate anti-thriller, taking the romance out of these spy games the way that one brutal death scene in Torn Curtain gave lie to the usual quick and easy movie murders. (If anything, casting a major star on the order of a Cary Grant or a Jimmy Stewart would most likely have detracted from that effect.) Thus, even scenes where characters reveal fancy new gadgets—the kind of sequence that would be a source of near-fetishized wonderment in a James Bond picture—are treated fairly matter-of-factly. There’s nothing “cool” about them in Topaz; these are just part of the job.

None of that is intended to suggest that the generally calm and collected Topaz is itself bereft of cinematic pleasures. The film has its share of virtuoso setpieces—most notably a lengthy sequence in which Hitchcock methodically details Philippe Dubois’s attempt to steal important missile documents from Cuban strongman Rico Parra (John Vernon). As is the case with the equally masterful opening sequence involving three KGB agents tailing Kusenov’s family, this section is mostly wordless: We’re not allowed to overhear Dubois’s dialogue exchanges with his Cuban contact, forcing both Deveraux, and us in the audience, to track his progress simply through body language and gestures. (Hitchcock primes us for this stylistic approach when, in a greenhouse, he has Deveraux deliver a big batch of inaudible exposition to Dubois behind a closed door.)

Even some of the dialogue scenes in which speech is heard are somewhat enlivened by Hitchcock’s direction of them. Note, for instance, this first encounter with Deveraux and fellow spy/adulterous love interest Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor), in which these two extreme close-ups of the characters in their romantic bubble...

...opens up when Deveraux moves away from the camera, the camera still in the same position, when he’s forced to discuss job-related matters with Juanita.

And of course, there’s this shot, arguably the most famous in Topaz, of Juanita’s death at the hands of Rico after he discovers her treachery to the Cuban cause:

As Juanita falls to her death, her dark-purple dress extends from under her as if blood was spreading around her. Eventually, we see her actual blood marking the scene:

Topaz ends on a note of resignation that may, in the moment, strike you as unduly rushed and disappointing. It wasn’t the ending originally planned; after the original, more dramatic but similarly bleak ending tested negatively with early audiences, Universal forced Hitchcock to shoot a different one. Nevertheless, to my mind, coming on the heels of a purposefully deglamorized take on the spy-movie genre, the ending acquires its own fitting perfection. Despite the jaunty Maurice Jarre score underscoring its final moments—the same bombastic cue that plays under the film's opening credits—Topaz ends with a shrug rather than a sense of triumph. It may be a triumph for the world at large, but for these characters personally, it's merely the end of a job—"the end of Topaz," as Deveraux says in a bit of winking self-reflexivity, being that that is the film's own final line of dialogue—with all the baggage that entails.

Now, I'm not making the case here that Topaz is some undervalued masterpiece that deserves to be considered on the same exalted level as, say, Vertigo (still my favorite Hitchcock film, and an all-time favorite). It's a wildly uneven, deeply flawed film, afflicted at times with slack pacing and indifferent acting. But if you are able to get on its near-defiantly un-sensational wavelength, there is still much to admire and even a fair amount to truly enjoy. Of all Hitchcock's late films, this one strikes me as arguably the most deserving of reassessment.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, May 7, 2012 - May 13, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This turned out to be a fairly lean week for artistic consumption, relatively speaking. But it was yet another terrific one, for the most part. Read on to find out more about it.

In the Metropolitan Opera House just before The Makropulos Case


The Connection (1962, Shirley Clarke), seen at IFC Center in New York 
On one level, the title of Shirley Clarke's film—playing at IFC Center in a gorgeous 35mm restoration—refers to the reason all of the junkie characters are trapped in that one apartment space: waiting for the man who will hook them up with the drug fix they all so desperately seek. But The Connection is more than just another drug movie. With its depiction of a two-person film crew trying to make a documentary about these junkies, it's also a fascinating interrogation of documentary filmmaking: how the "reality" that many documentaries purport to show can be just as carefully controlled and manipulated as any work of fiction. That Clarke's film manages to be intellectually stimulating and sobering at the same time is a remarkable feat.

RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven), seen at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York [second viewing]
Why yes, I did go see a midnight screening of this at Landmark Sunshine Cinema after seeing The Makropulos Case (more on that below) at the Metropolitan Opera House on Friday night...and so, when one of the bad guys, Emil (Paul McCrane), says "I don't want to live forever," I felt a special pang having just seen an opera all about a woman who basically concludes the same thing after having lived for a whopping 337 years. 

Oh yeah, the movie: It's still as witty, subversive, complex and entertaining as ever. Calling this a "humane" film might be a stretch, but RoboCop is, among other things, a consideration of humanity that threatens to be completely subsumed by technology. The tricky thing about the way Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner tackle this theme is that, even when you're in some ways meant to be emotionally affected by RoboCop's rediscovery of his past as Murphy, there's the persistent underlying irony that we're essentially getting caught up in a machine's effort to piece together the memories of a person who basically no longer exists except as a physical body. When RoboCop, in the film's final line of dialogue, tells the OCP head (Dan O'Herlihy") "Call me Murphy" after he thanks him, we're witnessing not so much a restoration of his humanity as a machine reacting to what he has discovered based on the evidence he's dug up. It's cold logic that leads him to assume the "Murphy" name, and little more. 


Cahoots (1971, The Band)
Moondog Matinee (1973, The Band)
Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975, The Band)
Islands (1977, The Band)
The best (original) song I encountered when catching up with all four of these Band albums, for my money, is the lovely "Acadian Driftwood" from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, an almost-seven-minute epic inspired by the expulsion of the Acadian Indians during the French and Indian War. Moondog Matinee—which is made up of all covers of tunes from the 1950s and '60s—is slight but pleasant enough. And Islands—their "placeholder" before their famous swan song The Last Waltz—drifts away from their roots-rock, uh, roots in ways that I didn't find particularly interesting. A couple of weekends from now, Landmark Sunshine Cinema is screening Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz at midnight—so that may close the book on The Band, for me, if I end up going.


The Makropulos Case (1925, Leoš Janáček), seen live at Metropolitan Opera House in New York
After maybe, like, 15 tries, I finally got lucky this past week and won $25 orchestra-section tickets to a Metropolitan Opera performance through the company's weekly rush lottery! I won it for a performance Friday night of 20th-century Czech composer Leoš Janáček's 1925 opera The Makropulos Case, in a revival of a production directed by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Finnish singer Karita Mattila.

Based on a stage play by Karel Čapek, The Makropulos Case is, at heart, a mystery that concerns the secrets of its main character, celebrated opera diva Emilia Marty (Mattila). How does she know so much about an important will that is part of a century-long land dispute to which she would seem to have only the barest connection? What accounts for her disdainful behavior toward all those who show even the slightest affection or admiration for her? Eventually, we find out the answers to these and many other questions: Emilia Marty, it turns out, is all of 337 years old, kept alive and strikingly youthful (physically, at least) by a potion her father tried out on her as a child way back in the 16th century in trying to create an eternal-youth formula for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Most people would kill for a formula to stay young the way Marty—who, over the centuries, has assumed many different names, all with the initials "E.M."—has; as it turns out, however, Marty has also become emotionally dead inside, having seen so much in her extended lifetime that she has developed a cynical view of humanity that makes her, frankly, want to die rather than stay alive any longer.

Emilia Marty, in some ways, reminds me of a character that popped up during the sixth season of the television series The X-Files: Alfred Fellig, a crime-scene photographer who, in "Tithonus," is discovered to be 149 years old and, by the time Mulder and Scully begin investigating him, is so disillusioned with humanity that he actively seeks his own death. The Greek mythological figure Tithonus, however, is immortal but trapped in old age (thanks to his lover Eos, goddess of Dawn, forgetting to ask Zeus for eternal youth on Tithonus's behalf), and so is Fellig—that's the big difference between them and Marty. But the psychologies that drive them to become deeply disenchanted with the idea of immortality—an idea that most of us living beings might find appealing—are, to my mind, strikingly similar. ("Tithonus," by the way, is one of my favorite episodes of the series; for all you Breaking Bad fans out there, it's one of the many episodes scripted by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. It also showcases a terrific performance from Geoffrey Lewis, who, as Fellig, manages to inscribe a palpable weariness into just about every line reading.)

That X-Files connection is one reason I was interested in The Makropulos Case; Robin Wood is another. In his introduction to Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan...And Beyond, the late, great film critic includes a section in which he tries to make the case that Janáček deserves to be positioned in 20th-century music in a similar way Ludwig van Beethoven is positioned in 19th-century music. As he writes:
Both [Beethoven and Janáček] were revolutionaries, in the aesthetic sense (developing radically new and original idioms, extending the boundaries of musical thought), but also in the political. Both, in their later years, became visionaries (one might compare [Beethoven's] Choral Symphony to...[Janáček's] Glagolitic Mass, though the latter seems to me the more completely successful of the two works). Finally, both were essentially "masculine" composers, far removed from the Mozartian ideal, their music exhibiting to an extreme degree the allegedly "masculine" virtues outlined above [as Wood offered a few paragraphs before, "(strength, courage, activeness, energy,...)"]. (Wood xviii)
Granted, this is a film critic talking, not a music critic—but by that point, I was so enthralled by the clarity of the personal vision Wood was laying out in that introduction that my curiosity about his argument for Janáček's importance in 20th-century music was piqued, especially because I had not heard anything by the composer before coming across that passage.

Well, Janáček's music is certainly distinctive: short motifs rather than memorable melodies, endless amounts of instrumental variety and color, complex rhythmic development, unpredictable harmonic progressions, extreme contrasts between forcefulness and melting beauty. His music isn't atonal, but it sounds strange original nevertheless. This certainly helps during the occasional moments in The Makropulos Case where characters are forced to spout legalese, exposition, etc.: Janáček even manages to make reading a will musically compelling, quite an accomplishment!

The music, however, is put in service of a vision of life and death that eventually, in its last 10 minutes—during an impassioned aria that Marty delivers as she is on the verge of long-awaited death—vaults into the realm of the truly profound. You may well find it inspiring in its own tragic, heavily ironic way—the kind of work of art that has the power to make you reconsider the way you live your own life. Seriously.

As for the production itself, there were two major stars. Mattila, who gave an amazing performance vocally and dramatically, is obviously one—but Anthony Ward's gorgeously, appropriately moody sets deserve to be celebrated on the same level. The fact that I was able to see this terrific production of a great opera in seats that only cost me $25 where it would normally be about 10 times as much is just...awesome.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Two Recent Reviews, or Yet Another Blog Post of Shameless Self-Promotion

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Two more links to recent film reviews—both at Slant Magazine—to share with you all:

Technically, my Under African Skies review is basically the review I filed after I saw Joe Berlinger's documentary about Paul Simon's groundbreaking 1986 album Graceland at South by Southwest back in March; it just now has a star rating attached to it. Either way, the film is still worth checking out, whether you're a fan of the album or not.

My review of Grant Gee's Patience (After Sebald), however, is brand new. Here is another documentary that explores an existing work of art, in this case The Rings of Saturn, a truly unclassifiable work of literature from iconoclastic German-born writer W. G. Sebald. This one, however, is, formally speaking, a far different kind of documentary than the more aesthetically conventional Under African Skies. I think it's a marvelous film, fully worthy of a brilliant book. I can't say how it will play to newbies; I would hope that those who go into this unfamiliar with Sebald or The Rings of Saturn will be at least somewhat intrigued by Gee's film to go seek out the book as well as the rest of the late writer's work.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, April 30, 2012 - May 6, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This was a pretty damn good week for artistic consumption, I must say; there was not a disappointment in sight, by my lights. Plus, I squeezed in such fun non-artistic things as participating in a trivia competition; having a margarita in celebration of Cinco de Mayo on Saturday night; and impulsively deciding to wander around the historic—and utterly beautiful—Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn until I decided to look for the gravestone of composer/maestro Leonard Bernstein, one of the many historical figures buried there.

Here he is!

And while standing out in the cemetery during a misty, drizzly Saturday morning, I took out my iPhone, searched for the final track of Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's 1987 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on Spotify, and blasted its heaven-storming last five minutes out loud—no, not through headphones/earbuds, but holding my phone in the air, in front of Bernstein's tombstone, for all the world to see/hear. I, for one, didn't care how weird I looked doing it; I felt good doing it, dammit!

Onto the log:

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)


F for Fake (1973, Orson Welles), seen at IFC Center in New York
That's right: I had never seen Welles's famous essay documentary at all until Tuesday evening as part of the weekly Stranger than Fiction documentary series at IFC Center. If anything, I found myself becoming more entranced by its purely formal qualities—its rapid-fire editing, its free-associational structure, and so on—than by its verbal ruminations on fiction, non-fiction, truth and art. Not that Welles's musings on those grand subjects aren't fascinating; maybe I just feel like I'm on the verge of burning out a bit on these kinds of movies-about-movies after last year's Hugo/The Artist-led glut (though Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating provided a glorious exception, as you will see later). But F for Fake is so brilliantly edited, and is held together so magnetically by Welles's ebullient prankish spirit, that, by the time Welles cleverly pulled the rug out from under the fabrications of the film's last 20 minutes, I found myself wholly delighted. That Welles! When it came to movie magic, he almost always put his money where his mouth was, even towards the end of his professional career.

Patience (After Sebald) (2011, Grant Gee), seen at Film Forum in New York
My review of this fascinating documentary/essay film went up yesterday at Slant Magazine; I'll link to it in a separate post. It opens at Film Forum on Wednesday, and it really is something to see, even if you're not too familiar with the work of German-born writer W. G. Sebald.

Bonjour Tristesse (1958, Otto Preminger), seen at Film Forum in New York
For me, Preminger's disquieting detachment is what makes this visually sumptuous adaptation of Françoise Sagan's melodramatic novella as powerful as it is—to the point that Jean Seberg's obvious limitations as an actress, to my mind, ultimately don't hinder my appreciation too much (though there's no escaping some of the awkwardness of some of her line readings, especially when she's called on to suggest more complex emotions). Its final shot—of Seberg's Cecile, fully realizing the dead end of the lifestyle she so ruthlessly fought to maintain the summer before, smearing cream while she begins to cry—is devastating in its impact.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette), seen at Film Forum in New York
I didn't see this weekend's big mainstream box-office attraction, The Avengers (maybe I'll see it next weekend, though if I do, I'll be seeing without having seen either Thor, the recent Captain America or the recent Incredible Hulk), but I'd be surprised if I had half as much fun with Joss Whedon's Marvel-superhero extravaganza as I did seeing Rivette's three-hour meta-movie funhouse for the first time!

Admittedly, it took me a while to get on its wavelength. At the beginning, when Julie (Dominique Labourier) begins her pursuit of Celine (Juliet Berto) after Celine drops a piece of clothing from her bag, personally, all I could wonder was why Julie didn't bother to shout something like "Excuse me, ma'am" to get her attention. (The obvious answer to this is that if she did, this movie wouldn't exist—or maybe it would exist, but it might be less interesting.) And for about the ensuing hour or so, I wasn't sure how charming I was finding either Rivette's whimsical playfulness or the wildly eccentric behavior of the two lead characters. Frankly, parts of the first hour or so of Celine and Julie pushed my whimsy allergies the same way the recent Indonesian film Postcards from the Zoo did for its entire near-unendurable length.

At about the point, though, when we start to see Celine and Julie reacting to the events they individually experience at that mysterious house—as if they were audience members reacting to a movie they're watching—suddenly the movie started to snap into focus for me in ways that I began to find satisfying. And by the time Rivette gets to his amazing grand finale—Celine and Julie's attempt to rescue the girl from imminent doom in that house, an act that suggests two audience members entering into the entrancing fictional world that they've been wrapped up in for days—I had long given over to the film's sense of what-the-hell invention.

Lots of serious criticism has, I'm sure, been written about Celine and Julie Go Boating, and there's certainly much to say about it. Don't read any before seeing the film, though. Rivette's film, if you're able to share his sense of cinematic play, is an exhilarating and generous confection to bask in rather than to regard in hushed, somber tones. By the end, you may well be surprised how emotionally invested you are in the adventures of these two madwomen. This movie about the joy of watching movies is itself pure joy (no matter what Armond White says about the film and those who he believes pretend to like it for the sake of fulfilling supposed hipster credentials).


The Band (1969, The Band)
Stage Fright (1970, The Band)
Maybe I should feel a bit of shame that these days, it often takes the death of a musician to finally get me to listen to that musician's music. Such is yet again the case with Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band who died recently; I had always been curious to check out that famous group's music after hearing their Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan, but Helm's death finally got me in the mood to explore. Oh well; better late than never, right? At least I'm finding much enjoyment in The Band's music so far. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this kind of earthy Americana, even when that pleasantly folksy sound masks darker undertones, as it surely does with their third album, Stage Fright.

How to Get Started (1989, John Cage), performed at Symphony Space in New York
Back in 1989, during a conference in northern California, John Cage conceived of a work in which he addressed the concerns he had about improvisation as part of the creative process. Even when he frequently used "chance operations" in his later music, those aleatoric works weren't so much reliant on random in-the-moment inspiration so much as on a performer using Cage's specific instructions to conceive of his/her own composition before a performance. Big difference there! How to Get Started, then, is a special work for him—and, up until Friday, it had been performed only once in public, by Cage himself, during that conference in 1989.

On Friday, however, Symphony Space teamed up with the ongoing PEN World Voices literary festival to stage a day-long event surrounding How to Get Started. The event featured not only professional artists like writer Etgar Keret and musician/founding member of Kronos Quartet David Harrington, but also three audience members, picked at random, all doing their own renditions of Cage's work.

How to Get Started goes something like this: The performer picks 10 topics that he/she will extemporize on for a brief amount of time (in Cage's performance, his improvisations never went past three minutes); those topics are written down on numbered index cards, one for each topic. A random number from 1-10 is chosen, and whatever number is chosen will correspond with a particular topic. The performer riffs on that topic, without any notes whatsoever. Then another number is chosen. While the performer improvises on that second topic, his/her discussion of the first topic is played back concurrently. When a third number is chosen, both of his/her previous improvisations are played back concurrently...and so on until, once the last topic is reached, all the improvisations are played together (though not all at the same volume level; the most recent is the loudest).

The effect of How to Get Started is quite fascinating: a sonic representation of the human mind at work. In some ways, however, it's an even more revelatory experience for the performer, who finds him-/herself possibly fighting past his/her previous improvisations in order to be heard, among other possible roadblocks on the way. I, alas, was not one of the lucky audience members picked to do my own performance—but down in Philadelphia, there is an installation devoted to this particular Cage work, one which allows anyone—anyone who makes an appointment beforehand, at least—to record their own realizations. I'm tempted to trek down to Philadelphia just to do this; hey, Ma, I'm performing a work by John Cage!

For now, though, I have memories of Keret's and Harrington's particularly memorable performances to hold onto. Ah John Cage, what an oddball genius you remain!


The Rings of Saturn (1995, W. G. Sebald)    
Yes, I did some cramming in order to prepare myself for Patience (After Sebald), picking up a copy of the particular Sebald book that Grant Gee, in his film, explores in great depth. Thankfully, though, The Rings of Saturn is stimulating enough that it never felt like mere "work." This is an amazing book: an intellectual/historical/personal travelogue that taps into a spirit of restless adventure that reminds me of why I consider Jack Kerouac's On the Road to be one of my favorite pieces of literature ever.

I hadn't heard of Sebald at all before I was assigned to review Patience (After Sebald); now, I can't wait to read more of his work, to see what new horizons of knowledge and reflection await!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Few More Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The Tribeca Film Festival ended Sunday night, so as far as I know, you won't be able to see any of the films I saw and/or reviewed since my last Tribeca round-up. Still, that doesn't mean you can't read my pieces and keep the ones I reviewed positively in mind for the future...right?

Death of a Superhero

I ended up seeing "only" four more films since that last Tribeca post, two of which I officially reviewed: Ian Fitzgibbon's surprisingly decent Death of a Superhero at Slant Magazine and Alex Karpovsky's insinuating psychological thriller Rubberneck at The House Next Door.

Neither of the two other films left me in the mood to wildly sing its praises. At least Magnus Martens's Swedish crime comedy Jackpot is good for a few genuine bad-taste laughs to go along with its utterly predictable nihilism, especially in an extended setpiece that follows the central criminal band's increasingly hapless and hilarious attempts to dispose of a corpse. Jackpot could best be described as the Coen Brothers' Fargo redone as out-and-out cartoonish farce; if that kind of thing sounds appealing to you, this one delivers the bloody goods.

The Fourth Dimension is a tougher nut to crack. An anthology film featuring contributions from Harmony Korine, Alexei Fedorchenko and Jan Kwiecinski, it opens with title cards explaining the concept of the "fourth dimension" (including, helpfully, a quote from Back to the Future), and then setting out a bunch of rules imposed by producer Eddy Moretti on the three filmmakers—many of which are openly silly (examples: "The hero must have a missing tooth," "The director must direct one scene from the film with a blindfold on over his or her eyes" and so on), none of which have anything to do with any "fourth dimension." What binds these three disparate short films together, then? Perhaps just the idea of characters achieving some higher plane of existence, whatever that means to them personally.

In any case, Korine's "The Lotus Community Workshop" is memorable chiefly for featuring Val Kilmer playing himself as a self-help guru/charlatan who spends the rest of his time basically getting stoned and hanging out with his girlfriend (Rachel Korine). None of this adds up to much more than a prank, but Kilmer is a hoot to watch, especially when you get to the end and hear his auto-tuned "Fourth Dimension" song at the end.

Fedorchenko's "Chronoeye" is the closest this omnibus comes to directly engaging with the fourth dimension, featuring as it does a scientist named Grigory (Igor Sergeev) who has created a device to try to visit moments in the past and future—except that, whenever he is able to visit the past and the future, the camera always seems to be pointed at the most undesirable angles. In his obsession with exploring the past, Grigory seems ignorant of what's around him in the present, including the sexy female neighbor (Darya Ekamasova) who seems to have a thing for him. This is, for my money, the most interesting of the three segments, and sure, I'd consider it my favorite.

Other critics, for some reason, seem to be picking Kwiecinski's segment, entitled "Fawns," as their pick for best in show in this anthology. Personally, I found this parable of hipsters learning to care for someone other than themselves during an impending apocalypse to be an interminable bore—occasionally striking visually but a complete void as far as human interest goes.

One out of three in the case of The Fourth Dimension = not enough to give me a reason to recommend it even for its intriguing concept and occasional choice bits. So it goes with yet another one of these portmanteau films.

And on that (slightly sour) note, thus ends my Tribeca Film Festival experience this year. Obviously, if I wasn't also juggling a day job in addition to checking out films screening at the festival this year, I might have seen more of what I really wanted to see (the one film I regret not being able to schedule: Ira Sachs's new film Keep the Lights On, which played to generally appreciative audience at the Sundance Film Festival a few months ago). But hey, since I'm not doing this film-criticism thing full time, I'll gladly take what I can get!