Why am I going? Well...in this case, just because. No film festival, no film-review or job-related obligations. This trip is just for me—to relax, recharge, reflect. I don't think I've really had that kind of trip in a long while. (And unlike my last venture to the West Coast, last year when I visited Los Angeles, I'm going this one alone. We'll see how that goes.)
So I'm not sure how much art I'll be consuming in the coming week. The Bay Area has a fairly rich alternative-film scene which I intend to explore to a certain extent, so some film-watching will probably be on the menu. Other than that...maybe a concert at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra?
Until then...here's my latest artistic consumption log for the past week. I didn't come across anything extraordinarily overwhelming on the art front—though the Dardenne Brothers' latest film, The Kid With a Bike, came close.
|The Kid With a Bike (2011)|
The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar), seen at AMC Empire 25 in New York
I remember walking out of Pedro Almodóvar's latest film feeling underwhelmed. Days later, upon reflection, I feel a bit more affection for the film than I did immediately afterward. What I remember most from the film is its sometimes exhilarating sense of narrative freedom, with Almodóvar boldly taking his story into unapologetically perverse territory. (I'll give you only one hint as to where this film heads: The Skin I Live In features music by Throbbing Gristle, the British avant-garde band led by Genesis P-Orridge. If you know who Genesis P-Orridge is...) This might have been a truly great film if Almodóvar's characters had been sketched with nearly as much care as he puts into his plotting and his imagery. Still, at its best, The Skin I Live In carries some of the aggressively transgressive charge of his early, pre-All About My Mother work. And hey, at least it isn't boring—which is more than could be said for his last film, Broken Embraces, the rare instance where his taste for melodrama felt, for the most part, fatally rote.
★ Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh), seen at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
The common knock against Steven Soderbergh as an auteur, it seems, is that he doesn't have much of a signature, that he's difficult to pin down, that his films sometimes tend to be chilly theoretical experiments. There is perhaps truth in all of that, and Contagion—a biological disaster film that's shot more for clinical realism than freaky sensationalism—won't do much to lessen those impressions. Maybe the fact that I ended up enjoying the film anyway has to do with the fact that I expected all this going in and thus found Soderbergh's detachment actually somewhat comforting. There are themes to be found in this film if you care to look deep enough, I'm sure—half-formed ideas about self-interest vs. selflessness, old-school journalism vs. new media, and so on; I suspect, though, that Soderbergh mostly focused on telling the story as efficiently as possible and leaving Scott Z. Burns's script to take care of itself. Contagion works as a fairly engrossing thriller in which moments of genuine emotion are allowed to pop up amidst the deliberately drab technological spectacle.
DOC NYC, all films seen at IFC Center in New York
Undefeated (2011, Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin)
★ Kumaré (2011, Vikram Gandhi)
I volunteered to review these two films in the upcoming DOC NYC documentary film festival for The House Next Door, so I'll let that piece speak for itself, when I get around to writing it up.
★ The Kid With a Bike (2011, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
More film-festival catch-up! Here, the Dardenne Brothers come up with an affecting coming-of-age fable in which a troubled but headstrong young boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret, amazing) tries to adjust to life without his deadbeat dad (Jérémie Renier, natch after the role he played in L'Enfant) after he leaves him. With their last film, Lorna's Silence (2008), you could sense the Dardennes trying to at least take some baby steps away from their usual emphasis on naturalism; in The Kid With a Bike, they go even further by introducing fairy-tale elements within their realistic style. At least, that's the only way I can explain, say, the near-angelic nature of Cécile de France's surrogate-mother character (we barely get an idea about why this stranger suddenly takes an interest in Cyril; she just kinda does) or the melancholy snatches of the slow movement of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto that the Dardennes include on the soundtrack (placed at strategic moments, as if marking off important stages in Cyril's emotional arc).
That is not to say that the Dardennes are going for a more simplistic version of their previous morality plays; moral ambiguity still plays a major part in their worldview, except this time around, it's filtered through the point-of-view of Cyril, a kid who is only now getting his first, brutal taste of the adult world. But the Dardennes, as ever, somehow manage to adopt a main character's viewpoint without ever fully inhabiting it—and some of its most memorable moments come from the way they look at a particular situation from various perspectives without losing the essential sympathy they have for Cyril.
Good stuff, all in all...though I wonder if, with their next film, the Dardennes will maybe just drop the pretense of realism altogether and do something completely and utterly different from the style they're known for. No more of these baby steps, guys! Just do it!
★ Watch the Throne (2011, Jay-Z & Kanye West)
I finally got around to hearing this much-hyped collaboration between two recent hip-hop giants, and it turns out Watch the Throne lives up to its name in one respect: some of these cuts positively abound in regal, majestic, deliberately overblown sounds and production. And, of course, there's the usual quota of braggadocio you have to put up with from these two. But such ego-tripping coexists fascinatingly with moments of brutal honesty, most notably in Jay-Z's case (listen to the second half of "New Day," for instance). Watch the Throne ends where West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy began, and it's far less consistent—but it's generally enjoyable overall.
Debut (1993, Björk)
Thanks to the release of Björk's latest work, the multi-platform Biophilia, I've finally decided to dive into the much-celebrated music of this Icelandic iconoclast. (And yes, this means that I haven't yet watched Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, in which she played the lead role and wrote the songs.) As usual, I started from the beginning: her first solo album, cleverly titled Debut. It's an interesting if somewhat uneven effort; I'm guessing later albums will be even stranger and more experimental than this one, which is, more often than not, tied down to fairly same-y dance beats.
★ Radio & Juliet (2009, Edward Clug), performed at NYU Skirball Center in New York
This abstract modern take on the Shakespeare classic, set to music by Radiohead and performed by the Slovenian dance troupe Ballet Maribor, has apparently been touring the world for a couple of years now. It finally made it to New York over the weekend, and if you don't mind the hour-long ballet's clinical feel, it's a fascinating trip. Instead of two warring clans, Radio & Juliet basically features one female dancer and six male ones, one of whom takes a romantic interest in the woman...or do all of them take an interest? At a couple points in the ballet, "Romeo" and "Juliet" dance with each other...but then one "Romeo" is replaced with another, then that other is replaced yet another...you get the idea. What does that signify? It certainly doesn't recall anything in Shakespeare's text. But then, a lot of elements in this ballet don't recall anything in Shakespeare's text; it borrows certain elements, but stakes out an identity of its own. What matters, in the end, is that Radio & Juliet works on its own alien terms; even better, it manages to bring out the creepier aspects of Radiohead's music—most of it from Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001) and Hail to the Thief (2003), their more experimental albums—that honestly I don't think I had really, truly felt while listening to their music in isolation.