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.

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