Monday, June 11, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, June 4, 2012 - June 10, 2012: "Fairly Even Mix" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This week saw a fairly even mix of consumption among various artistic disciplines—just the way I like it!

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)


Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson), seen at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
As someone who has always wanted to love Wes Anderson's films and have always found myself frustrated by how little I connected with them emotionally, I was stunned to find myself getting thoroughly into his latest film from the first frame onward. Oh, it's still a Wes Anderson film through and through, with its storybook colors (courtesy of his usual cinematographer Robert Yeoman), extravagantly packed mise-en-scène, deadpan sense of humor and deliberate archness. Maybe Anderson so completely identifies with the two kids at the heart of this film—troubled children who run away from home (a literal one in Suzy's case, a figurative one for the technically homeless and parentless Sam) and get into a Pierrot le fou-style adventure yarn—that I found myself likewise getting invested in their adventures, while taking note of the sense of adult disappointment that always hovers around the margins. Maybe kids, not animated foxes (as in his last picture, the stop-motion-animated Fantastic Mr. Fox), really suit him best. His style could be said to exude a genuine sense of childlike play—not always fitting for films about adult compromises, as most of his other films have been about, but just about perfect for this particular tale.

Of course, if you're New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, then you'll think there's something wrong with me for loving Moonrise Kingdom more than his other films. Well, uh, mea culpa, I guess? (Read these tweets and decide for yourself.)

Alps (2011, Yorgos Lanthimos), seen at home in Brooklyn, N.Y. [second viewing]
I recently interviewed Lanthimos for an upcoming Wall Street Journal Speakeasy blog post (as the film comes out here in the U.S. in July, it'll be a while before it's published), so I decided to reacquaint myself with a film toward which I had mixed feelings when I saw it at Toronto International Film Festival last year, but which tilted toward positive upon further reflection. Or, at least, I thought it did. Now that I've seen it a second time, though, I'm still not convinced that the film's cosmic detachment suits this film's more open physical and emotional landscape as well as it did with the inherently closed system of Lanthimos's last film, Dogtooth. As Fernando F. Croce wrote about No Country for Old Men back in 2007, Alps is "all theme and no life;" it's unsettling, but perhaps not in the way Lanthimos intended.

I think the interview went pretty well, though, for what it's worth. If nothing else, he's an intelligent, articulate dude, and there are certainly ideas in Alps worth engaging with.


Wagner: Siegfried (1963, Sir Georg Solti/Wiener Philharmoniker)
Wagner's complete Ring cycle is a masterpiece, of course, but I've always found myself partial to this third installment, Siegfried, of the four. Maybe its youthful fantasy-adventure aspects are what I enjoy most about it. (Hey, I'm young and I'm adventurous—maybe I'm a Siegfried at heart!) It certainly made for a fun Saturday afternoon when I saw it at the Metropolitan Opera House in the new Robert Lepage production. In any case, this opera is arguably the one most suited to Sir Georg Solti's excitable interpretive temperament, and under his hands—and with a very fine Wolfgang Windgassen taking on the title role—this proves to be an electrifying experience on record. That's not to say the work's lyrical side doesn't get its due, most memorably during Siegfried's awe at reaching the sunlight-draped mountain summit to wake up Brünnhilde from her fire-surrounded slumber. In fact, I listened to that section right after seeing Moonrise Kingdom, and it just amplified the blissful feelings with which Anderson's film left me.

Elliott Carter: Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010-11) / Michael Jarrell: Nachlese Vb: Liederzyklus (2011) / Pierre Boulez: ...explosante-fixe... (1991-93), performed live by members of the New York Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
Apparently, even I have a certain threshold for hearing so much atonal music in one evening; I admit, I was feeling something close to ear fatigue during Boulez's unabashedly severe (and, to my mind, way overlong) ...explosante-fixe.... The real discovery for me wasn't the world premiere of 103-year-old American composer Elliott Carter's brief Two Controversies and a Conversation—though I did find it scintillating enough—but the U.S. premiere of a four-movement cycle by Michael Jarrell, a Swiss composer of whom I hadn't even heard before seeing this concert Friday night, which was a part of the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! new-music series.

Jarrell's work takes a Spanish poem by Luis de Góngora y Argote and sets not only that poem to music, but also French and German translations of it, plus a wholly instrumental movement for good measure. In a sense, it's four different musical "views" of the same work. Conceptually, that's an interesting idea for a piece, one that I haven't encountered in my own musical experiences—but the music itself is what really sells the concept. The poem speaks, more or less, of a troubled man traveling at night to some vague destination that may just be the End of Life itself; Jarrell's music soulfully embodies the poem's ominous existential despair in its sprechstimme vocal lines and disorienting atonal harmonies. I, for one, would have gladly heard more interpretations, more translations!

By the way, Elliott Carter made an onstage appearance at this performance. He is 103 years old. Even in a wheelchair and in a slightly slurred voice, he still seemed mentally sharp when talking to the concert's host, WNYC's John Schaefer. I should really listen to more of the man's music (Two Controversies and a Conversation was at least enough to pique my interest).

Ghost Pal, seen live at someone's apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A friend of mine is the drummer for this band, and when I found myself with nothing else to do after the Carter/Jarrell/Boulez concert on Friday night, I decided to go hang out with him and see him do his thing. I honestly don't recall many of the songs (other than a fairly inventive cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and a song that seemed to take a perverse pleasure in switching between hard dance grooves and slower beats at the turn of a dime), but my friend was actually quite impressive, truly standing out on drums. It proved to be a decent palate cleanser after the atonal immersion earlier that evening.


My Children! My Africa! (1989, Athol Fugard), performed at Pershing Square Signature Center in New York
My Children! My Africa! begins in the middle of a heated academic debate, during which a teacher, Mr. M (James A. Williams), reads aloud the dictionary definition of the word "debate" to two students, a white girl named Isabel (Allie Gallerani) and a black boy named Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams). So far, so didactic. Gradually, though, Athol Fugard's 1989 drama digs underneath these three characters and uncovers a whole complex moral universe. Mr. M has his own long-term vision of how to bring change to a South Africa torn apart by apartheid; his prized pupil Thami, however, finds himself caught in more proactive and violent methods. Poor Isabel—whom Thami befriends but whom, deep down, he essentially sees as the enemy—is caught in the middle of this ideological tug-of-war. Far from coming off as merely schematic, My Children! My Africa! more often has the welcome quality of a thought-provoking dialectic, this quality being most evident in the separate monologues all three characters have during the first act, in which they reveal to us their background and worldviews. That even-handed quality, however, might not have meant much in the end if it didn't finally impress as human drama, and an increasingly devastating one down the stretch.

I have now seen two Athol Fugard plays (his 1961 play Blood Knot, produced by the same Signature Theatre Company earlier this year, was the other) and have found myself deeply moved by their intelligence, humanity and complexity. More, please! (I now truly regret not having maybe splurged to see The Road to Mecca on Broadway, late last year and earlier this year.)

If you can get past Hoberman's increasingly snarky tone—the deeper into the 1950s he gets, the more he begins to exude a smirky condescension toward some of the lunacies of the decade—this is indeed a valuable work of film history and cultural criticism, painting a vivid portrait of that crazy decade and making insightful connections between American society and the films Hollywood was producing at the time. At its best, An Army of Phantoms makes you feel like you are there; at its worst, it pulls you out of the headlong rush for jokey one-sentence asides. Someone please tell me his "prequel" The Dream Life isn't like this, or I may find myself less charitable.

Fine Art

Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings, seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
My ticket to the Carer/Jarrell/Boulez concert on Friday night also ensured free admission into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the day, so I decided to take advantage and go check out this exhibit as well as a bunch of other art besides. I hadn't heard of the American artist before, but one of my co-workers at The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed him for a Weekend Journal story, so I figured I'd dive right in and explore.

The exhibit is made up of pencil/pen sketches of various plants—sounds ho-hum on the face of it. But look closer, and some of those more delicate graphite and ink strokes indicate an attempt at something beyond mere representation. A lot of these seemingly very simple drawings reminded me of the serenity Willem De Kooning achieved with his daringly pared-down late canvases, in which a few simple strokes and colors manage to suggest whole moods and environments. Kelly's plant drawings have a similar purity. They're all quite lovely.

And then I followed a tip from Karen Rosenberg's New York Times review of the exhibit and decided to check out the rest of the Modern and Contemporary Art wing to find some of the other Kelly works the Met had in its collection...and I found myself groaning a bit when I came upon Blue Panel (1977), which is basically just a parallelogram-ish canvas painted entirely dark blue. I usually like to consider myself pretty open-minded about this kind of thing, but I have to admit, when I see something like that, the inner aesthetic reactionary in me comes out—something along the lines of "It's not art if I could conceivably do this myself." His Spectrum V series (1969) at least has mild conceptual interest to it (it's a bunch of rectangular canvases with all the colors of the spectrum, on one each canvas). I guess I'll have to investigate this Ellsworth Kelly fellow a lot more before deciding what I think of his art.

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