Monday, July 30, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 23, 2012 - July 29, 2012: "Dereliction of Cinephile Duties" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As you will all surely notice below, this week's artistic consumption log has no films listed. I did watch seven-and-a-half additional hours of Christian Marclay's The Clock, but being that I only list works of art I have fully consumed, I have left that off this list (besides, I'll have more to say about it in a separate post).

Otherwise...this was a week of two major derelictions of cinephile duties. On Thursday night, for instance, I had psyched myself up to finally see Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) at Walter Reade Theater as part of its (now-over) Gene Kelly retrospective—but then, as I started hearing more about this supposed "super storm" that was coming up the East Coast, and then seeing the darkness that began engulfing midtown Manhattan at around 7 p.m., I decided, at the last minute, to play it safe and just go right home after work. Imagine my displeasure when this "derecho," as this weather event was officially called, turned out to be yet another overhyped weather event on a par with last year's Hurricane Irene (at least as it manifested itself—barely—in New York). Regrets: I've had a few.

And this past weekend, the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of its ongoing "See It Big!" series, screened a rare 35mm IB Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo—in other words, a print that, from what I hear, offers a stark contrast to the still much-disputed color and soundtrack manipulations of the 1996 Robert Harris-led restoration that's still making the repertory-cinema rounds. Alas, I already had tickets to a modern Chinese opera (of which more below) on Saturday night, and I had work on Sunday, so I wasn't able to see this vintage print of one of my favorite films of all time. (Maybe I dodged a bullet? I kept hearing about focus issues at Saturday's screening, at least.)

One of these days, I'll finally get back on the repertory-cinema wagon, one which I feel I've been neglecting for a while now thanks to writing commitments, other film festivals and such. Maybe this week?


New World Order (1996, Curtis Mayfield)
That Friday, July 20, Curtis Mayfield 70th-birthday tribute show at Avery Fisher Hall that I wrote about here was titled "Here But I'm Gone," which takes the name from a song of his—but not a song written during his 1960s/'70s glory days. No, "Here But I'm Gone" is a track from New World Order, his final album, and the first record he cut after the stage accident that left him paralyzed in 1990. As a result of his paralysis, he was forced to record the songs by sitting on his back and singing them one line at the time; his singing was later edited together.

Among his post-Impressions solo work, New World Order won't efface memories of his self-titled 1970 debut album Curtis or, arguably even more so, his Superfly soundtrack (1972) as far as consistency goes; and lyrically speaking, New World Order showcases Mayfield at his most direct and flatly declarative, without the metaphorical overtones that distinguish his best songwriting. That, however, doesn't stop this from being a touching collection of songs, however: an uplifting document of an artist who seems to be celebrating the mere fact that he's alive, and trying to express all the wisdom he's gained since losing some of his physical powers. As far as final artistic statements go, this is a pretty good one from one of the greatest songwriters of American pop music.

Morning Better Last! (2003, The Dirty Projectors)
Slaves' Graves & Ballads (2004, The Dirty Projectors)
The Getty Address (2005, Dirty Projectors)
I decided to make the music of indie band Dirty Projectors my next listening project, thinking that I'd only have to deal with one album, Bitte Orca (2009), before hearing their latest, Swing Low Magellan. But no, apparently David Longstreth & co. have a few albums before Bitte Orca to their credit. So, near-completist that I am, I decided to go back to the earliest Dirty Projectors that's available on Spotify, at least: Morning Better Last!, an album of short, distinctively lo-fi tunes—culled from three tapes Longstreth made in 2001 and 2002—that seem to add up to a song cycle about life in Los Angeles, at least from what I can gather from Longstreth's elusive lyrics. It has a certain charm to it—more charm, to my mind, than the overly precious and affected first half of the subsequent Slaves' Graves & Ballads (the second half returns to the acoustic vibe of Morning Better Last!, but with far better production values).

The Getty Address is my favorite of the Dirty Projectors albums I've heard so far, though not necessarily because of its content, whatever that is (supposedly it's a song cycle about, of all people, singer/songwriter/former Eagles frontman Don Henley, among other topics of interest). Mostly, I find it compelling as a procession of fascinating, genuinely original sounds, both orchestral, electronic and both at the same time. I guess I just warm to these unabashedly experimental tunes more than I did to anything in the first half of Slaves' Graves & Ballads, even if the styles are basically similar.

Basically, I'm still waiting to be fully blown away by this band. Maybe I'll need to wait until Bitte Orca—the one everyone seems to know about—for my breakthrough?

The set before the curtain rose on Uncle Vanya at New York City Center on Friday night


Uncle Vanya (1897, Anton Chekhov), performed live at New York City Center in New York
I splurged on a ticket to this Lincoln Center Festival-hosted Sydney Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov's famous play mostly on the basis of some of the talent involved: Cate Blanchett playing Yelena, the caring but bored wife of the much older retired Professor Serebryakov (John Bell); Hugo Weaving—whom most American audiences would probably know as the villainous Agent Smith in the Matrix films—as environmentally conscious Doctor Astrov; and Jacki Weaver—a recent Oscar nominee for her performance as a subtly evil matriarch in Animal Kingdom (2010)—as a nurse named Marina. Not that seeing Chekhov performed live wasn't a draw as well; honestly, I've never seen Chekhov live, much less this play.

My snap reaction to Uncle Vanya: It's indubitably great, but boy is it bleak. Not that it's just a slab of relentless miserablism, mind you; Uncle Vanya often has a streak of pitch-black humor to it—a side that this exemplary production especially brought out—that leavens the depressiveness. But man, that last line Sonya repeats at the very end: "We will rest"? Well, I mean, maybe you might find some hope in the idea that, for these characters stuck in various forms of limbo (much of it self-imposed), death is the only thing they have left to look forward to in their lives. That ain't my idea of uplift, personally. Chekhov's trump card is how clear-eyed he is about the causes of the unhappiness of these characters: Vanya's resentfulness toward Serebryakov, a man he once idolized; Yelena's fear of busting certain societal taboos despite her natural passionate vitality; and Vanya's sister Sonya's shyness when it comes to expressing her love for Astrov, a love that Astrov doesn't requite. As with many of the greatest tragedies, Uncle Vanya—especially done in as exemplary a production as this one, with a terrific Richard Roxburgh in the title role—manages to be cathartic rather than merely depressing; there's enough authentic life and emotional variety to it that it adds up to a genuinely humane and soulful experience.

Feng Yi Ting (2004, Guo Wenjing), performed live at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York
This is yet another Lincoln Center Festival event that I attended this past weekend. Two things made me curious about this: 1) the fact that this was a Chinese opera, which of course naturally piqued the interest of my half-Chinese self (how many of those get performed here in New York in the Upper West Side?), and 2) the fact that this production was directed by Atom Egoyan, who most of you may know as the director of films like Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and, more recently, Chloe.

Guo Wenjing's opera is the umpteenth work based on the famous Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (just earlier this month, I saw a film with Donnie Yen in it called The Lost Bladesman that had that classic novel as its basis; and, of course, there's John Woo's Red Cliff). I won't burden you all trying to explain the complicated backstory of Feng Yi Ting; basically, it centers around the attempts by Diao Chan—considered one of the most beautiful women in all of ancient China—to seduce both the warlord Dong Zhou and his godson, General Lü Bu, and essentially pit them against each other in a way that will ultimately help bring about a united China.

Feng Yi Ting, however, isn't a lavish costume epic. Well, I mean, it's still fairly lavish-looking in Atom Egoyan's production...but as human drama, it strips the story down to just Diao Chan (acted/sung by Shen Tiemei) and Lü Bu (acted/sung by Jiang Qihu). Neither of them are seen onstage interacting with each other all that much; instead, we hear their internal monologues, sung in the usual pinched-sounding manner of traditional Chinese operas. For Diao Chan's part, she mostly extols the virtues of working for a cause larger than herself—but through Lü Bu's anguished arias, we see the emotional effect Diao's machinations have on him.

The way Feng Yi Ting tells this tale, however, is what interests me the most about it. Everything is done in a detached, ceremonial manner; the singers themselves are often asked to move about the stage in the glacial manner recalling pieces on a chessboard. Guo Wenjing's score buttresses this rather alienating feeling: It's a clash of very Chinese period sonorities (traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa, dizi and erhu are included in the orchestration) and a fairly atonal modern style. The cumulative effect of reminds me, in some ways, of the effect of watching Stanley Kubrick's historical drama Barry Lyndon: the disquieting feeling of seeing a human drama playing out at a historical remove. The style, however, is appropriate for a drama that pits Diao Chan's chilly, calculating reason against Lü Bu's increasingly anguished, hotheaded emotion. For his part, Atom Egoyan chooses inventive multimedia visual representations of this head-versus-heart conflict—even going so far as to play around with the projected Chinese/English supertitles and having them break apart into a swirling sea of characters/letters during the moments where Lü Bu expresses his innermost anguish.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this is a mere 43 minutes long? Yes, it's less than an hour! (Even Kaija Saariaho managed to stretch the life story of Émilie du Châtelet to more than an hour in that monodrama of hers I saw in this same space the week before!) Ultimately, though, I think the concision works for this narrowly focused approach to a larger story; if anything, Feng Yi Ting might have had much less of a lingering effect if it had been stretched inordinately to epic length.

So, for all those on Twitter who expressed a genuine interest in reading me talk about a Chinese opera that I saw on Saturday night—well, you've just read it, and I haven't bored the rest of my Twitter followers with something I suspect most of them aren't interested in. This is what blogs are good for!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Watching The Clock: II. 2:37 p.m.-6 p.m. / III. 11:04 a.m. - 2:37 p.m. / IV. 8 a.m. - 11:04 a.m.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—My quest to watch as much of The Clock as possible continues on (check out my first post on Christian Marclay's video installation here to get you up to speed).

II. 2:37 p.m. - 6 p.m.

After seeing The Dark Knight Rises last Friday morning, I decided on a whim to walk over to the David Rubinstein Atrium and try to take in some of the afternoon hours of The Clock. It wasn't the most pleasant of waits: rain started to fall pretty heavily, and my big umbrella wasn't quite strong enough to prevent some rainwater from getting through and dropping onto my clothing. 

Taken while waiting on line to see The Clock on Friday, July 20

But after about 45 minutes of waiting, I finally got out of the rain and got indoors.

I walked in to clips of people in various states of waiting—the two titular children of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982) waiting to see their mother during a funeral service; the titular 12-year-old drug-runner of Fresh (1994) waiting around in his room; and so on. The midday hours of Christian Marclay's Alternate Cinema World of The Clock, it seems, is a time of least until 3 p.m., when children all over the movie world are getting out of school (Marclay prominently features the 1987 high-school comedy Three O'Clock High to lead up to and then punctuate the moment The Clock turn 3). 

About Schmidt

What 3 p.m. is to children (except for the children of François Truffaut's Small Change, who seem to get out of class at 4:30), 5 p.m. is to most adult working stiffs. For 5 p.m., Marclay chooses a clip from About Schmidt (2003), in which Warren Schmidt basically stares at the clock in his office until it turns 5, then quietly gets up and leaves. Certainly compared to the lead-up to 3 p.m., the lead-up to 5 p.m. is a considerably quieter, drama-free affair, without Marclay's usual increase in tension. It's just this one clip—and then, it's 5.

During this nearly three-and-a-half-hour viewing session of The Clock, I decided to try to take some notes this time around. One random thing I noted on a few occasions: Even though it's the afternoon, some of the black-and-white clips Marclay uses practically look as if they're at night, so shadowy are the interiors. Maybe black-and-white photography can just have that effect in general, without color to offer more concrete indications of time of day? (Or, of course, it could just be careful studio lighting. Either one.)

Another thing I noted is Marclay's sense of playfulness from moment to moment: how he sometimes uses a certain clip as a jumping-off point for a seemingly spontaneous montage of similar clips. So, in my notes, I note that at around 4:10 p.m., Marclay has a clip of someone picking up a phone and making a frantic call; then he throws in clips of other movie characters making frantic calls, binding them all together in a quick-edited flurry. I doubt this moment has anything in particular to say about 4:10 p.m.; it's just a bit of momentary inspiration that Marclay ran with. 

Miami Vice

Marclay also gets a bit cute with some of the clips he throws in that stretches his every-clip-with-a-timepiece-showing-the-time concept. During the 5 p.m. hour, Marclay treats us to a clip from one of the closing scenes of Michael Mann's 2006 feature film of Miami Vice, in which Isabella asks of Crockett before they part ways forever, "Remember when I said 'Time is luck'?" From what I remember, I don't recall there being any indication of the specific time in that scene (though the skies in the backdrop have enough light that, if one didn't know better, one could plausibly assume it was taking place in the afternoon)—but hey, time is a "theme" of that clip, fitting into Marclay's larger mosaic, right?

I offer that last point as an observation more than as a criticism. Time is, well, the essence of The Clock—a work which, among its many achievements based on what I've seen thus far, does have the ability to make us aware of just how much power film editing can have as far as eliding and compressing real time goes. During the 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. hours, for instance, there are clips from some film (I'm not sure which) featuring a character tied to a bomb with a clock attached to it. Marclay cuts back to those clips whenever there are shots of the clock showing specific times—a potentially revelatory contrast to the way those clips were edited in the original source material, without strict regard for adhering to "real time" the way Marclay does.

Army of Shadows (1969)

As I left the David Rubinstein Atrium at around 6 p.m., many of the characters in Marclay's Alternate Cinema World were getting ready for dinner. Only a half hour or so later, I found myself waiting for dinner in a nearby restaurant. If that isn't a classic example of life imitating art, then I don't know what is.

III. 11:04 a.m. - 2:37 p.m.

Taken while waiting on line to see The Clock on Saturday, July 21. A much better day for waiting, weather-wise!
The next day, I woke up early to catch some of the early morning/early afternoon hours of The Clock. Honestly, I wasn't even thinking about how Marclay would handle things as The Clock approached noon...but if any of you Clock skeptics out there want to understand why Marclay's video installation isn't a mere gimmick, you ought to try to at least check out this stretch to see how brilliantly he increases the tension, playing more so than usual on our desire to reach that all-important midpoint of our day. It's fitting that he uses music from Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (1999), with its steady disco beat adding "suspense" even to the ensuing non-Run Lola Run clips...

...and then noon finally hits...and The Clock just about explodes in sounds of alarms and images of clocks, seemingly one for each second. That stretch may be just about the most joyous moment I've experienced in a movie theater all year! (I do hope to get a chance, before this current run of The Clock is over, to see what he does for midnight.)

Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction

The only other comment I have to offer regarding this particular three-and-a-half-hour stretch of The Clock regards clips used (and let's face it, one of the most appealing aspects of Marclay's video for us cinephiles comes in playing "spot-the-reference" games, though that's definitely not its only appeal). For one thing: It is during this section that Marclay includes the monologue Christopher Walken delivers in Pulp Fiction (1994) about the origin of the watch that Butch Coolidge values so highly. Personally, I always thought the punchline to this speech was pretty puerile (if you don't know it by now, then your head is clearly under some pop-culture rock), so I can't say I partook in the delighted laughter this moment garnered from most of the audience.

On a more positive note, a cut from Humphrey Bogart to Idris Elba—two actors who have made reputations taking us pretty deeply into tough guys—was pretty awesome, I must say.

IV. 8 a.m. - 11:04 a.m.

Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction

Speaking of Pulp Fiction: At around 8:17 a.m. or so, Marclay includes the clip of Jimmy going off on Jules in a panic fearing what will happen if his wife Bonnie happens upon their corpse-cleanup operation. Regardless of the fact that Marclay cuts out all of Jimmy's "dead nigger storage" dialogue within that scene, thus technically violating the "real time" of Tarantino's film, I also note that just a few minutes earlier, Marclay included this exterior shot of the Hawthorne Grill...

...the diner that Jules and Vincent eat in after they've cleaned up the bloody mess in their car. So basically, Marclay placed a shot that, chronologically in its source material, took place after that scene, and placed it before that scene in his video. 

There's an even more flagrant instance of this kind of fudging in the way Marclay breaks up the sequence seen above from Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977). The sequence in question is one in which two of its main characters are riding a bus, and Bresson throws in a montage of rear-view mirrors, hands clutching railings, feet stepping off the bus and so on—basically, a montage of everything except bodies and faces. (Consider it a modern-day variant of that abstracted joust in his previous film Lancelot of the Lake.) Marclay uses a snippet from this montage sometime during the 8 a.m. hour as part of his own montage of movie characters on their way to their day jobs. If memory serves, however, Marclay already used a different part of this sequence much later in his video—sometime within the early afternoon hours, during my 2:37 p.m. - 6 p.m. viewing session! But in the film, this happened, one assumes, in one stretch of time, not across two separate incidents!

Is Marclay "cheating" here? I'm inclined to think of this kind of thing as an indication of the poetic license Marclay feels the freedom to take even within his self-imposed "concept" for the work. There were already indications of this in my previous experiences with The Clock, as I suggested in discussing that Miami Vice scene above: clips here and there that didn't technically have a timepiece in it, but which made for a fitting emotional/thematic prelude to another clip or series of clips that did have timepieces in it. He's interested in making those kinds of intuitive connections in the way he strings clips together more than he is in producing a well-oiled machine. Besides, not everyone will have that same familiarity with the source materials and will thus be able to enjoy those clips in Marclay's repurposed context, free of prior knowledge. (On the other hand, I can't say having such prior knowledge necessarily enhances The Clock; if anything, it may detract from it, depending on your perspective.)

After that aforementioned Pulp Fiction clip, Marclay indulges in a, to my mind less problematic, bit of manipulation via sound editing as he allows the soundtrack of that clip to continue, with the sound dialed way down, as he moves onto his next clip, of a girl waking up and getting out of bed. It's as if the girl was overhearing the argument in Pulp Fiction from her closed-door bedroom; it most certainly is not in Tarantino's film. Yeah, it's perhaps a bit cutesy, but also I think it speaks to a kind of democratizing spirit underpinning Marclay's project. In his Alternate Cinema World, all films are equal; whatever the time zone, time period or setting of the individual films, they are all united by that one grand constant in all of our lives: Time Itself.

Thus, so far, I have seen almost half of The Clock. How much more of Marclay's work will I be able to see before its current Lincoln Center Festival run ends on Aug. 1? Keep on watching this space...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Triumph of the Human Spirit in the Best Sense


My latest review for Slant Magazine is of an excellent South Korean documentary called Planet of Snail. It's a love story, more or less, between a blind and deaf poet and her devoted wife—and, like some of the other documentaries I've especially liked this year (Crazy Horse, Gerhard Richter Painting, Tchoupitoulas), this one takes some admirable formal risks in the way it explores its subject. It also helps that it's often sweet and touching. It opens at Film Forum in New York tomorrow. For all of you New Yorkers, I'd implore you to check it out; for the rest of you...well, keep an eye out for it, is all I can tell you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 16, 2012 - July 22, 2012: "Rising to See the New Batman Movie" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Before I get into this week's log, I believe a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting deaths that occurred at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, overnight on Friday is in order.


I don't have much else to say about this tragic, senseless event except that...well, it sure didn't stop me from going to see The Dark Knight Rises Friday morning. I can't say it rattled me to my moviegoing core all that much either. (And hey, nothing violent happened at my screening.) As far as I'm concerned, this is an isolated incident that speaks to nothing except one individual's deadly insanity, or whatever the hell it is that drove him to do it.

On a lighter note: I watched about seven hours of The Clock in two days (Friday and Saturday). Thus, I now have eight hours and 45 minutes of Christian Marclay's epic video installation under my belt. I'm not even close to halfway there, but progress: It has been made! I hope to be able to find time to offer more of my observations in a separate post.

The Dark Knight Rises (obviously)


Planet of Snail (2011, Yi Seung-jin), seen at Film Forum in New York
I'm writing about this documentary for Slant Magazine, so a link to a review will be forthcoming.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan), seen at AMC Lincoln Square Stadium 13 in New York
I've had a couple of days to chew on Christopher Nolan's latest Batman epic since seeing it on Friday morning, and actually, I think my reaction to it has evolved from indifference to a certain mild admiration. The nature of that admiration has little to do with cinematic or narrative values, mind you; Nolan once again proves himself to be a prosaic image-maker, and his storytelling seems a lot choppier and more mechanical than usual. The film's 164 minutes fly by, sure, but I would have traded a longer length for more moments—like Alfred (Michael Caine) finally revealing to an angry Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what he did with her long-dead love Rachel's letter at the end of The Dark Knight—where actual human feeling is allowed to resonate amidst the narrative's ceaseless headlong rush. Let it not be said that Nolan doesn't have a showman's instinct to go along with his intellectual pretensions, however. When it comes to sheer spectacle, The Dark Knight Rises delivers the bang for your buck you expect; it helps that Nolan seems to have finally learned how to shoot and edit action scenes in a way that one can actually follow (as opposed to the whiz-bang incoherence of the action sequences in Batman Begins).

But it's the film's politics that deserve the most scrutiny—not that they're easy to pin down. For a while, its not-especially-flattering depiction of selfish, ruthless upper-class power brokers suggest more of that so-called liberal bias that many right-wingers complain about; this sense is strengthened when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) basically helps strip Bruce Wayne of all of his riches, forcing him to join the rest of the masses. A comeuppance for the 1%? Not so fast, Nolan says. Turns out the 99% aren't populated by saints, either. With the encouragement of Bane (Tom Hardy) and his henchmen, mob rule overtakes Gotham—and Selina, who had so vehemently sided with the resentful masses, suddenly finds herself horrified by the hell into which her side has plunged this town. Should she just write Gotham off and escape it all, or does she stay and fight for a restoration of order? That's the big question Batman poses to her both explicitly and implicitly. By the film's extended big-bang climax, the people—including a bunch of freed prisoners—are clashing with police officers, and the soul of a whole city hangs in the balance.

Many of the film's detractors seem to be finding the fact that Nolan doesn't seem to come down on one side or the other to be proof of the film's muddled/noncommittal politics. The more I contemplate The Dark Knight Rises on a political level, though, the more I'm inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt that Nolan simply prefers to swim freely in a whole host of gray areas, seeing both sides as tainted in their own ways. Personally, I find this refreshing; if anything, this film is far more intriguing to think about in this regard than its predecessor ever was. So while I hardly think this is a great film, it's...of interest beyond all the noise and bombast.

The set of Kaija Saariaho's Émilie at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theatre


Superfly (1972, Curtis Mayfield)
Back to the World (1973, Curtis Mayfield)
Got to Find a Way (1974, Curtis Mayfield)
Sweet Exorcist (1974, Curtis Mayfield)
There's No Place Like America Today (1975, Curtis Mayfield)
Here But I'm Gone: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, performed live by The Impressions, Mavis Staples, Meshell Ndgeocello, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Sinéad O'Connor, The Roots and many more at Avery Fisher Hall in New York
Seeing the one-night-only tribute concert to the legendary singer-songwriter on Friday night, I've come to the conclusion that Curtis Mayfield, for all his extraordinary gifts and passions, may have been at his best when writing those short, punchy tunes for The Impressions, and wildly hit-or-miss when he gave himself freer rein as a solo artist. The reason why Superfly remains his finest solo achievement is that he was writing for a film soundtrack rather than just for himself, thus forcing him to write songs in the mode of metaphor and storytelling rather than with his usual, sometimes less interesting, directness of address. (By the way, I still haven't seen the Gordon Parks film the Mayfield score accompanies.)

As for the concert itself...well, it was a fun show overall, pulsing with the kind of passion and energy that characterized Mayfield's best music. But the standout performance of the night was saved for last—or, more accurately, second-to-last. In tackling "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go," The Roots pulled something of a bait and switch midway through their version: What seemed like the kind of straightforward cover of the type that had typified the previous performances of the night suddenly turned into a deliriously insane hard-rock reinterpretation. It sounded truly hellish—in a good way, of course. To borrow an overused American Idol phrase, Black Thought, Questlove & Co. truly "made it their own." It was certainly worth seeing the whole concert just to get to that jewel of a performance.

Émilie (2008, Kaija Saariaho), performed live by Elizabeth Futral and Ensemble ACJW under the direction of John Kennedy at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York
After seeing this amazing one-woman, 75-minute opera, one of the things I concluded was that I need to listen to more Kaija Saariaho. A few months ago, I got a first taste of this Finnish composer's music at a Carnegie Hall concert in which the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst performed her Laterna magica, which was inspired in part by the Ingmar Bergman autobiography of the same name as well as by his 1972 film Cries and Whispers. After that concert, I wrote in this blog post that while "I can't say I hear much of the heavy austerity of Cries and Whispers in this captivating procession of atonal sonorities...I do hear a lot of darkly enchanting evocations of light and magic."

Apparently those otherworldly sounds were hardly a fluke for Saariaho. Her score for Émilie features a similarly seductive style, though this time wedded to more concrete material: an extended monologue sung by Émilie du Châtelet, the 18th-century female mathematician/physicist/author that, among her many achievements, definitively translated and annotated Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica into French. As Émilie—bearing a child and suddenly experiencing anxiety over a sense of death coming for her soon (she would indeed die a few days after childbirth in 1749)—ruminates on her life, loves, shameless pursuit of pleasure, passion for knowledge and fear of leaving this earth without establishing a legacy for herself (consider this a historical equivalent, if you will, of Hushpuppy's occasional "How will history remember me?" invocations in Beasts of the Southern Wild), Saariaho saturates Amin Maalouf's libretto with music that seems to come from the spheres themselves; it was a consistent delight to my modern-leaning ears, especially performed as exquisitely as it was by Ensemble ACJW under John Kennedy's direction.

As I mentioned before, Émilie is a one-woman opera. That by itself gives it a special distinction, being that so few of these kinds of monodramas exist in operatic literature (Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung (1924) and Francis Poulenc's La voix humaine (1959) are the only other well-known operas of this type). Obviously, these kinds of works are feats for the solo singer performing it, and Elizabeth Futral was completely up to the task of carrying the show, showing impressive vocal and emotional range as this strong yet vulnerable woman. (The part was originally written with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in mind.) She was supported beautifully by Neal Wilkinson's brilliant set design and Austin Switser's gorgeous video projections, both of which contribute to the sense of experiencing Émilie's wide-ranging interior monologue.

Perhaps the monodramatic nature of Émilie inherently prevents it from being a fuller, richer portrait of this fascinating woman (her justifications for her hedonistic ways could certainly stand to be, uh, interrogated a little, for instance). Nevertheless, I couldn't help but identify emotionally with her thirst for knowledge and openness to new experiences, even when she reflects on her love life. Her final living moments are especially staged in a way that left me deeply moved. One by one, the crystalline formations on the stage (which you can see in the photo that I took above) rise up, one by one, until only two of them are left, both of which have images of fire projected onto them; Émilie faces them and walks toward them—literally walking toward her inevitable demise. It's one of the most sublime things I've seen on a stage so far this year.


I previously wrote about The Dancing Wu Li Masters here, and for the most part, my initial enthusiasm remained undimmed as I read the rest of the book. Gary Zukav's approach to making quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and the like accessible to laypeople is to essentially suggests parallels between physics and religious faith: a belief in a power greater than ourselves, and the quest to try to make sense of our world. I don't consider myself a religious person, by any means (I certainly don't subscribe to any specific organized religion), but I do think I have some spiritual leanings, so any piece of literature that equates the study of physics with the search for a higher power immediately catches my attention. Indeed, that is one of the things I found most affecting about Errol Morris's 1991 film of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (which I wrote about at this blog here): Morris seems fully in tune, in his own way, with the kind of approach to physics Zukav sets out in his book, seeking to depict the spiritual qualities of Hawking's search for the answers to the universe in visual terms. I don't really have much else to say about this book; basically, for those who are interested in getting a better understanding of the study of modern physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters offers a truly inspired and inspiring approach for the uninitiated.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Cinematic Convergence: From Bresson to...Nolan?

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I have only one reason for this post: to wonder aloud if it's at all weird that, when I first encountered this image from Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951) a couple of months ago...

...I immediately thought of the Joker from The Dark Knight?

Bresson's Priest of Ambricourt feeling a sense of freedom, however fleeting, while getting a ride on the back of a stranger's bicycle? The Joker feeling a similar sense of freedom, in a far different context, while riding in the back of a police car? Eh? Eh?

More proof that my movie-loving mind sometimes makes the strangest connections. (By the way, yes, I am seeing The Dark Knight Rises in legit IMAX tomorrow morning. As someone who wasn't a huge fan of The Dark Knight, I'm not going into it with especially sky-high expectations or anything.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Summer of '87": Looking Back at Predator


For the past few years, The House Next Door has co-presented a "Summer of..." series with Aaron Aradillas, Jamey DuVall and Jerry Dennis of the Blog Talk Radio podcast Movie Geeks United!, publishing a series of retrospective posts tackling films released during a summer 25 years before the current one. Thus, this being 2012, House contributors are writing about films released during the summer of 1987 in this year's installment. So far, the blog has put up posts on Ishtar, Creepshow 2 and a previously-unknown-to-me Irish comedy called Eat the Peach.

Now we come to my first contribution to this "Summer of '87" series: Predator—yes, John McTiernan's sci-fi/action jungle epic with Arnold Schwarzenegger and a bunch of other soon-to-be-crushed specimens of viriles homines. I might not go so far as to call this a genre masterpiece (after all, McTiernan's Die Hard was only a year away)...but I think it's a far more interesting and even somewhat subversive picture than many have given it credit for being. It also has one of the greatest final showdowns in the history of cinema, one that continues to thrill even after 25 years. The titular alien may be one ugly motherfucker, but the movie itself is, more often than not, a beaut.

Anyway, I pool my many thoughts on the film here. Enjoy! (As to what my second contribution will be...well, those of you who follow my artistic consumption logs closely may have an idea what it is by now.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Watching The Clock: Introduction / I. 9:45 p.m.-11:30 p.m.



I remember the time I first heard about Christian Marclay's The Clock: February of last year, just one day before it ended its blockbuster run at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan's art-dominated Chelsea district. That sounds like such an awesome idea, I remember thinking to myself. Why didn't I hear about this before???

The idea, by the way? The Clock is a video installation in which the Swiss-American visual artist amassed thousands upon thousands of film and television clips and assembled them into a real-time, 24-hour-long collage in which each scene corresponds to the actual time of day in which it is occurring in real life. So, for instance, if you were watching Marclay's work at, say, 4:15 a.m., during that minute you would most likely see images of clocks, watches and other timepieces onscreen indicating that it was indeed 4:15 a.m. And so on.

What, that doesn't sound like a deliriously awesome feat to you? It sure did to me...but, when I realized that I had only one day left to go see it at the Paula Cooper Gallery and no time on that one day to fit it in, I vividly remember the regretful feelings I had, in addition to the big question that loomed in my mind: Would I ever be able to have another chance to see this again?

A year and a half later, guess what? The Clock is back in New York for an encore engagement! This time, instead of at a gallery in Chelsea, Marclay's massive video piece is unfurling in the Upper West Side, at a David Rubinstein Atrium specially repurposed for this event.

A friend of mine back in my old East Brunswick, N.J., stomping grounds is gearing himself up for the spectatorial feat of sitting through all 24 hours of The Clock in one marathon sit. (He's not the first one to do it; these two guys have already pulled off this coup.) I was actually considering joining him in this extreme movie-watching endurance test until I remembered previous commitments I had already made. So it looks like I'll be taking in Marclay's video the way I imagine most people will be approaching it: piecemeal, at various times of the day and night.

I'd certainly like to try to see all of The Clock. Whether that will happen will depend on things like, you know, life, time, previous commitments, in-the-moment inclinations, and so on. I will do my damnedest to try to pull it off, however...and I figure, maybe blogging about the quest will give me motivation to make the extra effort. So here I am.

I. 9:45 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.

The line in front of the David Rubinstein Atrium for The Clock on Saturday night

My Clock-watching journey began more or less on a whim Saturday night. Astral Converted, the Trisha Brown-choreographed dance piece that I saw at Park Avenue Armory that evening, was only about an hour long, and since it started at 7:30 p.m., it was over by about 8:30. In my world, at least, that's considered an "early" time for which to end a day. So I decided to take a cross-town MTA bus to get to the David Rubinstein Atrium and wait on the line to see however much I felt like seeing in The Clock, which was running continuously from Friday at 8 a.m. to Sunday at 10 p.m. (during its run from this past Friday all the way to Aug. 1, it'll be running all day and all night on weekends).

Because I invited a friend to see it with me, I waited for him before I got on the line at around 9:10 or so. As you might have guessed, I ended up waiting a little more than half an hour before I finally was able to get into the Atrium to see The Clock. According to the Atrium's Twitter feed (@LCAtrium), that was about par for the course for the wait times this past weekend; I can only imagine how much more insane the wait times will be as it nears the end of its run!

So at around 9:45 p.m. my friend and I was in. We weren't immediately seated in one of the comfy couches offered for Clock-watchers, though; instead, we sat on a bench towards the back, waiting for the possibility of spots in one of those couches opening up for both of us. Eventually, a couple of adjacent spots did open up...but by then, I, for one, was already fully immersed; a change of "scenery," so to speak, made little difference to the experience.

My snap reaction to entering Marclay's world was one of confusion: Wait, I thought this was going to be, like, images of one timepiece after another. Why are these clips going on longer than I was expecting? The Clock, it turns out, isn't just about running images of timepieces together, as I had assumed going in; Marclay also wants to include what movie/TV characters are actually doing during a given moment in time.

Night on Earth (1991)

What are most movie/TV characters doing during 9:45 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.? Many of them, it turns out, are getting ready for bed. For some of these characters, adventures are just about to begin (for instance, Marclay includes a clip from Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (1991): the opening of the second New York-set taxicab episode, with Giancarlo Esposito loudly expressing his frustration at being unable to successfully hail a cab). Others are still hard at work—journalists, for one thing (thus an inclusion of a clip from Ron Howard's The Paper (1994) during a "Eureka" moment Michael Keaton's newspaper-editor character has in the newsroom). And, of course, FBI agents like that beloved duo Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are still doing their investigating late into the evening (yes, Marclay has seen it fit to throw in a brief shout-out to The X-Files sometime during 11-11:30 p.m.). 

But it isn't all just normal, everyday cinematic activities Marclay includes. What better time for some of the ripest of horror-genre horrors to flower than during nightfall? In one memorable juxtaposition, Marclay puts together two different clips of two different movie characters falling prey to swinging saws while chained to gurneys. This moment is not only an amusingly intuitive bit of editing, but it could also be seen as a kind of implicit satirizing of a popular horror-movie trope.

Based on the 105 minutes of The Clock that I saw, at least...well, sure, The Clock can certainly be described as a "love letter to cinema"—but how so, exactly? Through his editing juxtapositions, Marclay seems to be trying to paint a kind of alternate world as presented through the movies. How does Cinema as a whole get through 24 hours normally? As is surely the case in Reality, a wide variety of things happen in Cinema on any given day. The Clock is, in many ways, an epic tribute to cinema's ability to encompass the full range of human experience. That it sometimes also functions as visual film criticism, as in the bit of editing I cite above, only increases its awe-inspiring richness.

What happens in the world of Cinema at 4 a.m., when most real people, I imagine, are fast asleep? How about lunchtime or dinnertime? What about when the clock strikes midnight? I've only seen, like, 7% of The Clock, and I'm already dazzled enough that I'm chomping at the bit to see what other insights and playful juxtapositions Marclay has in store for us.

Stay tuned for more as The Clock, and my experience of it, ticks on!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 9, 2012 - July 15, 2012

NEW YORK—Honestly, I think the best thing I experienced this past week wasn't any of the films/albums/concerts/art exhibits/dance performances below, but the 105 minutes I sat through of The Clock on Saturday night. I'll have more to say about this in a separate post, but for those who haven't heard of Christian Marclay's epic video installation...well, Lincoln Center's event page for it will give you a reasonable idea of what it is. I've omitted it from the log below because I technically didn't watch the whole thing—but who knows? Maybe, if I plan things well enough, I'll eventually get to see all 24 hours in bits and pieces. seems this past week in artistic consumption was mostly dominated by music rather than film. The discovery that excited me most, however, came in the form of polka dots on canvases at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Yayoi Kusama's polka dots at the Whitney Museum of American Art


New York Asian Film Festival 2012/Japan Cuts 2012, all films seen at Japan Society in New York
Tokyo Playboy Club (2012, Yosuke Okuda) 
Chips (2012, Yoshihiro Nakamura)
These last two films that I watched as part of this year's now-ended New York Asian Film Festival offer case studies of directors boldly mixing tones in order to achieve moments of intriguing emotional complexity. Tokyo Playboy Club, for instance, features a lot of moments of pitch-black humor, but underlying its darkly comic sensibility is an awareness of the ugliness not only of the crime-dominated lifestyle from which the main characters are all trying to escape, but of those characters' essential natures which ultimately prevent them from being able to make that escape. Consider Yosuke Okuda's film a nihilistic Tokyo-underworld riff on that famous line from The Godfather, Part III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," with a dose of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" fatalism. 

Chips is far lighter in tone, and it ends with an outpouring of hope instead of the human cries from a bottomless personal abyss that end Tokyo Playboy Club. But, in telling this slender (70-minute) fable about a naive professional thief with an odd obsession with a down-in-the-skids baseball player, Nakamura isn't afraid to suggest ironic undercurrents to occasionally undercut the surface whimsy. There's no denying that the main characters in the film, to put it simply, are deeply, deeply weird. The thief, Imamura (Gaku Hamada), is a naif who sometimes can't help but come across as a bit of a retard, if a well-meaning one; on the other end of the spectrum is an older thief-friend of his, Kurosawa (Nao Omori, who is also in Tokyo Playboy Club as a far more volatile character) who professes to have nothing resembling human empathy (he's the Japanese equivalent of the dispassionate detective Takeshi Kaneshiro played in Peter Chan's Wu xia, which also played at this year's New York Asian Film Festival). They're eccentric, but eccentric in specific-enough ways that their loopy behavior taps into more recognizable human impulses. Though Chips at first threatened to hit my whimsy gag reflex hard, the film eventually won me over, even if my jaded self couldn't help but think of those aforementioned ironic undercurrents even as Nakamura seemed to work overtime to deny them and end his film on an uplifting note. (Also, is there significance between naming the impassioned thief Imamura— as in legendary Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura—and the stoic one Kurosawa—as in Akira? I still haven't seen anything by the former, so I'm not entirely sure what to make of that, if anything.)

Thus ends this year's New York Asian Film Festival. I'm pretty sure I saw less this year than I did last year, but most of what I saw this year was pretty solid—bursting with invigorating creative energy and rife with intriguingly personal visions. As always, I look forward to next year.


The Young Mods' Forgotten Story (1969, The Impressions)
Check Out Your Mind! (1970, The Impressions)
Curtis (1970, Curtis Mayfield)
Roots (1971, Curtis Mayfield)
More preparation for the Curtis Mayfield tribute concert I'm seeing on Friday. Boy, Mayfield really let it all go when he went solo, huh? Curtis has nine-minute songs, lengthy instrumental jams, more explicit gestures toward social awareness, and so on. He sure set quite the high bar for himself as a solo artist. Does his Superfly soundtrack album trump it? (Roots certainly doesn't, though it's still quite good.) I shall see.

Channel Orange (2012, Frank Ocean)
This debut album from R&B singer/songwriter Frank Ocean also has an epic-length cut on it: "Pyramids," a 10-minute two-part song with a first half that wraps lyrics speaking of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra and unrequited love in glittering synthesizer arrangements and an infectious dance groove, and a second half that brings a high-flying musical fantasy crashing back to reality. "Pyramids" is, in many ways, an encapsulation of this fascinating beast of an album, one in which Ocean has a lot to say and isn't afraid to let it all hang out, however uneven the results may be. It helps that he has such a great voice and a way with evocative imagery as a lyricist. Channel Orange is currently riding on a wave of publicity thanks in part to Ocean's public admission of his homosexuality; thankfully, the album itself generally lives up to the hype. (As of now, the album is only available as a download on iTunes and on Ocean's site as a streaming link; the physical album hits stores Tuesday.)

"City Noir"—Ottorino Respighi: Feste Romane (1929-31) / Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major (1928) / John Adams: City Noir (2009), performed live by Imogen Cooper (piano), John Adams (conductor) and the Orchestra of The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music
John Adams's City Noir is akin to trying to locate bits of a musical noir story amidst the cacophony of, well, life in a hustling, bustling metropolis. Thus, Adams includes bluesy saxophone riffs and things like that, and you can certainly hear them, but they are merely parts of a larger symphonic mosaic. It's a pretty cool piece...and the rest of this particular program that I saw on Wednesday night offered apt musical precursors: Respighi's Feste Romane for its sometimes surprisingly atonal evocations of Rome (surprising especially for those who only know Respighi through the generally tonal idiom of his two previous musical portraits of the Italian city, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome), Ravel's G major Piano Concerto for its Gershwin-inspired jazz elements. As a conductor, Adams drew vivid performances from the combined forces of the Juilliard and Royal Academy of Music orchestras, and they offered solid accompaniment to Imogen Cooper, who brought the expected fireworks to the more high-wire passages of the Ravel concerto but also fully brought out the lyricism of its ever-gorgeous second movement. The best thing about this concert, though? I got to see it for free. Yay for culture on a budget! (The catch, though: I had to buy tickets for other Lincoln Center Festival events in order to get those free tickets, so it didn't necessarily come cheap.)

Visual Art

Yayoi Kusama, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Apparently, the Japanese multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama is allowed to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art because her career essentially took off while she was in the U.S.from 1957 to 1972. Whatever. This is still a compelling exhibition; polka dots and all, one can sense, seeing the various photographs, canvases, sculptures and even letters and magazine articles, that one is in the presence of an artist with a distinctive, generous vision (both aesthetically and politically) and an endless penchant for experimentation and reinvention. Each decade seems to show Kusama going in a different direction; her more recent whimsical canvases hardly look like her more surreal, abstract works of the '50s or her more directly confrontational performance- and video-art stunts of the '60s and '70s. The Whitney is also showcasing a new work by Kusama, an installation called Fireflies on the Water. It's basically a soundproof room with lights hanging from a ceiling and water surrounding a platform on which visitors are allowed to stand for all of one minute. I think it's quite beautiful, at least if you allow yourself to allow a sense of eternal calm to simply wash over you as you stand on that platform.


Astral Converted (1991, Trisha Brown), performed by the Trisha Brown Dance Company live at Park Avenue Armory 
The word "astral" suggests something suspended in outer space, and that's what this 55-minute dance work essentially feels like. It's not just a matter of Robert Rauschenberg's set designs—eight towers in a relatively small space, each of them housing all manner of mechanical gewgaws, including sensors that turned on lights whenever a dancer passed by them—or the mostly bathed-in-darkness lighting scheme. That lost-in-space feeling is also evoked by the seemingly random noises that constitute John Cage's score, which, in its distinctly Cage-ian sense of play, seems to have dictated Brown's approach. This is basically 55 minutes of coldly abstracted physicality. Dancers enter and exit the stage at will; brooms are turned into dance partners; patterns emerge, break up and form into other patterns—there's no larger context to the choreography; the pleasure lies chiefly in the seemingly ceaseless flow of invention. Fitting, then, that Astral Converted essentially just comes to a full stop at the end; theoretically, a piece like this could go on forever, with Brown coming up with even more wonders of physical movement for her amazingly skillful dancers to pull off. As airless and oppressive as I occasionally found this deliberately plotless, emotionless work to be, once the lights from those eight towers suddenly shut off, I found myself thinking that perhaps I could have kept on watching this kind of thing after all. As I suggested in my write-ups of Tokyo Playboy Club and Chips above, funny how art can sometimes evoke such multifaceted reactions.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Interview with Alps Director Yorgos Lanthimos


My latest post for The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog is an interview with Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director of last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee Dogtooth and now Alps, which opened yesterday at New York's Cinema Village. Personally, I run hot and cold on the movie itself, but I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it. Hopefully my brief interview piece will add value for those who do get around to checking it out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Very, Um, Visible Review of Invisible


My latest review for Slant Magazine is of an Israel film called Invisible, which is currently playing in a week-long theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. For me, this was one of those cases where a film improved for me in hindsight as I was writing up a review for it compared to the mixed reaction I had right after I finished watching it. If any of you in New York do get around to seeing this, I'd certainly love to discuss the implications of its final scene—especially its final cut to black—which was the main source of my initial doubts.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 2, 2012 - July 8, 2012


Leave Her to Heaven (1945)


Invisible (2011, Michal Aviad), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This solidly absorbing Israeli drama begins a theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art today; I reviewed it for Slant Magazine. A link to my review is forthcoming.

New York Asian Film Festival 2012, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
Starry Starry Night (2011, Tom Lin)
Scabbard Samurai (2011, Hitoshi Matsumoto)
The King of Pigs (2011, Yuen Sang-ho)
The Lost Bladesman (2011, Alan Mak & Felix Chong)
Miami Connection (1987, Park Woo-sung & Y.K. Kim)  
I was originally going to award the distinction of this week's highlight to Starry Starry Night, an enchanting Taiwanese children's film that could be seen as a fitting companion piece to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, with its equally acute (if perhaps more sentimental) depiction of the relationship between two young children who are both experiencing emotional and familial hardships in their own lives.

But the more I think about Hitoshi Matsumoto's Scabbard Samurai, the more I'm coming around to at least admiring it, despite my initial irritations. For its first hour, it seems for all the world as if it will be just a one-joke deadpan comedy about a weary, broken-down samurai (Takaaki Nomi) who is forced, upon capture for desertion, to complete an absurd 30-day sentence in which he is tasked to make a lord's eternally melancholy son crack a smile. It sounds stupid, and Matsumoto's initially ritualistic, repetitive treatment of the first few days of this sentence—in which the samurai tries to come up with all sorts of dumb tricks to try to make this kid laugh—was enough to make me dread the rest. And yet, gradually Matsumoto's deeper and more complex vision of personal grief and honor floats into view, and by the end I found myself more affected by the film than I thought I would be for its first half hour or so. I initially tweeted that I found the film "wildly uneven," but I'm starting to wonder whether that irritation I felt early on was, in part, intentional after all, rather than just being the product of a comic sensibility with which I just wasn't connecting. I mean, it's not like Matsumoto softens just how pathetic this "scabbard samurai" is, reduced to doing things like putting fruit in his mouth and eyes in a, uh, fruitless attempt to make someone laugh.

Scabbard Samurai plays again in the festival, at Japan Society on Saturday afternoon. If nothing else, you'll come out of it feeling as if you've seen something different.

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh), seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square Stadium 13 in New York
Channing Tatum is actually pretty solid in this, and Steven Soderbergh seems to show actual engagement with the story and characters as story and characters, rather than as just another one of his formal experiments. Overall, I enjoyed it. More interesting to me, however, are the shocked reactions I got from two of my female co-workers when I told them I actually went to see this film. Apparently, some people have a certain conception of my moviegoing tastes, and Magic Mike—even with Soderbergh's involvement—doesn't fit that conception. I love subverting expectations!

Unforgivable (2012, André Téchiné), seen at IFC Center in New York
For his latest film, French filmmaker André Téchiné, along with co-writer Mehdi Ben Attia, adopts a crime novel by Philippe Djian, and the result is a classic example of a kind of filmmaking that expands on standard genre elements to accommodate an artist's deeply personal, and deeply humane, vision. I don't really have much else to offer beyond that at the moment.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl), seen at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
Oh my! Yes, Leon Shamroy's Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography is eye-fillingly gorgeous—but the extravagant visual beauty is tied to the psychology of a woman (the equally eye-fillingly gorgeous Gene Tierney) for whom the word "love" has potentially dangerous and deadly implications. Not that her character can be easily reduced to an Alex Forrest/Fatal Attraction slasher-bitch type; Ellen Berent Harland is, as she describes herself, simply a woman who perhaps feels too much passion for people, to the point where it suffocates and even kills. In short, she's one of the more fascinating characters I've encountered in a movie recently, mysterious in the way most human beings with human emotions are mysterious. I mean, who can literally pin down a point in time when love with one person ends and love with another begins, as Vincent Price's jealous prosecutor essentially tries to do in a concluding trial sequence? I would say I love Leave Her to Heaven, but one of the great achievements of this classic Hollywood melodrama is to ask us to seriously consider what "love" actually is.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (1993, Christoph von Dohnányi/The Cleveland Orchestra)
I had purchased this out-of-print Decca CD a while ago for about $5 at a street fair, and only this pst week did I finally get around to listening to it. It's a solid performance, reminiscent more of Bernard Haitink's straightforward freshness (in his 1972 Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, at least) than of Herbert von Karajan's imposingly monumental approach in his 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Those two still remain my favorite recordings of what is probably my favorite Anton Bruckner symphony (at least judging by how often I play it compared to the others).

All right, now I'm perhaps getting a bit too nerdy with the classical-music stuff. Time to move on to...

The Anthology 1961-77 (1992, Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions)
This Is My Country (1968, The Impressions)
Consider this preparation for the Curtis Mayfield tribute concert I'm seeing later this month at Avery Fisher Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Festival (you can find out more about it here). Yes, I bought tickets to a Curtis Mayfield tribute concert without having actually heard much Curtis Mayfield. I mean, hey, that's not a bad way to motivate me to finally explore the music of one of the premier singer-songwriters of the 1960s and '70s, am I right?

Thus, I started with The Anthology 1961-77, a two-disc overview of Mayfield's years with The Impressions before he went solo. As far as compilations of this type go, this one seems to chart an especially fascinating progression from the cheery love machine of his earlier years to the socially conscious and perhaps more world-weary songwriter of the late '60s and beyond (in which This Is My Country, his 1968 album with The Impressions which I also heard this past week, fits). It's all good stuff.


Anything Goes (1934, Cole Porter), performed at Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York  
Many critics seem to have basically taken Cole Porter's 1934 musical as an enjoyably inconsequential good time, ignoring the bits of class/social critique and a general undercurrent of repressed passions churning underneath. It's like the way Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum keeps insisting it's just silly, lighthearted fluff, practically daring viewers to pick up on the crumbs of social satire he peppers into the brew. Still, let's not deemphasize the pure joy Anything Goes instills in one, especially in the terrific new Broadway revival that just ended yesterday. I'm glad I got to see it live before it closed, even if most of the original cast members were long gone (with the exception of Joel Grey as goofy gangster Moonface Martin and John McMartin as randy old-man banker Elisha Whitney, both there from the beginning). But at least director Kathleen Marshall's astounding choreography remains, turning "Anything Goes" and "Blow Gabriel Blow," especially, into exhilarating show-stopping Busby Berkeley-like feats. Also, the fast-paced comic timing was just about perfect throughout. Overall, it was a blast (even with the maniacal female laugher sitting next to me who was frequently threatening to derail my enjoyment); I'm grateful I finally got to see it before it, well, sailed away.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

RIP Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

NEW YORK—All I have to say about Andy Griffith, who died today at the age of 86, is: Many will remember you as Sheriff Andy Taylor and/or as lawyer Ben Matlock on television, but I will always remember you as that folksy demagogue Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes in Elia Kazan's still-scalding media excoriation A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Watch his no-holds-barred madness in this climactic clip, and keep in mind that this was just his first feature film.

Amazing. Rest in peace, Andy Griffith.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, June 25, 2012 - July 1, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Wow, I guess this was an especially exceptional week as far as artistic consumption goes. There's no way I could match it this week—or is there?

A mere précis of the layout of the Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hill on Friday night before the Philharmonic 360 concert

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin), seen at IFC Center in New York
Yeah, this is pretty good. If that statement sounds like I'm damning this extravagantly praised indie sensation with faint praise...well, I am and I'm not. Hype can, for better and for worse, be as big a factor in how one receives a theatrical experience as the film itself can be, and while many of the critics who saw Zeitlin's film at its world premiere at Sundance at the beginning of the year saw it cold (no pun intended, considering the venue), I admittedly saw it at an IFC Center members-only preview screening Tuesday night with all the praise and the smattering of finally-coming-out-of-the-woodwork naysayers in my head. Would I be far more enthusiastic about this film if I didn't have all that hype perhaps inadvertently informing my experience? I can only speculate.

My take on this film, basically, is this: Sure, if you examine its politics hard enough, Beasts of the Southern Wild—which could be interpreted as making an argument for U.S. government non-intervention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, at least if you wish to attach that topical reading to the film—might seem wonky bordering on dangerous. If that's the way you wish to go with examining this film, then it's possible to see Zeitlin's insistence on conjuring a fairy-tale/kid's-fantasy context as an all-too-convenient "out" for such criticisms. And yet, for me, that would deny what strikes me as the film's beating heart: the six-year-old Hushpuppy's (Quvenzhané Walls) relationship with her problematic but well-meaning father, Wink (Dwight Henry). A scene midway through the film—the one that includes the moment in the trailer in which Hushpuppy shouts "I'm the man" to her father—reveals the extent of how Wink has been trying to (over-)protect her daughter all these years. Beasts of the Southern Wild, then, could more charitably be seen as a coming-of-age tale of sorts, as Hushpuppy eventually gains an awareness of a world outside of Bathtub, outside of the seemingly magical haven she once knew and desperately wants to maintain. And on that level, I admittedly found the film affecting. I can certainly see how others might go so far as to find it profoundly moving. Good for them. Me...well, like I said, I thought it was pretty good.

BAMcinemaFest 2012:
The Comedy (2012, Rick Alverson), seen at a parking lot on the corner of Fulton Street and Ashland Place in Brooklyn, N.Y.
V/H/S (2012, David Bruckner/Ti West/Glenn McQuaid/Joe Swanberg/Radio Silence), seen at Broadway Screening Room in New York
The Comedy is essentially a feature-length series of darkly comic sketches centered around a Brooklyn hipster douchebag (Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! fame) interacting with the world around him in ways that are generally abrasive (one of the show-stoppers being an extended scene in which he bribes a cab driver to let him ride a cab). Sounds insufferable—and yet, director/co-writer Rick Alverson hits upon a weirdly empathetic tone that nevertheless manages to maintain a large critical distance from this bored, entitled antihero. Are these moments his endlessly discomfiting way of trying to connect with people around him? Is making crude, irreverent jokes of everything his only way of dealing with the world? The most challenging thing about The Comedy is that Alverson refuses to pass easy judgment on him. I saw the film at an outdoor screening (hosted by Rooftop Films, which hosts outdoor screenings of independent films all over New York), and a funny thing happened the next day: In the midst of the Supreme Court's ruling on President Obama's health-care reform, I didn't feel much like tweeting about this film. It would seem trivial in the face of the more important events going on in the wider world; in other words, I would have felt much like Tim Heidecker's character had I done so. Maybe The Comedy is already having a more profound effect on me than I at first realized.

As for the shot-on-videotape horror anthology V/H/S—well, I don't really have much to say about it beyond what my friend/fellow critic Simon Abrams offered here when he saw it at Sundance earlier in the year. I basically agree with everything he wrote. It doesn't set the found-footage subgenre on fire, but I thought it made for a solidly entertaining time at the movies, especially in that Glenn McQuaid-directed segment with the villain that only appears amidst a sea of video noise. That is some clever shit, given the concept.

New York Asian Film Festival 2012, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
The Boxer's Omen (1983, Kuei Chih-Hung) 
Five Fingers of Death (1972, Chung Chang-Wha) 
Nameless Gangster (2012, Yun Jong-Bin) 
I saw Five Fingers of Death the same day I watched Craneway Event, a 2008 film of the late Merce Cunningham in the throes of visionary creation that was screened as part of a New Museum exhibit focusing on British visual artist/filmmaker Tacita Dean (of which more below). Chung Chang-Wha's influential Hong Kong martial-arts classic—just one of many major influences on Quentin Tarantino, if the film's opening use of the same Quincy Jones Ironside theme song Tarantino used often in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 doesn't clue you in—turned out to be the second great widescreen dance film I saw that day, with Five Fingers of Death featuring some of the most exhilaratingly balletic action sequences ever put on film. It helps that Chung's film has a pretty well-told story and genuinely involving human interest, too

If you thought connecting a Tacita Dean avant-garde documentary and a Shaw Brothers-produced Hong Kong kung-fu extravaganza was weird, then hear this. I saw another Shaw Brothers-produced spectacle, The Boxer's Omen, the same night I experienced Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memorian Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen—two 20th-century serialist works—live at Park Avenue Armory's massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. To my surprise, I think hearing those two works—which, I finally realized that night, is best experienced as a random-on-the-surface procession noises rather than searching for a structure, despite the twelve-tone principles governing them—primed me, in a weird way, for Kuei Chih-Hung's blast of exploitation insanity. Because, really, is it even necessary to follow the increasingly nutty plot of The Boxer's Omen—a film which proudly shifts on a dime from martial-arts saga to gross-out supernatural horror, with daubs of Buddhism thrown in for good measure? The only way to really get anything out of a movie like this one is to just sit back and follow wherever its creative delirium takes you. I submit that that's the same way one ought to approach something like a Boulez or Stockhausen (or John Cage or Edgard Varèse) work. Of course, whether you warm to both Boulez and Stockhausen's atonal language or Kuei's gleefully gratuitous sex and violence is up to you.

And finally, I don't have much to say about Nameless Gangster other than that overall, I found it a pretty gripping gangster/period saga, with Choi Min-sik—the hammer-wielding protagonist of Oldboy, for those who don't know who he is (and who have actually seen Chan-wook Park's brutal revenge saga)—in top form as a gangster who acts like a bigger fish than he is just because he has the right connections. It never really transcends the genre to become a truly exceptional film, but it's entertaining enough.


Extraordinary Machine (2005, Fiona Apple) 
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2011, Fiona Apple)
So yeah, how about Fiona Apple's new album, huh? It's perhaps her most intimate-feeling collection of songs yet, thanks to the stripped-down production/instrumentation. And that "Hot Knife"—quite the infectious, breathtaking closer for an album. Didn't tickets just go on sale for concerts she's doing in October or something? I better go snap that up!

Philharmonic 360—Boulez: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974-5) / Mozart: Finale to Act I of Don Giovanni (1787) / Stockhausen: Gruppen (1955-7) / Ives: The Unanswered Question (1906), performed live by the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, at Park Avenue Armory in New York
Imagine, if you will, a work that requires not just one orchestra, but three, in a space big enough so that the composer could imagine all sorts of spatial musical effects—sort of like music traveling across stereo speakers if you have the good luck of sitting in the middle of it all. Well, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) imagined just such a work in Gruppen (1955-7). Alas, Gruppen has rarely been performed, most concert halls being architecturally unequipped to pull off the kind of arrangement Stockhausen had in mind.

Enter the Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

If you don't know of this venue by now...well, take a look at these photos. It's huge—and perfect, it turns out, for a performance of Gruppen close to what Stockhausen had in mind. And leave it up to enterprising New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert to conceive of a program that included not only Gruppen, but also Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a selection of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Charles Ives's short but brilliant The Unanswered Question. If Gruppen was expressly written for this kind of spatial set-up, the other works were basically re-conceived to take full advantage of this giant performance space.

Case in point: Many have seen traditional performances of Don Giovanni on a proscenium arch of a stage way in front of them, sometimes close-up, sometimes far away. But I would bet that you haven't felt as if you were truly in the opera in the same literal way as I felt in the staging conceived by Michael Counts of the ballroom finale of its first act—with singers walking all around the space, some way in the back of the rafters and slowly progressing forward, others standing right in the center podium, others edging toward the front stage. Forget 3-D: this is practically Don Giovanni in 4-D! Imagine a Wagner epic staged this way!

At the very least, I found it a thrilling experiment—as was the whole concert, really. I already briefly discussed the Boulez and Stockhausen works above, and I don't have much else to add about them (though the Stockhausen has an awesomely eruptive climax of noise from all three orchestras that was the highlight of the night for me). So let's finally touch on The Unanswered Question, which is a six-minute work that features a call-and-response between a solo trumpet and four flutes, in which the trumpet sounds out a motif that gets repeated verbatim, and the flutes respond in ways that become increasingly confused and frustrated until, by the end, they don't respond at all. As this "dialogue" happens, the strings gorgeously drone on softly underneath. Ives offered a program of sorts to explain all of this (for instance, he said the strings represented "The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing")—but it's all easy enough to hear in the music, and it was all brilliantly emphasized by the way Alan Gilbert staged it at the Park Avenue Armory on Friday night: the trumpet high in the rafters sounding out its "question," four flutists in the middle sounding out their responses, and the strings surrounding the flutists on their sides and behind them.

This, my friends, is the kind of adventurous programming prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic need to do more often to stay fresh and relevant—especially when the results are as triumphant as they were on Friday night. To Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic: I thank you, salute you and wish you even greater successes of this sort in future seasons.

As You Like It (ca. 1600, William Shakespeare), performed live at Delacorte Theater in New York
This was my first time ever watching a Shakespeare in the Park production, and I couldn't have lost my Shakespeare in the Park virginity on a better production. Director Daniel Sullivan transposes the action to something like the American deep South, which explains, among other details, the prominence of a bluegrass band that plays some of the songs in Shakespeare's comedy, set in this production to music by Steve Martin (yes, the comedian/actor Steve Martin). Otherwise, though, the text remains intact, ripe for an able cast into which to breathe life. This cast—including elite actors like Oliver Platt (as the court jester Touchstone) and Andre Braugher (doing double duty as Duke Senior and Duke Frederick)—did just that joyously and gloriously.

There was much to commend in this production—it had a beautiful forest set, for one thing (props to John Lee Beatty, the scenic designer)—but for me it all came down to Lily Rabe as Rosalind. It takes a special kind of artistic imagination to not just deliver Shakespeare's poetry in as natural a manner as possible, but to also do so in a way that makes it come alive in stunningly original and unpredictable ways. Every single line of dialogue that came out of Rabe's mouth had me astonished by the sheer sense of spontaneity and freedom in her phrasing. At the risk of hyperbole, this strikes me as the kind of seemingly improvisatory interpretive genius that only the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Leonard Bernstein achieved in the realm of classical-music interpretation. I had never seen Rabe—daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late Jill Clayburgh—act before, though I had heard she stole the show from Al Pacino in a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice a few seasons back. I am chomping at the bit to see her act again.


Klara Lidén: Bodies of Society, seen at New Museum in New York
Tacita Dean: Five Americans, seen at New Museum in New York
I had never heard of Tacita Dean before, but a friend of mine I interact with fairly regularly on Twitter recommended this exhibit—her first major U.S. show—to me. So when I was reminded last week that the show was closing after this past weekend, I decided to make time for it. I'm glad I did.

This British artist, it seems, has a certain preoccupation with trying to capture the beauties and mysteries of artists' creative processes. Art about art? Sure, sign me up! The New Museum exhibit showcases a handful of her film/photographic portraits of artists like choreographer Merce Cunningham; painters Cy Twombly and Julie Mehretu; artist Claes Oldenburg; and art historian Leo Steinberg. Steinberg is represented by five photographs of his hand as he writes; the five photographs feature his hand in different positions, and those photographs are arranged in such a way as to suggest a diagonal line that, according to Dean, is an unconscious evocation of his own 1980 essay The Line of Fate in Michelangelo's Painting. I guess the suggestion is, Steinberg could very well be so immersed in Michelangelo's work that he can't help but inhabit his artistic spirit in some ways. I'm not sure I totally buy it, but hey, as a nonprofessional critic myself, it's certainly a nice thought!

Similar conceptual intrigues abound in her film work (and it truly is film, since she's sticks steadfastly to 16mm). For Twombly, in a 29-minute film entitled Edwin Parker (Twombly's original name), she basically observes the late American artist going about his daily routine: reading the newspaper, having lunch, etc. As is the case with the other films featured in this exhibit, she prefers a slow, contemplative long-take observational style, somewhat Frederick Wiseman-like in effect. Does such an approach yield insights into Twombly's artistic mind? Maybe not in a prosaic sense of explanation or analysis; Dean seems less interested in explanation than in evocation. Seeing Twombly, sitting in a room reading a newspaper, framed through a narrow doorway amidst the peace and quiet of his house certainly inspired a similar feeling of personal reflection in me, for instance.

And of course, there's the aforementioned Craneway Event, a 108-minute document of Merce Cunningham at work leading rehearsals for a 2008 dance event in an empty warehouse overlooking the San Francisco Bay. In Dean's film, Cunningham's dancers are often lit as silhouettes, prancing across a wide (2.35:1, so it appeared to my eye) frame appropriate to the giant rehearsal space itself. Cunningham himself is often seen carefully observing his dancers and taking notes. At one point, Dean points her camera not at any of the ballet dancers, but to a pigeon wandering around the building. The natural world intruding on Cunningham's current dance bubble? However it all adds up, the end result—and yes, I did end up watching all 108 minutes of it—is consistently beautiful to behold, on both dance and cinematic levels; and an utterly mesmerizing in its stillness and sense of deep mystery. More people should see this film, seriously; it deserves to be in something other than a makeshift New Museum screening room!

I also ended up wandering to the second floor for the Klara Lidén exhibit. Lidén, so I learned afterward, is a Swedish artist living in Germany who bases much of her art on, well, garbage: repurposing trash to create art that comments on urban living. She also more directly addresses urban life in some of her videos, one of which features a female figure (Lidén herself, I believe) essentially doing a backwards moonwalk for about four minutes with various types of desolate-looking buildings in the background. If anything, I found her videos more affecting in their own odd ways than her Duchampian garbage cans and ad-poster canvases. Overall, though, I found her work pretty intriguing. Sometimes, it's a wonderful experience to simply come upon certain works of art completely cold; who knows what surprises might result?