Monday, August 13, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 6, 2012 - Aug. 12, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As you all can see below, I didn't listen to a whole lot of music this week. Blame it on my current earbuds breaking apart and me waiting to receive a new pair. In the meantime, though, I made a lot of progress on the book I'm currently reading: J. Hoberman's The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003), the "prequel" to his recent work of cultural film history, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (2011). So far, if anything, I'm finding The Dream Life even more eye-opening and immersive than the later work. I'll have more to say about it when I finish it.

Oh, and I finally went to see a New York Mets game at Citi Field on Friday night! You will all be able to read more about that in an upcoming post. For now, onto the latest log:

Walkabout (1971)


Fallen Angels (1995, Wong Kar-Wai), seen on Blu-ray in Brooklyn, N.Y. [umpteenth viewing]
There is a specific reason why I watched this film again, and you will all find that tomorrow (if you haven't figured it out by following me on Twitter). Yes, it's still awesome.

Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
Honestly, for me, the greatness of this film lies mostly in its editing. Roeg's gorgeous images—which he shot himself—are certainly a major draw, bringing a near-psychedelic vibe to the story. But it's the montage Roeg employs—courtesy of editors Antony Gibb (who also edited Richard Lester's 1968 film Petulia in a somewhat similar manner) and Alan Pattillo—that lend the film its substance, with all sorts of juxtapositions suggesting the themes of maturation, colonialism and urbanization that distinguish this classic of Australian cinema. Rich and heady, it's a film that made me want to watch it again immediately just to parse its formal choices and pull them all together in my mind.

Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]
Yes, folks, you read that right: I saw a new digital restoration of this Arnold Schwarzenegger-led big-budget studio sci-fi epic in, of all places, that art-house institution Film Forum. Now, there's a clever bit of counter-programming against the current Len Wiseman version in theaters right now. I've always liked Paul Verhoeven's earlier version, but before this latest screening, my enjoyment of it stemmed mostly from the increasingly over-the-top action—hey, I do have macho tendencies that I need satisfied every once in a while—as well as for its impressive production design and special effects. Of course, being that it is a (very free) adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall always had those tantalizing undercurrents of ambiguity as to how much of what we were seeing onscreen was real and how much was part of Douglas Quaid's packaged memories; for some reason, though, only on this second viewing did I focus more on those ambiguities, infecting even the most excessively violent of scenes (case in point). If this is the kind of vacation Quaid desires, then he's welcome to it—but man, what a decadent macho fantasy it is! But then, that's the kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too irony Verhoeven did best.

Easy Money (2010, Daniel Espinosa), seen at Film Forum in New York
Adapted from a novel by Swedish writer Jens Lapidus, Easy Money spins a three-stranded narrative which portrays an every-man-for-himself milieu and the ways three specific characters handle themselves within that world. Two of the characters—Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic)—are already knee-deep in it but trying to get out in their own ways; the other, JW (Joel Kinnaman, whom American audiences will know from AMC's The Killing), has stumbled onto this environment while trying to climb the social ladder and finds himself going in far deeper than he anticipated. None of this is exactly fresh thematic territory, but Espinosa's film distinguishes itself by virtue of its ambitious reach and the intensity of the performances, all of which combine to successfully refresh the familiar crime-drama elements. For a narrative as complicated as this one, Easy Money turns out to be more involving as a human drama than one might expect. It's a solid effort overall.

Setting up for Franz Schubert's Octet in F major at Alice Tully Hall


Messiaen: Le merle noir (1951) / Jonathan Harvey: Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001) / Schubert: Octet in F major (1824), performed by Joanna MacGregor (piano), Jayce Ogren (conductor) and International Contemporary Ensemble live at Alice Tully Hall in New York
Inspired by Mozart's apparent fascination with a pet bird he once owned, this year's Mostly Mozart festival has been putting an emphasis on the music of birds. Fitting, then, that Olivier Messiaen—a 20th-century French composer who was obsessed with turning birdsong into actual music, among other things in his creative life—would figure into this year's edition, especially with the International Contemporary Ensemble in residence. But Messiaen's short but lovely flute-and-piano work Le merle noir—"The Blackbird" in French—was hardly the centerpiece of the night's event; in fact, it acted as a mere prelude to British composer Jonathan Harvey's 35-minute Bird Concerto with Pianosong. Yes, you read that right: It's not Piano Concerto with Birdsong, it's Bird Concerto with Pianosong. There's a piano, yes, but it acts as a musical sidekick to the recorded bird sounds that figure heavily throughout the work. Harvey's work goes even further than Messiaen's in trying to translate birdsong into music, creating a whole symphonic environment, by turns ethereal and ominous, out of both recorded sounds and piano transcriptions. The overall feeling is akin to floating in the air, taking in whatever seemingly random sonorities pass us by; Bird Concerto with Pianosong is actually very John Cage-like in that way. Whatever one ultimately thought about the piece itself—and I admit, it did try my patience at times—there was no doubt about the brilliance of Joanna MacGregor's performance, playing both the (seemingly very difficult) piano part and a keyboard of bird sounds at the same time.

What Schubert's Octet was doing in the second half of this program supposedly devoted to birdsongs, I'm still not quite sure; I didn't hear anything in it that sounded much like birds to me. That conceptual stumbling block hardly detracted from a very fine performance of a very charming piece. I had never heard this famous chamber work before, but after Harvey's seemingly endless parade of atonal noises, Schubert's Octet felt almost like a soothing balm, from its idyllic second-movement Adagio to its infectious third-movement Scherzo, and from the theme and variations of its fourth movement to the highly dramatic slow introduction that opens its rollicking finale. The eight International Contemporary Ensemble members performing this piece seemed to truly enjoy making music with each other up on that Alice Tully Hall stage—I could tell, since I was sitting a mere three rows from the front—and that energy showed in music-making of the first order.

The Quay Brothers (photo credit: Mariusz Kubik)


Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
I've only seen Stephen and Timothy Quay's two feature films, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1994) and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005); I remember finding them a bit tough to take at feature length, but there was no doubt that they were the work of filmmakers that, for once, deserved the label "visionary."

Seven years on, here is a Museum of Modern Art exhibition devoted to this filmmaking duo—and it is an impressive one, seducing us into the haunting worlds that these filmmakers have created in their work, laying out their influences—Polish animated films among them, most interestingly—and giving us a sense not only of the development of their distinct sensibility, but also the various ways they have expressed it: not only through their films, but also through album and book covers; and even through the occasional television commercial. Much of the work inspired in me a kind of exhilarating sense of disbelief: How did these guys come up with this stuff? Not that I wasn't already interested in seeing the rest of the Quay Brothers' work, but this exhibit certainly has me impatient to finally do so.

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