Thursday, September 27, 2012

The 50th New York Film Festival: Barbara, A Quiet Stunner

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The New York Film Festival officially begins tomorrow, but my first review of the festival went up at The House Next Door yesterday.

I'll let my review of Christian Petzold's Barbara speak for itself; the only thing I'll add is that the more I think about it, the more I kind of love it. It's definitely worth your time and perhaps a bit of your patience; this is a slow burn par excellence, a film requiring active viewing in order to simply get a sense of not only the characters, but the dangerous world in which they reside. For me, though, the quietly stunning payoff was worth the effort.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Sept. 17, 2012 - Sept. 23, 2012: "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket" Edition

NEW YORK—A day late with this log, I know...but hey, no dollar short, because it's not like I make any money on this blog.



The 50th Annual New York Film Festival, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
Passion (2012, Brian De Palma)
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold)
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu)
I attended my first three New York Film Festival press & industry screenings this past week. So far, Christian Petzold's latest film is the one that has stayed in my mind the longest. Long after the lurid pleasures of Passion and that atrocious final scene of Beyond the Hills has faded from memory, there remains, for instance, that look of vacillation on Nina Hoss's face just before she momentarily gives into her emotions and kisses an upstanding doctor...and man, the film's final close-ups continue to haunt me in their extraordinarily complex implications. I'm writing about it for The House Next Door, so you'll be able to read more of my thoughts on it then. But it's terrific.

La Jetée (1963, Chris Marker), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Yeah, I finally got around to watching this classic 28-minute short one night last week when I felt bored...and yeah, it's pretty great. For some reason, I hadn't known, going into it, that the film was constructed almost entirely out of still photographs...but, having finally seen a handful of Chris Marker works only recently, this seemed like a very, um, Marker-ian way of evoking memory. And yet, this filter of distance somehow doesn't make the science-fiction yarn it spins any less affecting; if anything, it adds a wholly visual layer of depth to it that just makes it all the greater.

The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson), seen at Clearview Cinemas Ziegfeld in New York [second viewing]
Yes, I now have a recommending "star" next to the title. Does this mean I experienced a "road to Damascus" moment after watching Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus a second time on Saturday afternoon? I wouldn't go that far. I still can't shake off the feeling that Anderson didn't really have a coherent vision for this film going into it, and that the cerebral detachment with which he approaches the story he tells here is, in some ways, a clever cover for under-imagined characters and under-explored themes; an individual viewer can thus project whatever he wants onto the gaps in the narrative and ambiguities in the characterizations (with the occasional on-the-nose line of dialogue to help us out).

Still, the film remains as compulsively watchable and fascinating as ever—and, if anything, I found it more affecting this time around, especially at the film's emotional climax, when we see a tear roll down Freddie Quell's (Joaquin Phoenix) cheek when the "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sings "(I'd Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China" in the manner of a father regretfully letting his unruly son go out into the wild again. Somehow that tear got to me this time around more than it did on my first viewing. The Scientology parallels remain the least interesting aspect of The Master; instead, Anderson, within the context of a historical drama, is returning to the "surrogate family" idea he most memorably explored in Boogie Nights, except now in the Kubrickian manner of There Will Be Blood, and with Joaquin Phoenix a deliberately far less magnetic  stand-in for Mark Wahlberg. And even looking at it from that perspective, The Master is fascinating—or frustrating, depending on your point-of-view—for the way it takes its historical background and ruthlessly pares its focus down to these two characters, Quell and Dodd, and their strange relationship. Are they meant to stand in for larger societal forces, or is Anderson just simply telling the story of these two men? If nothing else, the question of how much of Dodd's affection for Quell is sincere on his part is one that maintains one's interest in this particular aspect of the film.

So I remain unconvinced of the greatness of The Master...but the fact that I'm still wrestling with it suggests to me that there's...something there. Maybe, for now, it's best to just accept my mixed feelings, split the difference and say: "flawed but worthy."


Tempest (2012, Bob Dylan)
Shields (2012, Grizzly Bear)
This past week in musical exploration turned out to be a "catching up with new releases" week (and there's one more I'm aiming to catch up on this week: Elysium, the new Pet Shop Boys record). As usual with the music of Brooklyn-based indie band Grizzly Bear, I enjoyed their newest album, Shields, purely on a musical level; I still have not much of a clue what Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen & co. are actually singing about, and am not entirely sure I really care either. Bob Dylan's songwriting on the other hand, has always been as much about his lyrics—enigmatic as they sometimes are—as about the music, and in his latest album, Tempest, he's as world-weary yet romantic as ever, with a first side chock full of love songs and a second side that deals in dark legends with bitter undertones. It doesn't strike me as any better or any worse than most of Dylan's recent retro explorations of folksy Americana—and is it just me, or is his voice sound even more phlegm-ridden this time around than in even, say, Together Through Life?—but it still shows this iconic artist in fine form.

Curtain call after Einstein on the Beach at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House Friday night


Einstein on the Beach (1976, Robert Wilson/Philip Glass), performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Oh man, was this worth the wait! Thirty-six years after its ground-breaking premiere in 1976 (including two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera House), Einstein on the Beach remains as trailblazing a theatrical experience as ever. It rejects conventional storytelling for a series of abstract, dreamlike tableaux; it forgoes a straight biography of Albert Einstein in favor of visual motifs inspired by his life and scientific theories; and instead of recurring characters or plot points, there are recurring symbols and images. And of course, there's Philip Glass's score, written at the height of his early hardcore-minimalist phase, just before his next opera Satyagraha (1980) ushered in a more autumnal phase in his career. The whole thing is still as delightfully strange and mysterious as it must have seemed to many back in 1976; Einstein on the Beach broke all the rules when it came to opera and opera production (it doesn't even have an intermission during its 4 hours and 15 minutes!), and that spirit continued to animate the work in this recent revival. How many operas do you know that feature essentially a white light simulating a bed that takes all of 15 minutes or so to be raised and then lifted up into the heavens? At its best, Einstein on the Beach has the power to alter your perception of time; so did Einstein himself with his theory of relativity, among his other innovative ways of thinking about the world around us. I don't know if I'd call my Friday night in the company of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's work "life-altering"...but it was certainly mind-blowing.

Shuffle (2012, Elevator Repair Service), performed at Brooklyn Public Library in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Less mind-blowing but about as entertaining: this experimental theater piece from those intrepid folks at Elevator Repair Service, set specifically in one area of the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch near Prospect Park. You know Elevator Repair Service, right? The troupe behind, among other works, Gatz, that 7½-hour word-for-word stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby? Yeah, those guys. Well, Shuffle is a kind of nutty synthesis of the three works of literature—Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury—that they've turned into stage plays: some computer algorithm developed by the two guys behind Moveable Type literally shuffles lines from the text of all three works together and spit them out into iPod Touch devices lodged into copies of the books, which the actors read and act out while wandering around in the library, sometimes with a champagne glass in hand. What's more, you as a spectator to this whirlwind literary mash-up are given the freedom to follow one particular actor around and see what he/she recites, abandon that actor in order to follow another, or just take in the madness all around you. (Sounds like someone at Elevator Repair Service was taking notes at that blockbuster Macbeth-inspired theater installation Sleep No More!)

What does all this add up to? Perhaps the sheer pleasure of not only having literature surrounding you, but also hearing classic bits of literature reconfigured in ways that sometimes illuminated the individual texts and other times simply came off as bits of irreverent playfulness. It may not have necessarily added up to much more than a cool concept, but it was still a lot of fun to eavesdrop. What will those endlessly inventive Elevator Repair Service artists come up with next?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two New Reviews, One Positive and One Negative

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Two new reviews of mine went up at Slant Magazine yesterday—not one, two!

First up: my not-especially-enthusiastic take on Delphine & Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls, which tells the based-on-a-true-story tale of 17 teenage girls who decide to get pregnant in a small, decaying town in France. Despite its "observational" bent, it rarely cuts very deep, and its attempts at "visual poetry" strike me as pretty hollow. Better is Robert H. Lieberman's documentary They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, an exhaustive and eye-opening film which Lieberman shot clandestinely over three years while helping out young filmmakers in that notoriously closed-off southeast Asian nation. As far as assignments-I-took-just-because-my-editor-needed-someone-to-take-it go, this one was surprisingly not bad; you can read my review here. Both open here in New York this Friday.

Monday, September 17, 2012

To Elaborate on Some of My Best-of-TIFF Choices...

NEW YORK—The link-through below may not be the final word I offer on my experience at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, but since I aim to attend my first New York Film Festival press & industry screening tomorrow morning (come at me, Brian De Palma's Passion), I figured this was as appropriate a time as any to catch you all up on this blog post from last week, to which I contributed blurbs about three of my favorite films at TIFF. So if some of you were clamoring for elaboration on why I cited some of those titles in the artistic consumption log I posted just this morning...there you go.

By the way, I contributed that list, by the way, before I had seen Marco Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, which probably would have edged out To the Wonder on that top three. If asked to come up with a blurb about it, I'd say something along the lines of it being the kind of humane political filmmaking that seems to be in preciously short supply in many recent American films (though, surprisingly, Robert Redford's new film The Company You Keep comes close to matching Bellocchio's in political intelligence, at least). You can see the trailer for the film above.

Artistic Consumption Log, Sept. 10, 2012 - Sept. 16, 2012: "All Movies, All the Time at TIFF" Edition



Toronto International Film Festival 2012, all films seen in Toronto:
The Company You Keep (2012, Robert Redford), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Gebo and the Shadow (2012, Manoel de Oliveira), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
The Cloud-Capped Star (1960, Ritwik Ghatak), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
The Lords of Salem (2012, Rob Zombie), seen at Ryerson Theatre
Byzantium (2012, Neil Jordan), seen at Visa Screening Room
To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick), seen at Princess of Wales Theatre
The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012, João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Aftershock (2012, Nicolás López), seen at Ryerson Theatre
Clandestine Childhood (2012, Benjamín Ávila), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Three Sisters (2012, Wang Bing), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Reality (2012, Matteo Garrone), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Post Tenebras Lux (2012, Carlos Reygadas), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sightseers (2012, Ben Wheatley), seen at Ryerson Theatre
The Capsule (2012, Athina Rachel Tsangari), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Walker (2012, Tsai Ming-liang), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Laurence Anyways (2012, Xavier Dolan), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Much Ado About Nothing (2012, Joss Whedon), seen at Winter Garden Theatre
Dormant Beauty (2012, Marco Bellocchio), seen at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
In Another Country (2012, Hong Sang-soo), seen at Scotiabank Theatre
Well, I guess I disappointed all of you out there who were actually "watching this space" to see posts from me from the Toronto International Film Festival as the festival was actually going on. Turns out, whenever I wasn't inside a movie theater, I usually found myself either socializing, tweeting or doing something other than working on actual full-length reviews of stuff I've seen. I feel somewhat guilty about this; on the other hand, I felt like I had a richer, more well-rounded experience this year at TIFF than I did last year, especially thanks to said socializing. So I have no regrets—notwithstanding the two TIFF-related pieces of writing that have yet to be finished. And crap, press & industry New York Film Festival screenings have already started!

In the meantime, here are my five favorite films of this year's Toronto International Film Festival:
1. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)
2. The Land of Hope (Sion Sono)
3. Dormant Beauty (Marco Bellocchio)
4. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
5. The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie)

Just missing the cut: Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, probably the most purely entertaining film I saw in Toronto (though Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country did provide a perfectly charming way to end my time at the festival).

And while it wasn't quite the mind-blower Chris Marker's Sans Soleil was, Indian director Ritwik Ghatak's 1960 epic The Cloud-Capped Star—a lyrical Magnificent Ambersons-style family saga—was nevertheless quite the breathtaking cinephiliac discovery I made at TIFF. I look forward to seeing more of Ghatak's work; heck, I need to explore more of Indian cinema in general, with this, a handful of Satyajit Ray films and the Bollywood classic Sholay (1975) being my only frames of reference in that regard.

The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson), seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13
Some rough initial impressions on a film that I'm still turning over in my mind:

Dammit, Paul Thomas Anderson! I'm not even sure I like your newest film, and yet I can't stop thinking about it! Especially when cult leader Lancaster Dodd suddenly just randomly blurts out "pig fuck" to some guy at a party who dares to question his ideology. Imagine more or less an entire film made out of moments like the last scene of There Will Be Blood—that wacky concluding 10-minute stretch that somehow manages to strike some kind of insane balance between comedy and tragedy—and you have The Master.

Actually, that's an oversimplification, because, if nothing else, this is a film that absolutely refuses easy pigeonholing. To call it a black comedy about the absurdity of Dodd's Scientology-like cult is to ignore the film's focus on the extravagantly disturbed World War II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the way he tries to fit in with "The Cause" yet is fundamentally unsuited for it. And while the film is as fixated on the growing father-and-son-like relationship between Quell and Dodd, there's hardly the same warmth that even There Will Be Blood occasionally (very occasionally) found in Daniel Plainview's relationship with H.W. It is a consistently strange environment Anderson presents to us, and part of the thrill of his latest film lies in simply basking in its wonky tone and oddball characters/character dynamics.

On the level of a spectacle, then, I enjoyed The Master; it has a quality of mad unpredictability that keeps a viewer on his/her toes throughout. Is that enough to make this the great film that many have suggested this is? On this, I harbor doubts—but then, I've always harbored such doubts when it comes to this much-celebrated filmmaker, some of which I expressed recently in a contribution to this recent Criticwire survey. With There Will Be Blood and now The Master, Anderson is moving further away from the recognizable humanity one could sense even in the nutty idiosyncracies of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and focusing on (all-American) eccentrics, seeming to deliberately obfuscate us from easy ways to emotionally access, much less relate to, such people. At least Stanley Kubrick—to which Anderson seems to owe his recent artistic evolution the most—applied his cold-sober approach to characters who seemed convincingly human; Anderson, by contrast, reserves his increasingly chilly vision for the contemplation of emotionally opaque monsters, basically—and, to my mind, the results strike me as considerably less revelatory, losing in humanity and resonance what they gain in artistry. Others' mileage may vary, but I still have yet to find much use for Anderson as an artist, even as I acknowledge the originality of his vision. No one is making movies quite like his right now, and The Master is, like it or not, a singular work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Sept. 3, 2012 - Sept. 9, 2012

TORONTO—I am currently knee deep in going from movie to movie here at the Toronto International Film Festival (or, in the case of Neil Jordan's latest film, Byzantium, nodding off through it thanks to film-festival fatigue that finally caught up with me), so I'll keep my usual commentary to a minimum as I theoretically work on longer TIFF-related posts to share with you all. Theoretically.

Sans Soleil


Premium Rush (2012, David Koepp), seen at AMC Empire 25 in New York
Consider this a placeholder for the longer review I'll perhaps one day write suggesting some of the hidden depths underpinning this deceptively slight, breezy thriller.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012, all films seen in Toronto:
Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker), seen at Jackman Hall
Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Rust & Bone (2012, Jacques Audiard), seen at Ryerson Theatre
Pacific Sun (2012, Thomas Demand), seen at Jackman Hall
21 Chitrakoot (2012, Shambhavi Kaul), seen at Jackman Hall
Many a Swan (2012, Blake Williams), seen at Jackman Hall
Departure (2012, Ernie Gehr), seen at Jackman Hall
Auto-Collider XV (2011, Ernie Gehr), seen at Jackman Hall
The Land of Hope (2012, Sion Sono), seen at Winter Garden Theatre
Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley), seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Seven Psychopaths (2012, Martin McDonagh), seen at Scotiabank Theatre
Something in the Air (2012, Olivier Assayas), seen at Winter Garden Theatre
No One Lives (2012, Ryuhei Kitamura), seen at Ryerson Theatre
Cloud Atlas (2012, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer), seen at Winter Garden Theatre
Mr. Pip (2012, Andrew Adamson), seen at Winter Garden Theatre 
Other than the free screening of Sans Soleil I saw as my first screening of this year's Toronto International Film Festival (to which I say "holy shit fucking masterpiece where have you been all my life"), I can't say I've been super-blown away by much of what I've seen so far. Exceptions: Martin McDonagh's exhilaratingly unpredictable Seven Psychopaths and Ernie Gehr's two terrific new abstract shorts Departure and Auto-Collider XV (you seriously will not see train travel or highway rides quite the same way after watching those two).

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Getting Into a Real TIFF

QUEENS, N.Y.—By the time you all read this, I will be at John F. Kennedy International Airport, awaiting to board an American Airlines flight to Toronto's Pearson International Airport for the Toronto International Film Festival!

As many of you may already know, I attended this festival last year and had a grand time visiting the city for the first time and taking in a lot of films (like Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea, which was probably my favorite film of the festival last year and will be one of my favorite new releases of this year for sure). Early on this year, I committed to going again this year—and once again, I am indeed doing so without the benefit of press accreditation to maybe offset some of the cost. Maybe I didn't look/try hard enough...? Nevertheless, for me the hope is that, with this and the upcoming New York Film Festival (for which I thankfully am accredited), I'll have a lot of the upcoming major new film releases under my belt before the year is out—so, you know, I can at least try to seem like I'm playing amongst the big film-critic boys and all.

I will try my best to cover my festival experience here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, though it might be tough finding time to write as a result of averaging four movies a day for most of the days of the festival. Twitter might be the best place to look, for those of you who are curious as to how TIFF is going for me. Still, I encourage you all to, as people in my generation say, "watch this space" and everything.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 27, 2012 - Sept. 2, 2012: Labor Day Edition

NEW YORK—One way you know you've officially become a New Yorker: when, during a long weekend like this Labor Day weekend, you find yourself genuinely torn between a sense of duty to visit your parents back in the 'burbs, and sticking around the city to take in some more culture/recreation, especially when you have an extra day off like I did on Sunday (as usual, I'm working on Labor Day). I ultimately decided to be the dutiful son and go back to East Brunswick, N.J., on Saturday to spend about a day-and-a-half visiting my folks, none of whom I had seen in maybe two months or more. Besides, it was good to be able to recharge my batteries, so to speak, before the upcoming month of film festivals to come—first Toronto International Film Festival—for which I'm leaving this Wednesday—then New York Film Festival.

Still, I did do a fair amount of artistic consumption this past week, all of which you can read about below. Here we go!


They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain (2012, Robert H. Lieberman), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
17 Girls (2011, Delphine & Muriel Coulin), seen at SoHo House in New York
I'm reviewing these two for Slant Magazine, so you can just read my thoughts on them when they're eventually published.

Artists and Models (1955, Frank Tashlin), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
Seeing this film on Thursday night at BAM represented my first sustained exposure to Frank Tashlin, the cartoonist-turned-filmmaker who is highly regarded among many of my film-critic/cinephile friends for his colorful (literally and figuratively) and energetic pop satires from the 1950s. Oh, you bet I'm eager to see more of his work after this exhilarating id-blast! An unabashed celebration of trash culture and an affectionate look at struggling aspiring artists that eventually shifts to a ribbing of Cold War hysteria, Artists and Models crams a lot of comic energy and visual wit into its grandly lavish VistaVision frames.

It also has Jerry Lewis—and honestly, before seeing Artists and Models, I had only seen this legendary—and, it seems, still controversial—comedian in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983), where, of course, he necessarily played things far straighter than the kind of mugging he does here. But while mugging is usually not my kind of thing when it comes to comic acting (think Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for what I mean by "mugging"), strangely, Lewis's style works terrifically well in Artists and Models. Obviously, it works in context of the character he plays: Eugene Fullstack, a comic-book addict who artist Abigail Parker (Dorothy Malone) at one point brings onto television as an example of the kind of negative effects comic books have on impressionable young minds. But it also works beautifully with Tashlin's equally extravagant style. And there's one tear-stained close-up of Lewis early in the film—after his friend/roommate Rick Todd (Dean Martin) begrudgingly reneges on his attempt to walk out on Eugene—which lays bare the inner child not only in this particular character, but possibly in Lewis himself, putting all of that mugging into a bizarrely soulful context. His eagerness to please is oddly touching, in other words. I can only imagine how much farther he goes with this when directing himself in his own films—none of which I've seen, but which I'm definitely more interested in catching up with now.

Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock), seen on Turner Classic Movies in East Brunswick, N.J.
While flipping through channels back at my parents' house in East Brunswick on Sunday morning, I checked out what was playing on Turner Classic Movies that day and discovered that that great television mecca of old movies was screening this particular film...and when, at around 6 p.m., I found myself with nothing to do at home, I decided to finally fill in one of my biggest Alfred Hitchcock blind spots. Don't worry, Vertigo, your place at the top of my personal pantheon of great Hitchcock films remains firm—but yeah, Strangers on a Train is pretty terrific, especially its last half-hour, which showcases the so-called Master of Suspense at his most, well, masterful as a storyteller and technician. Not that technical brilliance is all that distinguishes Strangers on a Train. There's much one can read into Robert Walker's memorably psychotic Bruno Anthony, most obviously as a disturbing manifestation of murderous inner impulses that tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) has deep inside him. And with Walker playing the villain with an unmistakably effeminate leer, the film offers even more of the queer subtext that some would argue gave Hitchcock's Rope (1948) the only interest it had beyond its one-take stunt.


Ančerl Gold Edition 24—Janáček: Sinfonietta / Martinů: Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca & The Parables (1964/1960, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl)
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass / The Diary of One Who Disappeared (1965/1964, Evelyn Lear/Hilde Rössel-Majdan/Ernst Haefliger/Franz Crass/Kay Griffel/Bavarian Radio Chorus/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik)
Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (1982/1986, Lucia Popp, Eva Randová, Dalibor Jedlička, et. al./Vienna Philharmonic/Sir Charles Mackerras)
I had always been meaning to explore more of the music of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) after both seeing a live performance of his 1926 opera The Makropulos Case at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year (I wrote fairly extensively about the experience here) and reading film critic Robin Wood raving about his music in his introduction to Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond. So now I'm finally getting to it. Nothing against his terse but thrilling Sinfonietta and his fascinatingly pantheistic Glagolitic Mass, but the most exciting discovery for me so far has been his charming and sneakily profound 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which turned a newspaper comic into a meditation on cycles in life and nature. Hearing Janáček's gorgeous music unfurling through my ears in Central Park on a lovely summer morning turned out to be the perfect entertainment to help occupy my long, long wait for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets on Friday.

Speaking of which...


Into the Woods (1987, Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine), seen live at Delacorte Theater in New York
Yes, I can finally say that I've had the experience of waiting on a line for hours on end to score free tickets to a Shakespeare in the Park production. And being that Friday night's performance was the second-to-last performance of this new outdoor production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical Into the Woods, I decided to arm myself with a pillow, a towel and a blanket (among other supplies) and get on the line outside the Central Park entrance at 81st St. and Central Park West at 3 a.m. Friday morning—yes, you read that right—to make extra sure that I'd be seeing it that Friday night. So yes, I waited all of 10 hours for tickets to see this.

Was all that waiting ultimately worth it? Well...yes and no.

When it comes to live-musical-theater experiences, Stephen Sondheim approaches something like God status for me. Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, even A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in its deceptively trivial way: I've seen and thrilled to all of them live, finding in them levels of wit and maturity that distinguishes from much of their Broadway-musical brethren. Alas, Into the Woods, to my mind, doesn't approach the heights of those shows. Don't get me wrong: I do like it overall, finding its pointed subversion of fairy-tale homilies bracing. But, after the thrilling balancing act of its brilliant first act, its second act finds this great composer/lyricist collapsing into an all-purpose cynicism that, for once, feels more like hollow posturing than the kind of specific insights of which Sondheim is usually capable; the heavy-handed manner with which he and James Lapine express their world-weariness is especially disappointing. (At least Sondheim managed to wring genuinely clever macabre humor in Sweeney Todd to offset the bleakness.)

Still, there's much to admire about Into the Woods: its playful updating of familiar fairy-tale characters and situations; the bursting-at-the-seams quality of that first act; the way it finds occasional moments of piercing emotional truth amidst the surface whimsies. And while this Timothy Sheader production isn't free of its own major issues—the misguided switching of the narrator to a boy, Denis O'Hare's extremely mannered performance as the Baker, Amy Adams's blandness as the Baker's Wife, etc.—it got enough right to make the experience a mostly enjoyable one. Despite my misgivings about the musical itself and this particular production, I have no regrets at all about waiting 10 hours for it. 


The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003, J. Hoberman)
Remember when I complained here about a sense of above-it-all smugness I was getting in some of the prose stylings in J. Hoberman's An Army of Phantoms (2009)? Well, The Dream Life—which, though published before An Army of Phantoms, could be considered a sequel to the later work—is, to my mind, not only the superior work, but also puts some of those earlier stylistic irritations in context. Now Hoberman's intention to explore the porous divide between movies and American history comes more clearly into view; even his indulgent bits of exclamatory snark come off as simply the author getting somewhat into the sensationalistic spirit of his grand subject. In making all sorts of revelatory connections between what was going on in history and politics during the 1960s and '70s and the movies that were coming out of Hollywood during those decades, The Dream Life paints an unsettling picture of a society in which "reality" seems increasingly more of an abstract concept, and in which media and image-making rules the day even if none of us are fully aware of it. Okay, now I'm looking forward to what Hoberman has to say next about the 1980s.

Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet at MoMA PS1


The Forty Part Motet (2001, Janet Cardiff), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
Meeting (1986, James Turrell), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
The Hole at P.S. 1, Fifth Solar Chthonic Wall Temple (1976, Alan Saret), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
Stair Procession (2000, William Kentridge), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
Into the Woods (2004, Ernesto Caivano), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
Esther Kläs—Better Energy, seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
The Chief Architect of Gangsta Rap (2009, Ilja Karilampi), seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
Caitlin Keogh: Good Value, Fine Quality, seen at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y.
This was my first time at the Museum of Modern Art's sister museum in Queens, MoMA PS1. It's called "PS1" for a good reason: Instead of looking like a conventional art museum, this building feels more like walking through a school building with art works and galleries in each classroom. So it's obviously not as lavish-looking as MoMA...but it still offers a pretty cool experience in and of itself—especially going up and down its staircases, some of which feature art work on the this:

Ernest Caivano's Into the Woods. Yes, you could say I went "into the woods" two days in a row—three, if you count the nature biking I did with my parents on Sunday

I was principally there to see The Forty Part Motet, a 2001 sound installation from Janet Cardiff, the British artist whose latest collaboration with her usual partner, George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows, is at Park Avenue Armory right now (until Sept. 9, at least). I generally liked The Murder of Crows, but I found it stronger in sonic spectacle than verbal drama (those lyrics at the end of the piece are especially wince-inducing). For The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff reconfigured a performance of Thomas Tallis's forty-part choral work "Spem in Alium Nunquam habui" into an immersive audio-only spectacle with forty speakers arranged in a circular formation in a room, one vocal part per speaker. Though one could conceivably get up and walk around the Park Avenue Armory drill hall while Cardiff/Miller's radio play was unfurling from that gramophone at the center, there really wasn't much value in doing so; by contrast, for The Forty Part Motet, there was much to be gained from either walking alongside the speakers, sitting in the middle of the circle of speakers and hearing all the voices coming at you from all directions, or standing outside the circle and simply savoring the glorious sonic mass of the piece. As someone who once briefly considered conducting for a career (yes, seriously), I found The Forty Part Motet especially scintillating in the way it allows patrons to not only take in the music as a whole, but break it down into its individual parts if they wish—because surely conductors, in preparing a performance of a complex work like this, need to be attendant to both. (This installation, alas, is only up until tomorrow.)

Since Tallis's work was only 11 minutes long, my friend and I decided to explore some of the other exhibits at MoMA PS1, the most dazzling of which was one of their long-term installations: Meeting, a site-specific installation by James Turrell which is essentially a room with a giant square hole in the ceiling that allows one to look right up at the sky and allows outside light to flood the room. The weather on Saturday was just about perfect for this, with the skies clear and blue enough to inspire one to simply sit in that room, turn your head up and contemplate the outside world, the heavens, God, what have you.

See what I mean?