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?

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