Archive for the ‘Cogito: John Branch’ Category

Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2014

Theatre

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 Open Door to
  
Open House.

o'neillWhat to do about the American family? Depending on where you stand, the poor thing needs to be either preserved in its traditional form or extensively modernized. And what about the American family drama? Admittedly a less pressing concern, it too is defended from one side and decried from another. At least one critic I could name millerfeels the family drama was okay for Eugene O’Neill, began to wear out its welcome with Arthur Miller, and was completed, perfected, and finished off in Sam Shepard’s Buried shepardChild (1978), only to return as a theatrical version of the undead.

The solution, for both family and family drama, may be to get rid of them. That’s essentially what Will Eno does in an anarchic and deliciously clever play called The Open House, currently at the Signature Theatre. As it begins, we see what looks like a family, embroiled in will enowhat seems to be a drama, but those impressions change. The show can be read as a comic reversal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the pod people come first and are gradually replaced. The five family members we meet at the outset are creatures of habit and genetics, stuck in their ways. The father either dominates by sniping at everyone else or withdraws into silence; his wife tries to be supportive and conciliatory, etc. Dad is literally stuck—he’s confined to a wheelchair—and the other four remain nearly as frozen in place as he is.

In a way, they’re soulless or dehumanized. None of them refers to one another by name; even the pooch who runs off at the beginning is mentioned only as “the dog.” Nor is the location identified. Although you might, by the end, see a resemblance to the estate in The Cherry Orchard, it’s basically an Everytown USA, as universally American as Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

The original quintet also lacks shoes; Dad’s in slippers, the kids are in their socks, etc. This may be a nod by Eno oliver_butleror by the show’s director, Oliver Butler, to a recent fad in Brooklyn (where Eno lives) but is probably just one of the few signs that these people actually feel at home and at ease.

It’s hard to decide how much to say about The Open House. When there’s pleasure to be had in any work of art or entertainment, part of it usually comes from discovering how the experience unfolds. That’s especially true for this play, which is why I’ve avoided being very specific. If you think I’m being cryptic, you should see what Signature says about it in the overview on its website.

Here’s an example of the show’s humor. When Dad’s brother declares, “They said I was a fool to study Latin, but where are they now?,” he’s promptly quashed by Dad’s answer—“Probably at work.” That’s a snappy comeback, but it carries a little jolt of pain.

Eno is working with the comedy of discomfort, which at any given moment—and probably from one performance to the next—can be awful, hilarious, or an open houseuneasy mix of the two. Maintaining a flexible tone and pace that allow for all these responses is the challenge that faces the five players, Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, and Carolyn McCormick. Under Butler’s guidance, they bring it off masterfully. If the typical family were so smoothly functional, or the typical family drama were this imaginativebut that’s like saying, “If pigs had wings…”

(Signature Theatre, through March 30)

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November 20, 2013

Theatre

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New Tricks for an Old Dog

One evening in early November, the BAM Harvey Theater resounded to an electric guitar, a few American pop-rock songs including Bowie’s “Changes,” the splat of paint-filled balloons hurled against the walls of the set, and the words of an incendiary political text published recently in France. For a while, voices from the audience were heard as well, challenging one of the characters on stage or supporting another. There was even a trained dog, though she wasn’t the one with the new tricks. It may sound like a crazy anarchist circus or even a rally for the Occupy movement—and in a way it works as either or both. But the occasion was a performance by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz of a 131-year-old play by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

ibsenIbsen’s original tells of a doctor in a spa town, Thomas Stockmann, who discovers a pollution problem with the water supply feeding the baths. Determined to announce this as a prelude to getting it cleaned up, Stockmann finds and then loses backing in one quarter after another—from the mayor to the opposition press—and he ends as a radical idealist, refusing to compromise with anyone, dismissing virtually the entire town as corrupt enemies of truth. Apart from an ironic shadow in the final moment, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People shows the playwright at his most intemperate. (He wrote it as a heated response to the hostile reception of Ghosts.)

Having been thoroughly renovated by company dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer (credited with preparing this new version) and the Schaubuhne’s artistic director ostermeierThomas Ostermeier, the play is now performed in modern dress, is garlanded with comic bits, and feels quite contemporary. The doctor, his wife, and one of their newspaper friends launch into a band rehearsal at one point, which the wife soon interrupts for a spat with Stockmann; a couple of laptops appear in another scene. The play now hits a different target, too. Instead of attacking conventional morality, it decries the ills of modern democratic capitalism.

Florian_Borchmeyer_u_ber_Jodorowsky_101675966_thumbnailBorchmeyer hasn’t merely modernized Ibsen’s text; he has rewritten much of it, eliminating minor characters and a lot of secondary discussion, and even rejiggered the plot. Anyone who knows the original—which is indeed something of a dog—will be repeatedly surprised by the Schaubühne’s version, and yet in retrospect it’s much the same, simply displaying some new and pretty stunning tricks. (The company is no longer in in the U.S., but for anyone yet to see it in another country, the rest of my text contains spoilers. It will be performed in five more cities on the company’s current international tour.)

Ibsen’s Stockmann convenes a public meeting to reveal his discovery but is pretty quickly voted off his own stage; after some further maneuvering, the play ends with his ringing declaration that “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” He’s surrounded by his family at the time, thus hardly alone—the ironic shadow I mentioned. The new Stockmann never says anything of the kind, and at his meeting he speaks at length, moving from a bit of Ibsen’s text to a series of sometimes abstract, sometimes trenchant remarks that Borchmeyer has borrowed from The Coming Insurrection, published in France in 2007. The line that most struck home when I attended was “The economy is not in crisis; the economy is the crisis.” Soon after we hear that, suddenly and very smoothly, another surprise develops: the meeting is thrown open to comments and questions from the audience, with prompts and replies, even provocations, from the characters—all in English, whereas the play itself is presented in German with English supertitles.

The speech and the discussion are potent moments, wvolksfeind02hile they last, though they raised a suspicion for me: this isn’t the same as being given a greater voice in the affairs of the land. But the evening isn’t over yet. The scripted play resumes its course and shows us two things. One, in the current order of things, we, along with the new Stockmann, will face endless temptation, like Jesus in the desert.  Two, our resistance may call for consultative, group action. Interpretations will vary, but the latter is how I read the final moments. There, we see Stockmann weighing the next move with his wife, whereas he had always made decisions on his own before.

Stefan Stern plays Stockmann with the air of a man who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. He’s not the kind of guy who does well in a fight—he’s reckless, not very observant, and even trips over himself at one point—but he refuses to stay down and is somehow invigorated by opposition. The rest of the seven-person cast is equally excellent. There are no star turns here, not even in that long speech. Everything is focused; nothing is overstated. This is vital and purposeful theater;  the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People is a perfect example of its kind.

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November 2, 2013

Film, Books

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A Text to Rally the Troops

In the 2012 film This Is 40, a woman approaching middle age who has two bickering children 40already and whose household finances are none too secure discovers that she’s pregnant. No one asks whether she should have the child. (If that’s married life at 40, I’m glad I missed it.) A few other films, I think, have taken the same stance: pregnancy is unquestioned, while contraception, adoption, and especially abortion, are unmentionable.

Those issues are heatedly discussed elsewhere in our cultue, just as gun violence is. Yet firearms aren’t kept out of movies for fear of troubling the audience. Is someone trying to keep the A-word off the screen?

notorious lifeThe word itself doesn’t turn up very often if at all in My Notorious Life, a historical novel by Kate Manning (published in September by Scribner in the U.S.; in June by Bloomsbury in the U.K.). That’s only because its first-person narrator, telling her tale from around the end of the 19th century, doesn’t share our direct way of naming such things. The book grapples wholeheartedly with abortion and a group of related issues—when they arise in the course of its story. And they often do.

The narrator is Anne Muldoon, the oldest of three children of Irish immigrants in New York, called Axie by her mother “because I was forever axing so many questions.” The life she recounts ranges from New York tammanyhallCity to a prairie settlement in Illinois and back, from 1860 to 1880, and from a destitute existence on the streets to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, as its narrator grows from untutored adolescence to settled adulthood. Her account is bedecked with lost lingo, little history lessons, and reminders of times past—in the first three pages, victoria carriages and omnibuses and Tammany Hall.

Axie’s life is a coming-of-age story, and it’s also a genuine rags-to-riches tale surprisingly like those spun by Horatio Alger except that it’s written for adults. There’s even a villain, whom Axie calls “my enemy”: Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader who’s a real historical figure.

kate manningManning uses a flash-forward opening chapter to let us know the crisis toward which the plot will build, and she introduces the character of Comstock 79 pages in, though he doesn’t enter the plot until later. Nearly everything in the book, in fact, leads to or supports the central issues. The action, characters, situations, and themes have been woven into a kind of spider’s web: touch it almost anywhere and the vibration registers elsewhere. The world of impoverished immigrants, for instance, in which the story begins, includes many children who are orphaned, abandoned, or can’t be cared for (Axie is one); those children partly explain the concern, on the part of Axie and others later, with preventing or controlling pregnancy. Axie’s discovery of the physical and emotional lure of sex also figures into that concern, as do the rigors and risks of childbirth.

The heart of her tale is her career. Having been taken in by a women’s doctor, Axie learns to make and dispense medicines that “regulate” a woman’s cycle and relieve “blockage”; these must be early-stage abortifacients. When she’s married and needing extra income, she sets up a business purveying these medicines, and later she becomes a midwife as well, which, along with the medicine and advice she dispenses, earns her a surprising amount of money. Eventually, she sometimes does the dangerous work of terminating a later-stage pregnancy, which sounds like what we now call a D&C except without anesthesia. This aspect of My Notorious Life—the nature of Axie’s work, why she does it, why there’s a need for it, why some people oppose it—arouses the strongest feelings, and it’s why the book could become a text for the troops to rally around. (I hope the troops include a lot of men.) Katha Pollitt gives a great account of it from this angle here .

As a novel, it could be called unsubtle, but that’s not a criticism when its effects are achieved so carefully. And as an argument, Manning’s book is the most subtle and convincing kind: one that views moral and legal questions in the light of human desires, feelings, and experience.

Axie is a strong female character and was considered as such in an October 30 event at New York’s Center for Fiction. Part of her story is true, too, including her unlikely-seeming financial success; Axie is derived in part from a real person, Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell. How much these things matter will vary from reader to reader, though.

Whatever it means to be strong (capable? madamerestellarrestedbulldog-persistent? courageous?), Axie goes beyond it. She’s funny, she’s compassionate, she’s got native smarts, she remains determined to reunite her scattered siblings (though she’s endlessly thwarted,) she has trouble trusting men, and she’s burdened by the weight of losses already endured and the fear of others that may come. What’s more, the story gets at some conflicts and home truths in 19th-century American life—some of them still current—that don’t depend on Axie’s real-life model: science versus superstition in medicine; materialism versus Protestant and Puritan theology; the near impossibility of a woman finding anything to do other than work in service or marry; the rule of men over virtually every realm of life…

Still, in Kate Manning’s seamless stitching together of fact and fiction, part of the thrill of the tale is knowing that this—or something like it—really happened.
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October 22, 2013

Film, Books, Science

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Defying Gravity

In Children of Men (2006), adapted from a children of mennovel by P.D. James, changed extensively by five screenwriters, and  directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James’s novel has been subordinatedto the central character’s progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story’s context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it’s hard cuaron2to understand or even to believe what’s going on. At least Clive Owen’s character has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he reluctantly adopts catalyzes the stages of his development.

Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which can be rendered as virtuosically as desired. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the central characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.

Cuarón has taken that abstracting process much further in Gravity (in general release). Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.

The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they’re almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for what happens is, again, that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock doesn’t play a traditional action hero—bullok clooneyshe doesn’t wield a kick, a punch, a head-butt, a knife, a sword, a crossbow, or any form of firearm, for which I’m grateful—but she gets knocked around a lot all the same. In fact, she and George Clooney are bounced about like ballsin a pinball game. For much of the movie, these two capable and respected actors are reduced to the status of mere moving masses.

The movie is only 91 minutes long but is so short on ideas that it keeps repeating itself. A cloud of orbiting malevolent debris keeps trying to kill our heroes. They keep jetting off to a new refuge and finding, so to speak, no room at the inn. Sandra Bullock keeps opening an airlock from the outside and being caught off guard by what happens. The film even shows us its title three separate times. Mostly, it keeps indulging in a mechanistic orgy of things, including people, getting flung around.

Imagine a scene set on an ice rink, with Sandra Bullock standing on the ice and holding the rail at the side of the rink. If George Clooney went whizzing by her, and she managed to grab his tie, he’d come to a stop, right?You know that if you know anything about ice rinks, and you know that if she then released his tie he’d stay put. Now imagine a scene set in Earth orbit, in which Bullock is essentially attached to a space station, so she’s stationary. When Clooney passes by, she grabs a tether that’s attached to him. This is exactly how a scene in Gravity begins.

gravity5What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn’t happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity. And that’s only one category of its problems.

In a way, it’s naïve to complain about Gravity’s scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be comparedfor instance the novel Moby-Dick (there’s a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odysseyhave told their astounding 2001--A-Space-Odyssey-the-60s-701989_1024_768tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it’s operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.

Gravity is like a bad horror film crossed with a bad disaster film. It keeps throwing shocks and threats at its characters simply to keep things happening. It wouldn’t exist without science and technology. Its making required them; the situation it shows—people and machines in Earth orbit—depends on them. Yet it frequently violates science. This encapsulates an ongoing mystery of American life: our culture depends on the fruits of science and technology but disdains both and would rather believe in angels. Curiously, Gravity includes an angel, in a manner of speaking.

As far as I know, only a few people share my overall distaste for this film: the friend with whom I saw it—we could be dismissed as crackpots—and New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who cannot.

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September 15, 2013

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Fearless Predictions

Fetch Clay, Make Man (through Oct. 13, New York Theatre Workshop), It’s 1965 in the United States. Vietnam, Civil Rights, Black Power, the Nation of Islam—all that was in the air as Muhammad Ali, whom some sportswriters still insisted on calling Cassius Clay, prepared to fight Sonny Liston in a heavyweight-championship rematch. As playwright Will Power tells the story, Stepin Fetchit (real fetch13f-2-webname Lincoln Perry) known for his black-caricature film roles, was one of Ali’s guests. The tale is improbable but in some sense true. I haven’t checked the details, but Ali did in fact get to know Fetchit. Based-on-fact stories are common these days in fiction, film, and theater; they’re often problematic. I’ll leave that to be addressed by others. Having seen a preview, I can say the design, direction, and performances add up to a work of power and precision.
NYTW: Web site

Mr. Bengt’s Wife (Sept. 13–29, August Strindberg Repertory Theatre. The only strindbergknown quantity here, for me, is Strindberg. This company launched itself in May 2012, but I learned of it only recently. And I’ve read or seen only a few of Strindberg’s works, of which Mr. Bengt’s Wife is not one. He was the most restless of playwrights, “perpetually dissatisfied,” as Robert Brustein wrote, experimenting with Naturalism, Expressionism, and a good deal more—including comedy, as Strindberg Rep showed in its debut production, Playing With Fire. Yet he may be also the most neglected of the Modernist masters. This company intends to produce his lesser-known plays (which is almost all of them) as well as the familiar. Bravo for that.
Strindberg Rep: Web site

emmysPrimetime Emmy Awards (Sept. 22 at 8 pm ET, CBS): One big question, which for me is the big question, is whether a company that never produced TV before the 2012–13 season—namely Netflix—will be among the winners. Indulge me in a quirk for a minute. All seven of the nominees for lead actress in a drama series—to use that category as an example—clearly did excellent work; will it make sense to discard six of them and recognize only one as “outstanding” (that’s the official Emmy language, not “best”)? Not for me. But most people like seeing awards as a game that can have only one winner, and when they disagree with the outcome they like disputing it. The industry cares who wins, and the viewers care, so I too am going to care how well Netflix does. It has a total of 13 chances.
Nominations: list

PinkMartini_StormLarge_photocredit-James_Chiang_1Storm Large and Pink Martini (Sept. 22, Beacon Theatre. Many people who become pop celebrities don’t find it difficult to try out new lines of work. Heiresses land on TV, comics take up film acting, actors tackle singing. You might suspect that Storm Large, with her made-up-sounding name and a reality-TV show in her background, lacks credibility. You’d be wrong. She began by singing rock music, she has sung with the genre-crossing group Pink Martini since 2011, and last spring her native talent took her to Carnegie Hall, where she sang Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Writer Elissa Schappell, who worked with her once, told me she’s a “force of nature.” By the way, her name is real.

You can stream part of the spring concert, or buy tickets for the upcoming evening: stream
tickets

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August 26, 2013

Film, TV, DVDs, Books, Magazines

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On Watching TV:
The Long and the Short of It

Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a piece of short fiction for The New Yorker, called “Black Box,” eganthat she designed for Twitter. link Beginning on May 24, TNY’s fiction department tweeted the story in 10 nightly installments before printing it complete in the magazine. I hadn’t read any Twitter fiction but admired Egan, so I sat down the first night to watch. The six opening tweets hooked me. Wondering what to call the experience (punctuated unfolding?), I followed avidly to the end and re-read “Black Box” as soon as I received the printed magazine. Surely something was new about this, my overexcited brain proposed.

Was I right? As Kirby used to say in the Hertz car-rental ads, “Not exactly.” If you close one eye and hold your head just so, you can see parallels for this in earlier times, and even in other media today.

sterneWay back in 1759, Laurence Sterne began publishing Tristram Shandy in parts. Apparently he wrote and published a volume or so whenever he felt like it; the novel eventually ran to nine volumes released over about eight years without ever reaching a conclusive ending. At almost the same time, Tobias Smollettismolle001p1 (a name that begs to be re-used) began serializing his novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves in a monthly magazine he had just launched. Fast-forward a few decades; in the 19th century, serialization became quite the thing. Charles Dickens first published all of his novels dickensserially, from The Pickwick Papers (begun in 1837) through Our Mutual Friend, the last one he completed (published in 1864–65). Wilkie Collins did it; Henry James did it. joyceEven James Joyce did it, publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serially (1914–15) and doing it again with Ulysses (1918–20).

Fast-forward again. The new serial forms of the 20th century, in particular the TV series, were for the most part simple, morally unambiguous, and open-ended. How hard was it to star trekdrop into any of the Star Trek shows and find your footing? It did matter a little what happened along the way, as with Dallas (1978–91), or at least at the end, as with The Fugitive (1963–67); the ravening desire to learn who shot J.R. infiltrated a ballet audience I was part of one night. But to be snooty about it—which I can do because I watched some of that stuff myself—these were pretty shapeless tales, which as much as anything else satisfied a compulsion for repetition.

Eventually, the idea of doing more and better dawned on the creators of TV shows. Since sometime in the 90s, the most ambitious of these men and women have been charting the path of characters, situations, and themes across multiple story arcs (episode, season, entire run) and employing what writer Steven Berlin Johnson concisely called “complex, multithreaded storytelling.”

Writing in the mid-naughts, Johnson was describing sophisticated and elaborate TV programs such as The Sopranos and Lost. These shows get serious attention in academia. Mad Men, for instance,mad men inspired an excellent book of critical essays, link and also a blog from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. link They’re among the popular entertainments that Johnson wrote about in his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which argued that the best TV series and video games don’t dull your mind but cultivate it. In a way, these shows are the new novels.

Almost all of them have been hour-long dramas, although New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently made a strong case for including HBO’s 30-minute comedy Sex and the City among the pathbreakers. link They’ve mostly been on cable, not broadcast networks, in part because the FCC’s onerous constraints, sex and the cityintended to keep the public airwaves clean enough not to shock time travelers from Dickens’s era, don’t apply to cable networks.

One thing about the novelistic shows—and other successful TV series—might be recognizable to the Victorians: their delivery. The tale is told first in serial installments, which are then gathered into a whole. In Victoria’s time, serialized novels were gathered into books; in our time, TV shows are collected into boxes of DVDs or Blu-ray disks. The main difference is that with TV the process repeats for subsequent seasons. (Sadly, if there’s no second season, there’s typically no DVD release either. AMC’s fine conspiracy drama, Rubicon, is now gone unless you’re willing to use “enhanced acquisition techniques”—that is, downloading a torrent file.)

I don’t want to read a novel as if it were a TV show, in weekly nibbles across a long span of time. I don’t even want to watch TV—the better shows, that is—on TV, in bits and bites. (No doubt the challenge of keeping track of things for months is part of what’s good for you, but I’m lazy.) Charles McGrath tipped me to an alternative with a 2006 article in The New York Times, in which he reported discovering that “DVD…seems the best way to watch any of the new, extended-plotline series: not just ’24,’ but also ‘Lost,’ ‘Alias’ and ‘The Wire.’” But the value of this didn’t register with me until early 2010, when a former colleague in the TV business persuaded me I had to watch Mad Men. For a few weeks as its disks came and went in the mail, my head was dizzy with the developments in Mad Men’s first two seasons, which had taken nearly a year and a half to reach cable viewers.

Even better than DVDs is Netflix streaming. (Other sources exist, but Netflix is tops in my book.) This is bingeing par excellence. No fussing with disks; just push a few buttons and away you go. Netflix is so sure you’ll want to watch multiple episodes that it keeps ’em coming—you have to tell it to stop. This is very modern, except that it’s exactly what happens when you pick up a novel. I saw the first four seasons of Breaking Bad this way; I think it took me about 10 days.

Tradition dies hard; until this year, TV always parceled out its series at one-week intervals. That changed on February 1, when Netflix released 13 episodes of House of Cards all at once. It was popular and also well-regarded; the show earned nine Emmy nominations. house of cardsOther Netflix streaming productions earned four more. At last, conditions were right for a serious-minded, novelistic TV drama to be released as though it really were a novel: in one piece. I watched the whole batch over the course of four days; some viewers saw it all within about 24 hours. It left us hungry for more. Luckily, there will be at least one further season of House of Cards.

A final thought: The Netflix House of Cards was based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. And what was it based on? A novel.

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June 4, 2013

THEATRE

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If You Build It, They Will Come

Yes, The Master Builder is one of Henrik Ibsen’s great plays, but why? The simplest answer may be this: If you see it, you’ll know. A fine production is running at BAM’s harvey theatreHarvey Theater through June 9. Here’s your chance; as this blog always hopes to be able to say, “Don’t miss it.”

No doubt it helps to have a sensibility that’s attuned to the kind of music an artist’s late style can produce. Beethoven’s final quartets aren’t for everybody, nor are Henry James’s last novels. It also helps to be prepared.

ibsen1Ibsen’s work can be divided into three phases; the Ibsen that’s most often produced is the middle-period author of realistic prose dramas, running roughly from A Doll’s House (1879) through Hedda Gabler (1890). He had been writing for almost 30 years before Nora slammed the door and continued for nearly 10 after Hedda last took up her father’s pistol. Allowing for Ibsen’s long apprenticeship, one can still wish to see some of the wild poetic dramas of the first period, in which God himself can be heard to thunder (in Brand, 1866). He again unleashed his imagination in his third period, in which harps sing in the air, a folktale-like character lures a child into the sea, and the dead speak. These final plays are attempted now and then, but—maybe because of their skipping relations with objective, external reality—not very often, and even less often with success, it seems. Thus I’ve never seen The Master Builder (1892) before.

master builder setOrdinarily, it’s in this play that the harps sing. That’s what Hilde Wangel heard 10 years ago when she watched Halvard Solness climb daringly high up a ladder to hang a wreath atop a church steeple. Because of that, and because of a careless promise he made to her—she’s a mere child (he thought) and won’t remember—she has sought him out now. She puts herself squarely in the middle of Solness’s unhappy home life, which has suffered from his relentless dedication to work, and the unsettled circumstances at his office, where he fears being supplanted by someone younger.

The past hangs heavy over the present (as had been the case in Ibsen’s plays at least since Ghosts); what has already happened is as much a question, while we watch the play unfold, as what is going to happen. Ibsen had already mastered the drama of triangular conflicts and here uses nearly every possible triangle among the seven characters: among others, Solness and Aline (his wife) and Hilde, as well as Solness and Ragnar (his young assistant) and Knut Brovik (Ragnar’s father, whom Solness had forcibly replaced years ago). The word “conflicts” may be too strong where Hilde is concerned, however. With her girlish enthusiasm and her mix of dreams and physical appeal, she’s like the warm light of the Mediterranean magically let into a dour Scandinavian church; she tantalizes and revitalizes Solness, and she seems to open up everyone else in the play, although for the most part she shows them up as well.

I could discuss the characters and the uncanny elements of the drama at more length than I ought to take here. It may suffice to recall that critic Robert Brustein called The Master Builder “a great cathedral of a play, with dark, mystical strains which boom like the chords of an organ.”

At BAM, the first thing you’ll notice, before the play even begins, is Santo Loquasto’s set design masater builder 3doing its part to foreshadow events by placing some elements at an uneasy tilt. In David Edgar’s translation of the text, Hilde’s reference to harps in the air is gone, and the other “mystical strains” are played down, though the play still rises above ordinary notions of reality. And as always it belongs mainly to Solness and Hilde.

The main accomplishment of Andrei Belgrader’s direction is that it allows the apparent simplicity of their drama to stand clear, in the persons of John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt. The title character is far less at the mercy of events than some of Turturro’s screen roles have been; in a way, Solness is at the mercy of his own desires instead, and as Turturro plays him you’re both afraid of the character and afraid for him. schmidt turturroAs Hilde, Schmidt seems at first almost impossibly girlish but also too obvious in her come-ons, yet she soon won me over and left me absolutely fascinated. (As I confessed on Twitter, the character intruded on my dreams that night, which says something for Schmidt but even more for Ibsen’s potent creation.)

There’s never any better reason for going to the theater than simply to see what’s there. As I said before, such works as The Master Builder aren’t for everybody, but if you go to BAM it’s quite possible that you’ll feel you’ve witnessed something titanic, even mythic.

Tickets and other information: http://www.bam.org/theater/2013/the-master-builder

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May 21, 2013

ART

JB photo-painting by RC 2

 

 

Met-a-Punk:
Chaos to Couture
at the Costume Institute

In January 1978, the Sex Pistols came to Dallas, Texas (my home), and played a concert in an eclectic, edge-of-downtown, barnlike sex pistolsvenue called the Longhorn Ballroom. According to a trusted acquaintance who was there (Jeffrey Liles, who’s still involved in music and nightclubs all these many years later), maybe as many as a thousand people were present, but that was less than half the capacity of the place. Oddly, the number seemed to grow as time passed. In the early 80s, the Pistols’ show began to acquire the patina of legend, and more and more people claimed to have seen it.

As I headed into the Metropolitan Museum’s Punk: Chaos to Couture show, I half expected to find that fashion had glommed on to Punk in the same after-the-fact manner. Au imagesCA9I5GU1contraire: the show reminded me that packaging had always been involved with Punk, in a couple of ways. First, the look was part of the message. Defiant slogans and gestures, spiked hair, graffiti-like splashes of color, ripped or degraded fabric sometimes held together with safety pins, collars and other objects borrowed from bondage wear, outfits decorated with or even built from garbage bags: this was Punk to many people. The look was a marker of group identity, a rejection of other youth-culture styles such as the Hippie look and the glitter of Disco (fashion writer Amy Fine Collins pointed this out to me in an email), an expression of feeling damaged or cast off, a flip of the finger to the social order and the ruling class.

Second, especially in England, marketing and design played a role in Punk from the start. Two figures dominate this part of the story. mclaren and westwoodMalcolm McLaren, a musician, producer, impresario, and all-around spirit of the age, who was regarded as a hustler by some and a genius by others, influenced almost every aspect of the Sex Pistols; as the band’s manager, he booked it on that American tour in 1978, which ended with the band’s breakup in San Francisco. McLaren had earlier joined forces with designer Vivienne Westwood; the two of them pretty much created the look of British Punk and sold it through a London shop on King’s Road.

The Met’s Costume Institute show, which was curated by Andrew Bolton, displays many of Westwood and McLaren’s creations, but seeing them all on mannequins leaves the Punk period (roughly 1974–79) feeling less than fully fleshed out. Photos supplied to the press do it better, just by capturing Punk styles on people such as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Richard Hell of Television and other bands, and Gary Wilson, a musician and performance artist who used dry-cleaning bags in his look. (You can see these, paired with modern versions on models, here.)

Considering the title’s reference to chaos, this exhibition might also seem to be lacking in grime, disorder, and vomit. Critic Suzy Menkes complained (in an IHT review here) that the Punk background it presents is “sanitized and bloodless.” It’s odorless too, and as James Wolcott recently reminded Vanity Fair readers (see article), CBGB was a decidedly odoriferous place. But I’m unsure how much we’d like to be reminded of any of that.

CI punk show, May 2013: Zandra Rhodes & her dressesWhat do we have of Punk’s origins? There are many rebellious T-shirts by Westwood and McLaren and a few of their ensembles using bondage pants, furry sweaters, and the like. Also on display are a couple of 1977 Zandra Rhodes dresses that strike a lovely balance between distress and composure; Rhodes stationed herself in front of them for interviews during the press preview. Punk’s original habitats are evoked by two physical spaces that recall the Metropolitan’s other period rooms: a recreation of the CBGB bathroom from 1975 (sans odor), and a duplication of Westwood and McLaren’s boutique on King’s Road. The CBGB urinals remind others of Marcel Duchamp; I thought the scene needed a note reading “This is not a bathroom” (à la René Magritte). Rounding out the source material are video excerpts from various period films, including footage from that Sex Pistols show in Dallas, running on screens placed throughout the exhibition. But all the video is silent—the music we hear comes from other sources—and has a hard-to-read, throwaway feel. (Presumably the figures shown, and the rationale for which gallery they appear in, are more recognizable to others than they were to me.) In the DIY: Bricolage room, one of the large video screens worked better as a garish light source than as anything to ponder.

Where the curator has harvested a real bounty is in the recent borrowings from Punk. Spread through the galleries are dozens of pieces, both ready-to-wear and haute couture, for men and women. Knowledgeable commentary on these works is easy to find elsewhere. I’ll just say that it’s surprising how many design responses can be traced to the short-lived outburst that was Punk.

CI punk show May 2013: Fashions in the bricolage roomThere’s an energizing tension between the look and the feel of the show. The gallery layouts are symmetrical, classical (some use Roman-style niches), elegant, composed… almost serenely seductive. But when a crowd is on hand, the music is pumping, and ever-changing light dances from the videos, the show can feel like a nightclub—which, in case you don’t know me, I mean as a good thing. The experience is a fantastical one, in which you the viewer mingle, on entirely comfortable terms, with the chicest of the chic, who remain on their platforms like Patience on a monument.

Indulging the club feel will be a mistake if you fail to balance it with careful observation. I know I missed things in my larking CI punk show May 2013: Bullet-wound shirtabout. The gunshot-wound shirt by Hedi Slimane is eye-catching; less so is the intricate detail work in a mohair knit-and-crochet ensemble from Rodarte and the delicate beauty of Ann CI punk show May 2013: Ann Demeulemeester dressDemeulemeester’s “quotation dress” (my term), embroidered with Patti Smith text. The parting nod to Punk’s defiance is obvious too; more obscure is just where one could wear this mannequin’s barely-there evening dress, from Maison Martin Margiela.

The show concludes with a fine irony: the “no future” declaration, which originated in a Sex Pistols song, now marches proudly across the wall of the last gallery, negating itself by its very CI punk show May 2013: Maison Martin Margiela evening dresspresence. Punks either died or moved on, but their style had a futureit’s here.

Through August 14, 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum: metmuseum.org/punk

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April 10, 2013

FILM

JB photo-painting by RC 2

 

 

Upstream Color: Mysterious Shade

Somewhere out there, this joke must already exist: Why did Shane Carruth take nine years to release his second film? He was waiting for people to figure out his first one.

primer 1That first film was Primer (2004), a time-travel tone poem whose mundane surfaces hint at, but often hide, exotic strata beneath. Stating its running time as 77 minutes is misleading, considering how many people have felt they needed to watch it again. It begins simply enough. A couple of engineers (with the biblical names Abe and Aaron) stumble across a novel physical effect while tinkering in a garage. At first, they’re friendly collaborators, but, as they scale up their device and explore its uses, they begin to disagree and then to distrust each other. For part of its length, then, Primer resembles a tech-world chronicle—akin to some real company histories—with a garage-madeprimer-test style to match.

That production style remains consistent throughout; its tiny budget mandated shooting on Super 16 with no retakes. Everything is carefully reckoned and sometimes visually memorable, even if the sound could’ve been cleaner and the lighting smoother. But the story, tangled from the outset by an intermittent voiceover narration that seems to speak from a future time, becomes more elliptical as it progresses. The film shows only a part of the full story; figuring out the rest depends on catching clues. Writer-director Carruth has always known exactly how intricate it is. He declared in a 2004 Village Voice interview (village voice), “Two viewings seem to do it, but I can’t say you have to see it twice; that’s so pretentious.” Some fanatical fans have seen it many more times than that, written lengthy exegeses (including an entire book, now out of print and converted to a blog ( primer), and diagrammed the film’s looping timelines (for instance, timelines). Not surprisingly, the proliferating diagrams led to a parody timeline (see lower right at parody).

He made Upstream Color in much the same way, beginning carruth with camerawith the circumstances of its production. Having tangoed fruitlessly with Hollywood over another project (A Topiary, now abandoned), Carruth went back to solo mode for this one, doing without film-industry financing, influence, or distribution. By now a skilled practitioner of DIY methods, he again wrote, directed, and acted in the film, along with serving as director of photography and composer. Upstream Color looks and sounds better than Primer, undoubtedly the result of more time and money, but it’s still a pretty small-scale venture. Shooting again took place on Carruth’s home territory, in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, and as with Primer the film itself is location-independent—it happens someplace, that’s all.

There are also many differences between Carruth’s two films. The easiest thing to say about Primer is that it’s a time-travel story, whereas there seems to be no easy thing to say about Upstream Color, unless it’s to mention the “mind-control pig worms,” as I think one viewer called them, which are more obvious than they are important. Come to think of it, that’s kind of a clue.

Primer isn’t really about time machines or time travel; the story’s reliance on high-efficiency implication (little is seen, much is implied) have simply made it possible for viewers to think so. Figuring out what really happens, which involves multiple versions of the film’s two engineers, is such a challenge that fans have gotten caught up in that. But Primer is really more concerned with the consequences, ranging from the physical to the moral, for anyone who uses one of its time machines.

upstream posterLikewise, the plot of Upstream Color employs something that, broadly speaking, is technological: a worm that, like some real-world parasites (and many plants), affects the behavior of anyone who ingests it. When it’s forcibly given to a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) near the start of the film, it induces a state of suggestibility that allows the man who forced it on her to empty her bank account. She finds a way to get past the immediate consequences, and she meets a man named Jeff (played by Shane Carruth), to whom the same thing has happened. You can get caught up in trying to make sense of the film’s events, even though, this time around, Carruth is much less elliptical in presenting them: it’s pretty clear what happens. You can also, much more than with Primer, get caught up in the film’s surfaces: the repeating visual and behavioral echoes, the sonic fantasia to which a few minutes are devoted, the rhythms of the editing, the Eno-esque music, and the film’s overall feel, which is suggestive, elusive, and mesmerizing.

But my sense, after seeing Upstream Color once and pondering UpstreamColor3it for a few days, is that Carruth isn’t really concerned with people, pigs, worms, and orchids. His film is about less concrete matters: suffering at the hands of others, being driven to desperation, achieving a degree of restoration, taking refuge in and with another person, finding oneself partly merging with a loved one, discovering an unlikely replacement for something lost. (That may sound like a recovery memoir, which is probably irrelevant.) This level, one degree abstracted from the visible action, is where the film engages and moves you. Regarded this way, it’s like descriptive music, which isn’t about the musical events per se but instead portrays characters (Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”) or evokes a scene (the storm in Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”).

upstreamcolor3_bodyOr… Upstream Color is about proper versus improper uses of people and the natural world. The character called Thief must be wrong in using the worm for financial gain, and taking advantage of Kris is not a proper use of her. One of the characters is mysteriously named Sampler; though he helps restore Kris to herself after the worm episode, he also perpetuates the life cycle of those worms. How he benefits isn’t clear, but he appears to use people for his own ends, as he uses nature. He finds or creates sounds so he can capture them (that is, sample them), whereas Kris and Jeff do this merely to appreciate them.

upstream color1Or… much like Primer, this new film is about the consequences for people, and even for other living things, of a technology—in this case, the practical applications of that worm species.

Maybe Upstream Color is about one more thing as well. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote that the worm “induces a state of bewildered suggestibility.” This is akin to some of the effects of film in general, though cinematic enchantment is usually something other than bewildering. In any case, Brody’s is an apt description for what Shane Carruth’s new venture does.

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Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2013

JB photo-painting by RC 2

 

Fearless Predictions
Bedlam at the Access and More

Hamlet and Saint Joan (in alternation through April 7, Bedlam, Manhattan): Last spring, one of New York theater’s nifty little trick questions was to ask friends if they’d heard about the small-cast Saint Joan running on Broadway. The explanation lay in bedlam theatrethe location of the Access Theater, where the Bedlam company performs—it’s on lower Broadway. The production was no gimmick: it vivified Shaw’s historical drama in an unconventional staging that used only four actors and placed scenes on the stage, in the seats, and even in the lobby. (See my review at St. Joan.) Now Bedlam is reviving that show and also tackling Hamlet with the same four actors. Though I haven’t attended yet, it’s a good bet that the same bedlam hamletcommitted and imaginative rethinking that burnishedShaw has been applied to Shakespeare. http://www.theatrebedlam.org/#!tickets

Hamlet (March 15–April 13, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven): yale hamletPaul Giamatti, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, returns to New Haven to play the melancholy Dane. The American film complex turns many actors of broad ability into narrowly defined commodities—“pigeonholing” is the term—but it hasn’t done that with Giamatti. He’s virtually a chameleon, so there’s no telling what he’ll do with this role. Giamatti, now in his mid-40s, probably won’t be the youngest Hamlet you’ve seen, which may make the prince’s recent studies in Wittenberg problematic, but different editors and even different editions differ on how old the character is. As with Juliet and others, anyone who’s the right age may be too immature for the role. Sarah Bernhardt, who ignored gender as well as age when she took the part, may have overreached, but at least she knew that playing Hamlet didn’t depend on externalia. http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/2012-13/hamlet.html

Pierrot Lunaire(March 28–30, Yale Cabaret, New Haven): Yale Cabaret shows are single-weekend productions created by Yale School of Drama grad students, not to be confused with the longer runs and mixed student/professional creative teams used in other shows at the school or at Yale Rep. This event will present a theatrical staging of Arnold Schönberg’s song cycle, which is currently enjoying a handful of performances in honor of its centenary year. It can be argued that the entire 19th century was decisively killed off during the second decade of the 20th by events as varied as the Great War, the sinking of the Titanic, and the immense cultural ferment in Vienna, which produced Pierrot Lunaire. It’s a groundbreaking piece for solo voice and small ensemble that employs Sprechstimme (a cross between speech and song) and abandons traditional Western tonality, though without adopting the full rigors of serialism, which Schönberg developed later. Bonus: the Yale Cabaret, true to its name, always offers food and drink. http://yalecabaret.org/cab-16

Silkwood (March 20, Signature Theatre, Manhattan): One of three films written, in part or in full, by the late Nora Ephron that are being presented in the Signature Cinema series this spring. Silkwood dramatizes the story of Karen Silkwood, a factory worker who met a mysterious death after trying to call attention to problems at a Kerr-McGee plutonium-processing plant. Superficially akin to Norma Rae and The Insider, it differs from both in taking a more ambiguous viewSilkwood3--www-bfi-org-uk-photo-credit of its central character, which makes it more admirable in my book. It was mostly shot near Dallas, Texas, rather under the radar, to keep Kerr-McGee from catching wind of it and trying to shut it down; surprisingly for anything that involved director Mike Nichols (not to nicholsmention Cher, or Meryl Streep, though she wasn’t then the monument she has become), the tactic seems to have worked. Personal note: I worked on the shoot as an extra and appeared in a short but crucial moment. Signature Theatre tickets

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