THE RETURN: OLLA PODRIDA
I’m back, and there’s lots to talk about. Filling in for the past few months of silence, some random notes on movies, art, and music.
Time and place: scrupulous movies can reproduce them whole, more convincingly (and less fatteningly) than even the most toothsome madeleine. Two recent examples:
Yoo-Hoo,Mrs. Goldberg, Aviva Kempner’s fond and vivid recollection of the decades when black-and-white small-screen television brought us a sitcom starring a middle-aged Jewish woman from the Bronx who, somehow, spoke for decades to the entire country. Called the second best-known woman in America (after Eleanor Roosevelt), Gertrude Berg and her on-screen dopplegȁnger, Molly Goldberg, shared life lessons and recipes (Berg cooked on camera—though not in her real-life Park Avenue apartment), while carrying on dialogue with family, friends, and neighbors across her air shaft. She also produced and wrote Yoo-Hoo, subsequent incarnations (the Goldbergs moved to suburbia), several plays, and a memoir. Except for Berg’s encounter with the Blacklist, when she was steadfast in her support of co-star, Philip Loeb, it is a memoir of a kinder, gentler time. It’s a terrific story. And it is still very funny.
Vanished Empire recreates Moscow in the mid-1970s with astonishing fidelity. Stalin’s grip has been loosened a little by Brezhnev. Literacy and alcohol are everywhere. Bad girls have Big Hair and mini-skirts. Intellectuals, artists, and Party members have big apartments, once home to the aristocracy, while others are sardined into shared rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. And students yearn for whatever Western icons they can find on the black market: the latest rock-n-roll LPs, books, posters, and especially bluejeans. Change is in the air. The contradictions that will lead to Perestroika, a glut of consumer goods, and the loss of culture are revealed in Karen Shakhnazarov’s clear-eyed past recaptured. There is no moralizing. But there is evidence that choices have consequences and are food for thought.
Public Enemies, on the other hand, is a big, fat, guilty pleasure. The cinematography, art direction, costumes, and locations are a trip. Did I mention the lighting? The editing? And the skilled hand and iron grip of director Michael Mann? And, of course, there’s Johnny Depp, and a host of good actors who so wanted to be in good company that many of them (who have starred in other films) seemed happy to take cameo roles. There’s violence, but the camera doesn’t linger on it. The period, with all its contradictions and pivotal place in history, surrounds you. So, it’s a trade-off. In the end, the eyes have it.
If I hadn’t seenSlumdog Millionaire and The Reader during the same week, I wouldn’t have noticed that both these stories are set in triple time frames. Yet they’re history so well-scripted that you always know where, and when, you are. If, for any reason, you still haven’t seen them, call Netflix!
About the Metropolitan Museum: much has been (and will be) written about the new incarnation of the American Wing, with its light-flooded center hall, its double mezzanines with masterpieces of glass, metal, wood, and ceramics, the twelve period rooms (with more to come), and the overall painstaking and imaginative planning by its chief curator and architect, Morrison Heckscher. So, rather than go into detail, I’d like to share some sub-text that shadows the essays and pervades the entire enterprise.
Almost every object in the collection (paintings have yet to be installed; ETA 2011-12) was made by skilled hands. Hands that had a personal relationship to the materials and objects they created, just as the end-users had a personal relationship to the objects, and often to their makers. Walter Gropius originally believed in the virtues of handarbeit and in man’s innate desire to “make” things; the American Wing displays the wisdom of his pre-mass-manufacturing philosophy.
Of course, since most of the collection was created by the best artists/craftsmen money could buy, it reflects four centuries of American high society. No planned obsolescence here! But it also presents a faithful and enlightening capsule of American culture—before it evolved away from the delights of close encounters with fine materials, hand-made furniture, furnishings, jewelry, and tactile life-enhancement—before the prevalence of disposable plastic and impoverished language that have become the American Way. Before, in other words, the triumph of Pop Culture. Indulge your Inner Luddite. See it for yourself, and take your time. It will be well spent.
One final caveat for the Luce Collection that here is folded into the American Wing: as at most museums (such as the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum), it provides a rich ancillary context for nearby galleries of the America That Was. But who decided that every label next to every piece should have only a number (presumably one that can be looked up on a nearby computer for further enlightenment)? If labels are to be used, why not include some basic information–like the name of the artist/designer and the date of the work? Note to Luce: the computers are usually down, and viewers come away knowing little more than before they arrived. It’s especially frustrating because of the quality of what’s on view and the curiosity it provokes. But it’s an easy fix, guys, so please fix it!
And There’s More!
After seeing The Soloist (for which I had high hopes), it becomes clearer than ever that Hollywood should never, repeat never, make a movie about classical music. Despite being based on a “true story,” and with a promising cast, its nervous producers could not resist sequences of clouds, and heavenly choirs. It raised the long-gone specter of The Competition. Rumored to have been the brainchild of a Juilliard graduate who knew the territory, it fell into the hands of Ray Stark and emerged drained of all the high passion, tension, and emotion that actually saturate international music competitions in real life─and recreated them strictly by the numbers.
But there’s an antidote! A recent not-made-in-Hollywood documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, overflows with the joy of making music, with the purely visceral give-and-take at the core of inspired improvisation, and with the high adventure of its unlikely hero, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, who strums his way through four countries in Africa to seek the origins of his instrument. Along the way, he discovers the real diversity of African music (the sequence of a jam session with Fleck’s banjo and a giant marimba played by a dozen villagers is hair-raising). You don’t have to know anything about banjos or Africa to be swept into what music is all about: a deeply satisfying immersion in non-verbal communication. There’s little narration, and not much dialogue: it’s not about the words – it’s about the music!
A recent PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science and Song, elegantly ties it all together so you can actually understand your brain on music. Built around a core of articulate scientists who love the subject, and a number of musical prodigies (Bobby McFerrin, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma), narrated by Audra MacDonald, and produced and written by Elena Mannes, it is exhilarating. And yes, the dancing cockatoo, whose moves are a YouTube sensation, plays his part. One of my favorite factoids (after learning that every living thing, including the cosmos, has its own frequency), was discovering that black holes are a “B-flat…27 octaves below anything the human ear can hear.” It’s in reruns on PBS, and available on DVD. Don’t miss it!
Thinking back, I retract what I said about movies about classical music in one case: Impromptu, directed by James Lapine (often Stephen Sondheim’s director of choice) and written by Sarah Kernochan, with an English-speaking union of a cast (Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Emma Thompson, Bernadette Peters), romping through boudoirs, ripping bodices, and occasionally tossing off some then-new music: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (arranged for four hands) and a few Chopin Etudes. It’s witty. It’s wicked. It’s divine. And it’s an exception. But it was shot in France (not Hollywood), so one expects, and gets, a highly sophisticated, nutritious soufflé that gives equal time, talent, and affection to words and music. It was finished in 1991, so you’ll have to explore Amazon.com, the library, or Netflix. Dig it!
And, while you’re at it, try unearthing a copy of The Mozart Brothers — an archival gem from Sweden, made for everyone who treasures the Marx Brothers and opera. It will have you laughing at its insider’s slapstick, then sighing over its ravishing Mozart. Either way, you win the prize.