Archive for February, 2011

Apollo’s Girl

February 27, 2011


New York Film Festival: As Good as it Gets

 Like Duane Reade and JP Morgan Chase, there are film festivals on virtually every corner in the world. Many of them are competitive, with Golden Palms and Lions, Silver Bears, and hoopla of every color. But at the New York Film Festival there are no prizes – just location, with opening night, centerpiece, and closing night taking pride of place. Always, some years are better than others, and 2010 was a very, very good year in New York.

There were many gems: Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and the ubiquitous Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall, etc., everyone’s favorite except – curmudgeon that I am – mine. But pulling out the big guns, where can you find a festival with four heavy hitters like: The Social Network, Of Gods and Men, Poetry, and Inside Job?

Since the Academy Awards will be handed out tonight, I’ll start with Social Network. Quite simply, it’s a perfect film. Written by one man and directed by another, acting as one (to say nothing of having an actor who plays identical twins), it’s like a sphere – and although there’s an awful lot going on in that sphere all the time, nothing can be taken out or added. Not one frame, one sound effect, one note of music. Yes, perfect. There are those who have been pushing for The King’s Speech for months. And it has a good story and an exclusively A-list cast. But that story is marred by excessive mugging and long – too long – and frequent – too frequent – reaction shots. Had they been trimmed, had there been less nudge-nudge, wink-wink, the story would actually have had greater impact (remember less is more)? (I know. like Uncle Boonmee; I’m a small voice in the wilderness.)

Of Gods and Men opened this weekend, and I can’t wait to see it again. Slow and contemplative, (and as perfect as The Social Network), the two films were screened for press on successive days, underscoring how good they were, and how different. And as if they weren’t enough, there was Poetry, with Korean actress Yoon Jeong-hee. The word “legendary” seems to follow her name whenever it’s in print; it’s actually an understatement, because her performance in this subtle, complex meditation is riveting. Finally, there’s Charles Ferguson’s body blow of a documentary, Inside Job. As powerful as it is depressing, (Ferguson goes to the heart of the country’s economic meltdown and Wall Street’s role in it), the filmmaker admitted to the New York Times only last week that “In 10 years this could all happen again,” and, even more disturbing, that “..there has been no justice.” Perhaps the only way to remain sanguine after seeing it, is to see it on a double bill, followed by The King’s Speech.

All four films are playing now, and are must-sees. No matter which ones win an Oscar, or Oscars, there is a lighter note: Lambert Wilson, who plays Father Christian in Of Gods and Men and is notable in it for his excellent baritone, has also used it to effect while starring in A Little Night Music in the West End. I am assured by colleague Mel Cooper that his Sondheim is as convincing as his Plain Chant. Alas, there are no Oscars for Plain Chant.

Apollo’s Girl

February 27, 2011

Lincoln Center Festival: Visitors from Foreign Parts (and Some Homeboys)

One of the great strengths of this festival has always been its emphasis on the new, and its world view of theater, music and dance. As Lincoln Center continued to evolve into its grand redesign (see previous post), the festival could be found in many venues even, for the first time, on Governor’s Island, but the palette was as ambitious and wide-ranging as ever.

Some of the standouts: A Disappearing Number, from the UK’s always stunning Complicite, was conceived and directed by Simon McBurney. But, like most of Complicite’s works, this multi-media play with music is a communal endeavor, and a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Inspired by G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, it revisits Hardy’s relationship with the Indian Port Authority clerk Srinivasa Ramanujan–a self-taught mathematical prodigy– who sent a letter over the transom to Hardy in 1913 filled with theorems about prime numbers.  

Hardy was so stunned by them that he arranged for Ramanujan to join him at Cambridge for a long-term collaboration, which contemplated infinity and became key to making sense of string theory…..currently being considered as a way to explain the universe. A Disappearing Number is brilliantly written and acted by its cast, and moves back and forth in time hastened along by Indian music and digital images. Do not be deterred if your math is less than stellar: I took high school plane geometry five times before passing it in my last year of college, and I was afraid – very afraid – to see the play. But I was wrong – it wasn’t about math, but about human aspiration and the human heart, and was entirely comprehensible. Somehow, the maths made perfect sense. Seeing it without weeping and being exhilarated (often at the same time) simply wasn’t an option. If it returns, do whatever it takes to claim a seat.  

Having loved puppet theater since childhood, I like to think that there’s a new groundswell of support for the genre. And the festival obliged beyond my wildest hopes, by importing The Battle of Stalingrad by the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre of Georgia, whose namesake director (a painter, sculptor and book illustrator), re-created the history of World War Two’s bloodiest battle. Almost two million died in the struggle, which beat back the Nazi assault and turned the tide of the Eastern Front to the Allies’ advantage.  

But rather than trying to mirror the epic scale of the conflict, Gabriadze chose to create a series of snapshots with sound and music, featuring much smaller-than-life characters whose lives were changed, or lost, over time: a war-weary horse, a cossack, a rabbi, young lovers, and a mother ant and her child. At the end of the play, when the city lies in ruins, the mother ant mourns her child, and says, “I taught you about sugar…” Possibly one of the most haunting closing lines, ever.  




One of the most riotous events, on the other hand, was a double dose of 20th-century music by Edgar Varèse, aptly titled (R)evolution. I saw the second program, starring the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, and heard the longest, loudest, and most energized ovation in memory, with a packed hall (packed, I should add, by the very young people whom everyone says don’t go to hear classical music). They not only cheered, but stomped and whistled for the notoriously difficult pieces, some dating back to the 20s and 30s, filled with (then-) (R)evolutionary dissonances and odd timbres which still demand attention. Gilbert has the best ideas of how to grow audiences and attract the hard-to-get and underage: Just give them something to chew on – no bells and whistles (unless they’re in the score) to add false excitement, but the real thing – music that challenges as well as consoles. It was one hell of a concert, and gave you hope for the future!  






Looking forward to this summer’s Festival: The Royal Shakespeare Company will move in, from July 6 to August 14, with five classics—history, comedies, romances, tragedies—as only the Brits can do them: Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Winter’s Tale. And as a prime wallow for the theater-starved, there will be two marathon weekends with all five plays. At the Park Avenue Armory.  To learn more about other goodies (to be announced on March 8): lincoln center festival 

Apollos Girl

February 21, 2011


The Center at the Center of the World: No Pain, No Gain

Back when the Whitney Museum mounted SCANNING: the Aberrant Architecture of Diller+Scofidio, the partners were beating back the outer edges of technology and art with conceptual works filling vitrines, marching on little tracks, and (literally) hammering holes in the walls. They had won the only MacArthur Award ever given for architecture, and one could see that they were clever. One could also imagine that they were frustrated, having attracted lots of private art commissions, but only two actual buildings. One, Blur, was more or less made of water; the other was Slither– social housing in Gifu, Japan. Sophisticated and ingenious, but surprisingly free of attitude, it worked at every level.

However, it was lost in SCANNING’s haze of preciousness, which for all its brilliance was off-putting, and obscured what was—within the context of that show—evidence that they could also stand and deliver seriously good architecture. It’s true that they were already at work on New York’s Eyebeam and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, but who knew that the mother lode of Lincoln Center would be waiting in the wings?

This time, they’re still standing (having survived what must have been some scary backstage politics, with many, many hands eager to stir the architectural broth) and have delivered a sophisticated and ingenious program of unimaginable complexity. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing for results that are, so far, exhilarating—ample reward for years of simply trying to navigate the maze of temporary construction and poor signage lit by naked bulbs just to find one’s way to theater or concert hall. In fact, Alice Tully Hall has been transformed from its conservative geometric stodge into a ringing, swinging multi-purpose wonder. Watch Juilliard dancers in the second-floor practice room, seminars in the WLIW studio fronting Broadway, and try the mini-arena seating to view the passing parade or peer into the corner café. It’s all-glass, all the time, and never repeats itself.

The best way to see new buildings and theaters changing, or taking, shape is simply to get down to the West Side and wander through the campus while it’s still in progress. Definitely worth the trip, even before you’ve set foot in a building to see what’s on stage. Don’t rush – it’s about exploration, about watching the 21st century materialize before your eyes — and the process is fascinating!  Or search before you go. lincoln center  (Only cavil: the roof of the restaurant really looks like AstroTurf.)

Apollo’s Girls

February 13, 2011




Mel Cooper and I are pleased to welcome a new contributor (John Branch) to Don’t Miss It. John brings a rich background to the column: he studied theater and engineering (!) at SMU, and worked at a Dallas daily and at the late, lamented George magazine. Having survived theater and film production, he can currently be found at Vanity Fair and, of course, on Facebook. As a man of parts and opinions, of sly wit and sensibilities, he’s definitely our kind of guy. His page: Cogito:John Branch.

Cogito: John Branch

February 13, 2011





Black Swan: A Dissent

by John Everett Branch Jr.

What did I think about Black Swan? My main sensation, during and after this much-talked-about film, was varying degrees of distaste. If the film’s staging of the end of Swan Lakereminds one of the end of Puccini’s Tosca (in both, the heroine plunges from a height onstage), that’s not the only connection one can find; Joseph Kerman dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” and while Black Swan is too clever to be called shabby, it seems brutal instead, which is worse.

Trying to think of the film neutrally, analytically, I can see themes and visual elements and issues that would be worth considering if I were being paid to think about the film, among them: the artist’s challenge as a battle with the self, which may seem to be a battle with something or someone else; the goal of losing oneself, the mistake of using death for that purpose; all sorts of Romantic nonsense about things like perfection and death; the theme of the double, the appearance of mysterious others who may be doubles or objects of desire (or both), the frequent and very obvious use of mirror images; the suggestion that the world of professionalized and institutionalized art-making uses up its artists (the character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, ends up looking like a corpse, and a shriveled, consumed one at that).

But I didn’t get much pleasure out of watching it, nor do I get much out of pondering these elements after the fact. Bluntly put, the film does things that don’t need to be done. To recall Susan Sontag’s three questions, I could more or less say what it’s trying to do, and I think I can say (without doing the analytical and evaluative work) that it does them pretty well, but these things are not of primary importance.

That many people have come away saying things like “blown away” suggests that the film works very well—as far as basic function goes, it’s a successful piece of machinery, crafty and even cunning. It maintains tension, it frequently shocks you (keeping you uncertain and in a way refreshing your attention with jolts), and it may surprise you at the end. It capitalizes on many aspects of dancing that would be barely noticed by insiders—the punishment meted out to toe shoes before they can be used, the likelihood of injury—in ways that support its atmosphere and themes. (One almost expects a character to say, “To win all you must risk all,” but the film is smarter than that.) That it divides opinion, as most or all of Aronofsky’s films do, is probably a sign of something dynamic or vibrant, even a kind of vitality, at its core. Though it’s not high praise to say that you will not be bored, that gives the film a certain distinction; much that we experience and consume these days is boring, routine, mundane, or (only slightly better) a sustained annoyance, as Shutter Island was.

Nonetheless, I think Black Swan is wrongheaded, even (if one assumes that it’ll be taken seriously) dangerous. We should long ago have driven a stake through the heart of Romantic confusions about death and art; instead, we allow them to persist, to revive themselves at night, spring up from their coffin, and prey on fresh victims who are young enough (childish enough, inexperienced enough) not to be wary. That, I suppose, is my chief objection to the film. Black Swan traffics in these things without perhaps entirely supporting them; it may, then, be closer to corrupt than to immoral. So is Tosca. (I won’t take the space here to explain that, but you can read Joseph Kerman’s analysis in Opera as Drama; as for Black Swan, I know I’m remiss in not being more specific, but if I’m lucky, anyone who cares to read this will already have seen the film.)

I hope I won’t offend a friend who feels otherwise, but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say I’m uncommonly impressed by the ballet costumes created by the Mulleavy sisters of the Rodarte fashion company. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. A colleague, if I heard her right, wondered why traditional Swan Lake costuming wouldn’t have worked, but since the idea in the story is to present a new take on the ballet, a new look seemed necessary, and the costumes we see are new. However, we don’t get much of a chance to appreciate them, considering the shooting style, nor does one hunger for a better look, as one often does in films with genuinely impressive and imaginative costumes (as in Elizabethor Orlando or Velvet Goldmine). It’s simply good work; you’d be surprised, and disappointed, if the costumes looked wrong, but that the designers have given us exactly what the story calls for isn’t reason for special praise.

I also don’t understand why even experienced film critics, such as Manohla Dargis of the Times, have been impressed by Natalie Portman’s performance. Dargis called it “smashing, bruising, and wholly committed,” observed that the role is “demandingly physical,” and added, “This is, after all, Ms. Portman’s own thin body on display, her jutting chest bones as sharply defined as a picket fence.” So what? Film actors routinely undertake to change their body to suit a character; they add weight to look paunchy, muscle up to look like a warrior, slim down to look sleek. And they routinely train to learn aspects of the life and work they’ve got to represent, as when young men take military training before playing soldiers. It’s long been expected that actors know, or be able to learn, things like period manners and deportment, sword fighting, horseback riding, ballroom and historical dancing; current practice has simply extended the expectations somewhat, calling on Portman to attempt some high-level ballet (which she already had a background in, just as Neve Campbell employed a dance background for The Company). One can recognize the work required without crediting it as exceptional. Nowadays it’s more notable when a film actor doesn’t attempt to transform herself; many women I know were pleased to see a bit of belly bulge on Julia Roberts in Duplicity. If you want to follow the common silly practice of taking films and performers as potential models (we ought to know better), Roberts is the one to applaud.

What I thought about Portman is mainly that she spent most of the film looking tremulous, uncertain, fearful, hesitant. This appeared to be little more than a directorial calculation, so that when she finally showed herself to be commanding and momentarily fierce as the Black Swan (not exactly what the role calls for, or even what the film’s ballet director has kept asking her for, which was seduction), the audience may be pleased.  They were; I was. That’s not the same thing as giving a seriously rich, deep, and varied performance.

As with Tosca, prevailing opinion in the long run may go in favor of Black Swan. If so, I’ll be content to count myself in the minority.

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