Archive for February 27th, 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 

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