Archive for October, 2011

Cogito: John Branch

October 30, 2011


Zombies: They’re Alive!

Zombies: they don’t amount to much, but they’re surprisingly persistent. Having originated in Africa (like mankind itself), they traveled from there to Haiti and in the early 20th century began their stumbling march across America, eventually to infect Hollywood and our imagination. In the 50s, pop-culture horrors such as the giant ants of Them! and the Japanese-born Godzilla had been associated with the abstract threat of The Bomb, and when George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, the connection was maintained. For some, however, zombies represented as well, or instead, the equally abstract threat of soulless Communism. In terms of cultural ideas, then, from the beginning they’ve been pretty careless of the company they keep, thriving just as well, or badly, in whatever territory one placed them in, and this, along with their ravaged flesh and sometimes absent body parts, is what I meant by insubstantial. They can’t even find their own nickname, sometimes relying on the “undead” term that had already been adopted by vampires.

They’re a virtual Swiss army knife of plotting. Take them to the mall and they become an emblem of mindless consumerism, as we’ve seen in the two versions of Dawn of the Dead. In the streets of our upscale residential sections, the zombie’s relentless attention stands for over-parenting—or so says one reading of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive—while across the tracks, those hungry hordes should be seen as an oppressed underclass seeking its share. At the university, zombies have gotten into the philosophy department, somewhat transfigured to be sure: they represent a question about the nature of mind that goes back to Descartes. And in the E-school, computer-science nerds can be heard to speak of zombie process.

The bookstores are no safer. Zombies have begun munching on the classics, with Jane Austen perhaps the earliest victims, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. To my knowledge, none of Shakespeare’s plays have been zombified with a genuine rewrite in blank verse, but in 1936, Orson Welles leaned that way in his voodoo Macbeth. New fiction isn’t immune either. Colson Whitehead, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, this fall published a novel called Zone One which dramatizes the human revolt against a near-total zombie takeover.

You can’t hurt the zombies’ feelings, since on most views they don’t have any, so physical comedy comes easily to them. Thus Woody Harrelson in Zombieland can gleefully whack at the things with a shovel. The wit of Shaun of the Dead easily works too (things are getting “a bit bitey,” says a character in that film, as if noting a slight shift in the weather), and satire, which need not be overtly funny at all, isn’t far away. This leads us back to the critique of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and to the multiple implications of George Romero’s original film: its carnage echoes the Vietnam War, the black hero’s death at the hands of rednecks acknowledges persistent racism, and the zombie girl munching on her father’s severed arm suggests, as one critic saw it, “disillusionment with … [the] patriarchal nuclear family.”

Zombies allow for other potentially serious readings as well. First, like the transi (partly decomposed corpse) of medieval funerary and pictorial art, zombies can show us our destiny in the decay of the flesh. Second, it’s not only in their form that they possess traces of the human animal. Moving but not speaking, their sole drive is usually hunger; apparently unthinking as well as unfeeling, they nonetheless recognize us, though only as a source of food. (I wonder whether any parents have seen their infants that way.) They’re another version of the beast within. And, of course, zombies used to be us.

That’s the theme lurking in a few corners of The Walking Dead, a TV show dramatized with substantial deviations from a series of comics. Sometimes, as in season one’s first episode, the “walkers” (as they’re termed) seem to retain connections with their former life. A little girl, wandering through a maze of abandoned cars, is glimpsed from behind by a sheriff’s deputy as she stoops to pick up a doll; only when she turns do we realize what she has become. A woman who’s one of the walkers approaches a house where our deputy hero is hiding out with another man and his son; we discover she used to be the man’s wife, hence the kid’s mother, and she’s returning—more out of longing than hunger, it seems—to the house where she once had been holed up until she, too was taken. Other episodes remind us of the walkers’ human past in other ways or make something rich from the process by which one of us becomes one of them.

What really sold me on the show’s dramatic gravitas was something else from its premier episode, involving two encounters with a half-demolished creature dragging itself through a spacious, green park. Lacking lower legs and so no longer much of a zombie, barely recognizable as having once been a woman, she’s apparently returned to a site of former pleasures. She proves to be more a thing to pity than to fear, and the second encounter struck me as remarkable, a moment of genuine pathos.

Most of the time, The Walking Dead pursues other concerns. It’s not only the humanity of the walkers that has been lost but also almost everything the other characters have known as normal life. Some of them talk of “when things get back to normal”; others lose all hope or come close to it, feeling the world to have become an alien region where they have no place. The latter is often a recipe for suicide, which in this series has its payoff in more than one outcome. The cities have become uninhabitable. While an individual walker may be recognized for what it once was, in the mass they’re simply ravening beasts, dominating Atlanta—the series takes place in Georgia—and presumably all the other urban centers on the planet.

It’s a smart piece of work to leave the zombies with traces of human individualism and also link them, subtly and admittedly rather vaguely, with the dehumanization long associated in Western thought with metropolises. As in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and many other works, our central characters must leave the cities behind to seek what restoration they can find. But there’s no Forest of Arden, at least not yet. Our hardy band isn’t exactly living on the run, but by the end of season one they had already abandoned more than one hoped-for refuge. Have they found it in season two? Time will tell; readers of the comic will suspect they know, but the series has departed from its source before.

The Walking Dead is currently airing in the United States on the AMC cable channel, Sunday nights at 9 PM Eastern.

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Cogito: John Branch

October 19, 2011


In the Upper Room

Choreography: Twyla Tharp (American Ballet Theater)

Although I originally reviewed In the Upper Room six years ago, it has stayed with me ever since. It will be revived by ABT this season and I anticipate seeing it again, with great pleasure. This is why:

“If the State Department wants to present a compelling image of America to the world, it should commission Twyla Tharp to prepare a touring version of In the Upper Room, which American Ballet Theater has been performing at New York’s City Center lately, and send it out to sweep the globe. Set to a propulsive score by Philip Glass that itself unites traditional and modern instrumentation (i.e., acoustic and electronic), you’re instantly struck by how Tharp has put toe shoes and sneakers on the same stage. But its easy blending of what might once have been called high and low styles—the Old World rhetoric of ballet and the New World vernacular of Tharp’s modern-dance vocabulary, with arm flings and head tosses, sashays and shimmies and sidles—isn’t the only surprise.

Seeing it performed by a ballet company whose repertory includes many of the classics, with their hierarchical structure of principals, soloists, and corps dancers mirroring the stratified social scheme of a czar’s court, you notice also how absolutely democratic this piece is. As an idiom of the theater has it, there are no small parts here, nor are there isolated star turns; Tharp has built her work from solos, duets, trios, and larger ensembles, overlapping or succeeding one another in increasing complexity.

The title and the number of dancers (13) recall the Last Supper, suggesting that In the Upper Room may be some sort of transcendent vision, a sharing of divine wisdom and practice, even a notion of heaven—everything is swathed in clouds of smoke and illuminated in white light, and the dancers magically emerge from nowhere and exit into nothingness. To me, though, this breathless dynamo of a dance is more a vision of America: it’s got sass and speed, an expert use of technology, that melting together of styles, muscularity, joy in exertion, pride in prowess, a bold fashion sense (costumes by Norma Kamali), and above all else an unstoppable energy. But maybe these two visions amount to the same thing. As Susan Sontag remembered someone saying, America is a nation with the soul of a church. And here is one of our greatest testaments. Would that the world could see it.”

ABT: Bard College (November 4—6) bard;  New York City Center (November 8–13) city center.

Cooper’s London

October 14, 2011

Discovery: Music

The Wonder of Wunders

 Once there was a singer named Wunderlich; and now there is a pianist named Wunder – Ingolf Wunder. In these two cases, certainly, the name describes the talent. Wunder, who is newly 26 as I write this, won the second prize at the Chopin Competition in 2010 and was a clear audience favourite. Everyone but the jury thought he should come first. Which proves you must always watch the second prize winner. (Once upon a time Bryn Terfel came second to Dmitri Hvorostovsky in a singing competition! And just as scandalously, once upon a time in 1980, Ivo Pogarelich came second in the Chopin Competition.)

Wunder manages to combine the cool, poised technical perfection that everyone admires so much these days with a complete mix of both intellectual interest in the music and genuine emotional understanding of it. He clearly has a great affinity for the music of Chopin. Deutsche Grammophon has signed him exclusively and his first disc―a Chopin recital that includes a superb interpretation of the third piano sonata―is everything one could have expected. This young Austrian musician plays very much within the tradition that understands the past musical values and passions of people like Rubinstein or Horowitz but his work is controlled by a powerful intellectual approach—more like the young Brendel, perhaps.

Forget the comparisons; he is the one and only Ingolf Wunder and we can look forward, I predict, to years of growth and development – and moving, enlightening music making. He shows great inwardness and spirituality in the largo of the third sonata, for example, an amazing yearning and poignancy in the finale of that sonata; and superb inwardness and controlled spontaneity in the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major (he won a special prize for the playing of this one at the Chopin Competition). And if you study the photo on the back of the CD it suggests that he can also dance on pianos like Fred Astaire! A wunder indeed?

Ingolf Wunder Chopin Recital DG 477 9634

Cooper’s London

October 14, 2011


The Bride is Wild

Kneehigh, which had such a success with its production of Brief Encounter, is currently touring the UK and going to the Dublin Theatre Festival with a new show, Wild Bride, based on a Hungarian folk tale.

The company’s approach is to do theatre of the most Epic and Brechtian kind; accessibility and entertainment with a sting is its stock-in-trade. Yet again, Emma Rice has adapted and directed a show that is kinetic, exciting, engaging, uplifting and thought-provoking. There is not enough praise possible for the five performers and the musician who inhabit the stage in a stunningly evocative set that can adapt to any location. A Faustian “devil-wants-your-soul” tale with snatches of Snow White and grim versions of other folktales linked with Jungian imagination, the story totally engages you from the first line.

A father unwittingly sells the soul of his virtuous and virginal daughter to the devil; the telling of what happens to her over several years is developed through mime, dance, linguistics, and song. It’s an inventive mix, cheeky and magical. It’s also surprisingly moving, given the abundance of alienation effect throughout. As in every good fairy tale, you relate to the central character and root for her to win out, somehow, in the end. And, of course, she does (after all, it’s a fairy tale); but it’s never easy for her and, even though you know she will triumph, much of the tale is wince-making in its sheer gleeful diabolical nastiness.

This production restores your faith in the power of the stage to feed your imagination. Revolving around three amazing actresses/dancers/musicians playing the Wild Bride at various stages of her development, and a convoluted story that will prime your nightmares for days to come, The Wild Bride is also amazingly coherent; you’re never at a loss for where you are in this fantastical tale. The cast takes on all the various roles each one played with tremendous aplomb and energy. Etta Murfitt deserves praise for her choreography/movement work, and so does everyone else involved in this show.

If you’re lucky, it will be coming soon to a theater near you. Meantime, I’ll tantalize you with a short video of the show: kneehigh video. And then check the Kneehigh website to see if you can get to a performance. And prepare to be delighted, moved, and stirred: kneehigh website


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