Archive for April, 2013

Cogito: John Branch

April 10, 2013


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.

Follow John Branch:

On Facebook On Twitter

On Google+ On Goodreads

Cooper’s London

April 3, 2013





The Bald Soprano

Mission is the latest “project”– also known as a CD– from Cecilia Bartoli. I have so many quibbles that you may think I’m not endorsing it, but that’s not so. It’s actually quite a agostino_steffanicharming CD. The discovery of Agostino Steffani (1654 – 1728) as a “missing link” between Cavalli and Handel is interesting, and the recording itself is very well-produced and performed. Bartoli is working with the notable CoroRSIgroup I barocchisti under Diego Fasolis and even duets beautifully a couple of times with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. There is no doubting the commitment and skill of the performers on every band, or their efforts to make the style “authentic”. With the CD we also get a fascinating mini-book about Steffani’s life that is very informativenot only about his music, but about his travels around Europe as a Church diplomat.

And that is precisely where my quibbles begin. Weirdly, the lengthy booklet doesn’t do enough. I ‘d like to know an awful lot more about the individual operas, their contemporary impact, their range and variety of approaches. Are there any great ones? Are there any “missing links”we should be reviving? And there’s Bartoli-Mission-7more: some remarkably unattractive photos of Bartoli dressed (in costume, I suppose) as Agostino Steffani! One could justify this on the grounds that she’s playing the musical priest himselfbut she looks more like someone about to launch a new Inquisition than try on trouser roles. Was Steffani really that scary? In that case, how did he manage his diplomatic career? As for the bald look (I hopeit was CGI effects and that Bartoli didn’t actually shave her head for the gig), it’s really not for her. In fact, the whole booklet gives the impression of something over-cooked and of someone extremely dour and worthy.

Some of the selections from the operas are quite lively, and Bartoli’s singing is impeccable. I also have no problem with the fact that, like many a mezzo, she’s singing music originally written for castrati. I don’t even mind hugely that her portrayals are not very differentiated and she’s just singing the roles (however pleasantly), rather than playing them. However, her singing itself seems mannered in a way that reminds me of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s (in the later part of her career), to mask her vocal and breathing problems. I also felt that some of the singing verged on crooning into a microphone and had little to do with projecting the voice when singing live in an opera house.

4011222324689The whole thing made me wish that this discovery and this recording had been made by Marilyn Horne in her prime. There is none of that sheer, gutsy pleasure that Horne conveyed so effortlessly in the music she sang; or of the nuances of emotion she also conveyed along with that pleasure. Horne somehow made you care about her castrato heroes (even while she was slightly sending up the whole convention) and always gloried energetically in theCecilia-Bartoli-Mission drama as well as the music. It was a supreme balancing act. For me, Bartoli’s approach makes it all seem simply rather worthy and a bit of an exercise. This recording is interesting, informative, evocative at times, full of information and some very nice music indeed, both compositions and performances. But ultimately it feels more like a seminar in early Baroque music than like fun.

I am, nevertheless, really glad to have the disc and to play it regularly. I just wish I didn’t have to look at that mug shot on the cover of Bartoli as a bald prima donna in clerical drag sticking her crucifix in my face as if she were warding off vampires or heretics.

Decca 478 4732 Mission. Cecilia Bartoli,
I barocchisti/Diego Fasolis

Apollo’s Girl

April 1, 2013


muses-2 Delerium, Now and Then

Before taking a running jump into the mounds of film, theater, and music press kits and notes clamoring for inclusion here, there are some standouts to which attention must be paid. AfricanArt_poster

First, the now: African Art: New York and the Avant Garde (Metropolitan Museum). Never, even after years of the Met’s press previews, have I seen so many grown men and women weeping as they wielded pens, cameras and recorders while fighting for glimpses of the exhibition in Gallery 359. The tiny space is tucked into the much larger rooms of the museum’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on the second floorthe Goliath to New York and the Avant Garde’s David–small, but mighty in every way. Virtually every item here is iconic: enlarged vintage photographs of the venues in which the art first went public, the art itself, and portraits of the personalities who recognized its genius when it struck New York in the early 20th century. All brilliantly designed by curator Yaëlle Biro to give you a sense of having been there then to receive the shock of the new at the very same moment you respond to it knowing what you know now. An unforgettable way to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show!brancusi head

The most powerful impact comes from seeing the actual objects in the old photographs in the gallery’s adjoining vitrines. It’s like a time trip enhanced by Brancusi’s sculpture, Picabia’s painting, Picasso’s drawingsclearly influenced by the African objects—and relics of the Harlem Renaissance on view: magazines, books, and images of the and black and white collectors whose antennae were vibrating on the eve of World War One. Why the O'Keefetears? Resonance! Because of those iconic photographs of the Armory Show (almost life-sized, greeting you as you enter the gallery); of a nude-to-the-waist Georgia O’Keefe holding an African spoon aloft; of Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery; and of a collector’s living roomall trumpeting an urgent message of discovery. The men behind the cameras included Charles Sheeler and often Stieglitz himself; unseen but ubiquitous, the ghost of Albert C. Barnes hovers over the light and shadow on display.

Despite its modest size, the show has gotten almost as much attention as the Armory Show got in 1913. Visitors are still trying to squeeze into the gallery to absorb the images, the objects, and the history. Time has only intensified their effect. Thus, the museum has had the wisdom to extend the show from its original closing date (April 14) to September 2! To say Don’t Miss It is an understatement. Just be sure you get there (the earlier the betterit does get crowded) to feel for yourself what it was like the first time around.

Then, at the Brooklyn Museum, there is Gravity and Grace: el anatsui 2Monumental Works by El Anatsui. This is not so much an exhibition as it is an explosion of Africa’s leading contemporary light. While the Museum of African Art has yet to mount its promised opening show of Anatsui’s works (now on tour), Brooklyn has, in collaboration with Jack Shaindlin (Anatsui’s New York gallery), offered its vaulted fifth-floor spaces to strew, mount, and hang the treasures in several rooms. It’s an out-of-body experience, akin to a shattering catharsis in the faith of your choice.

Anatsui’s vision has driven him to explore el anatsui 4found materials (mostly metal bottle caps, sealing strips, and cans) and to combine the historic traditions of African art and highly sophisticated modern art history with his own ideas about colonialism and collaborative work. His studio in Nigeria is filled with artisans who cut and assemble the original elements into sections, which Anatsui himself then combines as his spirit moves him; no two finished pieces are alike. And in a final embrace of collaboration he allows curators who mount his exhibitions the freedom of determining how each work will be displayed. Will it be cast on the floor? Draped on the wall? Or suspended (if there is enough space, and in Brooklyn, there is) from the ceiling?

el anatsui 3To marvel at the final choices requires being there in person, especially for the monumental pieces on view. Photographs simply cannot do justice to their scale, or to the riot of color and texture that embrace the viewer moving from gallery to gallery. An added bonus is an excellent book by Susan Vogel, El Anatsui: Work and Life, and excerpts from several videos that document the work and the workshop. Not surprisingly, the artist’s presence is as much about gravity and grace as his art, and suffused with the same spirit that permeates the Met’s New York and the Avant-Garde. Seen together the two shows are the alpha and the omega of Africa’s origins and future. You have until August 4 to give thanks where thanks are due in Brooklyn. Meantime, prepare yourself for total immersion.

Russia Rules!

Just as I was gearing up to write a heartfelt  BenArons_photo11Tgone-but-not-forgotten eulogy for Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812 (Dave Molloy’s stupendous music theater piece that had connoisseurs storming the funky basement in which Ars Nova presented it last fall), I was thrilled to learn that the Comet was coming back! This incredible evening was a combination of acting, singing, and wholesale playing of instruments by just about everybody, with the audience crowded around pub tables (already garnished with open bottles of vodka and zakuski) as the action swirled ars nova2above and around them at heart-stopping speed. The music and the words were worthy of all the honors and reviews bestowed on the show and its cast. But what you took away from the night wasdespite its fearless combination of electro-pop score and period costumesthe greatness of Tolstoy’s story, how its power was retained with a contemporary twist, and how much the players really, really understood and loved the material. Oh—and how fresh, daring and original the entire enterprise was. As one reviewer said, “This show came out of nowhere…” Perhaps. But it was one hell of a comet, and you can be there, as of May 1, for its return!

No, Italy Rules!

Finally, one more event that inspired this post. Alas, it has receded into the past, but not from memory. And, alas, it’s not coming back: the opening of the MoMA/P.S. 1 retrospective of Pier Pasolini’s work, co-sponsored by pasolini 5Luce Cinecittà and Fondo Pier Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna who have restored many of the films. Because so many institutions were involved, it’s hard to know who to credit for putting together this perfect storm of film, food and (dare I say it?) honest-to-God fun!

Pasolini was something of a bad boy during his prolific career (he died violently at the age of fifty-three). From Accatone (1961) to Saló or the pasolini 4120 Days of Sodom (1975), his openly homosexual lifestyle and confrontational politics created, even among the relatively easygoing Italian public, unease and often outright hostility. In his many narrative and documentary films, his auteur’s sensibility reflected the gifts of a born writer (he was a prolific poet and essayist as well), and a love of life lived to the fullest on his own terms. While all of this provided the raw material for the museum programs, its opening celebration was a fitting kickoff in the same key. How Pasolini would have loved it…

Arriving at the museum at 10am, we found tables for four set with open bottles of (excellent) Italian wine and baskets of handmade croissants and doughnuts. The croissants were all about butter (more about that later), and the doughnuts were brushed with maple syrup in honor of M. Wells dinette, whose French-Canadian chef and founder (Hugues Dufour) and his wife (Sarah Obraitis) moved into P.S. 1 last fall with their pots, pans and inspiration. While the film retrospective was scheduled to run at MoMA for three weeks as the installations and related performances were presented at P.S. 1, the dinette element guaranteed immortality beyond the closing date.

When about two hundred critics (many of them Italian) filed into the dinette for the press conference and saw what was on the tables, the temperature soared. The drama of Italian conversation was punctuated by the clink of cutlery and wine glasses while Klaus Biesenbach, P.S. 1’s steely-eyed director, and the visiting Italian dignitaries gamely moved the event forward. There was a lavish commemorative book (My Own Films) on view, filled with photos and Pasolini’s own words, pasolini 2and a guest of honor (seated at the next table), actor Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s long-time collaborator. Davoli looked happy and, except for his white hair, actorremarkably like the teenager who had starred in Hawks and Sparrows in 1965. With cameras humming and flashbulbs popping, excitement and the music of the language reigned supreme.

But I digress. With the full realization that the food already on the table was only a prelude soon to be augmented by more of M. Wells’ seriously divine fare, the pitch and volume of the chatter rose even higher, the clink of glass and cutlery accelerated. And out the dishes came: a Quebec version of eggs Florentine (poached egg over spinach over a crust of buttered potatoes); a mound of crème m. wellsfraiche over home-smoked salmon over home-made buttery pastry; andfinallyanother poached egg over home-made blood sausage. It could have been categorized as simple peasant food, but with the freshest ingredients and a culinary sensibility that created one master stroke after another. And, readers, if you haven’t gotten the idea yet, it was all about the butter. It was everywhere! If you really love good food, you will make the trip to P.S. 1 to enjoy its cutting-edge wares (, then repair to the dinette for a few hours to choose your own bounty from the garden of earthly delights that is M. Wells. Plan ahead, because the hours are 12 – 6, Thursday through Monday.  To find out what’s on the menu and any special events in the offing, call (718)  786-1800. Prepare to be astonished. And surrender to cholesterol, just this once. 

%d bloggers like this: