Archive for January, 2014

Apollo’s Girl

January 31, 2014


 apollo and lyre

And Now for the Really Good Stuff….. 

Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter

dance on camera 2014Today’s marching orders were easy: get to Lincoln Center somewhere around noon to join the standby line for Dance on Camera’s opening night (and only) screening of Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter. Of course it’s sold out, but maybe you’ll get lucky…

Greg Vander Veer’s sensational account of Martha Hill’s miss hill1 long, productive life overflows with joy from its first images and music, as American Modern Dance is born in the hills of Vermont, to its final summing up of how the power of bodies expressing emotion directly transformed  our vocabulary of movement forever. It’s one hell of a ride, and Vander Veer and his editor, Elisa Da Prato, make sure it’s a full gallop all the way through. Where it excels is in the superb rhythm of its editing and the canny telling of its dynamic story; they are in perfect balance, along with the sheer momentum of the dance footage itself and the information on how Modern Dance came to be.

Martha Hill became its rock and miss hill 5advocate, stifling her own performing talents to build the careers of pioneers: Martha martha grahamGraham,  Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm. She created a dance community that beckoned students, from Paul Taylor pina bauschto Pina Bausch. They, and many others, would have fallen by the wayside without Hill. She could not, and would not, give up. Ever. 

Her adventures are given their due, yet there is uncommon delicacy (and wit) in presenting miss hill2Hill’s own conflicts about giving up performance to ensure the careers of geniuses of movement, as well as her radiant (but very private) private life, and – almost shocking in its brutality – The New York City Ballet’s commandeering of Hill’s dance department at Juilliard. How did this tall reed of a woman prevail against the Rockefellers, the Ford Foundation, and the Balanchine juggernaut? Because of the intense devotion she had inspired  among thousands of teachers, students and dance lovers who bombarded everyone involved in the coup with letters of protest. The letters won, Balanchine’s company expanded its own School of American Ballet separately, and Juilliard remained a hotbed of the Modern Dance Hill had championed for decades.

The comments of friends and colleagues are there for insight but – to be honest – the lavish archival and contemporary footage of bodies in ecstatic motion and the entirely universal drama of Hill’s story will haunt you long after the final frame. With a compelling original score by Florent Ghys that perfectly bridges the decades, Peter Buntaine’s cinematography, Di Prato’s tour-de-force editing, and Vander Veer’s direction, Back Camerathey light a fire that is contagious and give passionate evidence of a revolution that changed the way the world looked at dance.  

The Martha Hill Dance Fund remains part of Hill’s community and, like Hill herself, did not waver in its belief that this film must be made.  We owe them, its makers, and its subjects a debt of gratitude. If you have never seen dance before, Miss Hill will be a revelation. There’s only one drawback: it deserves eternal life and full houses after the lights and the music go off at Lincoln Center.  I will be back soon with more on the film and the filmmakers. In the meantime, see what you can do…and watch the video.

Tim’s Vermeer

Lucky for Tim’s Vermeer that SONY has put its muscle behind this brilliant entertainment, even luckier that Penn and Teller and Tim Jenison tim's vermeer 4(the trio behind the proceedings) had the means and the smarts to make it, and luckiest of all that Jenison appears wholly unfamiliar with the phrase “to give up.”  In other words, the trifecta that makes movies possible. And should you have any doubts about just how idiosyncratic and wonderful this movie is, be reassured: after its initial screening at the NY Film Festival, a later screening at SONY drew a number of critics seeing it for the second (and even the third) time, trying to parse out its theories and their intricate execution. 

Have you ever marveled at Vermeer’s trademark use of light? So has the trio named above. Is it some unique strike of DNA lightning, or is there some music lessonmore scientific (but no less compelling) explanation ? In fact, both David Hockney  (who wrote “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”) and Philip Steadman (who wrote “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces”) have been proponents of the scientific option for years, and you will hear from them in due course.  What you will also encounter in due course in Tim’s Vermeer is OCD (which might have become tiresome in less original hands and minds) and what can be accomplished by someone in full thrall to it who gets mad, gets even, and proves his point by, well, painting a Vermeer: “The Music Lesson,” after getting permission from its owner(the Queen of England) to commune with it for half an hour—no cameras vermeerallowed. Throwing in a trip to Delft, renting a storage unit in Houston with the same northern light as Vermeer’s original setting, grinding the original pigments and weaving the original fabrics that Vermeer employed gives new meaning to do it yourself;  the rest is history. Which our Three Musketeers (and their backstage army) rewrite in their very own delicious way.

There’s more—much moreto be had in the film’s packed 80 minutes, and having a cup or two of coffee before you see it will open your eyes, your mind, and jolt your ambition into high gear. But should you want to try this at home, first read the books and see the film at least twice.  You can do it!

Finding Vivian Maier

vivian maierThis is another wholly original film, brought to life by two dedicated obsessives who wouldn’t give up: the film’s subject, “a mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and discovered decades later,” and producer-director John Maloof, who found a box of her negatives at a locker auction, and was fatally hooked when he worked his way through the images. 

The box changed his life and his direction; he went on a quest for every picture Maier might have left behind and, eventually, tracked down her employers and now-grown charges maloofto find a mystery that grew more challenging as he uncovered its elements—and still remains only partially solved. The only part of the picture that has become clear is that Vivan Maier was a true genius; her images were stunning.

Finding Vivian Maier opens on March 28; save the date.  trailer

More on Maier and on John Maloof later, too…
Later: it seems lawyers have gotten into the mix, so the mysteries and ultimate ownership of the prints and negatives may create a Bleak House-like scenario of long duration. Meantime, see Judy Gelman Myers’ interview with John Maloof:

Cogito: John Branch

January 8, 2014


JB photo-painting by RC 2 Looking for ET

Science writer Lee Billings accomplishes a lot in the pages of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (published in the U.S. in billingsOctober 2013 by Current). He describes the entire history of Earth, including the rise and spread of life; the history of thinking about Earth’s place in the universe; and the history of efforts to locate other planets and other intelligences. He also considers the future of life on this planet (hint: prognosis not good) and of the exoplanet search. Basically, the book is about learning whether we’re alone in the universe, and it would be valuable even if it described only the science behind that Billings_Cover-Imagequestion. But Billings also gives profiles, varying in length and detail, of prominent scientists who were or are involved in the search. It’s a human story as much as a scientific one that he tells.

The first person we meet is one of the founders of the field, astrophysicist Frank Drake. He pioneered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by means of radio telescopes and in 1961 developed an equation to estimate the number of detectable advanced civilizations in our galaxy. Along with surveying Drake’s work, the book shows us what kind of flower Drake grows and reveals its appeal for him. Later, we learn how a simple lunch conversation in 1979 led geoscientist Jim Kasting to a groundbreaking view of how atmospheric gases relate to temperature and habitability. That may sound abstract, but Billings makes it clear, like everything else in the book. Kasting’s far-reaching work explained why the early Earth hadn’t remained frozen, and it’s still guiding the search for Earth-like exoplanets. The most striking portrait by far comes in the book’s final section, which will leave you feeling admiration, sympathy, and maybe even a kind of awe toward astrophysicist Sara Seager.

She deserves her place at the conclusion of the seagerstory because she’s already a leader in the field of exoplanetology and, at age 42, she’s likely to remain influential. As Drake (among others) represents the past in this tale, Seager is the future. She represented a piece of great good luck for Billings in more than one way. In late September, just before this book came out, Seager became one of this year’s recipients of a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship, thus confirming his sense of her importance. Seager’s life also has elements of picturesque adventure that add much to this tale—physicists often love physical challenges in the great outdoors. Most important, Seager presented Billings with one of those ironies of the writing life that can sound callous to non-writers: she has been beset by misfortune, of a kind that you wouldn’t wish on anyone but that helps make her a great character.

By the time I finished the book, my advance reading copy was festooned with Post-it flags, and its text had many marginal notations. I had marked, for instance, some examples of stirring prose as well as occasional clunky bits, sometimes in close juxtaposition. I had intended to write a thorough review, but by now that’s been done well elsewhere, for instance in the New York Times Book Review and in the online publication Space Review. Instead, I explored some of the book’s main ideas in a longer discussion for Goodreads. Suffice it to say here that the people you meet and the questions they raise are likely to bubble in your mind for some time after you think you’re finished with them.

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with Lee Billings through a Stanislaw Lem listserv and have exchanged a handful of emails and Twitter messages with him on science subjects.

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