Archive for August, 2014

Apollo’s Girl

August 27, 2014



Strange (but Interesting!) Lands:
International Sci-Fi

Days of Eclipse

Watching the opening/credit sequence of a film can tell you a lot about what may follow. In America, the shots of a car (or motorcycle, bus, SUV) speeding down a highway are legion, but often disguise the story to come. It’s like an iconic camouflage that the director uses to pull us into what happens next. But what happens next can be a disappointment. So imagine the reaction to what hits you as Days of Eclipse takes off (literally) somewhere in Turkmenistan. You hear children laughing, then fly, faster and faster into a bleached-out forsaken settlement in the desert filled with camels and leprous old people like inmates of a penal colony. This is, perhaps, real life, but more like a living hell. Music is provided by a sour accordian, and what sounds like a chorus of souls in torment.

Based roughly on a novel (Definitely Maybe: A Billion Years to the End of the World) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse is Aexander Sokurov’s rebellious, wildly imaginative and erratic personal creation dreamed up as a response to the novel, but certainly more to the waning days of the USSR. It shifts from color to black and white frequently, making delerious jumps from quasi-realistic dnizatmeniasokurovarbitscenes into indecipherable fugue states whose meaning for the filmmaker we can only guess at. Symbols, visual and aural, are everywhere, challenges to be decoded. There is a doctor/hero (Alexei Ananishnov)—a kind of Parsifal who fends off hostility, erotic advances, mysterious forces, corpses, angels, and disease. But nothing is what it seems in the desert. If you prefer a neat synopsis of the plot, try Wikipedia. However, I guarantee you it’s much more interesting to release the brakes and let yourself fly next to the pilot, wherever he decides to take you.

In the Dust of the Stars

Words almost failed me in response to this glorious (and totally unexpected) treat from East Germany—a mashup of every old serial and/or Sci-Fi futuristic feature, from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, as seen by a culture trying desperately to imitate the genre while having as good a time as possible doing it. The result? A total hoot! There are dancing alien maidens in filmy threads, visiting heroes and heroines in tights and boots, and hordes of suffering minions in rags, endlessly digging for minerals like their predecessors in Das Rheingold. Plus the surprise appearance of ekkehard schallthe Devil in a Cape—Ekkehard Schall himself—then Director and star of the Berliner Ensemble, and son-in-law of Bertolt Brecht. While Schall excelled at Brecht’s iconic canon, and at his lesser-known but notable poetry, even at playing Liszt in Tony Palmer’s Wagner (alongside Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave), never has he enjoyed himself more (watch him swirl that scarlet schmata)! The story and the special effects may be a little clunky, but the energy and struggle with humor peeking through the Prussian earnestness are to be applauded.

Strange Lands is one of the most interesting series ever mounteed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, spotlighting not only a period that deserves another look, but offering examples of films (mostly from the Eastern Bloc, from 1958 – 1988) that have seldom, if ever, been seen here. They also deserve repeat screenings, and the establishment of an annual festival. For more information and remaining films:


The Notebook
opens August 29 in NYC (Quad Cinema) and LA (Laemmle Royal)

The Notebook is remarkable for many reasons—for one, in its ability to shed light on the darkest corners of human nature and what it is capable of—while remaining objective, rather in the same way that The White Ribbon kept you enthralled without a discernible hero or heroine. In The Notebook, there are brief moments of kindness, almost always turned inside out before they emerge as gnarled offerings in a cruel world. Yet it’s hard to look away from its chilly shorthand.

Notebook-2_webAt the center of the film are identical twins (László and András Gyémant, called simply One and Other). When their parents send them to their grandmother’s in the country (thinking they will be out of harm’s way) in the waning days of World War II, they are told to keep a notebook of everything they see, everything they think. It anchors them through what follows. Their grandmother is called a witch by the villagers, a woman who probably poisoned her husband and has not seen her daughter in twenty years; she is a cruel taskmaster. The twins are worked hard, disciplined for every infraction, given no affection and fed little. Their lessons are learned slowly but forever: the world is a hard place, and they cannot expect to live as they did.

Instead, they punish each other and deny themselves sleep and even the meagerest scraps in order to become strong enough to feel nothing. Every day they study their Bible and write and draw the life around them in their notebook. Brief animations of the drawings are subtle and effective in showing what cannot always be told. And always, in the corner of the all-seeing twins’ eyes, the town’s secrets—a construction project (a concentration camp), the murder of its rebels, and the deportation of its Jews are noted and recorded. The way in which these events are deftly integrated into the foreground of wretched human interaction is another remarkable facet of director János Szász’ skill at translating this dark novel, by Agota Kristof, to the screen.

Yet the twins make occasional awkward attempts to help others, usually with disastrous results, which only serve to harden their almost-frozen hearts. And every action has a reaction that complicates the plot. But One and Other prevail, finally, and will survive. Szász and his cinematographer, Christian Berger (of White Ribbon fame), have remained faithful to Kristof’s novel, whose script (by Szász, Kristof, and Andras Szekér) is a marvel of substance and refinement, with the power of a rapier.

(The Notebook is the winner of the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary.)

Cooper’s London

August 24, 2014


!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westellBlanche and the Blues

Sometimes a production comes along that makes you rethink your preconceptions of a classic play, and benedict andrewsin the case of Benedict Andrews’ entirely new conception of Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, there is considerable rethinking of approach and interpretation. For once, Andrew’s updating, creating an unusual setting and all kinds of tricks and surprises, comes across as an intelligent, unusual but apt re-imagining of an iconic text—not simply as a director’s idiosyncratic stamp on it.

This is as fresh a production as I could have imagined, and every actor is giving a stellar performance, most of all Blanche Dubois, compellingly played by Gillian Anderson, as a woman who has spent years hiding the truth from others and herself. Still fighting to preserve her image, she enters and struts around, pulling designer bags behind her, wearing sunglasses, determined. She comes across in this interpretation as a much less overtly fragile person than she is anderson2usually portrayed to be. But from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s nearing the end of her tether in a last attempt to stave off her fate and find some sort of peace and happiness. Her sexuality, her passions, her desires are one of the things this play is about; and they are at the fore in this production. She is not so much tremulous as desperate and trying heroically to control and hide that desperation.

The auditorium has been reconfigured so that the audience is sitting totally in the round with the lozenge stage in the centre, with its contemporary furniture and fixings; it begins to revolve as soon as Blanche takes her first drink. For a friend of mine, Rena Fogel, the set had to revolve. It acts as a visual metaphor for Blanche’s descent. As Blanche destabilizes and spirals downwards, the revolving stage creates its own parallel unease. You are not seeing everything, you are straining to see streetcar setwhat is missing, what is evolving; the actor is close to you making an important speech but swept to the other end of the theatre as the stage goes round again, sometimes this way, sometimes that. Occasionally you really do miss important lines, facial expressions. The concept, however, is very strong.

We watch Blanche fiercely, desperately trying to fight off her situation, while Stanley, powerfully played by Ben Foster, is much more of a brute than usual. Even as you dislike him, even when he is at his most troublingly angry, you can understand why Stella has married him. Both Vanessa Kirby‘s Stella and Corey Johnson’s Mitch are presented with more strength of purpose than usual and are clear, yet nuanced, pendants to Stanley and Blanche, respectively. At no point does your sympathy settle – like the stage. it keeps revolving from one character to another.

Again and again, the interpretation of various lines make unexpected sense, make you rethink where you are. The jazzy music by Alex Baranowski is suitably atmospheric. Above all, you come away wanting to see the play again, read the text again, get to know it better, because Benedict Andrews makes it so clear that you’re in the presence of a classic. The carnal nature of the attractions and repulsions among the characters is powerful; Blanche, preening, wearing stilettos that seem perilously too high for her, contemptuous, ostentatious, staggeringly drunk at times, becomes a great tragic presence, reaching for a compromise that could save her, but thwarted by circumstances and by Stanley.

Despite its brilliant conception and cast, the play ultimately has to belong to Blanche Dubois; Gillian Anderson’s portrayal is an impressive feat of acting. She does not arrive mad – she’s plausible enough in her lies, in her ability to portray the character she wants people to think she is. But she is nervous, she is intense; we know that madness is possible if not necessarily inevitable at this point. As the play progresses, with its poker nights and revelations, we watch Blanche slowly begin to come apart psychologically, have moments of return and strength, show her wit and intelligence and sensitivity and also, at times, terrible snobbery and malice. But when she tells the story of her youthful marriage and its tragic ending, when she tells Stella what she really thinks of Stanley, or in the streetcar1climactic confrontation near the end with Stanley, her power as an actress who believes in what she is playing is hypnotic, and every aspect of her struggle is clear. Finally there is the heartbreaking ending as she is led off to the asylum, circling the auditorium, clinging to the arm of the doctor, parading past every member of the audience.

This is a performance, a production, and a play to savour. There is always another way to interpret a great play; but this interpretation will be a benchmark and live in the memory for a long time to come.

A Streetcar Named Desire will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and elsewhere on Tuesday, 16 September 2014.

Apollo’s Girl

August 24, 2014

muses-2Across the River at BMA:  a Very, Very Good Year.

The world may be crumbling around us, but the Brooklyn Museum has had what can truly be called one of the biggest years of its long life. Here, bigger has, thankfully been better. In a single twelve-month period one could be astonished by Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works of El Anatsui (; Ai Weiwei: According ai wei weito What?; Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands; and the lavish Witness: Art and Civil Rights In the Sixties. That’s the good news. The bad news is that three of them have moved on. So if you didn’t catch them at the time, you’ll have some traveling to do; it will be worth the trip.

In the meantime, you have just hours to hotfoot it to Eastern Parkway to catch Swoon’s installation. It fills the Rotunda from wall to wall, from ceiling to floor, celebrating the artist’s feelings about natural disasters and what they destroy, what survives (Katrina; Doggerland). The images are knock-your-socks-off powerful, the scale is overwhelming. You mustswoonthread your way among the huge paintings, sculptures and constructions that surround you, rising from the floor, raining from the ceiling, jutting from the walls. And although it may not be what Swoon intended, it somehow reminded me of the aftermath of slavery—an oddly appropriate corollary to Witness.

What makes the Brooklyn Museum unique in a city not lacking for museums in general, and for big museums in particular, is the space to conceive and mount large exhibitions and, at the same time, the ability to offer an intensely personal experience. So while you marvel at Ai Wei-Wei’s Moon Chest (peer through it from one end as the chests align to present the phases of the moon) or the wall and floor installations that honor the students who died when their schools collapsed after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, you can also enjoy the artist’s wicked humor seen small (Table With Two Legs on the Wall). It’s an experience that leaves you full, yet always ready to see more. And there was definitely more to see.

a high-octane tribute to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was large and unruly, as close to mirroring the scope and importance of the era as you could get without actually living through it. There were photographs, videos, sculptures, music, and galleries full of bold colors by the civil rightsmovement’s biggest names and most modest subjects. The exhibition was organized by the Museum’s own Teresa A. Carbone (Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art), with Kellie Jones of Columbia University. The catalog gives you a sense of what the organizers knew was essential, and draws you into the explosive dynamics of history still being made. Or you can take an autumn drive to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, where Witness will run from August 30 – December 14, or fly to Austin’s Blanton Museum from February 15 – May 10, 2015.

That said, the “intensely personal experience” that is part of the Brooklyn Museum has to do with the fact that it is always busy, yet never so overwhelmingly crowded that you cannot see the art, or find new treasures from its permanent collections. The guards are friendly and remarkably knowledgeable and – a real blessing when you need to take a break – a cheerful, bright cafe on the ground floor has real treats for every appetite and the best bread in town.

But it’s never just about the things on view, or the staff’s attitude, or the gift shop that you should make a point of exiting through, but a spirit. A mixture of energy, anticipation, and enthusiasm that you can feel when you first walk into the lobby. The Museum is old (its origins go back to the 1830s), and yet committed to meeting the challenges of Brooklyn’s exploding population and 21st-century expectations.

judy chicagoAt the moment it has Judy Chicago’s Early Work and a permanent installation of her radical The Dinner Party, with a fall opening of Killer Heels: the Art of the High-Heeled Shoe set for September 10 – February 15. heelsFall is the perfect time to explore the Museum’s long-term installations and permanent collections. The Web site will whet your appetite for what lies ahead. Whatever your interests or your curiosity, you will find ways to stretch them: on view Still, the best way is to just set yourself loose and wander through the galleries—starting
cleopatrawith the museum’s always-revelatory Egyptian Collection. It’s a voyage of discovery that, like Cleopatra, “makes hungry/Where most she satisfies.”

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