Archive for the ‘discoveries’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

July 4, 2017

Film

Road Trips…


My Journey Through French Cinema;
Pop Aye; Dawson City Frozen Time;
Paulina

My Journey Through French Cinema (Part One)
(Dir./Writer Bertrand Tavernier)
06/23/17 New York NY Lincoln Plaza
06/23/17 New York NY Quad Cinema
06/23/17 Los Angeles CA Laemmle Royal
07/07/17 Chicago IL Gene Siskel Film Center
07/14/17 Portland OR NW Film Center
07/15/17 Nashville TN The Belcourt 
07/21/17 Minneapolis MN St. Anthony Main Theatre 
07/28/17 Miami Beach FL Miami Beach Cinematheque 
08/04/17 Santa Fe NM The Screen

To grow up in New York when the New Wave was cresting was to dive off a cliff into the ocean that is French culture. Life-altering total immersion. As luck would have it, the films were not dubbed, but sub-titled, so every tic and nuance of the actor’s craft was right there in the dark in front of you. Who could not yearn for those characters, those crooked old medieval streets pulsing with post-war social revolution? The birth of story after story played out by Bardot, Belmondo, Signoret, Montand, Moreau? And what about the writers, the directors, the auteurs?

If you missed all that, never mind: Bertrand Tavernier has captured the Wave, along with much earlier and much later French films and poured the whole catch out for us with all the passion and authority conferred by more than thirty films of his own. Tavernier admits to wearing many hats (citizen, spy, explorer and painter, chronicler and adventurer) for his road trip through French cinema, and switches them frequently. We are the lucky ones, who can lean back and share the journey with him as faces, sites, words and music unspool for his pleasure and ours. No need to swim: just sit back and watch this cosmic show-and-tell. While Tavernier is a warm and generous host, one of the great achievements of My Journey is the  way in which it clasps to its very generous bosom viewers thrilled to revisit and expand what they remember, yet bestows equal pleasure by solving the problem that weighs on all who champion a pre-digital agenda: how to mold a context that will lure the Gen X’s, Y’s and Z’s for whom the New Wave is a surfboard, rather than a dive off a cliff. Even compressed into three-plus hours (they whiz by) instead of decades, My Journey is still exhilarating.

Of course, like all filmmakers, Tavernier mourns the favorite bits that languish on his cutting room floor; there are rumors that a sequel will include them. Meantime, he makes loving (if fleeting) references to them with titles, and we feel his pain. “I would like this film to be an expression of gratitude to all those filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and musicians who have erupted into my life. Memory keeps us warm: this film is a piece of glowing charcoal for a winter night.”

It’s also, in its delicious and ultimate Frenchness, a really cool way to enjoy a summer evening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22hX_9BUnU


Pop Aye: (Dir./Writer: Kirsten Tan) NYC Film Forum and national
This elephant (the title character) is out of the room and on the road in Thailand with his new owner
an architect who has, like the elephant, seen better times. They are trekking back to the architect’s hometown for a visit, moving slowly but steadily toward their distant goal until a passing truck is flagged and they climb in. “You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” observes the driver. “I just bought him,” says the architect. Thus begins this quirky and appealing take on civilization and its discontents, a debut feature from a filmmaker who plies the Singapore/New York nexus with her own 
singular vision and notice from Rotterdam, Sundance and Sydney.

Part of what makes Pop Aye go is the sheer improbability of the ingredients that Kirsten Tan has mixed into a delectable and slightly dry brew. Taken one at a time they would seem to defy blending. When was the last time you found an architect and an elephant in amiable partnership? Or discovered a dysfunctional family with its own take on relationships. Or a truck driver who appears and disappears from time to time (this takes place in Thailand) with an inner GPS of his own. Then there’s a holy man in flip flops who says he will soon join his brother in heaven (he read it in the stars). There are bureaucrats and farmers, ex-wives and partners with little patience for the hero and his faithful traveling companion—and always that marvelously amiable elephant.

Don’t imagine for one minute that Pop Aye can be defined as a linear story; it threatens more than once to disperse, and occasionally makes unexpected (and not always logical) leaps in continuity but, as constructed by Ms. Tan’s whimsical imagination, it’s hard to let go of its sneaky and oddly compelling logic. Surrender to its charms and you will find yourself glad you hitched a ride in the slow lane with some excellent company.

 

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Dir.: Bill Morrison)
(NYC IFC Center; LA Landmark Regent;
Laemmle Monica Film Center; Vintage Los Feliz Theatre)

There are many threads in the tapestry that is Dawson City Frozen Time, and Bill Morrison is its God at the Loom. Not for nothing does Morrison call his company Hypnotic Pictures: this profound meditation on life and death of men, movies and mores, crafted from a trove of old footage unearthed by a backhoe in Dawson City, Yukon, is mesmerizing. Prepare to be transported as it travels backwards and forwards in time, carrying you with it like some spellbound caboose on a rich and improbable road trip in black and white.

Dawson City’s population was a thermometer that measured the heat of the gold rush of 1898, and the ups-and-downs of the fever were mirrored in the photographs by Eric A. Hegg, whose images of hopefuls struggling up the glaciers remain iconic. As native Canadians whose fishing and hunting shacks were wrenched upriver to make room for the town that erased them, Dawson City waxed and waned several times. At its heart was a succession of hotels, provision stores, civic monuments, saloons and brothels catering to itinerant prospectors and, soon after, public halls to screen the movies sent out from early producers to lull and excite the population. The movies—newsreels, shorts, and long-forgotten features—mirrored the world outside, but always after the fact; Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. Since the cost of returning the films to their home base was prohibitive, the orphaned reels simply stayed put, moving in and out of basements and backyards as time passed by, wars began and ended and tastes changed. 

Morrison has a field day with this treasure, marked as it is by decades spent in the permafrost, scratched and flaring, the ghost of movies past (some believed lost entirely until the backhoe dredged them up). But there’s another text that holds it all together: the repeated rise and fall of Dawson City as it fights to stay alive; the transformation of gold mining from manually panned nuggets to digs run by shadowy figures from the world beyond—in fact, the Guggenheims, who bring in big machines to do the job until all the veins are stripped. Newsreels faithfully record strikes and Sacco and Vanzetti, the Black Sox scandal, inventions and progress, always behind the times. And, with his hands deep in movie gold, Morrison sprinkles the film with nuggets of factoids like spices: the founding of Donald Trump’s family fortune by his grandfather, who ran an inn (cum bordello) in nearby White Horse, or what happened to some of Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Respectability came to Dawson after a while, along with civic structure and society. Not since Edgar Reitz’s Heimat has communal evolution been put under a microscope so cleverly or, in this case, so imaginatively. But, in the end, it remains dreamlike, a leisurely (but rigorously edited) road trip through history in black and white, embraced by Alex Somers’ music and John Somers’ sound. Definitely to be savored. 


https://vimeo.com/180648695

Paulina (Dir: Santiago Mitre) Spectacle Theatre
The question should be how did a film whose many awards include the Grand Prize and FIPRESCI at Cannes find its way to the Spectacle Theatre in Brooklyn? Spectacle is “a volunteer-run microcinema, screening rare and under-appreciated films seven days a week. It is also a spot for radical polemics, in-house edits, live scores, original posters, and filmmaker appearances. We are an ex-bodega of enchantment, a semi-social society, an anti-commercial Atlantis. All screenings are $5 unless otherwise listed.“

Although Paulina is based on an earlier film (La Patota – The Gang) it is Dolores Fonzi’s performance
in the title role that dominates a very complicated story and keeps you thinking about its chronology and narrative reversals. The script tackles enormous issues of political and social justice even as it focuses on the moral positions of its principal and supporting players and their changes of heart and mind. One of the lines that connect the dots shows that random events can change lives forever, and that simple misunderstandings can trigger dominoes that will continue to collapse. Without Fonzi’s power to anchor the story, it might scatter, despite Santiago Mitre’s skill and the cast’s agility with shorthand. And many of its theories are revealed in arguments between Fonzi, (a talented judge-in-training), and her father (a respected and influential jurist), who are equally matched and equally stubborn.

The ideas and characters remain in memory, however, after Fonzi is seen resolutely marching down the road toward her destiny, chosen by her own design.

 

 

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Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

Apollo’s Girl

April 4, 2017

Film

 

 

 

The Persistence of Memory…

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck) (National release)
There are films that are very good, and there are films that grab you by the throat and simply refuse to release their grip. I Am Not Your Negro is all of that and more. I saw it weeks ago and admit it remains stubbornly in memory.

It has newly raised the profile of James Baldwin (whose unfinished proposal for a book about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medger Evers the film is based on) and made a grand slam for Raoul Peck, whose string of narrative features and documentaries can be described as past is prologue. Timed to open at the beginning of Black History Month, it is still going strong in national release and is, no matter what’s coming down the pike, an absolute must.

 

Much of its still-riveting archival footage has been seen before, but never has it been so blazingly defined as by Baldwin’s steely nouns and verbs—either in his clips or in voiceovers by Samuel Jackson. Baldwin’s fury still penetrates as he are reminded of our recent history; the assassinations, the National Guard protecting young black students whose only crime was pursuing an education, while white protesters scream and wave signs with swastikas. The ugliness that is part of our heritage drove Baldwin to France, where he never missed American culture, his family, his society. But it was the perfect writer’s room for him to think up and think through his projects.

Peck’s skill and dedication have made I Am Not Your Negro feel like the film that Baldwin himself might have made. It is white hot and searing and cuts deep; not only as a notable addition to the best examples of race-centered cinema, but as an axis on which that cinema will continue to spin for a very long time. And judging from the tenacity of racial bias in the United States (read: current Voter Registration laws), it demands and deserves immortality. (Currently at Film Forum, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and Drafthouse Cinema.)

Kedi (Dir.: Ceyda Torun) (National release)

This lovely essay on the cats of Istanbul is another keeper, but for entirely different reasons. An overflowing oasis of calm and kindness, it pays tribute to the survival of an ancient race (cats) and their effect on the people they thrive among. These are street cats, most of whom live near the city’s waterfront, where fishmongers, grocers, and cafe owners are grateful for both their vermin-snuffing skills and the affection they offer most of the time. And, of course, the cats know a good thing when they have it; the handouts are generous, providing a rich and varied diet bursting with animal protein. Whatever their names and colors, these cats have made relationships with their benefactors, who relish the cuddling, scratching, and playful ways of their charges as they make their daily rounds throughout the market quarter like so many furry therapists, without prejudice.

 

Two strands run throughout Kedi: surprisingly, most of the cat enthusiasts are men. And it becomes clear that the market quarter is part of Old Istanbul. Changes are coming that will soon gentrify the area into yet another neighborhood of high-rises (a bulldozer resting in the background is visible at lunchtime)–there will be no space for the men, the cats, or the therapy.

Kedi makes a strong case for reflection and the kind of low-key filmmaking that is as endangered as the urban history it caresses. Whether or not you love cats, you will love the pulsing life of the market and the glory of the Bosphorus that DPs Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann make shine. And—trust me on this—you are likely to really fall for the cuddly cast once you realize how very special they are and what you’ve been missing. 

Closet Monster (Dir.: Stephen Dunn) (Amazon Video)

Dunn’s first feature (after nine shorts and toiling at every production role known to indie film) is a strikingly original gay coming-of-age film that just won’t go away. You’ve viewed many of its elements before (except perhaps the hero’s pet hamster, voiced by Isabella Rosselini, and a tree house that you’d love to live in). But you haven’t seen them as Stephen Dunn puts them together in his very own order, nor in his native locations. Nor as acted out by Connor Jessup, Dunn’s fictional alter ego.

Unlike most Canadian films, Closet Monster breaks the Vancouver/Toronto/Montreal nexus and celebrates the rocky glories of Newfoundland. The ways in which they have shaped Dunn’s own character can only be guessed at, but they were his choice for the film’s setting and they pique your interest from the first scene. What remains after you’ve seen it (for me, six months ago, and I find myself still pondering its amazing package) is the wit, the sorrow, the jumping-off-a-cliff flirtations with disaster, and yet the abiding sweetness and emotional generosity that color Dunn’s work.  He’s someone you’d like to know, whose work you want to follow. Can anybody tell me what he’s got up his sleeve next time around? I’d like to be there when it opens.

 



 

January 30, 2017

Film

Apollos’ Girl

apollo-and-lyreNeighboring Scenes: New Latin-American Cinema
(Film Society of Lincoln Center)

For this year’s lineup see http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/neighboring-scenes/#films and get there as fast as you can; there’s lots to see, and closing night is January 31, with A Decent Woman. This is director Lukas Rimmer’s sophomore feature, following his earlier Parabellum. (NDNF, 2015; https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/tag/dystopian-futures/) Rinner is Austrian (and likely familiar with Michael Haneke’s work), but went to film school in Argentina and stayed on.

decentwoman_06Having admired Parabellum, I have been looking forward to his next steps. A Decent Woman is in color and its cast and budget are larger, though its intricate plot and thematic underpinnings are also on the dark side (with some wonderfully bawdy laughs for seasoning throughout). Rinner is definitely someone to watch, with casting, camera and story skills, and a unique Austro-Hungarian/Latin-American view of the world.

Coming soon: Dance on Camera (February 3 – 7). Stay tuned!

* * * * * * * * * *

Theatre: Discovery!

Mel snapshot 19Cooper’s London

An Algo-rhythmic Beating Heart…

Sometimes you go to the theatre and are astonished at finding your faith restored in the efficacy, value and excitement of live performance, right? You come out thinking that a play can illuminate, entertain and get all your juices flowing.

This just happened close to home―in Oxford―at the Burton-Taylor Theatre, for which superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton generously gave the funds to create an experimental space for the burton-taylor-theatreUniversity’s theatre. The occasion that gave me such pleasure that I have to share it with you was a one-woman show written and performed by an astonishingly talented young woman named Jenny Lee. I write about it here because I hope that someone in New York or Chicago or LA or Toronto will bring her performance to BAM or to a suitable off-Broadway venue or an intimate theatre space in the USA or Canada. With the new US President threatening to gut the Endowment for the Arts, this is probably just the kind of theatre that will be hit the hardest. If would be a dreadful thing; it’s a small, intimate and powerful work that feeds and sets goals for more commercial venues. So if someone does fund a transfer of Heartbeats and Algorithms, as the show it called, and if you should have any chance to see its creator and star, I recommend that you drop everything and go.

heartbeats-leaderHeartbeats and Algorithms got its start and won much praise at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2015 and recently has been successfully playing around the UK, including at the small and increasingly appreciated Camden Theatre in London. I saw it there and liked it a lot about a year ago but a second viewing has deepened and improved it. It compels both as a highly theatrical piece of thought-provoking writing even as it focuses on modern-day marketing, mind manipulation and the uses and abuses of contemporary technology through the character that Jenny Lee has created. The i-Phone is its icon. The text is clever and intricate and Lee gives a memorable performance.

The narrator, who engages with her audience and even makes some of us become part of her on-line network, never step out of character. In fact, she inhabits the soul of this contemporary woman—a woman who has invented an algorithm that can predict one’s actions with amazing accuracy. Having made herself the subject of her own algorithm to test out its percentage of correct predictions, the character (known as Banks to her on-line friends and ultimately to us by her actual name, Lucy) is trapped in the dilemma of knowing that the artificial algoryhthmic Big Brother she has created is watching everything about her. Its predictions are alarmingly correct even when she is doing totally uncharacteristic things to try to fool it. Part of the tension of the piece comes from her trying to outwit her creation and cheat on its predictions about her, and trying to win back her freedom and independence of mind and action. But the algorithm always gets there first. Mary Shelley’s theme about the arrogance of scientists and the unpredictable damage they can unleash is certainly echoed strongly in this play. The algorithm is the Frankenstein Monster that Banks/Lucy has ceated and unleashed.

The writing of Banks’s monologue is extremely assured and builds impressively to its tense climax over about 75 non-stop minutes. It is also surprisingly dramatic. Some people have disliked the denouement, but I personally found it both apt and hopeful (who doesn’t need hope these days?) and not entirely predictable. Indeed, the actual ending came as a relief compared to some that I had imagined as the play progressed. Which is also to say that the play builds a very strong sense of suspense for the audience.

While portraying modern technology as the instigator of a potentially heartbeats-2Orwellian world if we are not careful, the play also embeds a get-out clause that should have you debating about it for days after you’ve seen it. I appeal to some adventurous producer in New York to bring this one-woman show over. It will be cheap. But I would import the entire team, with director, lighting, sound and set designers as well. They are a collaborative unit, with all making important contributions to the overall effect.

Lee’s acting is riveting from start to finish, beautifully judged and completely controlled. She has an almost Chaplin-esque command of her gestures and body language, and she can do as much with the raising of her right eyebrow as Charlie Chaplin did with his cane and his jaunty walk away from the camera. Credit for this evening must be shared with director Velantina Ceschi, sound designer Iain Armstrong and lighting designer Alex Fernandes. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that this is very much Lee’s concept and her show. She is a very attractive woman, an excellent actress, a superb mime, and creates and portrays a very troubled but ultimately appealing and memorable character.

Lee also engages the audience to participate in her world not just mentally but, at times, with spontaneous contributions to the action as well. The intensity of her acting and the variety of the moods that she evokes in about 75 minutes made me wish I could see her as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or Ibsen’s heroine in Hedda Gabler or some other classic role. She certainly has the presence of a strong, intelligent classic actress. Someone should audition her for Shakespeare in the Park or Stratford, Ontario?

I am happy to report that the theatre was totally sold out, and that the audience was completely hooked from line one to the last drop of text. And, of course, Lee got the ovation she so richly deserved.

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (https://ff.hrw.org/)


hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..

 


Apollo’s Girl

April 24, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

What’s New and Different:
FSLC and MoMA

There was plenty to chew on and savor this year, downloadplenty to think about, and a sense that filmdespite the trail of tears of financing and distributionis alive and well in a number of places. In Iran, for instance, Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari) is a curious and affecting combination of war story, ghost story, and the plight of women in a crumbling society. More effective, and far under the shadowmore unsettling, than a conventional anti-war narrative,
Anvari manages to combine several themes into a cohesive and original political statement for his narrative feature debut. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/ndnf-interview-babak-anvari/

bodyguardTwo shorts were exceptional, compressing volumes into the cinematic equivalent of a highly distilled brandy: Concerning the Bodygyard (Kasra Farahani, from a story by Donald Barthelme) for which Salman Rushdie provides the film’s narration, and Farahani’s elegant, reductive sensibilities provide the sting.

In The Digger (Ali Cherri), Sultan Khan, the lone caretaker of crumbling grave sites makes his rounds, dedicated to protecting what remains of the desert’s ancient civilizations. The The-Digger-2camera records a vast, quiet emptiness in which Khan’s tiny figure is almost lost, plodding through endless sand dunes under a merciless sun; the brick structures are disintegrating and their graves have been emptied. The film’s silence makes space for the viewer to imagine the story of what once was; what is is imposed by a slow reveal of Sharjah’s enormous oil refineries shimmering in the distance. In the right hands (and Cheri’s are), the truth is shattering.

happy hourAt the other end of the clock, there’s Happy Hour (Ryusûke Hamaguchi). The movie begins with a train carrying four friends to an outing, moving through a tunnel into the light; you know you are going on a ride. But if you expect to be restless at the leisurely pace and length (317 minutes) of Happy Hour, think again. You are much more likely to be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in at first, then hypnotized by the way Hamaguchi weaves his tale of 30-somethings living and maturing in Kobe. Many of the scenes are shot in real time, with the four women, their relatives and significant others reacting to one another, sharing their adventures and coping with the social pressures of modern Japan. It’s storytelling by accretion, as layers of acutely observed behavior accumulate to pay off over time. You learn as you go, and the more you learn in each scene, the more you understand in the next, or one half-an-hour down the line. Infidelity? Jealousy? Sisterhood? Risky behavior? The weight of the past in the present? They’re all here, and more, to keep you entranced as Hamaguchi’s complicated structure rises on the screen. If the devil is in the details, it is Hamaguchi’s ability to see them, and to use them to reveal the humanity of his flawed but ultimately fascinating women. (The four shared the award for Best Actress at the Locarno Festival.)

Thithi (Raam Reddy) Nothing like the polite Anglo exercises of Merchant/Ivory, or the streamlined homecomings of Mira Nair, and definitely not like the Bollywood of many Indian thithi2
filmmakers now making deep inroads into Western cinema, Thithi is totally immersive, yanking you into the village culture of South India with its unfamiliar sights and sounds. For two hours you are inside a saga that begins with the death of a centenarian (who simply collapses on the street where he spends most of his days), continues through the generational family agendas that emergealways at oddsimmediately after, continues to unfold through an exotic shaggy dog story, and ends with a funeral to end all funerals. There are some choice quotes: “I’ll pass his life through a strainer,” and “This is a place where dogs lay eggs”, and some joyously discordant music. The cast stays in constant motion, traveling barefoot, by moped and by tractor. All in all, it’s quite a trip.

the fits2The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) After NDNF’s Grand Tour The Fits comes home to Cincinnati for the coming-of-age story of a young Black girl struggling to find out where, and how, she fits in with her friends and family. She helps her older brother out with chores at the gym where he works, sees lots, says little, and misses nothing. She boxes occasionally, and joins a dance drill team preparing for a competition. An epidemic of “fits” runs through the dancers and teachers, unexplained. So the script is occasionally puzzling, sometimes extended with a rich score, or slow-motion for emphasis. But what carries the entire story is the haunting presence of its young star, Royalty Hightower, whose melancholy eyes and quiet presence capture both your imagination and your attention. Watch for her…

evolutionEvolution is an example of what feels like a brand-new sub-genre of science-fiction: an indirect story. An elegant, truly original idea (in this case, a reversal of the reproductive process) Evolution incorporates eerie cinematography and lighting, the mysterious power of the seashore and the sea, a series of clone-like young mothers, and their clone-like young sons. There is a hint of Frankenstein and some curious medical procedures. A mythic sensibility pervades the strange plot which, because it’s so beautifully told and so tantalizingly revealed, draws you into a guessing game that no one fully wins. But the journey is fascinating.

A little bit a documentary of the Italian countryside, a lot a lost and beautifulreference to the eternal traditions of commedia, dell’arte, Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello) mixes things up in cunning ways. It beings with the story of a “real” caretaker who dedicates himself to preserving the ruins of a noble palace. He is loved and respected for his selflessness, but as he lies dying, he convinces the filmmaker to find a Pulcinella to rescue a buffalo calf. Thus begins a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pulcinella and calf make their way to their destiny. The tone is set with the calf’s voiceover statement: “I would have liked to have been born on the moon; nothing could be worse than where I live now…this is my story.” Or: “I’m proud to be a buffalo; in a world without a heart, being a buffalo is an art.” Magical realism prevails; the calf finds a new home and, finally, the castle is beautifully restored for all to see. Dedicated to its real-life caretaker, the film is (like many others in this year’s festival)a quirky and original entry.

Kaili Blues (Gan Bi). Another original marvel, and something kaili bluesof a Chinese shaggy dog story, resonant with texture and imagination. In other words, a non-linear narrative that often drops its clues and references entire sequences away from their payoff. Although set in contemporary China, its characters are shaped by the country’s ancient and recent history, which surfaces in intriguing and often unexpected ways. A doctor sees his brother (a bit of a no-goodnick) who is interested in selling his son, Wei Wei. The doctor wants to adopt Wei Wei, but appears too late. He sets out on an odyssey to find him in the country, full of beautiful mountains and rivers, and odd shabby little towns, and encounters villagers, mysterious women, and finally, a band of archaic people marching to a funeral, playing their instruments, whom he’s been seeking for many years. When he finds Wei Wei at last, he finds a grown man who doesn’t recognize him. But creating a synopsis of Kaili Blues is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Its fractured timeline, the density of its references to Chinese culture, the wow factor of its spectacular 40-minute tracking shot and the depth, richness and sharp-eyed skill of its director require multiple viewings.

mountainTwo films from Israel (one co-produced with Denmark) focus on the difficulties of living under the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly on the effects of its rigid attitudes toward sex and emotional expression. The first, Mountain (Yaelle Kayam), is a story (based on the Talmud) like no other I’ve seen. Living next to a cemetary on the Mount of Olives with her children and her indifferent husband, Zvia (Shani Klein)is deeply lonely and isolated; her only acquaintance an Arab man who looks after the cemetary, with whom she occasionally chats. At night, she gradually forges a relationship with the prostitutes and pimps who work the area, bringing them food and drink as she looks on. She feels the stirrings of curiosity and more, yet is frozen into the role she must play as Orthodox wife and mother.

tikkunIn Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), the volatile moods and desperation of a Rabbinical student (Aharon Traitel) are evident when he faints at the sight of his own blood after sharpening a pencil. The film’s black-and-white cinematography underscores the growing intensity of its story. There is little dialogue, but what there is leaves no room for ambivalence: the father (given to heavy-handed determinism) tells his anguished son, “God gave us our bodies; you have to worship God through your body.” The son replies, “I hate my body!” For the son in Tikkun and the wife in Mountain, God has no pity, and offers the pain of stifled lives with no respite. Although Tikkun has a streak of mysticism that provides great beauty, it is no match for its sorrow.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) Described as “ a hybrid of classic documentary techniques and reality-based dramatic storytelling,” Weiner is, more accurately, a Very Big Deal and a Very Big Story recent enough to be conjured up by many outrageous moments throughout the film, and by an opening quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he almost never recovers.” For the reference to McLuhan, I leave readers to Google the name in question. But for the film? It’s fast and furious, and often full of double takes, emotions whisked under the rug in front of the camera’s harsh eye, and details increasingly painful to behold. Well-made and clever, of course, weinerbut the unavoidable question looming at the end of the film’s 100 minutes is: why on earth did ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides and her former Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department) agree to have their overflowing hamper of linen washed in public? Perhaps it seemed to them that it would be useful for their future in politics; perhaps the savvy producers simply talked them into it. But given the couple’s considerable experience and sophistication in the political arena, that seems unlikely. While we are often given more information than we might want, it does not include an answer to the question, nor a happy ending. It is, however, very entertaining, and lures us in with a surfeit of the very techniques that keep us wringing our hands over the tenor of our festering political climate.



Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.

Cooper’s London

December 14, 2014

Art

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Anselm Kiefer: The Sword
in the Stone

For those who love art, who love politics, history, and genius, the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It ran for less than three months, drawing huge crowds and a great deal of attention. If only it could have been a permanent installation! I was able to go only at the end, knowing as soon as I submarinesentered the RA’s normally staid 17th-century courtyardto be confronted by a fleet of dented German submarines that had been rusting since World War Two—that this was going to be a life-changing experience. It was also clear that none of the images of Kiefer’s work that I’d seen could begin to prepare me for what filled almost the entire building…the work itself.

I had heard of his iconoclasm; of the kiefer 2confrontation with the Nazi and collaborationist guilt of WWII (beginning in the 1960s when no one in Germany would talk about it); and about his idiosyncratic ways of structuring his startling photos (building on them with layers and layers of paint and other materials) and installations (found objects, broken metal, wood, cement). No matter what I’d heard or seen reproduced small, I had not expected the constructions to speak to me with such immediacy, energy and utter power.

But above all, no one had prepared me for the amazing textures that surrounded me; the astounding technical audacity, the corrosive wit of what he had  painted and sculpted and hewn; or the sheer size of what he had made (with Kiefer, size matters). Or how masterfully The Royal Academy displayed all of it. Kiefer is as provocative, shocking and moving as reported. His works have multi-layered impact, and are appalling and moving simultaneously. He is quintessentially modern, and yet somehow classic, a Michaelangelo of shattered concrete, of vertiginous suggestions of ruin, and historic guilt imagery.These works embody what W. B, Yeats meant when he talked about “monuments to unaging intellect.”

kiefer 3

 

One of the images that haunts me the orders of the nightthe most is The Orders of the Night (1996), a huge canvas with a tactility that is astonishing and bold. Like many of his works, it’s an image that works on its own but also can evoke all the terrors and insanities of the 20th century, especially of World War II and what has followed since. It stands for all destructive and horrifying impulses that mankind is still overwhelmed by; and yet it also, somehow, excites and redeems because of the direct, staring confrontation with it all.

Anselm Kiefer retrospective - LondonKiefer’s latest works – referential of Van Gogh and his cornfields – are images just as mad and marvellous as the early works that made him famous. Ash Flower, roughly 12 feet tall by 21 feet wide, has ash scattered over its entire surface; it creates a kind of veil over the image of a building, a neoclassical construction reminiscent of the insane and grandiose architecture that Hitler loved to build for his new empire. At the bottom of the painting there is a layer of cracked earth that is actually crumbling; and from top to bottom, a single, huge, dried sunflower. Like the best metaphors, like the greatest art, it is impossible to define what it means exactly, though that meaning is terribly clear at the gut level. You have to stand in front of it, you have to see it, you have to experience it to “get” it. What was almost as overwhelming as the exhibition itself was seeing how excited, enthusiastic, and deeply affected everyone was—and what a great mix of ages they represented. Perhaps some may hate some of the works (or be frightened by what they express), or be put off by some of the philosophy that is difficult to acknowledge. But you don’t need to “understand” everything. This is viscerally engaging imagery that speaks a language of its own, best absorbed by simply experiencing it.

If far from conventionally attractive, these works are of seminal importance to art today and you need to be aware of them, to think about them. Without question, they can only be experienced properly in person. The photos and films are souvenirs, memory joggers; but are no substitute for a one-on-one confrontation.

la ribauteThe RA has done a real service with this monumental retrospective in which the development of a life’s unusual work (so far) can be grasped, reflected upon and experienced in a suitable setting. It also inspired me to visit Kiefer’s extraordinary factory/studio in Barjac, France.

kiefer 5

But above all it showed me that so much energy, raw intellect and emotion, even when producing fragmented images in unexpected materials, creates its own kind of intense and emotionally charged beauty.

The British critic, Jonathan Jones, reviewing this exhibition wrote in London’s Guardian newspaper:

“This exhibition is an exhilarating roller coaster ride of beauty and horror, deeply exciting and enriching – yet, at its heart is a knowledge of history that puts all those pleasures in question. At some level, Kiefer, who began by equating … the German romantic art of Caspar David Friedrich that he loves kiefer saluteand the evil of Nazism – wonders if he even has the right to make art.”

The most frustrating aspect of this extraordinary experience is that the show is not travelling. So you will have to buy the catalogue, or make do with the occasional Kiefer gallery show.

Philosopher, historian, iconoclast, observer of human frailty and human heroism: whatever you have heard or thought about the artist in the past, this show confirms that he is indubitably a giant of contemporary culture and art. And yes, seeing what he has made will change your life.

 


Apollo’s Girl

December 10, 2014

Music

apollo and lyre

 

Come to the Cabaret…

Sing for Your Supper at HENRY’s
with NYFOS After Hours

The first time I went to HENRY’s was to join friends for dinner and stay on for the evening’s celebrationSing for Your Supper (A Crystal Anniversary Cabaret). What a night it was! The show opened with (what else?) “Sing for Your Supper,” skipped to an original take on “I’m Not Getting Married Today” (by the same tenor who had been an ardent, brilliant Lenski in Juilliard’s Eugene Onegin), and included a heartbreaking “Maria” from West Side Story, from another tenor (now at the Met, but also once a cameraman for Doctor Phil). Song after song, the evening made the spirits soar. When the cheers were over, we floated home, remaining aloft for several days.

henry's exteriorHENRY’s, you see, is all about heat and light. Bright red window frames entice you across Broadway toward the glow of outside sconces beneath awnings. Crossing the street, you’ll spot branches of tiny lights on a picket fence; more clues to what lies within. When you enter, arts and crafts chandeliers diffuse warmth from 15-foot ceilings; the room is generous, with big tables close enough for buzz but far enough for conversation. A forgotten art? Not in this neighborhood—packed with locals from uptown’s university row and media worker bees. They will come to eat, drink, meet one another and, on this particular night (December 15), be very, very merry.

Why is this night different from all other nights?steve at piano
It’s the restaurant’s fifth annual
A Goyische Christmas to You, part of NYFOS After Hours, the brainchild and one offspring of a partnership between Henry Rinehart and Steve Blier. And how did that come to be?
Because, in the Upper West Side’s mantra, real estate is destiny.                            

About 15 years ago, Blier, a fabled, hyper-busy musician, writer, coach, accompanist, entrepreneur, polymath and all-around wit with no time to cook at the end of the day, was desperate for dinner. And there, across the street from his apartment, HENRY’s beckoned. Blier simply followed his nose. For
henry reinhartHENRY’s had good attitude, good food, and plenty of it. And it had Henry himself: restaurateur, actor, art connoisseur and showman. The rest is history.

HENRY’s became Blier’s de facto dining room, and Henry got a piano for Steve to play. Over time, the two cooked up a plan: a free-form cabaret series, called Sing for Your Supper, where the up-and-coming singers Steve knew could entertain after hours in a unique neighborhood boite, be embraced in a knowing group hug, and be fed well in the bargain. It was all about the atmospherebeing able to relax on the one hand, and being appreciated on the other. The crowd makes it work: there are communal tables to encourage friendly interactions 101206_Henrys_314 copythat will prosper, and fans of Blier’s many other activities, most of them closely related to NYFOS (New York Festival of Song), the umbrella organization he and Michael Barrett founded in 1988. Since then, NYFOS has grown from a modest musical trial balloon with legs into a helium-powered gondola headed right into space.

NYFOS’ agenda is as inclusive as the enthusiasts who pack its concerts in New York, Boston, Caramoor, the North Fork and a long roster of A-list venues. They relish Blier’s philosophy of everything “… from Debussy to doo-wop, lieder to latin jazz, Josquin to just-written.” The shows are unified by a theme and constructed with a dramatic arc; superb vocal artists bring the songs to vivid life, with the directors as accompanists and animated narrators. NYFOS cabaret at Henry'sBut what makes them go, in the end, is Blier’s wicked humor and encyclopedic grasp of music, his love of sharing them, and the infinity of tunes in his head and fingers. They make his special brand of magic and guarantee that no matter how much you knew about the evening’s choices when you arrive, you will know more by the time you (reluctantly) drag yourself away from the party. And you will feel like part of it from the first note to the last.

Now back to NYFOS After Hours: For those of you with 101206_Henrys_234a good calender app, it may inform you that A Goysiche Christmas to You takes place on December 15, the night before Chanukah. And why not? It is, after all, the Feast of Light, and the occasion generates a lot of it for an ecumenical bunch. You will be happy with what you see and hear. But reservations are essential! http://www.henrysnyc.com/
And there more to look forward to: a season’s worth of concerts, some new NYFOS After Hours cabarets at HENRY’s, and CDs to keep you on the wavelength in the meantime. http://www.nyfos.org/events.html

What will you take away from the experience? Just have a look at the evening news on any channel…then go through Henry’s red door and join the group for the kind of community that most of us only dream about but can actually find inside, around the piano, watching Steve Blier after hourscast his spell. Hang out for a while after the show, talk to your fellow-celebrants and meet the artists. Then, holding tight to your metaphorical balloons, float out into the night. If you’re lucky, it will get you through the news for the rest of the week. Or maybe just give the news a rest and enjoy the memories. You can always come back for lunch, brunch, dinner and drinks at HENRY’s while you’re waiting for the next show.

Cooper’s London

March 9, 2014

Theatre, Music

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Oh, What a Loverly War!

Recently Michael Gove, the Ministeruntitled for Education in England’s coalition government, lambasted and insulted history teachers and the BBC for misrepresenting World War I and the heroism of its soldiers and leaders, and for using the TV show Blackadder and the musical play Oh, What a Lovely War! as teaching aids when talking about the history of World War I. What Mr. Gove proves is that the head of education of the UK has no idea of the difference between history and satire in the first instance; and in the second, that he has no idea about genuine popular art.

For the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and the 50th of Joan Littlewood’s creative musical entertainment, the adventurous Theatre Royal Stratford East in London has put on oh what a lovelya new production of the show, sticking to the original script and music as put together by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles, Charles Chilton and all the members of the original cast. Murray Melvin, who was also in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, is now working as the archivist and historian in residence at the TRSE, and he confirms what I felt when I saw this showthat everything in it comes from meticulous research into the period. Everything on that stage happened;every song was sung in the context in which it is presented, and all the statistics displayed are accurate. Far oh what a lovely 4from denigrating the soldiers or their heroism, (though it has some questions about the “donkeys” who led the war and imposed the strategies), Oh, What a Lovely War shows a huge amount of heroism among the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, and also displays the early war fever and the growing weariness with the war with accuracy. In fact, I would argue that Oh What a Lovely War is one of the best ways to introduce the topic to schoolchildren or anyone else and to get them interested in this bit of history.

posterThe show is a presented as a review, a vaudeville, a musical hall production; it’s truly Brechtian; it’s Theatre of Alienation. Its techniques are eclectic and its impact is dazzling. It works on several levels at the same time; and this production is true to its original intention. (The film that was made of it is not bad, but it is, I feel, far more sentimentalized.) It’s also a tough and touching experience for the audience.

Full credit to the strong, ensemble cast and the way they work together. Everyone stands out at one moment or another, and then blends seamlessly back into the company, so it would be invidious to mention any one turn. Full marks also to Terry Johnson for his direction, Lez Brotherston for his design, Mike Dixon for his musical supervision; to all in the band, and yes, to every single actor. This is one of the most seriously exciting pieces of theatre on in London at the momentjust as sheer theatreand it’s a real history lesson at the same time.

Michael Gove couldn’t be more wrong or misguided. Maybe he’s just misinformed by his friends? But now he has a chance to learn a thing or two; the show is right there for him to see. And I wouldn’t be theatre royalsurprised if it transfers to the West End (as it did in 1964)! Meantime, it’s playing at the TRSEwhose cozy Victorian intimacy is a perfect foil for the material—until 15 March. Don’t miss it!

Book tickets at: http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on

Yes, Yes to Iestyn, and a Cheer for Christopher!

After hearing about the success of Philipp Jaroussky’s recent Metropolitan Museum concert , instead of patting myself on the back and revelling in the joy of saying “I told you so,” I’d prefer to nobly daviessuggest you watch out for an opportunity to hear another counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. Too many counter tenors? Never mind! It’s a golden age for them, so keep your ears open and note that name!

Last night I was able to get to the new production at the English National Opera in London of Handel’s Rodelinda, and though everyone in the cast was very fine especially Rebecca Evans of evansthe clean and golden vocal chords in the title role the standout of the evening was hearing live (for the first time) Iestyn Davies in the role of Bertarido, a deposed king trying to regain wife, life and crown. He’s attractive, he can act convincingly even in a preposterous baroque opera, he has a strong stage personality; and above all he’s able to make some of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard in the counter-tenor range. His soft singing was ravishing; the control over his dynamics and phrasing was sublime.

But there’s more! The other counter-tenor rsz_christopher_ainsliecredit_sarah_nankin(new to me), South-African Christopher Ainslie, was just as captivating and convincing in the role of Unulfo, the ultimate loyal servant. Both men understood the arbitrary, cartoonish quality of the libretto and found a balance between real emotional display and tongues firmly in cheek. Both sang with ease of expression and modulation, with dramatic intensity and with strikingly lovely timbre, as well as total commitment to their roles Rodelinda-Christopher-Ainslie-Iestyn-Davies-c-Clive-Barda-620x376and to Handel. I have some quibbles with the new production by Richard Jones, but the hell with thatit works, and it’s a musical treat for anyone with the slightest interest in Handel. Conductor Christian Cumyn is another talent to watch out for.

Christopher Ainslie has more work coming up at the English National Opera soon, and a Wigmore Hall Recital. Davis will be singing at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House this summer. He’s also the recipient of the 2013 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent (Singer).


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