Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Cogito: John Branch

May 21, 2013


JB photo-painting by RC 2



Chaos to Couture
at the Costume Institute

In January 1978, the Sex Pistols came to Dallas, Texas (my home), and played a concert in an eclectic, edge-of-downtown, barnlike sex pistolsvenue called the Longhorn Ballroom. According to a trusted acquaintance who was there (Jeffrey Liles, who’s still involved in music and nightclubs all these many years later), maybe as many as a thousand people were present, but that was less than half the capacity of the place. Oddly, the number seemed to grow as time passed. In the early 80s, the Pistols’ show began to acquire the patina of legend, and more and more people claimed to have seen it.

As I headed into the Metropolitan Museum’s Punk: Chaos to Couture show, I half expected to find that fashion had glommed on to Punk in the same after-the-fact manner. Au imagesCA9I5GU1contraire: the show reminded me that packaging had always been involved with Punk, in a couple of ways. First, the look was part of the message. Defiant slogans and gestures, spiked hair, graffiti-like splashes of color, ripped or degraded fabric sometimes held together with safety pins, collars and other objects borrowed from bondage wear, outfits decorated with or even built from garbage bags: this was Punk to many people. The look was a marker of group identity, a rejection of other youth-culture styles such as the Hippie look and the glitter of Disco (fashion writer Amy Fine Collins pointed this out to me in an email), an expression of feeling damaged or cast off, a flip of the finger to the social order and the ruling class.

Second, especially in England, marketing and design played a role in Punk from the start. Two figures dominate this part of the story. mclaren and westwoodMalcolm McLaren, a musician, producer, impresario, and all-around spirit of the age, who was regarded as a hustler by some and a genius by others, influenced almost every aspect of the Sex Pistols; as the band’s manager, he booked it on that American tour in 1978, which ended with the band’s breakup in San Francisco. McLaren had earlier joined forces with designer Vivienne Westwood; the two of them pretty much created the look of British Punk and sold it through a London shop on King’s Road.

The Met’s Costume Institute show, which was curated by Andrew Bolton, displays many of Westwood and McLaren’s creations, but seeing them all on mannequins leaves the Punk period (roughly 1974–79) feeling less than fully fleshed out. Photos supplied to the press do it better, just by capturing Punk styles on people such as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Richard Hell of Television and other bands, and Gary Wilson, a musician and performance artist who used dry-cleaning bags in his look. (You can see these, paired with modern versions on models, here.)

Considering the title’s reference to chaos, this exhibition might also seem to be lacking in grime, disorder, and vomit. Critic Suzy Menkes complained (in an IHT review here) that the Punk background it presents is “sanitized and bloodless.” It’s odorless too, and as James Wolcott recently reminded Vanity Fair readers (see article), CBGB was a decidedly odoriferous place. But I’m unsure how much we’d like to be reminded of any of that.

CI punk show, May 2013: Zandra Rhodes & her dressesWhat do we have of Punk’s origins? There are many rebellious T-shirts by Westwood and McLaren and a few of their ensembles using bondage pants, furry sweaters, and the like. Also on display are a couple of 1977 Zandra Rhodes dresses that strike a lovely balance between distress and composure; Rhodes stationed herself in front of them for interviews during the press preview. Punk’s original habitats are evoked by two physical spaces that recall the Metropolitan’s other period rooms: a recreation of the CBGB bathroom from 1975 (sans odor), and a duplication of Westwood and McLaren’s boutique on King’s Road. The CBGB urinals remind others of Marcel Duchamp; I thought the scene needed a note reading “This is not a bathroom” (à la René Magritte). Rounding out the source material are video excerpts from various period films, including footage from that Sex Pistols show in Dallas, running on screens placed throughout the exhibition. But all the video is silent—the music we hear comes from other sources—and has a hard-to-read, throwaway feel. (Presumably the figures shown, and the rationale for which gallery they appear in, are more recognizable to others than they were to me.) In the DIY: Bricolage room, one of the large video screens worked better as a garish light source than as anything to ponder.

Where the curator has harvested a real bounty is in the recent borrowings from Punk. Spread through the galleries are dozens of pieces, both ready-to-wear and haute couture, for men and women. Knowledgeable commentary on these works is easy to find elsewhere. I’ll just say that it’s surprising how many design responses can be traced to the short-lived outburst that was Punk.

CI punk show May 2013: Fashions in the bricolage roomThere’s an energizing tension between the look and the feel of the show. The gallery layouts are symmetrical, classical (some use Roman-style niches), elegant, composed… almost serenely seductive. But when a crowd is on hand, the music is pumping, and ever-changing light dances from the videos, the show can feel like a nightclub—which, in case you don’t know me, I mean as a good thing. The experience is a fantastical one, in which you the viewer mingle, on entirely comfortable terms, with the chicest of the chic, who remain on their platforms like Patience on a monument.

Indulging the club feel will be a mistake if you fail to balance it with careful observation. I know I missed things in my larking CI punk show May 2013: Bullet-wound shirtabout. The gunshot-wound shirt by Hedi Slimane is eye-catching; less so is the intricate detail work in a mohair knit-and-crochet ensemble from Rodarte and the delicate beauty of Ann CI punk show May 2013: Ann Demeulemeester dressDemeulemeester’s “quotation dress” (my term), embroidered with Patti Smith text. The parting nod to Punk’s defiance is obvious too; more obscure is just where one could wear this mannequin’s barely-there evening dress, from Maison Martin Margiela.

The show concludes with a fine irony: the “no future” declaration, which originated in a Sex Pistols song, now marches proudly across the wall of the last gallery, negating itself by its very CI punk show May 2013: Maison Martin Margiela evening dresspresence. Punks either died or moved on, but their style had a futureit’s here.

Through August 14, 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum:

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Cogito: John Branch

October 8, 2012



Einstein: Beached at BAM

In the 70s and 80s, Einstein on the Beach left people feeling they were on a hypnotic drug, but by the end of its current reincarnation, it left me wanting to do drugs.

Einstein on the Beach might be called an instance of total theater (if you separate that term from the particular use to which Richard Foreman has applied it) or of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. It employs text, music, and theater arts, giving equal weight to all of them: minimalist music by Philip Glass, direction and design by Robert Wilson, and minimalist choreography by Lucinda Childs. (All of them worked on the present staging, which is apparently a pretty close recreation of the original; it began a world tour in March that will run into next spring.) The playbill is cagey on the origin of its words, crediting Glass with “music/lyrics” on the first page while later attributing the text to Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, and Christopher Knowles and assigning copyright for the libretto to Robert Wilson. Wherever they came from, it does have words in the form of speeches and stories; there’s also a fair amount of the vocalise style that Glass often uses. First performed in 1976, Einstein on the Beach returns now and then to bedazzle or bedevil us, most recently at BAM in September.

The opera evokes elements of Albert Einstein’s life and work. A figure resembling him plays violin and sticks his tongue out. Glass-walled elevators relate to Einstein’s thought experiment regarding a beam of light passing through a moving elevator; one elevator appears to us to be horizontal, including its occupant, and the other appears to be vertical, which relates to Einstein’s dethroning of privileged points in space. (Only in a gravity field or in relation to a given point can one say anything is up, down, or horizontal.) Clocks and watches remind us that there is no absolute measure of time either. Much of the stage movement is slowed down—maybe another suggestion that time and motion are relative.As if it might otherwise be forgotten, which I doubt, the production also reminds us of Einstein’s connection with nuclear weapons. Valiantly upholding the “beach” end of the deal, a single conch shell now and then stands, or rather sits forlornly, on the stage.

But something about this piece of total theater strikes me as totalitarian. It cares little if at all what you think while you watch and listen. The volume level in many sections is high and unvarying. The set sometimes moves around more than the stage performers do. The strange symmetry and stark (often black-and-white) contrasts of the visual elements attract the eye in some fundamental way, as the musical rhythms and repetitions do the ear. Yet it’s easy to ignore because it’s not really about anything. Einstein on the Beach defies reflection, as if trying to one-up Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” essay: interpret this!

It’s easy to see in it certain modernist fascinations: with machines and the mechanical (many of the performers’ movements appear mechanical), with mechanical production or reproduction (all of the sounds, including the human voices, are delivered to us through electro-mechanical means). It achieves a kind of flatness in not representing anything other than itself, and its surfaces and volumes remind us of the discovery of geometry by modernist painters. The whole thing, in fact, resembles some kind of machine of mysterious purpose.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned: the very odd courtroom scene, with its speech about men but not women being equal before the law; the cheap-looking little spaceship that moves on a wire; the lovers-on-a-train scene (which might be vaudevillian fun if it lasted two minutes, but it’s more like 20); the dances (which use some numerical cleverness but aren’t as hypnotic as they used to look, according to my companion); the “space machine” whose back wall reminded me of LED calculator displays; and more. Amid the tedium of its four-hours-plus, there are wonders to some of the stage images.

Einstein on the Beach seems to me an experiment to test the possibility of abstraction in opera. Other representational arts had begun an abstract turn years earlier, so in a way it was high time, even past time, for opera to try. I’d have to be much wiser, and/or bolder, to presume to judge what the experiment showed. But Einstein on the Beach, which once seemed so various, so beautiful, so new, today appears dull, indulgent, and annoying.

Einstein’s twin paradox comes to mind: this opera left and came back to us nearly unaged, but we’re older now. And nowadays there’s never a drug dealer around when you want one.

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Apollo’s Girl

July 23, 2012



Claude Sautet:
The Things of Life

For those who loathe the sound and fury of traditional summer blockbusters, there are some really tasty alternatives at Lincoln Center. The Film Society’s four screens seem to be running day and night with old and new quality films. In fact, it’s tempting to give up your day job and just go from one to the other, trailing tickets, popcorn (high-end and modest price at both the Walter Reade and the Elinor Bunin Munroe) and hopes sure to be fulfilled.

If you’ve forgotten the glory that was French cinema in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, and specifically the glory that was Claude Sautet, there is a week of his best about to unspool from August 1—9. The series is named, with good reason, for the opening night’s film, The Things of Life (1970). It’s two stars, the succulent Romy Schneider and equally succulent Michel Piccoli, transmit an effortless chemistry that centers their story. It’s a pleasure to see these smart, sexy pros at the top of their game. They, and their supporting cast are all about love and loss, but in ways that defy cliches. In other words, they are complex characters who keep us guessing, perfect avatars for Sautet’s script and the structure of the film, which cuts back and forth in time, drawing us with it right to the last frame.

But the best part (and there are many): the sights, tastes, textures of France then; they remind us of why we went there in the first place, and kept going back. The sound of the language; the elegance and style of the people—their posture, the culture itself. The relationship of one generation to another, and the uncanny maturity and politesse of teenagers accustomed to adult conversation and ways. There’s a cocktail party with live chamber music! There are scenes of winding streets with medieval towers, and scenes of crowds staring at an accident—these could only be French streets and French faces!

Well, it’s fine to wax romantic, because The Things of Life is, in fact, a romance. If you don’t get it right away, there’s Philippe Sarde’s lush score to give you clues and the erotic subtext it fits like a glove that gives the film a satisfying richness. But it’s always about emotion, rather than sensation. There’s nostalgia, too: Romy Schneider types her stories on a typewriter, with carbon copies. People make urgent calls from cabines at the post office. And they smoke. All the time (you can almost smell the Gauloises…).

So do yourself a favor. Look through the series’ schedule and faites vos jeux. Among the highlights: appearances by Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and a week of screenings (beginning August 10) of Max et les Ferrailleurs, never before seen in this country. Bonus: it stars Schneider and Piccoli. sautet schedule

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