Wednesday, December 10, 2008

All My Sons: On Broadway

At the Gerard Shoenfeld
View the Official Site

Once the lights go down at the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, at the Gerard Shoenfeld Theater through January 11, John Lithgow comes out most nights to peek over the fourth wall and announce the setting — “August of our era.” But at a recent performance, he also solicited donations. “Most shows do this at the end,” he said. “But after our show, we figured you’re not going to want to hear any speeches.” The audience chuckled, but Lithgow’s joke wasn’t about letting the tourists get back to their hotels early. Miller’s play, about fathers and sons and the dark side of capitalism, is stuffed with enough speeches to embarrass a political convention. Any more at the end might fall on deafened ears.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chuck Klosterman's "Downtown Owl"

The novelist Théophile Gautier once cracked that no man becomes a critic until he proves to himself that he cannot be a poet. But here comes Chuck Klosterman, the pop culture observer, making the transition to novelist with Downtown Owl. This is not his first foray into fiction, however; Klosterman concluded his last essay collection, Chuck Klosterman IV, with a short story—clearly, he’d caught the fiction bug, and a book like Owl was inevitable.

To call it a novel, however, is a stretch. Following the inhabitants of a fictional, rural, North Dakota town, Owl centers on three characters: Mitch, a third-rate quarterback so melancholic that he feels nostalgic for the time he had mono; Julia, a new high school teacher who quickly joins the town’s drinking culture; and Horace, an elderly widower who spends his days rolling dice at the local greasy spoon, sipping coffee and reflecting on his past. Each chapter, with a handful of exceptions, rotates between their stories.

Beyond their shared setting, little connects the trio. The book plays out more like The Spoon River Anthology or Winesburg, Ohio—a collection of loosely related character-portraits depicting the closeted sordidness of small town life. (Serendipitously, Downtown Owl arrived at a ripe moment, as the McCain campaign scrambled to accomplish the opposite—to equate small town America with simple and honest virtues.)

Klosterman defines his characters through anecdote because it is through these small moments that he believes the residents can best be understood. “We all believe that we are a certain kind of person,” Klosterman writes in a Mitch section, “but we never know until we do something that proves otherwise, or until we die.” He illustrates those otherwise-proving somethings, usually a low moment in the townspeople’s lives. “We are defined,” he writes, “by the singularity of our greatest failure,” as in this passage:

“Julia noticed that a few of Ted’s peers referred to him as ‘Kleptosaur.’ One night she asked him why; it was because he’d been caught shoplifting a plastic dinosaur as a third grader.”

By indulging his curiosity about the minutiae of the most ancillary actors in the town, Klosterman spreads himself thin. Downtown Owl can’t decide whether it’s a loosely connected short story collection, a la Sherwood Anderson, or a novel—that is, a narrative, in which characters serve as actors in a drama that develops over time. Those small stories can be engaging, and the book has some wonderful chapters, but nothing much happens in Downtown Owl to justify the persistent presence of the handful of leading characters.

The book opens with a faux-newspaper article detailing a severe storm; the book proper then begins several months earlier, introducing a small measure of narrative tension that goes ignored for the subsequent 230 pages. In the meantime, Klosterman invests his trio’s lives with very little drama, only minor tensions within the rotating perspectives. Horace may be the lone exception, as Klosterman slowly reveals his increasingly complex backstory; the rest of the characters hardly develop. In fact, most chapters devoted to any of the three central characters devolve into ruminations on other residents; Mitch muses on his friends and football coach; Julia runs down lists of the local barflies; Horace mulls over his companions at the coffee shop. It feels as though the author delivered a stack of short stories to an editor, who recommended inventing a tripartite framing device to tie them all together.

In the end, Owl emerges as Klosterman’s central character. Like its inhabitants, the town is flat. Literally: “When [Julia] looked out her bedroom window, she could see for ten miles to the north. Maybe for twenty miles…It was like the earth had been pounded with a rolling pin.” But abstractly, as well. As the principal explains to Julia: “It’s a down town, Owl…you’ve probably heard that the movie theater is going to close, and I’m afraid that’s true: it is closing. But the bowling alley is thriving. It’s probably the best bowling alley in the region.”

Owl even protects its own flatness: those who upset its status quo, like the fire-and-brimstone preacher that Klosterman briefly touches on, are expelled; and those who cannot be exiled are killed. Thus the killer storm that strikes at book’s end, a natural disaster of Noah’s-flood proportions that serves a similar purpose—not necessarily to cleanse the earth of the “wicked,” but to restore its own evenness by eliminating those characters that would disturb its self-regulating order. But to convey how Middle America fights to maintain its plainness, Klosterman unnecessarily mimics his own subject—Downtown Owl need not have been as flat as its eponymous town.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Kiyoshi Kurosawa at the New York Film Festival

At the October 9 New York Film Festival screening of Tokyo Sonata, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa appeared briefly before the film began to complement the Ziegfeld: “There’s no way my movie can compete with this palace,” he said through his translator (also the film’s subtitler). He later added, “This [film] reflects the Tokyo I live in. The production crew tried to make the shabby part of town look suitable for film—but they’ll lose out to Ziegfeld.”

After the screening, he participated in a Q&A with the audience. What follows are the minutes of that session, captured as best as I could. Questions and answers may contain spoilers. Direct quotes are noted; the rest is paraphrase. The interview was conducted through the director’s translator, as Kurosawa speaks very little English.


Why does the film end with ‘Clair de Lune’?
(asked by Film Comment editor, and Q&A moderator, Kent Jones)
The director wanted a piece of music commensurate to the age/skill level of the performer, as well as something not too long so the piece could run in its entirety. Most importantly though, he said, was to find a piece complex enough that it would be difficult for a child to interpret—to find something beyond his age level emotionally.

Were you influenced by Death of a Salesman?
Kurosawa chortled. “I know it’s really famous, I think it’s a play but I never read it.” He said he was flattered by the comparison though because the play is so famous, and he promised to read it right away.

What neighborhood did you shoot in? It didn’t look so shabby.
It’s not the most beautiful of cinematic neighborhood in Tokyo, Kurosawa said, but he’s already shot in every other part of the city, so he made a film in the areas he’d said he never would. Tokyo is arranged like a series of rings, with a center and then outskirts. The inner ring, around the center (where the film is set), is not all that aesthetically pleasing, he said, with visible electrical wires and crammed houses. Also: “I had never ever wanted to make a movie in the shopping mall…and I’ll never do it again.”

Does a dissatisfaction with traditional roles exist in modern Japan, as appears in the film?
It’s not just the Japanese—many people want to run from defined roles but are terrified of discovering that they don’t know who they are. So people are increasingly adopting simple roles, especially in urban centers. He said he shot the movie in December 2007 and hasn’t shot anything since. “I tell myself to assuage my anxiety that I’m a still a movie director…so I have anxieties, too.”

As the film isn’t a paranormal or ghost story, like Cure or Pulse, does this signal a change in direction?
“I’m sure I will” return to horror films, he said, but he has no real plans yet. He hopes to return to horror films with a fresh perspective. Or to develop Tokyo Sonata’s themes in a new way—not repetitively. Kurosawa also expressed resentment that his movies get lumped together as “horror films”.

The ending is a huge release. Did you do that as a favor to the audience?
“I appreciate your insight,” Kurosawa said. He said each character has a secret that, when shared, transforms into a fight. The end is a chunk of time that allows the characters to focus on one person and absorb the music.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Doctor Atomic

Date of Performance: 9 October 2008 (Dress Rehearsal)
Official site

One of composer John Adams’ “CNN operas,” Doctor Atomic uses a topic from the relatively recent past — here, weapons of mass destruction — to address the political present. Adams said he believes such cultural relevance will give opera a future; that is, it could reconnect estranged (American) audiences to the medium, lower the enskied art form to the level of the everyday intellectual.

But even if that were true, the thoroughly modern music is bound to re-alienate them. In Doctor Atomic, Los Alamos scientists Oppenheimer, Robert Wilson and Edward “Dr. Strangelove” Teller, along with assorted military brass, struggle to build and test a working A-bomb while weighing the ethical implications of what they’re doing. As with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Doctor Atomic’s second half is far superior to its first, as it builds to a wrenching climax of boundless destruction in a single flash of light. But both acts suffer from the same problems: the operamakers’ pompous allusions, awkward libretto and abstruse score.

Keep reading at The L Magazine blog.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What I Took from 'Film Criticism in Crisis?'

The New York Film Festival hosted a seven critic-panel on Saturday afternoon called “Film Criticism in Crisis?,” moderated by Film Comment’s editor-in-chief, Gavin Smith. The purpose, Smith said, was not to discuss the print vs. Internet debate; “that argument is over and done with.” Instead, the talk was intended to focus on the “larger picture.” Like the fact that David Denby and Richard Brody sat next to each other in the audience?

Film criticism is not in crisis so much as it’s the victim of the many crises going on all around it. Kent Jones, editor-at-large of Film Comment, noted, of course, the economic crisis happening in newspapers and magazines, which has a direct effect on the health of film criticism. But as long as people take criticism seriously, Jones said, the practice itself won’t be in crisis.

But that’s the issue—what role does film criticism play in our culture today? Seung Hoon-Jeong, formerly a writer for the Korean film magazine Cine21, noted that in his native country people look to criticism as a consumer guide, the equivalent of a recommendation from a friend. “They don’t want to suffer from any headache,” he said. Jones noted the same thing happening in this country: “there’s a lot of reviewing,” he said, “not necessarily criticism.”

“Criticism is writing and re-writing,” Jones added. Increasingly, however, editors are encouraging critics to move in the opposite direction.

Film criticism might be in crisis because the national, even international, film culture is in crisis.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Finlandia Through Computer Speakers


In my experience, the New York Philharmonic’s incoming musical director, Alan Gilbert, likes to sucker audiences into modernist compositions by sandwiching them into classical programs. But he played the populist at Monday [7.14.08] evening’s populism extravaganza, The Concert in the Park, when uptown elitism is packed into trucks and driven down to Brooklyn for the night. Like Fantasia, the evening began with a piece by popular favorite J.S. Bach.

If you’ve heard one Bach piece, have you heard them all? Maybe not exactly, but his “Concerto for Two Violins in D Major” offered no surprises, though it did provide a relaxing soundtrack, a lovely complement to the encroaching twilight and the orange-streaked sunset sky.

Gilbert compensated for the banal Bach, centerpiecing the evening’s bill with Beethoven’s Fourth. (I’d say it’s one of my favorites, but Beethoven symphonies are like Hitchcock movies: they’re all really good, even the not-so-good ones.) The first movement really danced, as did the fourth, living up to Berlioz’s description of the symphony as “lively, alert and gay.” Last November, I credited conductor Xian Zhang teasing out the terpsichorean rhythms of Beethoven’s Seventh, but now I think it’s simply one of the orchestra’s general talents.

Unfortunately, the guttural throbbings that transition the first movement’s adagio to the allegro vivace were lost as they trickled out of the amplifying sound system. As usual, the park setting juggled its pros and cons—free admission, alcohol and fresh air vs. frat boy chatter, intra-movement applause and thin sound. (Not that, from what I understand, Avery Fisher is an acoustician’s dream.) Though the loose setting made me imagine that this must be what classical music performance attendance is like in China, at least judging from Alex Ross’ recent description.

The intermissionless (don’t they know everyone’s drinking?) evening ended with Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” a piece nightmarish at its start but regal at its conclusion. The Phil played exceptionally, even though it sounded like they were playing through computer speakers.

Like Reel 13’s Saturday night short, the orchestra’s encore was chosen by popular vote; the people chose the “Overture” to Carmen, which Gilbert sped through faster than even the Leonard Bernstein recording. The moment it ended, a fireworks display began, its bangs echoing through Flatbush like gunshots. As gorgeous as it was (better than Macy’s’ two weeks ago), it felt diversionary. A long, steady stream of automobiles, presumably carrying the orchestra, sped away as the people craned their necks towards the lights show. They seemed not to be able to get out of Brooklyn fast enough.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Die Walküre at the Met

Date of Performance: January 14, 2008

Seeing as this was my first live Wagner experience, I’m not quite sure where to lay the blame for Die Walküre’s stagnant drama—is it inherent in the opera, and as such the fault of Wagner, who unusually is responsible for both the score and the libretto, or is it the result of Otto Schenk’s production?

The opera boasts a story both complex and absorbing, to the nerd in me at least; based on Norse & Germanic myths, it tells an intricate tale of gods, mortals and the fate of the universe, but despite its epic concerns the opera played out staidly on a dark and drab set (by Gunter Schneider-Siemssen), usually with two characters chatting about what's happened and deciding what to do next while rarely ever offering us a chance to really see anything happen. To me, opera is the king of the arts because of the unique way in which it blends music, drama and spectacle—a way no other art can hope to match—but Die Walküre was too often tame by the standards set by other composers and productions. Not to mention that Wagner's music isn't exactly inviting.

The stiff character of the German tongue doesn't lend itself to lovely sung melodies as does the fluidity of Italian and, to a lesser extent, French, and as such German opera, via Wagner anyway, isn't quite full of the lush arias, duets and ensemble pieces that I’ve come to expect from the opera hall. German opera, and Wagner, are an entirely different breed of music and style.

Though, when he wants to, Wagner proves he’s capable of composing some of the finest music in the repertoire. Wagner is best as a composer of orchestral music—he is an unparalleled overturist—and the reliable, exceptional Lorin Maazel made the score shine from the podium. The quality of the composition or performance (the cast was uniformly superb) wasn't really the problem—what’s most frustrating about Wagner is the tremendous patience he requires. As a friend observed during one of Die Walküre's two well-deserved intermissions, "I'm all for building things slowly, I really am, but that was tough." The first two acts of Die Walküre follow similar structures: long periods of both musical and narrative development that after quite some build-up finally climax in startling moments of great opera. It's a reserved score that, gradually, acquires stirring severity. (Gil Wechsler's gorgeous lighting design followed suit, with acts opening in darkness and slowly coming to startlingly natural-looking light.) There are moments of flowing sweetness, of incomparable sweep, but they are too hard-earned by the audience.

The third act breaks the mold established by the previous acts, though, working almost in reverse as it begins with the explosive and exhilarating bangs of "The Ride of the Valkyries" (amazing!)—the opera's only ensemble piece, with its ten warrior women wailing and scurrying across the stage—and ends with a soft, touching whisper. Well, at least until Wotan (James Morris, an outstanding, dramatic bass) literally sets the stage on fire; Die Walkure, after much build-up, finally has an epic moment that fulfills opera's unique potential for spectacle. Too bad there’s not more of it, especially as, clocking in at just under five hours, Die Walküre can't help but make the audience feel just like its hero Siegmund (looking done up as the Cowardly Lion from up in the Family Circle—costumes by Rolf Langenfass) at the opera's start—collapsed on the floor, begging for water.

Visit the production’s website