Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Phil Mixes Modernism with Romance

Visit the Official Site

Date of Performance: November 10, 2007

The New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Xian Zhang, began their Saturday evening performance with the New York premiere of two selections from Huang Ruo's Three Pieces for Orchestra, the "Fanfare" and "Announcement". They are both dissonant, percussive and violent pieces of music that the Phil attacked with ferocious gusto; they never sounded anything less than apocalyptic.

Blending Chinese-flavored melodies with a Stravinksy-esque audacity, the dyad ended with a haunting quiet, at least before a gong roll sent the half of the orchestra not wearing ear plugs reaching to cover their ears in advance. When the pieces were done, Huang Ruo came out from the wings to modest and appreciative applause.

With that nod to new music and living composers out of the way, the Philharmonic followed that blazing piece of modernism with two blaringly romantic symphonies, starting with Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (Op. 21), a madly passionate piece of music met in feeling by the violinist Vadim Repin, who brought a physical intensity to the music as he moved back and forth within his personal square of performance space.

Though called a "symphony", Symphonie Espagnole is, for all intents and purposes, a violin concerto. I admit that, often times, my ears get exhausted during concerti; as I wrote in my last review of the Philharmonic, in reference to Johannes Moser's playing of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, "how much consecutive cello can the ordinary ear register?"

I don't know if it was the piece or the performance, but Symphonie Espagnole was captivating; orchestra and soloist were in perfect cooperation, neither outshining the other; they were in perfect balance. The virtuosic solo lines eschewed overreaching into the garish flash that concerti are often characterized by, and served as the wonderful icing on what would have been an otherwise delicious orchestral cake. The audience seemed to agree; Repin got an enthusiastic ovation and several curtain calls.

With a Sevillian strain in the music—Symphonie Espagnole initially premiered right around the time that Bizet's Carmen did—the pre-intermission half of the evening was particularly ethnic.

But that all ended as the evening's performance concluded with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (Op. 92). (You could say the symphony is ethnic in its pulsing rhythms, but it'd be a stretch.) Honestly, is there any greater piece of music? Well, possibly, but it was damned near impossible to try and think of one during the Philharmonic's stellar performance. Zhang really brought out the symphony's terpsichorean qualities, matching them with her gyrating conducting performance that found her moving from one side of her rostrum to the other. (Her enthusiasm was a match for the one I often exhibit in the air-conducting privacy of my bedroom.) As the Phil tore through the piece (taking the time, of course, to ache out the superlative second movement, certainly the most gorgeous piece of music ever penned), I finally understood Daniel J. Levitin's op-ed in the Times a month ago calling for dance floors in the concert halls; from the Fourth Tier boxes, I spied several concertgoers tapping their hands and feet to the beat.

To top it all off, during the third movement I spontaneously smiled, and I can't think of the last time a performance or piece of music made me do that.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tchaikovsky at the Phil: Swan Lake, Pathetique and more

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date of performance: Oct. 13, 2007

At his best, Tchaikovsky vacillates between two extremes: insistently lachrymose melodies and explosively bombastic orchestrations, both in the most wonderful of ways. His emotions are always exaggerated—he wears them not on his sleeve but all over his body—but never insincere; he's melodramatic only in a strictly positive sense, like Douglas Sirk. (They call him an "arch romantic".) And on Saturday night, when Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in a series of Tchaikovsky pieces, they had the dynamic interplay between the two down pat.

This was in contrast to the Philharmonic's performance under Bramwell Tovey last November, when they played the Nutcracker Suite with what sounded like a mere lack of interest. (That they were playing against the energetic Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was no help, either.) The night began with excerpts from Swan Lake (Op. 20), and from the opening "Scene: Moderato" from Act II, one of the most hauntingly ethereal pieces in the repertoire, you could tell they were in perfect form. That was followed by the alternating, perfectly-measured blusters and lush sweeps of Act I's "Waltz: Tempo di valse", but the real gem of the night was the performance of "Dances of the Swans: Variation V (Pas d'action)". It begins with a ripping harp solo, which gives way to a heartbreaking violin and harp duet; then, just when you think the heart cannot break any farther, it is entirely shattered by the violin's taking up of the duet with the cello. It is as gorgeous as any duet anywhere, from Romeo and Juliette at the balcony to "Au fond du temple saint" and the Philharmonic played it flawlessly, with the soloists nailing the aching phrasings. The finale, "Hungarian Dance," was highly charged and ended with such explosive force that Mr. Maazel was literally sent into the air.

Next was Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (Op. 33). The cellist, Johannes Moser, was fine—his playing was elegant and dramatic—but as with most any piece that calls for extended solo it becomes a tad trying after a movement or two. Despite Mr. Moser's admirable virtuosity, how much consecutive cello can the ordinary ear register?

Closing out of the evening was a performance of the Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique (Op. 74), which I last heard the Philharmonic perform this summer in Prospect Park. But the Pathétique is a work so intense that it is lost in the parks, the notes literally drifting away into space. In the concert hall its brashness and tenderness echoed from wall to wall, leaving me stunned, as though I'd never heard the piece before. The symphony is unique in that it ends on a whimper instead of the customary bang (that is pushed up into the third movement, which generated a mistaken round of applause from the crowd; Maazel waited stiffly for it to end), but it's a fittingly plaintive conclusion as Tchaikovsky died several days after the symphony's original premiere.

At the very end of the performance Maazel left his right hand, and the audience, dangling mournfully for several seconds before marking that the piece had ended. It looked like he quickly wiped a tear from his eye as well, and it was good to know he and I were on the same page.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

unCommon Cause's "As Far As We Know"

refers to a press conference held on Sept. 25, 2007

Kelly van Zile, producer, director and actress with the unCommon Cause Theatre Collective, is doing everything she can to get the group’s play, As Far As We Know, into a theater near you, short of making it into a musical or offending the real-life family on whom the play is based.

The play had an initial run during the Fringe Festival, a New York City multi-media festival, in August as one of 200 shows.

“I think the play deserves to have a bigger audience,” van Zile said today at a news conference. “I’m willing to hear what the artistic compromises might be and listen to them.”

unCommon Cause has now joined-up with commercial producer Jed Bernstein, former president of the League of Broadway Producers, and have two options for the future: either to try and go the commercial route and get to Broadway, or to try to receive grants from more experimental groups like The Public Theater or the Culture Project and stay downtown.

“We’re just trying to leave all our options open now,” she said.

As Far As We Know deals with the story of Private Keith “Matt” Maupin of Ohio, one of the only unaccounted-for American soldiers in Iraq to date and the subject of a 2004 profile in Time. Maupin was kidnapped by insurgents in 2004, and was subsequently seen on two videotapes aired by Al Jazeera. The second allegedly featured his execution, but because of the video’s grainy quality the army declared it to be inconclusive evidence of his death. Maupin remains officially missing and has even been promoted thrice, in absentia.

The play is a fictionalized account of the toll the ordeal has taken on his family. Maupin’s character has been renamed Jake Larkin, and Maupin’s real-life brother has been transformed into a twin sister, played by van Zile.

Van Zile and the play’s director, Laurie Sales, have met with the family, but the Maupins are not involved in the production.

“We told them we’re doing a play,” van Zile said, “and that’s the last thing we ever said to them.”

To get the show on Broadway, the producer told van Zile that unCommon Cause would need to do one of three things: get a major director, a big star or a well-known writer on board.

“Kelly van Zile’s certainly not going to sell $85 tickets,” she admitted.

Gus van Sant at the New York Film Festival

Gus van Sant was on-hand in New York on Monday (10/8) to discuss his new film, Paranoid Park, which was screening there as part of the New York Film Festival. The following are the minutes of the conversation.

There are some spoilers below, clearly marked, as the conversation took place after the screening of the film, so proceed cautiously.

1. The film is based on a novel by Blake Nelson, who was once something of a "savage poet" of Portland but lately has been writing young adult books. van Sant was originally interested in a book called Rock Star Superstar and after expressing that to Nelson, the author sent van Sant the galleys to his book Paranoid Park and, liking it, he decided to adapt that instead. Also, since it's set in Portland, it gave van Sant "something to do in my hometown."

"He did the work," van Sant said of Blake, referring to the basic plot which the director claimed was lifted pretty directly from the source material.

He also noted that the main character is an amateur skater, and is therefore coming to the skating world that the film (and book, presumably) depicts as an outsider, "sort of like us (the audience)".

2. On the music

They edited the film on a Macintosh laptop, which also had assistant editor Eric Hill's iTunes on there. He's "also a musicologist of sorts," van Sant said, and so a lot of the music was chosen from Hill's collection, just sort of playing around in the editing process, "mixing and matching," as van Sant said. The Nino Rota material was taken from van Sant's own record collection; originally, they tried to make modern re-recordings of Rota's music but it didn't quite work out, so they contacted Rota's estate who allowed them to use the music.

3. On Long Takes (Spoiler!)

van Sant said that his whole career he has filmed "longish scenes", three to five minutes. He films scenes as a whole, not line-by-line, and also claimed "I've always worked with non-professionals (actors)." In his last few films extremely long takes have been written directly into the script; he used Elephant as an example, where he would write, say, "boys play football -- six minutes". Paranoid Park's script was only 56 pages long. (That's much shorter than the average film script! --ed.) He shot two angles for most of the dialogue scenes, one from each side of the conversation. These are edited in the film so that half the scene focuses on one character, and the other half on the other. This method of splitting, he felt, was in line with the film's motif of halfs, best expressed in the image of the man cut in half that cuts the film in half.

4. Chris Doyle

The film's cinematographer was Christopher Doyle, who also appears in a small part as the main character's "Uncle Tommy". He was already on the set and they wanted a face for that character, so they stuck him in there. van Sant saw the character of Uncle Tommy as "the gay uncle who had this beach house."

Doyle is known primarily for the work he's done with Wong Kar-Wai; characterizing the process of working with him, van Sant said it was "a lot of discussion, a lot of analyzing."

The skating sequences were shot by a "skate filmmaker", someone who makes skating videos.

5. Gabe Nevins

Someone asked if Gabe Nevins, the lead actor, ever asked critical questions about how his character behaves, or try to input his own self into the role. van Sant said no.

"Maybe he just understood the screenplay," van Sant said. "He was also very unexperienced."

"Maybe we prepped him as well," he added later.

6. The Security Guard (Spoiler!)

The moderator asked about the startling image of the man cut in half, noting that it was unexpected since van Sant's work doesn't usually feature such images.

van Sant noted it was from the book, but that the book had a different grotesque scene. (i.e. not a man cut in half.) van Sant changed it because it "fits thematically, metaphorically."

7. Hipster Horror

Someone asked if van Sant was trying to make a "Hipster Horror Film"

"Hmmmm," he responded, and after a beat answered, "young adult film, that's what I was trying to make."

8. Parallels to previous films

van Sant said the film was similar to Elephant in that it's set in a high school, but that that film was a "meditation on a horrific event I knew mostly through the news." Paranoid Park is a fictional film, so in that regard it's very different.

9. Fire

Someone asked about the role of fire, specifically campfires, in his oeuvre. van Sant admitted that fire has a "primal sort of meaning to me" as it's "where stories used to be told."

The scene near the end of the film in which Nevins burns the pages of the letter he's been writing was originally set in his living room, but they couldn't stage it to their liking (so that you could see Nevins' face and the fire in the same shot) that way so they moved it outside.

10. Casting

To cast the film, van Sant & Co. had an open casting, putting ads in local Portland media and also on MySpace. "Kids just came in," he said, about 1500 of them. They recorded them and then called people back for actual auditions, that is, to read in front of them.

The detectives were real detectives that they got because someone on the casting crew had connections to the police department.

11. Using Academy Ratio

van Sant's last few films were shot in 1.38:1, or full screen format. "Big square format" as he called it. He said he began doing this with Elephant because it was shot for HBO and 1.38:1 is television format. HBO asked him not to because they wanted to "make it seem more like a movie" by having it letterboxed, but van Sant declined. They made a deal that if they shot in 1.38:1 that HBO could show it letterboxed, that they could "cut off the top and bottom" so van Sant "had to make sure no one gets cut off too much."

He said he'd grown tired of 1.85:1 and "that wide screen." He and his directors of photography feel more like photographers, like Diane Arbus, when they can shoot in a square ratio, and it also brings them back to their 16mm student days.

12. Ending

Someone asked if the ending was supposed to mean "business as usual." van Sant eventually said sure. He also said it was "just a bookend of skateboarding," which is used throughout the film as interludes.

13. Different from previous work

Someone asked if he made a conscious effort to make this film different from his previous work. He said there were differences in the story, source material, and style of storytelling, which was more specifically psychological, more old-fashioned in style.

He said, "sometimes it was like Chris Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai," and said at other times it was a hybrid style, more "austere" like Elephant.

14. Film

The moderator asked him if he'd ever go back to celluloid, and van Sant said all his work is celluloid. He's never used HD. How embarrassing.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Philharmonic Plays Prospect Park

Official Site

In direct competition with Major League Baseball's All Star Game, the New York Philharmonic took to the stage in the fields of Prospect Park last night (10 July 2007) for the first stop in their annual free summer concerts series; not only was there a big baseball game on television, but a storm seemed on the horizon, the perpetually gray skies posing a constant threat, so the amount of people that turned up was impressive, the crowds a fair deal larger than they were a month ago at the Metropolitan Opera's analogous free concert. It would seemingly indicate that either the Phil has a stronger marketing team or, more likely, that people just don't really like opera. (I guess that ought to be obvious. Opera? Unpopular?)

The scene in the park's baseball fields was very similar to that which I described in my piece about last month's performance of Faust in the same spot—well-off looking white people drinking wine and eating expensive crackers, sprawled out in the grass relaxedly. The Philharmonic, though, had noticeably given the field a more festive appearance, dressing it up with clusters of multicolored balloons while conspicuous speakers and tents stuck out above our heads. (And, uh, blocked the view. Not that we were close enough to see anything.) It looked like more of a festival than the setting the Met had mustered; there were even more kids, occasionally running by on their way to play, which I suspect was also a symptom of the fact that, particularly with the kids in tow, people just find opera boring.

The Philharmonic, under the baton of conductor Ludovic Morlot, opened with a gorgeous, mellifluously melodic Berlioz piece, "Le Corsaire Overture", which developed nicely; clocking in at only about seven minutes, it was short and sweet, the perfect aural appetizer to the upcoming Tchaikovsky entree. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto followed (accidentally I originally typed "Violent Concerto", an amusing Freudian slip); its first movement is impressively virtuosic but struck me as emotionally wanting—I found it akin to watching a mediocre film with a fantastic lead performance, and I have little interest in, or patience for, such star vehicles. (I don't mean, however, to disparage the astounding skill of soloist Stefan Jackiw.) Thankfully, as the piece moves along it becomes increasingly less showy and more effusive, concluding with a charming ebullience, and especially as it inspired a four year old girl next to my party to perform an impressive faux-ballet, I really can't complain.

The relaxed atmosphere of the parks concerts—and the permissibility of drinking Pinot Grigio (hiccup!)—make it a time to let loose and go crazy; I, for one, really letting my hair down, was violating the taboos of the concert hall left and right, coughing when I felt like it and even applauding between movements. After intermission, the Philharmonic performed the evening's anticipated highlight, Tchaikovsky's magnificent Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pathétique". It's an unusual symphony that is loud and quiet in unusual places; it ends, for example, uncharacteristically—particularly for the bombastic Tchaikovsky—on a whimper. The Brooklyn audience honored the entire forty-some odd minute performance and its soft passages with a respectfully solemn silence. (The unfortunate exception was one woman behind us, though I gathered, from her audible cell-phone conversation and grating accent, that she was from Staten Island—go figure.) There was no better atmopshere, the soft glow of early evening (moon, candle and lamppost light), for enjoying Tchaikovsky's gorgeous piece; even a handful of stars were coaxed out from behind the clouds to lighten up the hitherto ceaselessly gray and gloomy day. The predicted rains never arrived, obviously because even God loves Tchaikovsky.

Incidentally, I cannot understand the point of view of people who don't. While he can certainly be a bit ostentatious in his orchestration, his God-given melodic mastery is so lush and lovely; that Condoleeza Rice, a classically trained pianist in her less sinister life, has publicly professed to dislike the music of Pyotr Ilyich—and that George W. Bush prolly never heard-a 'im—is just one of the many symbolical indicators of what's gone wrong with this country. An anti-Tchaikovsky contingent has infiltrated the highest levels of government! And obviously endless war cannot be far behind.

After the music was a generous fireworks display, perhaps a bit too soon after the Fourth of July to truly dazzle, although our proximity to the event beat watching the Macy's fireworks from miles away on the rooftop of my Southwest-Brooklyn apartment. (They were the size of dimes softly fading in the distance.) The crowd was impressed, and was markedly quieter than they had been during even the musical performance, save for the ooohs and ahhhs. It seems the classical music community of New York has finally found something that the general public can really respond to.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sir! No Sir! with the Bay Ridge Neighbors for Peace

There was a small crowd outside that had just begun heading inside, so we conveniently tacked ourselves onto the procession's tail-end and blindly followed, assuming from their similar appearance that they were going where we were going; had it been a queue of robed men in skull caps, I might have asked. Single-file, we trudged up a narrow staircase to a door, where we were indirectly instructed, by overhearing the directions given to those in front of us, to remove our shoes. There was some rumbling at this request, as the modest group of people awkwardly bent over in attempts to undo their laces as though at the airport security checkpoint; those summer-prepared among us easily slipped off their sandals.

It was quickly agreed, however, that this was a Muslim custom, as one man noted he had had to do this the one time he had visited a mosque, following 9/11. The momentary irritation soon turned congenial, taking on an adventurous sense of cultural conformity. You could've served cow brains to little protest at that point. Inside there were low, long wooden shelves to place our now vacated footwear, not unlike a preschool cubby, although the immediate reference in my mind was the similarly simple shoerack outside my Muslim neighbor's apartment door. How familiar and yet completely foreign. The room we entered was larger than your typical living room by about half, and the walls were painted a pistachio green I don't think I'd ever seen outside of a nut, and certainly not on a wall. (Buying cookies at the local shops over the last few years, I was fully aware that Arabs have a penchant for pistachios, so the color scheme quickly made perfect sense to me.) The room was tightly filled with folding chairs placed in sensible rows, though so close together we would be staring at each other's backs, and as we sat down I felt like some sort of local daredevil. We had done it.

We had entered the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge!

I have passed the Islamic Society hundreds of times, but never had cause to go in; after a while, it began to take on the air of that typical sort of ramshackle house common to the suburbs, imbued with ghost story and rumor that scare away school children. Such notions had never been discouraged by my neighbors, as Bay Ridge is not anything if not traditionally racist and unwelcoming, and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge has assumed an unfavorable reputation among the provincial locals; some of the residents, primarily part of the neighborhood's awfully vocal conservative Old Guard, view it suspiciously, particularly in light of its association with the controversial Islamic Thinkers Society; they're sure that it's merely a front for terrorist activity, as a man associated with the center, who worked at the nearby affiliated bookstore, was recently arrested with an accomplice for plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station. In the mid-nineties, another man, supposedly enflamed by anti-Semitic rhetoric at the Society, opened fire on a Jewish school children, killing sixteen year-old Ari Halberstam. (A few years ago the subject of the Islamic Society even spilled into a dispute over Bay Ridge's Wikipedia entry, as editing residents wanted to include a lengthy passage on the Islamic Society and its terrorist connections, while others claimed such information had no place in an encyclopedia entry. "I feel that this entire issue," the rejected author wrote on the discussion page, "however controversial, is simply a conservative-liberal debate.")

If that's true, the fact that the liberals won that fight is surprising; Bay Ridge leans right and wins right. In another display of liberal strength, here we were, a little over two dozen of us, assembled in the nut-green room for a meeting of the Bay Ridge Neighbors for Peace. My girlfriend and I had come across the group at their information table at the underattended Fifth Avenue Festival; we signed their petitions, got on their mailing list, even scored a polemical button. ("Heal the Wounded. Honor the Dead. End the War." Later in the day, it seemed to confuse the elderly gentleman at the desk for the Bay Ridge Historical Society, who read it aloud with question marks instead of periods.) They had organized a screening of Sir! No Sir! (reviewed here), a documentary about the anti-war GI movement during Vietnam, for Monday, July 9; fliers had been left at the library and emails had come to our inboxes, so we went for the free flick and to throw our support behind a group whose politics we supported and who were based in the neighborhood we'd lived in all our lives.

One of the group's founders, Erica Fox, a frizzle-haired woman--and the shape of a Russian doll--on her way out of middle age, stood next to the twenty-some-odd inch television, perched atop a long wooden desk, to introduce the evening's itinerary. She spoke of the film's resonance and how, as a Vietnam-era activist, she wished she had known that there was such a strong anti-war movement within the military itself; luckier for us, in attendance at the meeting, and a regular member of BRNFP, was a member of the larger group Iraq Veterans Against the War, Mike Harmon, an ordinary enough looking kid--unshaven, portly, baggy t-shirt and jeans--save for the subtle distance in his eyes, the kind you read about in war memoirs common to those who've seen death face-to-face. The screening's subtext seemed to be on building a civilian-military coalition for organizing against the war, as in the film there was copious information about the coming together of ordinarily segregated cliques to bring about an end to the War in Southeast Asia--whites & blacks, hippies & military. In a word, ordinary Americans defined by their humanity and not their race or creed.

Well, being in the Islamic Society seemed like a good start. My friend K., a local Green Party organizer, once told me that a few years ago he'd gone into some of the mosques to talk about the party--how they were the only peace party in the country--and to register voters; he said the reception was curious and warm. (Looking at the Green Party rolls now, during petition drives, one will notice that many of the names of the local registrants are of Muslim origin.) But in fact, disappointingly, no representative of the Islamic Society was on hand; they had graciously offered the use of their facilities at no charge to us (and at presumable cost to them, for air conditioning, electricity, etc.; a collection basket was duly passed out of thanks, so if the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge is a front for terrorist groups I am now arrestable under the Patriot Act), but none seemed to want to be associated or seen with us directly. Save for a mid-film interruption of several minutes worth of a capella, melismatically sung prayers, or at least I assume they were prayers, broadcast from a speaker in the room, one might have forgotten where we were. So much for coming together. Save for a woman in a hajib, with a sinewy man presumably her husband, there was not much of a diverse presence of attendees at the meeting; save for a small group, the majority of which included myself and my miniscule retinue, the crowd was nearly unanimous in their middle-age. Also, at least ninety-five percent of the crowd was white.

Nevertheless, though it was frustrating to see a imbalance of old to young and white to color, it was encouraging to see a smattering of intelligent left-leaning Bay Ridgers gathered together, no matter their uniformity of heritage and age. (The split between sex was about even.) Mike, an articulate and passionate speaker, if a little awkward, and a Bay Ridge native, nudgingly noted that it was "great to see an anti-war movement in Bay Ridge, which leans to the right." It elicited an appreciative chuckle. This was true; Bay Ridge is one of the few districts in New York City to be represented in the House of Representatives and in Albany by Republicans, and Mike pointed-out that this is where the activism needed to begin, where BRNFP had to focus their energy--holding State Senator Marty Golden and Congressman Vito Fossella accountable. Resistance begins locally, and there was a charming sincerity to the group of us assembled in the informality of our socks for no real greater reason that just to be together with like-minded people, to do the least we could in order to feel that we were doing something.

Following the film, a nervously jittery and affable fresh-face by the name of Dave stood to talk about Cindy Sheehan's return to the anti-war movement and her upcoming appearance in New York, as well as to deliver some of the standard rhetoric you'd expect to hear at an anti-war meeting; the war was sold on lies, etc., though Dave was too meek to make the familiar speeches sound insincere. He opened the floor to discussion, and the group began talking: a man in the back told contemporary anecdotes about soldiers opposing the current war, drawing parallels to the film we'd just watched; a woman who'd come from Staten Island, with her husband, spoke of how nice it was to see us all together, and urged us to work together with her local peace group; and a lady, who'd taken the bus from Sunset Park, spoke about how she had worked in one of the radical GI coffee shops mentioned in the film, and suggested that we needed to find a similar space conducive to regular dialogue. Her recommendation met with an awkward silence, as no one had anything to say to that, lacking cafe ownership, only responding by silent, subtle nodding.

Yes, she was right, there ought to be a regular meeting spot like that, but there was nothing really to say or do about it, so members of the audience essentially ignored her and quickly resumed questioning Mike, the evening's unexpected attraction, who gave anecdotal details about soldier life in Iraq: in the early days they shot anyone with a shovel; the only authorized news source is Fox News; marijuana is a growing problem, leading to increased recusancy. The conversation was unfocused and disparate, much like the anti-war movement in the country as a whole--good points were made, good ideas were thrown-out, but none of it seemed to bring anyone any closer to ending the war or even forming a feasible strategy of what to do next, other than to hold more meetings and show more movies. It might not do any good, but at least it's something.

From an optimistic point of view, it could be said that we were bearing witness, possibly, to the inchoate stages of a burgeoning movement. Most of the discussion tended to focus on the fact that it was great that we were together, peppered with pleadings that the attendees all come back and stick together in the long-run. Movements don't form and stir to action overnight. Mike confessed that after a year in Iraq he is no longer right in the head, adding with a nervous chuckle that he just wanted to move out into the woods. Instead, though, he was in the second floor conference room at the Islamic Society, in his socks, doing the only thing he could think of, trying to stop the war.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Retribution (Sakebi)

Stopped in at the New York Asian Film Festival, then at the IFC Center and now finishing up at the Japan Society, to check out the latest from one of my favorite living directors; screened July 3, 2007.

Written & Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

"[Retribution is] best described as the host of the screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, where I caught it, explained it for the audience: half standard J-Horror, complete with a female ghost sporting long and straight black hair, and half far-out Kurosawa, a generic hybrid if Kurosawa could be considered his very own genre. Unfortunately, it's infected with the lesser aspects of both; from Kurosawa, it's incredibly difficult to follow, and as J-horror it's merely boilerplate. But as a testament to Kurosawa's commanding directorial acumen—he's no run-of-the-mill director, even when he's a little bit off—Retribution, remarkably, ultimately succeeds in at least as many ways as it fails, and though it won't be the focal feature of any Kurosawa retrospectives anytime soon, it's rife with clever symbolism and a biting subtext about the nature and causes of contemporary culture's decay."

Read the full review here.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gounod's Faust in Prospect Park

A steady stream of (bourgeois white) people were walking up Ninth Street on Tuesday evening (19 June 2007) around seven o'clock, as I imagine they were doing on all of the other thoroughfares that lead to Prospect Park; the Metropolitan Opera's free Concerts in the Park are famously famous. (Had they not already been a beloved fixture since 1967, I'm sure that Peter Gelb, current manager and revitalizer at the Met, would have invented them.) At first the crowds were sparse, but the grassy baseball fields, which had been transformed into a makeshift outdoor theater, soon filled-up, like ants on sidewalk-spilled ice cream. It seemed as though attendance was a bit thinner this year than it has been in others, but there were still several hundred people, by my quick estimate, dutifully picnicking on the cool summer evening. There were two big letdowns: one, it was cloudy so there were no stars in the sky (and what's an open-air opera without stars?); two, the Met, unlike the New York Philharmonic, does not conclude the alfresco evening with a fireworks display, merely a offensively bright spotlight that helps light the way but also indicates that you don't have to go home but you can't stay there, as the thinning crowds reveal a strong police presence lying in wait. Grab your empties and scram.

The Concerts in the Parks are at once the best place to hear opera and the worst place to hear opera; the expansive fields of Prospect Park are infinitely more comfortable, in no small part thanks to the at all times presence of Monsieur Bouteille de Vin, than the cramped seating of the opera house, but the expanse requires the sound to be unwelcomely amplified while the technical challenges involved in mounting an opera outdoors results in the unfortunate, but understandably necessary, elision of opera's greatest virtue—its opulence, in set and costume design (not to mention audience appearance.) It's particularly regrettable in the case of a potential spectacle like Faust, the Met's choice for this particular night (they are also doing La Boheme elsewhere); I saw it performed several months ago up at Lincoln Center and the extravagance of the staging and Santo Loquasto's sets, which received their own ovations every time the curtains parted, was opera at its very best, especially in the crowd scene spectacular that is, or can be, Act II. Although at the park "Vin ou Bière" was accompanied by a blithely dancing child in the crowds behind me, so I suppose each venue has its merits.

Faust, with a solid score by Charles Gounod and a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, does not enjoy its glowing reputation for no reason, and I've never enjoyed it more, musically, than I did that on Tuesday. (James Morris' particularly devilish performance of "Vous Qui Faites" was a highlight.) Faust is laden with lush, sweet and infectious melodies that are reminiscent (well, vice versa) in character of those of perhaps my favorite operatic composer, Geroges Bizet, whose Carmen is perhaps the crown jewel of Western culture. Relatively speaking, there's not a whole lot of French opera in the repertoire, so its distinctly romantic flavor is something of a unique treat.

Though for purists and fusspots the park is not the ideal place to go to hear it; the expected low murmur of talking voices only gets louder as the wine bottles empty, the occasional futile shushes from bitter old ladies go completely ignored, and by Act III it was a slight struggle to hear above the din, as though I were mischievously playing opera on the satellite jukebox, in a NYU bar, on a Saturday night. While some of the world's most beautiful music was being performed, New Yorkers, in characteristic fashion, were tuning it out as though it were the Mr. Softee song or a passing siren. But that's New York for you, and it's endearing in its own way. Though many of the noisemakers stumble out during intermission, small pockets of increasingly drunk patrons picked up the noise-level slack.

I suppose that I exaggerate a bit and anyway these things, of course, come with the relaxed and casual atmosphere that necessarily accompanies being outside, and I gladly surrender absolute silence for the ability to drink wine and eat sandwiches, not to mention stretch my legs and lie down from time to time. And, as an aside, the Prospect Park experience is still superior to Central Park's where, as opposed to Prospect, the space is so long, vertical-wise, that it's easy to be so far from the speakers in the much larger crowds that all you can hear is people chattering. (By and large Brooklynites are respectfully softer than their Manhattan Island counterparts.) By the middle of the show, now bored children ran off to play in the dirt and the dogs tended to follow; it was a gorgeous portrait of all that the West can be and offer—transplendent tunes and reposeful people, a direct repudiation of all things George Bush. The backpack-carrying man in a turban wandering the perimeter and looking like a foreign exchange student will surely return home with tender tales of a halcyon America.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Let's Get Lost

Currently playing at Film Forum, through June 28.

Directed by Bruce Weber

"Bruce Weber's desultory film is the meandering visual equivalent of beat verse, with the obscure but deliberate intention of a jazzy improv. There's no story or narrative arc to speak of; Let's Get Lost, a sauntering character portrait, just gets lost...but while [it's] easy to admire, it's tougher to enjoy."

Read the full review here

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


At the Bernard B. Jacobs
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When former President Richard Nixon agreed to a series of interviews with talk-show host David Frost in 1977, they were both at the nadir of their careers; Frost had lost his New York show, while Nixon...well, it was 1977, three years after his, um, resignation. As Nixon suggests to Frost in a dramatically-speculated (or, fabricated) drunken, late-night phone call near the end of Frost/Nixon, they're both doing the shows as a means of "looking for a way back." Frost reminds him, "only one of us can win," to which The Mad Monk antagonistically responds, "And I shall be your fiercest adversary." Their series of interviews, which began as benign, in the end became a real fight to the finish, bull against toreador; were Nixon to lose, he would be finished. With fifty million people watching, there would be no second chance for historical redemption in the forum of public opinion.

Or at least that's how Peter Morgan tells it in Frost/Nixon, his theatrical debut. Like his screenplay for The Queen (and his teleplay for The Deal), Frost/Nixon reasonably imagines the behind-the-scenes goings-on that led up to Nixon's famous, if caveated, apology to the nation, elicited by the unlikely Frost. (He was also aided by the as of this writing unpublished memoir by witness James Reston, Jr.) As even Hunter S. Thompson would admit, in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Richard Nixon was a fun guy, a great football buddy, and Frank Langella plays Nixon appropriately, with mimetic bluster, as a chummy, jokey, and all together affable fellow from the moment he enters the stage. The same goes for Michael Sheen's Frost, whom he plays as a magnetic and seductive man of smiles. Both men seem like they'd be prize guests at a dinner party. The similarities begin to depart, however, as you dig a bit deeper; Nixon, historical monster as he may be, had the capacity to feel emotion—he has a soul, however atramentous—while Frost comes across as something of a vacuous superficies. His sole virtue, if you could call it that, is that he understood the similarly bird-brained medium of television.

But so did Nixon, apparently having learned his lesson seventeen years earlier after his notoriously disastrous debates with Kennedy. He performs a masterful manipulation job, steering the interviews in his favor to the consternation of Frost's people, who spend their evenings during the tapings poring over the video, critiquing everything from Frost's interviewing technique to his body language. Nixon's also got a knack for taking the upperhand, as when he catches Frost off-guard right before a taping by casually inquiring as to whether or not he did any fornicating the night before. Despite his perspiration problem, and his want of good looks, Nixon is a keen performer, particularly by way of Langella, able to fashion a reasonable and forgivable persona persuasive enough to, possibly, enable him to reclaim his position in history as something other than an emblem of corruption. But only if he can first get by Frost, who's as committed to reclaiming his spot in the sphere of American celebrity as Nixon is to clearing his name. "Success in America is unlike success anywhere else," he tells his agent; above all he wants back his table at Sardi's, a restaurant he speaks of almost mythically.

As he confides in the aforementioned drunken telephone call, Nixon believes that he's found something of a kindred spirit in Frost, despite their enmity, describing the both of them as working-class lads who've spent their whole lives trying to earn the respect and validation from the elites and snobs who looked down on them as schoolboys. (Although earlier Nixon is quick to deride Frost's effeminacy when he spots him wearing a pair of laceless Italian shoes.) In Morgan's version, one of Frost's driving motivations for doing the interviews as something more than a mere puff-piece is to prove to the dismissive, disparaging Mike Wallace (and presumably the rest of his colleagues) that he can be an honest-to-goodness journalist, and not just, as he's called in the play (along with Vidal Sassoon), the emblem of the times, possessing "great fame without any discernable quality."

In his quest for respectability, Frost is also goaded on by his researcher, James Reston (Stephen Kunken), an avowed anti-Nixonite—and yet even he is enamored by Nixon the man when he finally meets him and encounters his assuring and congenial formality—who's working on the show in the hopes of giving Nixon the trial he never got, thanks to Gerry Ford's kindly but controversial, to put it nicely, pardon. The bulk of Frost/Nixon is in the build-up to the actual interviews, as deals are struck, money is spent, advertisers are sought and research is performed. It's more absorbing than it might sound. "Why would I want to talk to David Frost?" Nixon asks, incredulously, early on, disparaging Frost's skills as an interviewer until his agent (Stephen Rowe) assures him that he'll get a big chunk of cash out of it—more than CBS and Mike Wallace'll spend—and it'll be an easy opportunity for him to tell his side of the story, to get a crack at revising history. He promises the interview'll be a "big wet kiss". Meanwhile, however, Frost—known primarily as a playboy and an avatar of the apolitical—is working diligently with a team of researchers to dig up as much dirt as possible with which to nail Nixon. "Frost's not in your intellectual class," Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson) assures him; that's probably true, but Frost has a passionate retinue of analysts and advisors behind him who, despite their naive idealism, at least possess commitment. "This is war," one of Frost's people declares anticipatorily and a bit histrionically. What proves Nixon's undoing, however, is his attempts to find a careful balance between showbiz and politics while Frost, on the other hand, understands there's no difference between them on the great, diminishing simplifier known as TV. That's why he wins.

The play is narrated alternately by Reston and Brennan, offering privileged insights into each camp as well as general lessons in history and context; again, it's more interesting than it might sound, but the whole thing does play out a little awkwardly. This is Morgan's first foray into Broadway, and the script betrays his origins in other media; it's structured as a long string of often short scenes, tied-together by the excessive narration and, thanks to director Michael Grandage, coupled with flashy footage played on thrity-six TV screens that hang above the stage. The screens are hard to look away from during the abbreviatedly recreated interviews when they perform their other function, broadcasting the stage action like a stadium jumbotron, hinting that though Frost/Nixon is on a stage, it doesn't want to be a play. (Although the screens were helpful inasmuch as I'd forgotten my glasses.) A movie deal has already been struck, and filming commences once the play closes; I'd be excited, that it might be a better fit to the material, but with the great, diminishing simplifier known as Ron Howard slated to direct I'm afraid that Frost/Nixon will never get the fair shake it deserves.

Because it is often as effectively suspenseful, intriguing and fascinating as The Queen, an impressively and surprisingly brilliant script, thanks to Morgan's dramatic acumen and occasional historical liberties. Also in no small part thanks to Langella, who has the physicality of Nixon down pat (haha!), with hunched posture, speaking with one hand in a gravelly voice at once quavering and formidable. He gives Nixon a boisterously good-natured ebullience in public and a manic fury in private, though ultimately he reveals the sad and beaten old man beneath the layers of the alternatingly bitter and amiable veneer. "To go on, denying it all...I'm tired," Nixon sighs blearily near the end, drained of all his bellicose vigor. It's Langella's show, and thankfully he'll be back for the filmic record, but he wouldn't be as good without the help of straight-man Sheen, also returning for the film, a performance as underappreciated as his turn as Tony Blair, passed-over for a Tony nomination as he was for an Oscar. Sheen gives Frost complexity, always forcing you to question his true motivations as he squanders his savings to get the show on the air, unsure as to whether or not he's actually developed a political conscience, particularly as Frost seems to be willfully abdicating the advantage to Nixon during the early interview sessions. Sheen's Frost has the semblance of depth and complexity, when in reality he is just a shameless self-promoter, even agreeing to share a percentage of the ad revenue with Nixon, a move that's controversial for its considerable unethicality.

But beyond a mere historical drama about two wash-ups' last grasp, moving as it is, Frost/Nixon has more pressing issues inspiring it; Morgan, in writing a play about a show trial for Nixon in the national courthouse of television, obviously has parallels to contemporary politics in mind. Is Mr. Bush just as bad as Nixon, Frost/Nixon inspires the viewer to ask, or a lot worse? Either way, watching Mr. Bush get ripped apart on the stage, vicariously via Nixon, to the point where he can no longer maintain the facade of innocence is a moving and cathartic experience. While George W. Bush could probably never begin to atone for the destruction he's done to his country and the world, it would, after all, have to begin with a simple, "I'm sorry."

Directed by Michael Grandage; Written by Peter Morgan; Sets & Costumes by Christopher Oram; Video Design by Jon Driscoll; Starring Michael Sheen & Frank Langella

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Brahms' Third and Fourth - New York Philharmonic

At Avery Fisher
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Allan Kozinn of the Times called Thursday's portion of the ongoing Brahms Festival "coldly unemotional", "vulgar", "empty" and "hulking". I don't pretend to be a music critic—just a casual fan, for once—but, sitting up in a Third Tier box with the poor people, I can't claim to have been equally offended. My ignorant ears even enjoyed some of it!

I have always thought that the quality of Brahms' symphonies mirrors the character of each movement within them—that is, one and four, whether referring to a symphony or any of the symphonies' movements, are dynamite powerhouses, while two and three are...well, not so special. Brahms' third movements especially—and particularly when pitted against those of someone like Dvorak, a master of the third movement—feel perfunctory.

And Lorin Maazel, conducting the New York Philharmonic on 31 May 2007, did little to change my mind on Brahms' Third, although it sounded probably as good as I've ever heard it. Though the symphony itself has its moments, such as its plaintive opening, overall I find it much of it to be melodically banal; the orchestra's performance did nothing to change my impression, and I found my mind wandering quite often.

I know only a small portion of the Romantics' repertoire, but what I am familiar with I became so through Leonard Bernstein's classic recordings with New York, so I always find it interesting and a bit challenging to hear Maazel's interpretations. Against Bernstein, his rhythms are slower, and his phrasing is more drawn out, stretching the melodic sequences as if, because so many of them are by now so familiar, he is holding them back for an element of surprise; comparing the two conductors reminds me of comparing the speech rhythms of Americans and Canadians. The latter is just a bit slower, even a bit frustrating in its temper.

But the orchestra's performance of the Fourth was rewarding, although I suppose any orchestra doing a competent performance of that piece would thrill me; I'm still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled at hearing this gorgeous music performed live. Kozinn said they played it like Tchaikovsky; I like Tchaikovsky. What was remarkable for me about their performance of the Fourth was Maazel's take on the third movement; he reinvented it for me in a similar manner to which he had with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring several months earlier. The Philharmonic played it with gusto and bluster, giving it a wide dynamic range that allowed frequent "dramatic blasts" to ring out. It was truly rousing, and the highlight of the evening. I applauded enthusiastically though, as is my custom, I did not stand.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Talk Radio

At the Longacre Theater
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Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian's (apparently pronounced Buh-GO-zhin) 1987 drama currently in revival at the Longacre, inspects and dissects Reagan-Bush-era America, exposing the sinister substratum hidden beneath the bogus sheen of "It's Morning Again!" sloganeering; and with what's his name still in the Oval Office, it's lost little of its original sting or relevancy. It's almost a one-man show, which Mark Wendland's set design italicizes—Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber, on the stage where he belongs), radio host, sits in the middle of the stage, underneath a spotlight and in between two inwardly pointed radio microphones, making it difficult to look anywhere else. Every time Barry goes to the bathroom and/or commercial, however, the secondary characters get their opportunity to deliver a monologue about how they met Barry and offer their opinions as to his mental state (apparently following the Poochie rule of drama: "Whenever Poochie's not on screen, all the other characters should be asking—'Where's Poochie?'"), but primarily Barry-the-character is developed through the telephone conversations he has with his listeners, an assortment of xenophobes, addicts, racists, promiscuous teens and sycophants—in a word, Americans. "We're discussing America here tonight," Barry Champlain announces in the middle of his show, though it's actually more like a one-sided rant than a discussion, as Barry often exercises his license to hang up on his pre-screened callers.

Barry views himself as something of a self-appointed straight talker whose purpose is to "tell it like it is"; as one caller aptly notes, he's a "prick (beat) in the conscience of this country." Other callers are not so flattering: "you think you are God," accuses one such caller bitterly, but it's Bogosian himself who's pitching Barry as a god. Or, more appropriately, in a world where God is apparently dead, the people cling desperately to mortal, terrestrial leaders, and Barry's just another ersatz deity to tell the freedom-despising populace what to think and what to do. If it's not Barry, it's Reagan, or leftist tracts about the World Bank's abuse of third-world countries, or any other ideology that promises to make people feel superior to one another by offering some iota of moral certainty. The calls to the show become like prayers, answered by an exasperated, misanthropic God with an unfailingly sardonic cynicism; Champlain has no compassion or pity for his supposed friends and lovers, let alone for the strangers calling in to his show, and he finds some way to push away or berate each and every one. Barry is the Mr. Hyde to Frasier Crane's Dr. Jekyll.

A lot of it's posturing for the sake creating good ratings and good radio, but some of it goes farther than that, a symptom of Barry's unraveling; he's a winding-down train, as one character notes, at times forgetting that it's just a job and wallowing in self-destruction. (He dabbles in the preferred drugs of the loquacious—cocaine, whisky and cigarettes.) The action is set on a Friday night airing of the show and it's a big night for Barry, as executives, considering his show for a vacant slot in their nationally syndicated line-up, are listening in. But the show's teetering and Barry blames it on his producer, Stu, who keeps putting through calls that Barry can't work with, a bunch of mild kooks and garden variety whackos. While it may be true to some extent that Stu is intentionally needling his colleague and once upon a time friend, the poor quality of the calls is primarily not his fault but that of America. No one has anything meaningful to say, a point Talk Radio makes from the get-go as it opens with a dial flipping through the AM/FM band, a sound effect that serves to express the banality, conformity and dullity of American discourse, overrun as it is with rock music and baseball games.

That substantially vacuous America disgusts Barry and it must disgust Bogosian as well, although both are also addicted to it because of a "morbid sense of curiosity," the same disorder that has prompted the popular dominance of the blogosphere in the modern era. But Bogosian saves his most caustic criticism for the youth, represented perhaps unfairly by Kent (Sebastian Stan), a stoned, pretentious bemohawked punk who functions briefly as Barry's co-host; he also stands in for America at large, thoughtlessly spouting parroted opinions he doesn't actually understand and probably doesn't even believe. (Stan's performance is notable; it's a very funny turn, and he seemed to be making Schreiber genuinely crack-up during their exchanges.) Kent shows Barry that a lot of his listeners aren't even really listening, they're just laughing at their compatriots and killing time in between buying things or getting high; so though Barry may see himself as a big-mouthed god, he is, in the end, merely the host of a popular radio talk show as ultimately meaningless as the lives of the Americans calling in to it.

As such, Talk Radio's a mean play with a bitter and hateful view of humanity, though it seemed entirely lost on the audience the night I saw it. "Everything's screwed up and you like it that way," Barry shouts in a blazing monologue at the play's finale, "you're pathetic...I despise each and every one of you," and you can't help but think Bogosian really feels the same way about the audience of tourists and bourgeois New Yorkers filling the seats. For a play that goes out of its way to tell its audience how stupid and worthless it is, though, Talk Radio elicited quite an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience who, I suppose, either wasn't paying attention or thought that the electrified Schreiber surely couldn't have meant them, as they hooted and hollered like a pack of morons in need of their own god. Sadly, you could argue that the play is a success because it proves its own thesis; the appropriate response to Talk Radio is, of course, to walk out, but then of course you'd not only be wasting a hundred dollar ticket but also missing out on a criticism well worth hearing. As long as you're not too haughty to actually hear it, or too offended to enjoy it.

Directed by Robert Falls; Written by Eric Bogosian; Set Design by Mark Wendland. Starring Liev Schreiber