Friday, November 30, 2007

Movies: On the Waterfront

I long intended to see this movie (along with The Wild One, which I've still yet to see), perhaps misguidedly due to my appreciation of the (totally unrelated) Billie Holiday song with the same key word in the title, and also in despite of my general ambivalence toward Marlon Brando (hated him in Carousel, liked him well enough in Streetcar Named Desire, didn't pay attention to him in Godfather, but have never found him attractive; his waist is too short and his voice is too high). Anyway, when I found this amongst the post-Thanksgiving booty (said friend is a wanna-be actor and a proclaimed Brando devotee), I was rather excited and settled into the couch, trying to recalibrate my senses to old-movie time from new-movie time.

Calibration aside, the film managed to hold its own against the newer films I'd just seen. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a waterfront dock worker who, by a familial relation, gets roped into working with the bad guys instead of the good guys in the brewing battles between the oppressed dock workers and the crooked mob-related union that treats them so poorly. Something of a well-intentioned fuck-up, in the film's opening scene, Malloy inadvertently plays a crucial role in the mob's murder of a friend and co-worker, a punishment for making noise about the union's unfairness. Malloy retreats to his haven—a rooftop pigeon coop—where he cares for his birds (and his now-deceased friends'), while down on the street, a local priest (Karl Malden) and the deceased's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), get riled up and decide to get to the bottom of the murder. Both come to Malloy, and from that point, the remainder of the plot stretches clearly ahead: Malloy will struggle with his conscience, trying to decide whether to continue playing nice with the mob and having a cush, steady position; he will be persuaded somewhat by the priest's call to conscience, but moreso by his affection for Edie, with whom he will fall in love. At first, he will be shunned for choosing the side of right, but in the end, the other dock workers will be moved by his confident sense of right, and they will allow him to lead them to victory over their oppressors, who will be punished (both by the law, when Malloy testifies against them, and by Malloy's own fists). It won't be easy, and other, lesser characters will sacrifice their lives to make way for this triumph.

So, I've gone and made it sound very kitschy and corny which, I'm afraid, no movie from 1954 could hope to avoid being. What I found so appealing, though, unspoken and yet heavy-handed puns aside, were Brando's rooftop sequences, in which he feeds and holds his pigeons, literally "above" the seamy world in which he lives, and yet still very much a gritty, grimy, earthly laborer (the pigeon is far from a celestial bird). Those are the characters young Brando plays best, and the tender intention behind his coarse behavior is evoked perfectly in the way he handles his birds, and in his dejection when he comes up to the coop late in the film to find that each bird has been shot dead by his friends-turned-enemies. Brando's hapless tenderness manages again and again to sucker us into forgiving his characters (though a militant feminist might argue that that hapless tenderness indicts him again and again as a schmuck and a con-artist.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

The day after Thanksgiving, with nothing to do and no where to go in the bitter cold, I snuck into my friend's apartment (I have the keys to feed the cat when he goes away, and he had indeed gone away for the holiday weekend) to watch DVDs on his giant plasma television all day. I had to choose from his collection (which includes the bootlegged 8 Mile I had brought over to Thanksgiving dinner, i.e. it's not the best collection), and amongst the not that interesting (Da Ali G Show), the empty cases (Cool Hand Luke), and the utter crap (Hot Chick), I found something promising: an as-yet unwrapped copy of The Motorcycle Diaries, featuring the illustrious Gael García Bernal (on whose brilliance I have expounded in the past). After fighting with the technology for ten minutes or so (three remotes, and not one of them turned on the television, which had no buttons on it either, for aesthetic effect, I suppose; I finally found them tucked away on the inch-wide side of the screen), the movie started, in Spanish, to my surprise.

That was the first of many great things about the film. I expected another Hollywood biopic in which everyone speaks English, maybe with a Hispanic accent, even though they live in countries where no one speaks English (like Frieda), but instead, saw something so exuberantly well-crafted that it really knocked my socks off. The casting of actors for bit parts, and even extras, each of whose faces were rich with expressive details to evoke a time and place even more strongly than the scenery, architecture, vehicles, or other place markers around them, is spot-on, and even if Bernal is perhaps too handsome for the part, his ever-present infectious sweetness hit the perfect mark to describe his character's humanitarian epiphany. Rodrigo De la Serna, finally, who plays Granado—Guevara's sidekick, a Sancho Panza to Guevara's taller Quixote (Granado describes their broken-down cycle as Rocinante toward the film's beginning, probably unconscious that he is the Panza rather than the star).

The film tells the story of the famous Che Guevara's less-famed political coming of age: a road trip on a broken-down motorcycle from his native Argentina through Chile and Peru to eventually work a stint at a leper's colony (Guevara and Granado are medical students). Along the way, they have adventures and trials; they lose their tent and have nothing to protect them from the weather; their cycle finally becomes irreparable and they continue the journey on foot. Along the way, they meet generous women, angry men, and a number of Peruvian peasants who can't find work and can barely afford to live. Once at the leper colony, Guevara stuns the patients, doctors, and nuns alike by refusing (rather Christ-like) to isolate himself from the patients, touching them with his bare hands, playing soccer with them, and, in one climactic scene, swimming across the freezing river in the middle of the night in order to celebrate his birthday with them (the patients and the staff live on separate sides of a river, demarcating the segregation against which Guevara feels so strongly). By the film's end, Guevara is primed for a life of work toward social justice; he's forgotten about the wealthy girlfriend he left behind, and might not return to Argentina to finish his medical degree.

Better than most films of the "road trip" genre, though perhaps inaptly named (the motorcycle is kaput by the middle of the movie, and Guevara doesn't keep a diary so much as write detailed letters home to his family), the film's greatest achievement is to partially-aestheticize the poverty, sickness, and suffering the Guevara found so inspiring, such that it remains dismal and real without turning the audience away in disgust or horror. The art direction mimics Guevara's embrace of the people—his tenderness—in showing their beauty and ugliness simultaneously, the way the best Dutch painters were once able to do. We don't see that very often in art of any kind today; instead we are offered the black/white dichotomy of airbrushed supermodels and scarred villains—characters lack poignancy and depth.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Movies: Before Sunrise


It's going to be okay. Julie Delpy will ditch the Mayim Bialik grunge gear and Ethan Hawke will loose the stonewashed jeans and leather jacket in time for the 2004 sequel, Before Sunset (incidentally, they will both also lose a lot of baby fat). I haven't seen the sequel yet, but I know that this will happen. I've seen the pictures.

Will they have grown any more interesting? That cannot be told. A well-tailored suit and a stunning clavicle only register so far on the interest meter in a movie where nothing happens other than meandering conversation. The question is, will Ethan Hawke's character come up with any questions more interesting than "What was your first sexual experience," and will Julie Delpy's character realize that there's no reason to "feel like shit" just because you've had sex with someone you might never see again.

That is, will Before Sunset be any less dopey than Before Sunrise? One day, I will find out. Perhaps I'll wait the allotted six months that they assign each other.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Movies: 8 Mile

Watching a bootlegged DVD of this movie at two in the morning on a thirteen-inch television screen provided a ghetto ambiance that complemented the film perfectly. In fact, because I was watching a DV recording sloppily made in a movie theatre, with a line of gray fuzz running through the screen's center, I cannot tell you whether the dim, dingy haze that surrounds Eminem and his compatriots as they drive around Detroit and hang in the underground club was an aesthetic choice made by the director, or just an affect of the copy-of-a-copy treatment; either way, it worked.

The script, I'm sorry to say, is bare to a fault (considering that I couldn't make out a lot of the dialogue thanks to the television's tinny speakers and the DV's crappy mic, this turned out to be not such a bad thing), and when the characters do speak, their conversation is as intellectually evolved as the dialogue in Flashdance (8 Mile actually feels like the masculine, rapping remake of Flashdance in quite a lot of ways). The acting, though, is surprisingly inoffensive; Eminem seems comfortable playing himself, and Kim Basinger plays his drunken, trailer-dwelling mother with aplomb. It's kind of strange seeing Kim Basinger so fucked up.

What the film lacks in screenwriting it makes up in soundtrack, heavy on early-nineties rap, especially Biggie. Even here, though, my expectations weren't met; I expected to hear something more underground, more hardcore; something I hadn't heard before, but I didn't. Most disappointing were Eminem's rap sequences. I've never been a big fan of his (we started off on a bad foot when I heard his music being played on Live 105, San Francisco's old modern rock/alternative station, on which rap had never been played; I believed at the time (and still do), that his music was included only because he was white), and I haven't listened to enough (any?) of his songs to tell you whether he's an equal rapper to, say Biggie. Based on his rapping scenes in the film, though, he has bad rhythm, and gets more mileage out of the piss and vinegar he isn't afraid to spew from his mouth than from any musical or word-smithing brilliance.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Music: Art Brut and The Hold Steady

Art Brut, whose first album (which is completely brilliant (and hilarious)) came out last year, opened for The Hold Steady last week. Some other English guys who call themselves the 1990s opened for Art Brut. The show was at Terminal 5, the only decent venue conveniently located within walking distance from my house, and I went, even though I had no clue who or what The Hold Steady was; I like Art Brut enough that I didn't really care.

I'm not one of those people who goes to shows every week. I clearly don't know anything about the local music scene, since I hadn't ever heard of The Hold Steady (they are, apparently, from Brooklyn, and epitomize, as I would find out, everything that I can't stand about Brooklyn. . . or should I say "new" Brooklyn, that is, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope; not Sheepshead Bay, Bed Stuy, Bay Ridge). The performances I am accustomed to attending have assigned seating (or at least seating) and generally well-mannered audiences. And even when I was a teenager who loitered in malls after school, I wasn't an ill-behaved one. The worst I ever did was shred food court napkins into tiny pieces and leave them like miniature haystacks on the plastic table tops, with the excuse to my cohorts that I was "creating jobs." (These days I am fanatical about cleaning up after myself in public places, and have gone so far as to insist on taking my own trash out of Starbucks when the employee was standing right there, trying to take it from me.)

Digressions aside, this was an 18-and-over show, and, while I want to respect the rights of young people to see their favorite bands perform live (I recall listening to one of my closest friends--a real indie aficionado--bitch for three years about how she couldn't ever attend the 21-and-over venues in Seattle, where she was going to college), I expect them to behave better than barn animals. Aside from the fan-boys who knew every lyric to every song (unheard of 1990s included) and the girls with snub noses, ironed hair, and autographed band t-shirts squealing in my ear (my friend gave me earplugs, but I needed them more for the audience than the bands), the crowd was basically tolerable.

The 1990s were pretty dismal (a guitarist who sang lead, a bass player, and a drummer who also sang, but clearly whose role in the band was to look hot, hence his placement front and center, and his inability to sing and play drums fast at the same time). When Art Brut came on, we all pepped up a bit, and did some minor jumping around (Art Brut is like, basic post-punk rocking with amusing, ironic, semi-intellectual, faux naive lyrics). They were pretty entertaining performers, if somewhat over-styled, but the propelling force of the music--the lyrics--were generally uninterpretable due to acoustics, audience participation, etc., making the live show a lot less enjoyable than listening to the album on headphones. Songs from the new album, which I don't have, and haven't heard, did not compel me to buy it or hear it.

Along with all of the teeny-boppers, there were plenty of classic indie rockers in the crowd: men in their fifties with glasses, grayed temples, and t-shirt clad foodie bellies. In the break between Art Brut and The Hold Steady, a young asshat (technical term) wormed his way to the front and center (where my friend and I were standing, perhaps three feet from the stage), and began verbally harassing a bald, bespectacled music fan, for "being too old for a rock concert" and the like (the kid not realizing that this guy lived through the bloody creation of rock as we know it, and even the birth of indie rock as we know it). When the band came on stage, the asshat began to jump and push, creating a mosh pit (to which creation the crowd was amenable). I remained put through one song, sustaining minor injuries, and then decided to leave. I am too attached to my body, plus the band was awful. Imagine a group of white, aging hipsters, the leader of whom looks like a cross between George Costanza and Newman, pretending to be hardcore. That, my friends, is Brooklyn, and its representative rock band, The Hold Steady. Give me Seattle or give me silence.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movies: Beowulf

I really had almost zero expectations when I walked into the I-Max 3-D spectacular that is this movie (miraculously, I hadn't seen the trailer, and was only there for Angelina Jolie, of whom I'm not even that fond anymore (she jumped the shark long ago), excepting that I had read the book Beowulf in seventh grade. That was long ago enough that, when the movie ended, I had to check with my movie-going pals to be sure that they did alter the plot (which seemed longer and more complicated than I had remembered). Indeed, they did (and to little affect, I think), but I will discuss that in a bit. The point I want to make now is that I walked into this movie having seen only a poster or two, and therefore expecting it to be a live-action film, not a computer-animated one.

On the topic of technology, I don't want to give the impression that I am poo-pooing the technical advances of the past few years, or imply that I'm not impressed that an I-Max 3-D movie even exists. Because that, in and of itself, is quite amazing. However, being a member of my generation, of course I am very difficult to satisfy, and I have long list of complaints about the visual aspects of this film. First and foremost, watching it felt like being in a video game. I'm not certain that would register as a negative comment to the creators and the fans, but that's because I'm not the target market. I don't play video games, and I don't really want my movie-going experience to feel like a gaming experience. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I do think that I prefer my movies flat. Specifically, the shots in which the camera pulled back in space, while trees whizzed up from behind us felt particularly awkward, because one doesn't ever run (fly?) backward at such a speed. Additionally, I disliked certain textural elements (Beowulf's skin, in particular, was too buffed and gleaming; it appeared plasticized) and types of character motion (the Queen in particular (as well as old Beowulf's young mistress) moved in a bobble-headed kind of way that I found particular noisome.)

Back to the topic of plot, and including a discussion on casting/artistic direction, I am disappointed in the temptation twist the writers included in the plot, and the casting of a temptress (Angelina Jolie, of course) as Grendel's mother. Again, it's been more than ten years since I read this book, but the plot then was simple: there is a monster named Grendel that is horrifying to behold; there is a coward called Unferth who has a boil on his neck which he picks, and who wets his pants in fear when he sees the monster Grendel. There is hero called Beowulf who comes and kills Grendel, and who then must kill Grendel's mother, an even more horrible monster. Then, the story is over. I agree that there isn't much meat there for feature-length film, but if the goal of the feature-length film is to show gore and combat, then the film doesn't require a very generous plot arc anyway. The writers, however, decided to add in some "babes" (really, the women in the film aren't anything more than that, not even getting equal technical attention to their features and movement), as well as a plot twist that darkens Beowulf from hero into fallen hero. The updated plot progresses thusly: Beowulf comes to kill Grendel who, for some reason, is the "shame" of the king. After Grendel is dead, Beowulf must go to kill Grendel's mother, but because Grendel's mother is the enchanting Angelina Jolie, covered in gold latex, with built-in high heels growing from her feet (kind of gross) and a Rapunzel-length braid that has its own prehensile, tentacle-like abilities, Beowulf succumbs to her temptation: if he lies with her and gives her a new child, she will make him king. After he does the deed, he returns to court and lies about having killed her; the king sees the reflection of his own youthful folly in Beowulf and commits suicide after pronouncing Beowulf heir to his throne. Beowulf inherits the lovely (and tedious) Queen, and no one knows what he's done until years later, when he is gray and wrinkled, and a fire-breathing dragon (his own son by Grendel's mother) comes to attack his kingdom. He kills the dragon, and dies whilst doing it (therefore before he can kill Grendel's mother). At the film's end, the possibility for the continuance of the cycle is reopened when Grendel's mother approaches Beowulf's dearest friend, the next in line to be king.

These additions theoretically give the film more philosophical depth (power, lust, and greed are inconquerable, and always ultimately lead to evil and destruction), but the tone of the film desensitizes the audience from any potential philosophical ruminations. Angelina Jolie, ultimately, was a poor choice of representative for Grendel's mother (though sell tickets, she did), as was Crispin Glover a poor choice of representative for Grendel (whom I always pictured as being fat, blobby, and slimy, rather than emaciated and dessicated). Mostly, I am disappointed that Unferth didn't even have a visible boil, much less one that he picked, as that has been the most memorable image from the book, clinging to me for nearly 15 years now.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Movies: Margot at the Wedding

Despite having an over-written script executed by surprisingly unskilled actors, Margot at the Wedding manages to still be a very watchable movie, even a pleasant experience (despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters); this is mostly thanks to excellent cinematography, and also the performances of child actors Zane Pais and Flora Cross, who create the only believable portrayals of emotion in the film.

Emotion is really the key here; the plot is (supposedly) fraught with it—it's an emotional family drama of the talky, late-Woody Allen kind (think Interiors), tinged with a bit of indie weirdness added by the creepy neighbors in the house next door. Margot (an icy, high-strung Nicole Kidman, who channels a combination of Mia Farrow (shrinking) and young Diane Keaton (gnawing)) takes her son Claude out to her sister Pauline's house (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The sisters are estranged and haven't spoken for a year, but Pauline is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black, horribly misplaced in this completely non-farcical drama), and Margot and her son are there for the wedding. Equally importantly, Margot's husband (John Turturro) and her other son (whom we never meet) are not there. As the plot unfolds, we find out that Margot has been having an affair for some time with a local writer (which will, over the course of the film, sour), and that Malcolm once shared a kiss with that local writer's teenage daughter. More disturbing things will happen with the neighbors (they will roast a whole pig, naked (the neighbors, not the pig), and the neighbor boy will attack Claude's neck with his teeth in the tall grass). These things will not be explored; they will just happen.

What will be "explored" are the feelings of the key characters. People will yell, and laugh, and (this is the unfortunate part) pretend to cry. Let's be honest. Can Jack Black cry? I'm sure that Jack Black, the man, has experienced sad things in his life, and has cried. However, on screen, his attempt at crying reads like his attempt to hide his own laughter at himself attempting to cry. I would expect more from Leigh and even more from Kidman, but no; their alligator tears are just as dry, and they switch from scrunched toddler-tantrum face and high pitched whining to straight face and perfectly-formed eloquent speech and back to the tantrum within in moments. Compounded with the fact that they are saying things that people just don't say (particularly in front of young people, which people just don't do—even with extremely precocious young people raised in Manhattan), this pretense renders it impossible for the audience to connect with the characters (the aforementioned Pais and Cross excepted, who are natural and wonderful and not pretentious at all).

At the end of the film, Margot is putting her son on a bus, and staying behind; there is a conversation between the two of them in which he asks her to come along and she refuses. As the bus starts to move, she appears to change her mind, and drops her jacket and then her purse on the ground, and runs after the bus, shouting "Wait!" until it stops. Then she gets in, and sits next to Claude, panting. The bus continues (onto Vermont and the hubby, we presume). But here is my question. How are we to believe that a woman as totally rigid and uptight as Margot would leave her coat and her purse in the middle of the sidewalk and go off to Vermont without a suitcase or even a tube of moisturizer? That's right: we aren't. And so it all goes. At least the film looks good.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Books: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

This book, like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, has a way of reverse-hypothesizing and hand-picking vignettes to come to surprising conclusions, but doing so in such a blithe, reader-friendly tone that most readers don't notice, thereby propelling the book the top of the New York Times' Best Sellers List.

That sounds awfully vindictive, like I hated the darned thing, which isn't true at all. However, this, along with The Tipping Point, are probably the only two non-fiction books I've read in the past few years, and I find much to be lacking in this kind of populist intellectualism.

That sounds awfully snobbish, as if I'd rather be reading Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze and Michele Foucault, and while I did subject myself to reading all of those men's books in college and grad school, I hated every moment of it, and did my best to ensure that my academic writing was straightforward and conversational.

But like intelligent conversation (don't judge me by my blog!), without exclamation marks (again, don't judge me by my blog). I hated the way Levitt and Dubner hopped from vignette to vignette in pursuit of illustrating. . . what? Was there a thesis somewhere? Did I miss it? The only thing they seemed to intend to prove is that economics are fun and surprising. And it wasn't even that fun. Or surprising.

For example: one conclusion they come to is that the radical drop in crime in the mid-1990s was not due to an aging population, a change in the market for crack, or Mayor Giuliani, like so many people might assume. In fact, the drop directly correlates with the legalization of abortion an appropriate number of years ago to cause a sudden drop in the number of baby thugs coming to full young thug-hood. (Thug-dom being a direct consequence of being born to a parent (most often a single mother) who doesn't want you, and therefore does a bad job raising you). This is shocking, because abortion is shocking (I don't know why, but apparently it is), but it's also kind of a "duh" conclusion. Of course unwanted, poorly-parented, have-nothing children are going to become thugs.

A friend of mine who had also read this book said that he appreciated the way the authors concluded that economics are separate from moral judgements. This at first seemed like a good enough reason to write a book (i.e., who cares if abortion is not supported by the Catholic Church; it cuts down on crime). And yet, the more I thought about it, the more that, too, seemed a "duh" conclusion; after all, all sciences (of which economics is one) are (or at least ought to be) moral-free. So then, other than the fascinating cover art, in which a green apple is sliced open to reveal the juicy flesh of an orange inside, this book really wasn't all that special.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Movies: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

This musico-biographical documentary currently playing to an above-60 crowd at IFC (I was less than half the age of every other person in the theater) has the rosy, feel-good tone of an A&E Biography episode, and is about as challenging (that is, not so very). When I lived at home and my mom watched Biography every night, I would inevitable fall asleep while she was making me tea, the glowing thirteen-inch screen's black and white footage dropping my eyelids like Roman shades. Accordingly, Peter Seeger had the same soporific qualities, and while I fought the tufty waves of sleep, I did miss a central swath of images (though I managed, I think, to remain at least semi-conscious aurally).

Seeger is certainly a character from another time (he built, for example, his family's home from scratch, by himself, out of logs from trees he chopped down himself, with a small axe). And yet, his time was not only one that very much pre-dated him, but also post-dated him (he married a Japanese woman; I feel like this didn't happen often in the 1940s; additionally, he was a major labor union and civil rights activist, as well as a card-carrying Communist). The first talking head flashed up on the screen was Bob Dylan, another character from another time (the same time, and a time that pre-dated both of them—a specifically American time of Depression, coffee and pie, freight trains, hitched rides, cross-country travel on foot, with nothing but the suit on your back and the shoes on your feet. . . that's early Dylan, of course, but Seeger seemed never to grow out of it the way Bob did).

Dylan was followed by a whole parade of folk-influenced heavy-hitters (Springstein, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, and even a Dixie Chick) who spoke on Seeger's musical (and political) heroism. What I find most fascinating about Seeger, though, is that he's a mere musician, not a song writer. That someone who didn't write his own songs (and always performed the songs he sang straight, without any vocal embellishment, lengthy guitar solos, etc.) could have such a lasting effect on musicians who do is counter-intuitive at best.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dance: Batsheva Dance at Guggenheim's Works and Process

I know you are most likely thoroughly saturated by my dance posts by this time (doesn't she see any movies any more?); this was going to be the last one until December, until I saw the two dancers from Batsheva (Daniel Agami and Ya'ara Moses) along with their Artistic Director and Choreographer Ohad Naharin last night, and decided that I must must must see this company perform at BAM this weekend. (You must as well. Must!) I am not capable of writing anything to convey why this is so important, except to explain that their dance is a kind you have not seen before, that comes out of a way of working that you have not seen before, and that I now desperately want to study (it is, currently, only available in Tel Aviv, which is very upsetting). This. . . method (he prefers not to call it a technique) is something created by Naharin (although it is too organic to have been created, per se), now known as GAGA, involves a seemingly semi-intuitive exploration of the physical self based on certain guiding. . . images. . . regarding movement centers in the body. If this description sounds searching and tenuous, that is because it is, and this way of working the body is that way as well.

When the audience entered the theater, we saw the two dancers on stage, working in a way that seemed to be improvisational. They worked individually, moving in different ways, but were close to each other, and seemed to work in harmony with each other, not reflecting each other, but somehow riffing off of each other. Their movements were legato, voluptuous, rolling; their extensions had balletic strength, but would finish in a stretching wiggle of toes on a flexed foot; their arms expressed movement that ran like current from their shoulders all the way through and out their fingertips; their torsos moved in all directions; they dropped down low and rose back up. When the program began and Naharin began to answer the moderator's questions, slowly and thoughtfully, their movements appeared to shift somewhat in response to his words. Physically, seamlessly, they demonstrated the spirit of his words. He explained that they were working GAGA, a method his dancers use to warm up and work (it is not part of the performance or the making and learning of choreography, but a way of working that is nevertheless imperative to understanding and executing the choreography, which works with the same principles).

Naharin listed a number of such principles or guiding images that comprise the language of GAGA, which his dancers demonstrated; creating movement from the source of the pelvis, working only on the outside of the feet, or as if the feet are fully glued to the floor, working only at 30% (Naharin explained why he appreciates laziness, and equates it with a desire for efficiency), silliness (Naharin emphasized that being silly is not being stupid), shaking versus quaking (a shake is something that you make happen to your body, a quake is something that happens to your body from outside that you cannot control). GAGA is about finding pleasure in effort, in moving your body, in discovering your body and its movement potential. It is more energetic- than muscular-based; Naharin, in his chair, seemingly effortlessly lifted his leg a few times while describing battement (straight leg kicks in ballet) explained that these kicks are difficult for dancers who try to lift their leg from the thigh muscle when the leg is already in the air (this is very true), but if the movement comes from an energetic explosion at the beginning of the kick, from the groin, the kick is effortless. He expressed the importance of understanding the body as a network of awareness (the nervous system) which GAGA allows us to explore, so that we discover, rather than necessarily create, movement. He expressed a distaste for mirrors, which distract us from this discovery.

Rather than write more now, I will save something for after I see a full performance of actual choreography (the dancers did show very short bits and pieces in order to demonstrate certain concepts, but gave only a partial impression of what Naharin's choreography looks like). Suffice to say for now, never before have I seen such strong, supple, and beautiful dancers, not even at Ailey.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dance: Paul Taylor Dance Company at Guggenheim's Works and Process

The few times that I've seen Taylor's company, I've not enjoyed it, but I went to their Works and Process show nevertheless, because one should take every opportunity one can to see old famous people before it's too late. Taylor's company is celebrating their 53rd year, which means that the founder and choreographer must be a minimum of 75 years of age (in fact, he is 76), and his part-Reagan, part-Sinatra, part homosexual feline (think Merce Cunningham) persona brought thrills and giggles to the ladies of the audience, who were mostly in their sixties. Mostly, he just annoyed me, with his hollow jokes, not actually self-effacing self-effacing humor, and a cheap shot at George W. (a speaker isn't very good if he can't even pull off a cheap shot at George W.) He didn't redeem himself in my eyes, but he did thrill everyone else. I think I offended a woman after the show who asked me what I thought; I told her that his work is like Impressionist paintings: people like it because it's pleasant and easy.

What I've found tedious—even noxious—in Taylor is a kind of extreme lightness. The classic pieces (like the famous Esplanade) are gleeful, breezy, white (I'm sorry). The dancers have open, beneficent, smiling faces, which I've always found extremely distracting. The Works and Process program was extremely diverse, showcasing very short excerpts from six pieces, plus a seventh piece in entirety, ranging from 1971 to 2007. The breadth was helpful to me, insofar as it demonstrated that Taylor's dancers do not always dance with gleeful, beneficent faces; the choreographer does create pieces that dramatize sadness, fear, and frustration, and his dancers express these emotions on their faces as well. What does remain, however, is that the face, for Taylor, is part of the dance, and that the dance always has some emotive, and often narrative, drive. While he was not asked by the moderator, Suzanne Carbonneau, to address his dancers' beneficent, open, dewy smiles, he did speak for a moment about the face, saying that in his early choreography (none of which was showcased, unfortunately), the face was deadpan. I wanted to hear more about this, but, on the whole, Taylor did not elaborate much on anything; he answered questions with one simple sentence—often a toss-off bit of humor—and waiting for Carbonneau's next prompt.

Another question that Carbonneau should have, but didn't, ask relates to the rigidity of the Taylor torso. Taylor incorporates hinges into his work much more often than backbends (a dropping back that creates a straight line from knee to shoulder rather than a curved one), and almost never shifts his dancers' torsos in the rolling or snake-like motion we see in other modern choreography (the hinge is a Graham movement, but the real guttural Graham movement, the contraction, seems to be missing in Taylor's oeuvre). I want to know why he preserves that rigidity; I wonder (and this is an uneducated guess) whether it is because he doesn't have a very mobile torso personally—after all, we create what we know, what we feel, what we are. Ultimately, that's why I think Taylor himself is somewhat shallow; his dances have no viscera.

All of that is said with the exception of a short piece called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams from Black Tuesday performed by (the exquisite) Annmaria Mazzini as a disappointed, down on her luck whore. It was strange to see this piece, which actually has emotional depth of the kind you usually only get at Ailey, slipped in between the aren't-we-ashamed-the-80s-ever-happened Speaking in Tongues and the modern-relationships-are-hell-but-we-don't-feel-it-anyway-psycho-drama of Lines of Loss. The program closed with the gleeful, breezy, Esplanade-like Arden Court, almost totally negating the three minutes of depth Mazzini brought to the audience (which, by the way, probably went unnoticed by most of the septuagenarian crowd). After the show, the same woman whom I offended also said that she wanted to thank Paul for such a feel-good evening, those being so rare nowadays. I tried not to roll my eyes and told her that people these days really have no interest in feel-good evenings, hedging with some nonsense about the post-modern condition. But in all honesty, Taylor does make feel-good dance, which I read simply as shallow dance. Aren't feel-good movies shallow? Pop songs? Chick lit? Just because modern dance is Modern Dance doesn't get it off the hook; it's not automatically intellectual or avant-garde or relevant. Don't think I have anything against feeling good—that is, a good time—that is, real expansive glory (think Compagnie Kafïg), because it thrills me. But keep your hollow, reasonless, denial-ridden, 1950s, 1980s, Regan, in the closet, false-front cheer for yourself. I want no part.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dance: Fall For Dance Festival

Unfortunately for all of you non-existent readers out there, I occasionally procrastinate. Fortunately for all of you, though, I rarely write about time-sensitive items. The Fall For Dance Festival ran the last few days of September and the first few of October, so it's clearly too late for you this year, but even if I had been live blogging the event, it would have been too late for you; with tickets that cost a mere $10 per night (with first-come, first-served seating) for a performance showcasing five companies and/or choreographers a night, the event generally sells out the day tickets become available, and the good seats are gone within minutes, literally. There are a lot of dancers in New York, and a lot of connoisseurs as well; it's not uncommon for someone to buy a ticket to each night's show, as I did.

Being a bit spacey about dates and times now that I no longer live by my outlook calendar, I missed the first night. That didn't put me off to such a bad start, though, as I missed merely the Paul Taylor Dance Company (I've see them before and their extreme white glee tends to rub me the wrong way), the Kirov Ballet (likely performing something very classical, which, while I can appreciate the necessary skill, I rarely find emotionally spellbinding or intellectually challenging, the two key criteria by which I judge any art, and particularly performances), Shantala Shivalingappa performing her own choreography with live musicians (I was sorry to miss this, as I know nothing about her) and a Twyla Tharp piece performed by Julliard Dance (I have secured free tickets to two of their shows in December, so no big heartbreak there).

The best part of missing the first night, though, was that my first Fall For Dance experience this season was Compagnie Kafïg, the opener for the second night. I curse the fact that I had the worst seat of any night for this show (the second to last row of the rear mezzanine!) Nevertheless, and although I could barely see, I was floored by their performance. From France, the company integrates break dancing (which intensely recalled capoeira) with "modern" dance—that is, they have class—and maintain all the artistic freedom key to their art while eliminating the rag-tag element. They were spell-binding, innovative, and heart-breaking (I know I will never be able to do what they do); they are brilliant and must not be missed should you ever have the chance to see them perform. By the way, they are also funny, and they have great sets and costumes. They were so good that they made the rest of the night—the rest of the festival even—pale in comparison, although the Ballet Hispanico also performed that evening with an excerpt from a piece called Club Havana set to beautiful music that made good use of cigarettes as props.

Rather than proceed with a night-by-night, play-by-play description, I will summarize the performances as best and worst; most and least interesting. What stood out—what dropped my jaw and broke my heart—were the following: Johan Kobborg performing Tim Rushton's Afternoon of a Faun to Debussy; Kobborg's is the epitome of what a dancer's body can be—indeed what God, if there were one, had in mind when he created the human body. Koburg embodied the sometimes shy and sometimes splendorous character of a young fawn as he dipped in and out of various spotlights struck onto a completely dark stage. Keigwin + Company, always young, innovative, and interesting, I find, made up for their fascinating but overcrowded piece from last year with a set of duets called Love Songs, performed by three pairs of young dancers who were as sprightly and saucy as they were technically proficient, something lacking in many other modern dance companies. Also (and as usual), the costumes were different and interesting, and the music was absolutely brilliant (particularly with the inclusion of Nina Simone's Ne Me Quitte Pas, arguably one of the most heart-rending recordings ever by a female vocalist. Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion performed Inventing Pookie Jenkins, a solo in which he—a lithe, statuesque, caramel-colored black man with a shaven head—wore a floor-length white crinoline and no shirt, and aped glorious movements, integrating classical modern with hip hop for both laughs and gasps from the audience (I tend to laugh less than gasp at performances, but his street thug swagger did push me toward a bit of a chuckle). Break the Eyes, choreographed by Jorma Elo and performed by the Boston Ballet, and which I've already written about here, also stood out.

Pieces that bored, annoyed, frustrated, and infuriated me were as follows: The 5th Wheel, from Carmen deLavallade with live music from Jane Ira Bloom, featured a disturbing and ugly dancer (deLavallade herself) in an ugly red stretch velveteen ensemble (think Juicy Couture for the stage) as she haplessly flitted around the stage on a cheap black office chair (with wheels; get it?) and "interacted" with Bloom, a soprano saxophonist, who oughtn't have been subjugated to this distraction from her lovely music. Equally disturbing and dreadful was Memory from Mats Ek, a "pas de deux" (of the non-balletic sort) in which Ek and Ana Laguna also haplessly flitted around the stage, this time on a minimal set representing a studio apartment's interior. The third and final hapless flitter was Damian Woetzel of the New York City Ballet, performing A Suite of Dances set to a live cellist's voluptuous renditions of Bach's Solo Cello Suites. Again, the musician was not behooved by the dancer, and Woetzel's scrawny, ambling, clowning movement, and his hideous velveteen jester-like costume, so sickened me that I did my utmost to keep my eyes trained on Wendy Sutter, the lissome cellist. It is true that I, like much of my generation, am prejudiced against the elderly. If this seems like a non sequitur, I think it's important that I explain that deLavallade, Ek, and Laguna, and Woetzel are all Old (at least, old for dancers, as in, definitely over 50 years of age (if not 60), with the exception of Woetzel who might be in his 40s). I think it's important to realize that dancers need full range of motion in order to express movement (I don't doubt this statement calls for dissenters, but I will stand by it), and aged, creaky bodies, however beautiful they may have once been, are no longer fit for the stage. It sounds cruel, but dance is not like acting, or writing, or playing music, in which wisdom enriches your craft. To see compromised bodies hobbling across the stage may be poignant for some (elderly?!) audiences (which is likely why these two pieces were so well received by the audience), but for a dancer, it is shameless and disgusting.

Some pieces promised more than they delivered. I had big hopes for Buckets and Tap Shoes, MSP to NYC, a world premiere performance by tap dancing and drumming brothers Andy and Rick Ausland, but their performance was only somewhat engaging and innovative; I saw better tap dancing and noise making at Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Doug Varone and Dancers did a piece called Lux set to Philip Glass (a very popular musical choice this year, by the way, used also, and to equal small effect, by the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Cornered), but the piece was too long and lacked drama. The Urban Bush Women, whom I usually quite like, performed their signature piece, Batty Moves, which had some highlights but generally seemed dated and culturally melodramatic, and lagged at times; additionally, their costumes were both unflattering and uninteresting. Still, they are a talented, beautiful, and dynamic group of women. Armitage Gone! Dance did a piece called Ligeti Essays, and I only remember loving the music; I have no recollection of the dance, so it must not have moved me. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company (discussed more here) performed a pas de deux called After the Rain that wasn't very enthralling or memorable, though I remember quite liking the music (by Arvo Pärt) as well.

The greatest disappointment was the Trisha Brown Dance Company, with something called Spanish Dance (which was neither Spanish nor dancing), to Bob Dylan's Early Morning Rain (I love Dylan, but I really prefer the Peter, Paul, and Mary recording of the old classic); the piece involved a number of female dancers, dressed white pajama-like outfits (tanks and loose pants), their hair down, spread in a line across the front edge of the stage (the curtain was never drawn). Train-like, the last dancer slowly chugged forward until she collided with the second-to-last dancer; then the two of them slowly chugged forward until they collided with the third-to-last dancer; then the three of them slowly chugged forward, and so forth, until all six or seven of them had chugged off the stage, their bodies pressed against each other. To call it tedious would be an understatement, and to call it rude and dismissive would be the same.

I had hoped for more from Srishti—Nina Rajarani Dance Creations, which with Quick! gave us a heavy-handed multi-media commentary on the role of the contemporary Indian man in the urban and corporate U.S.; the dancers (and live musicians) were skilled, but in their American-tailored suits, surrounded by video projection screens, a board room table, and other distracting accoutrements, they didn't have the "room" (I don't mean physical room) to actually dance; they felt like puppets. Equally skilled but somehow annoying was Treading from Elisa Monte Dance, a duet performed by the painfully thin Tiffany Rhea and the hulking Matthew Fisher. With her dandelion-fluff frame and unbound waist-length blond hair, Rhea's physical pairing with the black and meaty Fisher read like the heavy-handed scenes from The Loss of Sexual Innocence, and the sexual overtones of the choreography deepened the "ick" factor. Camille Brown of Camille A. Brown and Dancers rounded out the disappointments with an agitated performance called The Evolution Of a Secured Feminine, in which she wore a monstrosity of a costume (something of a pinstriped pantsuit, but with certain pieces, like one arm, missing). Her music was great—classics from Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and Nancy Wilson—but the performance (which the audience seemed to find rather dynamic) I found to be quite static, her personal style of movement being short on variation.

The one company I've not yet addressed—Via Katlehong Dance—is from South Africa, and, if they hadn't been the final performers of festival (and the last mention in my blog entry!) I mightn't have been so exhausted that I couldn't appreciate their dynamism. In tap shoes, big boots, and curious costumes, they were, after Compagnie Kafïg, probably the most interesting performers, though not quite as spell-binding, and not quite as jaw-dropping. Still, they were shockingly high-energy, and appeared to be having more fun than any of the other performers during the festival. They deserved a show of their own.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dance: Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company at Guggenheim's Works and Process

This post is three weeks overdue, and for that I am very sorry; it has become a monkey on my back and I am now dropping it off at daycare.

I don't know what drove the procrastination; I wasn't so very busy, and I didn't absolutely loathe the performance—in fact, I found it rather interesting (the format of the program, that is). Christopher Wheeldon is a bit priggish, but what else can be expected for a male dancer of ballet who at such a young age is so sought after as a choreographer. The Boston Ballet's Jorma Elo is just as priggish, and so are the twelve year olds who take ballet at the studio where I do capoeira. It's just something about ballet, I think, and so I take it in stride.

What Wheeldon did so well, though, was give his audience some real-time insight into how he works. After introducing his company with the performance of a short bit of the piece Mesmerics, which I had already seen at the Fall For Dance Festival (blog entry coming soon, I promise! I'm so sorry!) and a video of his dancers working on a performance in Vail, he had dancers come to the stage and recreate a rehearsal session. Two dancers took the stage and ran the opening portion of a pas de duex (to the accompaniment of a live pianist and mezzo soprano) while he stood on stage and watched; after a bit he stopped them, and gave feedback and corrections. As a dancer myself, but one who has never seriously rehearsed choreography for a performance (high school foot- and basketball halftime shows don't count), I loved seeing how he calculated his intention and shifted his dancers—mere tools, it seemed—to better express his own art rather than their own. That is, he not only helped them through a few areas that seemed sticky or troublesome due to weight shift and partner work, but (and he did this again in running a piece of a solo from his Elsinore with dancer Anastasia Yatsenko) but he told them to withhold full extension here and there, to make certain gestures more abrupt and others lighter, as if he were holding a piece of charcoal, drawing a line, and smudging it with his fingertips to his own liking. I had always imagined that the dancer brings her own interpretation to a piece, and though that is of course to an extent true, it is now clear that, particularly in ballet, she expresses less herself as much as her choreographer or director.

The company closed with a pas de deux from William Forsythe's Slingerland, of which I have absolutely no recollection. I'm not, in general, a fan of the pas de deux, so I'm not surprised that three weeks later it has completely slipped my mind in a way that the rehearsal sessions did not. If anything, let it serve as a notice to readers to try, when crafting a performance, to work outside of the box, if you care to be remembered.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Movies: American Gangster

This is a brilliant movie, but I feel like it manages to be brilliant in spite of Denzel Washington, rather than because of Denzel Washington. In his contemporary well-tailored suits, with his quiet intellect and spectacular diction, as drug kingpin Frank Lucas, Denzel gives the impression of Barack Obama walking onto the set of Super Fly. It's more than somewhat idiosyncratic.

And yet, Ridley Scott's film is otherwise so well-crafted that we know this idiosyncrasy must be intentional. Each supporting role is played to the nines. Russell Crowe, whom I rarely appreciate, takes cues from Gene Hackman's Popeye in The French Connection as Lucas' foil, Richie Roberts: a committed cop whose life (and body) are otherwise falling apart. The climax—the big bust in the cutting room—is one of the best shoot-outs I've ever seen, with bullets whizzing through sprays of white powder, showering the black bodies of the bare-breasted women who measure and bag the drug, as they scream and squeal and run to cower under the table for safety.

Aside from being supremely entertained (though the film is way over two hours, not once did I wonder what time it was, or even yawn, despite the fact that all the shows had sold out, forcing me to watch one starting at 1:30 AM), we get two good thinking points from this movie. The first comes from a conversation in which Lucas muses on whether the government is actually serious about shutting down the drug trade, because it employs so many people: lawyers, judges, police, prison guards, etc., aside from the dealers, importers, etc. The nasty but real portrait of crooked cops' symbiotic relationship with the pre-Lucas dealers (he refuses to play along, and that's ultimately why he has trouble) is pretty rattling.

Even more rattling, though, is to see Lucas, a man of Harlem who claims to care about Harlem— about his family, about his people—make wealth by the suffering of his own. Watching New Jack City (a better drug kingpin movie, I think), one wonders the same thing: how could anyone give another person crack cocaine, knowing full well it would destroy that person entirely. It's difficult to imagine how Lucas, a man of such integrity, could comfortably live off of the heroin habits in his neighborhood. In a conversation with Roberts, he speaks from an all-business perspective, explaining that junkies create a market for their product, so that even if he goes behind bars, another dealer will step into the supplier vacuum. He seems to suggest that its inevitable that the market for heroin will exist. I suppose since drug use is still prevalent, he was right. And yet, it doesn't cease to disappoint me that dealers aren't more mindful of the cycle of pain and destruction they feed. Even if it's a luxury for me to be able to say so.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Movies: Across the Universe

I think it's basically impossible to make a movie musical that isn't completely retarded. In fact, regular musicals are pretty retarded (except for Cats), because people who walk and talk don't regularly and randomly break out into dance and song to express their innermost feelings. (The reason Cats isn't completely retarded, therefore, is because it doesn't feature any people, and the singing and dancing never breaks back into walking and talking. And if you think it's pretty retarded that people are dressed up like cats who are singing and dancing, then there is no hope for you.) Movie musicals usually make the mistake of including non-singing and non-dancing sequences (that is, walking and talking sequences), which, by their relation, make the singing and dancing sequences look awkward and inorganic. If a movie musical provided seamless singing and dancing, it would not be completely retarded, the way Romance and Cigarettes was, and Dream Girls too (I haven't seen the new Hairspray, but I assume it is the same).

The same mistake is made in Across the Universe, which certainly is the reason why critics have their panties tied in a knot over the movie. Because it is visually perfect, there is no other reason for frustration (perhaps the plot is thin, but clearly the film is not about plot). The plot is this: it is the early sixties, and a group of young people, each by his or her own compulsive accident, comes together (forgive the Beatles pun) in New York, where they have some madcap and heart-rending adventures, motivated mostly by drugs (the madcap) and the Vietnam war (the heart-rending). There is a lukewarm, childish love story (actually, there are two). Anyway, who cares. Like I said, the movie isn't about the plot.

The movie is about Beatles songs (I like the Beatles a lot, but, well, whatever) and, as all Julie Taymour movies are, about stunning, drop dead, eat your hat before you drop dead visuals. Just as there are walking and talking parts and singing and dancing parts, there are quotidian, naturalistic shots, and there are artsy, surrealistic shots. But even the quotidian shots (a boy sitting on the beach, for example, or walking through a cobble stoned alley) are really quite of knock-your-socks-off sort, perhaps more so than some of the artsier sequences (the underwater ballet, for example). The best is the Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! sequence (Eddie Izzard is Mr. Kite), in which flat paper cutouts gain three-dimensionality and then flatten again, while a contingent of Blue Meanies parade around the screen. Less interesting, perhaps, is the sequence in which Bono portrays Dr. Robert at a psychedelic party (the psychedelic party in Midnight Cowboy, filmed so many years ago with far less technology at hand, is far more psychedelic).

Anyway, if you walk into this film expecting anything in particular, you will likely walk out confused and disappointed, and it's not a film for purists (Beatles songs sung by non-Beatles might offend some fans; as will the love affair between the Janis Joplin-esque character and the Jimi Hendrix-esque character). However, if you like to look at beautiful things unfold between your eyes (strawberries nailed to a canvas, anyone?) you will be as forgiving as I am about the musical silliness.