Monday, June 30, 2008

Movies: My Winnipeg

This, my first ever Guy Maddin film, is a kind of film school noir meets family/hometown paean meets mid-century propagandistic chamber of commerce advertisement. It's also beautifully filmed and hysterically funny, so long as one isn't attached to any of the following: linear plot, developed characters, straight-forward narrative, or the truth. If one is fascinated by repetition, linguistic play, the fictionalization of fact, and the passing of time, one will be, like me, fascinated by this strange and wonderful film, which celebrates and criticizes equally Maddin's hometown of, yes, Winnipeg (which, based solely on Maddin and fellow countryman Marcel Dzama's incredibly strange talents, must be rather an amazing, inspiring place).

Art: Olafur Eliasson at MoMA/PS1

I'm glad that I saw the fun, but less spectacular, PS1 portion of this show before going to see the installations at MoMA, or else I may have been disappointed. From the PS1 installations, one might identify Eliasson as a hit-or-miss artist, someone who has the occasional great idea, but who also gets rather mired down in obsessive, uninteresting nonsense. The occasional great idea would be the "title track," Take Your Time, where, to truly appreciate this piece, one must do exactly that. Walking into the large gallery (I love the proportions of PS1's huge, high-ceilinged, airy rooms), you see people lying on the floor, looking up into an immense, slowly rotating circular mirror, which is mounted at an angle not parallel to the ground. It is difficult to describe the trippy results without leaning on psychedelic language, but the euphoria this piece induces is a kind of mind-bending, total-body displacement, a woozy, uncanny, unplugging of from spatial reality that might seem like a gimmick, if it weren't for a number of Eliasson's other similarly brilliant pieces. Rather than dwell on the assorted bits and pieces of dreck also housed at PS1 (I'm thinking of the Model Room, which is, to be honest, a collection of studies, rather than an actual work of art, and perhaps therefore undeserving of my derision), I will move directly to MoMA, where the real jewels of the exhibition are housed.

The hands-down most stunning piece at MoMA right now happens to be part of Eliasson's show, and it is called Your strange certainty still kept, consisting of a magical curtain made by flickering points of light. The mechanical description of the piece is that a ceiling-mounted bar dribbles water into a trough on the ground, and the drops of water are illuminated by strobe lights, but that doesn't quite evoke the power of the installation, which manages to simultaneously tap into the primordial and the mechanical, the innocence of a childhood magic show and the sordid fascinations of a strip club. It describes, far more than the so-called installation at PS1*, beauty.

The on-its-heels runner-up to this piece is the visceral head-trip (an oxymoron, I know) of Room for one colour, for which Eliasson installs a lengthy corridor directly off the escalator with a kind of yellow tubular light bulb. These lamps at first simply seem egregiously bright, but after a bit, you shake your head in confusion as you realize that they somehow bleach everyone of color, so that you're walking in an old photograph or movie, or amongst the ultra-punk-rock. This is another of the visually-uncanny kinds of work that is delightfully so. The emotion induced is similar to the emotion felt (if a fan could feel) by the freewheeling fan in Ventilator, which, hung on a sturdy cable, propels itself as if a small child on a swing, in random, gleeful circles, heedlessly threatening to threaten the heads and raised hands of the audience (but being too good-natured to do any actual harm). When exiting the black & white hallway into the next room, color emerges as in the film Pleasantville; people look tinted, falsely painted, in strange and muted colors, until one's eyes adjust.

The smaller pieces at MoMA, including a number of spot lights pointed at mirrors and the ground to create "No way!" moments of geometrical perfection, delight on a more puritanical level. A circular colored projector in another room brings to mind the shadowbox at the Exploratorium, for all you San Franciscans out there. A slowly-changing, ceiling-sized light box in one of the PS1 installations, which shifts from dim to need-sunglasses bright, and from golden to rosy, recalls the same museum's Meeting by James Turrell. Turrell is the artist who might first come to mind when walking into most of Eliasson's installations.

There are, it must be said, large pieces that don't quite make the jump from ephemeral to mystical, and these include the Moss wall at MoMA and the Reversed waterfall at PS1; the first is a bit too dead, the latter a bit too sloppy. But ultimately, Eliasson's work is the first ultra-contemporary, ultra-conceptual art that has moved me in a long time; I don't think I've felt this kind of ebullient thrill since illegally climbing inside the sculptures at SFMoMA's Sol LeWitt retrospective. And at the Eliasson show, I wasn't doing anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing.

*Beauty consists of a wall of water as well, only a much finer, continuous mist, against which is trained a steady light, producing a rainbow. The piece is almost as ephemeral, though nowhere near as magical, as Your strange certainty still kept.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Art: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim

If I came to the Guggenheim expecting to hate this retrospective, and actually saw five or six pieces that I didn't completely loathe—that, in fact, I found partially maybe somewhat appealing (from the back), or even, *gasp,* interesting—does that make the show a success? I'm afraid I will have to say yes, since it introduced me to work with which I was unfamiliar, and which I couldn't easily dismiss.

I could, and did, easily dismiss Bourgeois' earlier work, which winds around the lower floors of the famed Guggie spiral. The small drawings and paintings recollect Miró and Klee, the totemic sculptures the African influences on Picasso and Brancusi, the general imagery the Dada and Surrealists. But all of it seems smaller, coarser, weaker. . . dare I say more womanish? Somewhere out there is a cute lesbian ready to beat me up for that (there were more than one at the opening), but I will stand by it anyway. Gender is professed to play a huge role in Bourgeois' work, so I get a free pass.

Onto gender, then. One of the few recurring images/tropes in Bourgeois' work is the nodule. Here is a good example of nodules in a piece that I found partially maybe somewhat appealing:

The appealing part, for me, comes from the juxtaposition of the raw wooden plinth with the soft sheen of the polished marble. Under well-placed lights, the crown of each nodule reflected with a kind of wet awareness (like an eyeball, or a clitoris, or a penis emerging from its foreskin. . . sorry! I warned you that we were going to talk about gender!) Aside from seemingly obvious sexual intimations, the piece (called Cumul I) offers room for more politically-inclined interpretation. One might see "groupthink" in a cluster of fretting heads, some hiding inside their ghostly garments (perhaps French Catholic nuns, perhaps Arabic women in hijab).

Even more appealing (and more surprising, since I did expect these semi-organic, disturbing growth-like sculptures, but didn't expect this) were, toward the top of the spiral, what I would call life-size Cornell boxes, intimate rooms structured with doors for walls, with frosted glass windows and keyholes for peeking inside to see rusty wire bed frames, clear glass jars, yellowed cotton undergarments waxy casts of held hands, and colored lamps. These nostalgically evoke the concept of "interior" (as in, the private space of women) in a more tender and subtle way than her other domestic work, like the caged and guillotined sculpture of her childhood home, or the installation called The Destruction of the Father, in which a room of life-size nodules gather round a pyre-like construction of skeleton-evoking bits and appear simultaneously to be approaching the memorial as dining table, all under hot red lights. I cannot find a good image of these intimate rooms, and so wish I had brought my camera.

As far as Bourgeois' ultra-famous spider is concerned, I am ambivalent. It neither disgusts me, nor frightens me, nor inspires me, nor challenges me. I might like it better if I were allowed to climb between its legs and look up at it from inside. The omnipresent arachnid is a symbol of the artist's mother, she says, who was a weaver of tapestries, and a force Bourgeois considers less than positive (as was, as evinced in her work, her father). And yet, I cannot see these spiders as evil as many viewers, no doubt, do. It is something just there. In its proportions, its machined construction, and repeated manifestations (there is one at the Tate, one on San Francisco's Embarcadero, one at the Louvre, one in Tokyo, one at the Smithsonian, one at one at the National Gallery of Canada, etc. etc. ad inf.) it threatens only on an Oldenberg scale—that is, as a joke, as "plop art," as a way to make a buck (or, in fact, a cool $3.2 million). She may be more bourgeois than most aficionados are willing to admit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Music: The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band at the Blue Note

Though I have always been one for Jazz in general, I've never been one for Big Band in particular, and so was rather pleasantly surprised by the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star lineup at the Blue Note this week. This is mostly thanks to the wicked pealing of the trumpets and a jaw-dropping, never ending, tear-it-up sax solo from Antonio Hart. Leader Slide Hampton gave enough room to individual performers to break things up so that this wasn't any kind of Lawrence Welk soporific (except for perhaps one Monk piece toward the beginning of the set that rather dragged, like an old cat with a too-big belly). Mostly, it was shoulder shaking (me), toe-tapping (my date), and hand drumming (the other person at our table) good stuff.

I have to admit to liking the Roy Hargrove originals better than the original Dizzy composition Things to Come, which I'm certain is something of a cardinal sin; blame it on my youth. Out of sync with that youth, though, is my nostalgia for the upright bass, replaced here by an electric that continued to irk me as too processed, too amplified, and too noisy (as in lacking clarity) amongst the clean sounds of the other instruments (their own cardinal sin, if I dare say so myself). Roberta Gambarini came up to sing on a few pieces, impressing me with her nervous but capable scatting (Was it an off night? Online, I read nothing but raving about her technique, but she felt a bit uncomfortable), and, with a few ballads, providing a not quite necessary break in the hard bop of the set.

Ultimately, I could do without the lounge stuff during live performances, and keep it for quiet nights at home with my books, but there's a crowd to appease, and I suppose some audiences need a rest now and then. Not me, though, I could have listened all night.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Books: Atonement, by Ian McEwan

I read Atonement for my book club (n.b. not of my own volition); I had carefully avoided the movie and all other Ian McEwan (except the excellent Cement Garden) novels up to this point. I expected, from the film's trailer, a soporific historical melodrama, complete with floor-length ball gowns, snooping maids, a war, and an illicit affair. Indeed, McEwan gives us each of these cliches, and, while the book is more simpering than hackneyed, it's still not much worth the read.

The story goes as follows: Briony is an imaginative girl on the cusp of pubescence witnesses a few confusing events over a 24-hour period: first, she sees her older sister Cecilia fighting with the charwoman's son Robbie in the garden, later that evening, he gives her a missive to pass onto Cecilia; it's a racy love letter (and includes the D.H. Lawrence-inspired word "cunt"). Briony of course reads it before handing it over, and an hour later walks in on the two of them in the dark library (they've been copulating, but Briony naively thinks that he was attacking her). Later that night, Briony's cousin, who's visiting (and is between Briony and Cecilia in age), is raped in the woods by a shadowy figure. Briony accuses Robbie of perpetrating the crime, and, based on her evidence, he is arrested, sent to prison for years, and then sent to France to fight the Germans (we are in the midst of WWII). Cecilia has cut herself off from her family for their willingness to turn so quickly against their own, and has become a nurse. Briony, now older and with the realization of what she's done, elects to train as a nurse as well, rather than attending Cambridge and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. Ultimately, she apologizes to both Cecilia and Robbie, and makes what legal amends she can. The couple remains together, and Briony eventually does become a successful novelist; the book we have been reading, it turns out, is Briony's account of the story and her own atonement.

McEwan divides the book into three plus an epilogue; the first begins with the strange argument at the fountain, and ends in Robbie's arrest. The second describes Robbie's time in the war, marching across France through hunger, thirst, and the constant threat of death by Luftwaffe. I would have liked to see only these two sections, vying against each other as domestic fantasy versus worldly realism, without romantic resolution; that would have been an interesting project. Instead, the novel continues; the third book describes Briony's challenging training as a nurse, her decision to at last visit her sister, and make the necessary amends. The epilogue jumps to 1999, when Briony is an old woman diagnosed with impending dementia, celebrating her birthday will all of her extended family (Cecilia and Robbie since dead).

There is, at one moment, on page 265 of my edition, in fact, when McEwan redeems, momentarily, the tedium of languorous book one, in which each sentence describes the richness of a color, the quality of the air, the flashing of the light. We realize that Book One is young Briony's draft of a story describing what happened that day, which story she has submitted to a London literary magazine. She receives a lengthy, personalized rejection letter, which acknowledges the curious spell she casts, but criticizes her as perhaps too indebted to Virginia Woolf, too climatic, too woozy, too interested in the rocks and air rather than the propulsion of the plot. These criticisms are, to the reader, a kind of professional concurrence (Yes! It was far too ambient and flowery!), and it is somewhat redeeming that McEwan was aware of that fact (I did find it strange that his sentences were so mellifluous, given the taught, snappy quality of The Cement Garden). However, intentionally writing poorly is not as acceptable as simply writing well (unless one is writing poorly brilliantly, as Jonathan Safran-Foer does in Everything is Illuminated.

Atonement was written, and, I imagined, filmed, for a simpering crowd of effeminate, romantic readers who wet their pants over sensitive soldiers and the rustling of silk gowns. McEwan ought to have been more attentive to Lawrence and less attentive to Woolf, had he wanted to write something truly edgy and interesting. As it stands, this book is little more than daydream fodder for the sighing masses.

Points, though, for using the name Briony.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Books: Samedi the Deafness, by Jesse Ball

Not unlike Laird Hunt's The Exquisite, Samedi the Deafness is a kind of fascinating noir mystery that can't help but disappoint at the end. The story is that of one James Sim, who, in the novel's first pages, finds himself in conversation with an old man bleeding to death, the front of his body ravaged by a knife. Before expiring, the man raves incoherently, mentioning the name "Samedi," so that once James finds himself alone again, reading a newspaper, he is rather surprised to see the name Samedi there as well, as part of a suicide note found on the body of a man freshly dead on the lawn of the White House. After a strange encounter with a strange girl, another day comes, bringing another White House suicide with another Samedi note. More disconcertingly, a rubber mask of James' own face has been delivered to him, along with a note of warning. And then, James is kidnapped.

He is taken to a house that doubles as a hospice for liars; there is an extensive rule book, full of arbitrary but painfully specific instructions for all aspects of living at the house, particularly with regard to who can speak to whom and when. The girl, it turns out, has a secret room adjacent to his, from which she can monitor everything he does; she is in love with him; her name is Grieve, but also Lily Violet. There is also a maid by the name Grieve, who also seems to want to help James; there is also Grieve/Lily Violet's twin sister, who looks just like Grieve, and in fact pretends sometimes to be her. Grieve's father, who owns the house/hospital, tells James that Grieve does not have a twin sister and that she is a liar. Grieve tells James that her father is lying. An old man tells James not to trust the maid Grieve, but James doesn't know whether he can trust the old man. He is told that he is free to leave the house at any time, and he wonders whether he should go to the police with what information he has gathered, but he doesn't know what is true and what isn't, and it seems that the police are looking for him, because they think that he killed a man (when actually he only inspired that man to jump out of a window and kill himself).

The book lasts seven days, and each day another suicide occurs in front of the White House, leaving behind a note with a warning and the name Samedi. The owner of the house is behind these suicides, and behind a plot that James is desperately trying to decipher, though he has been chosen to be saved, not just because Grieve/Lily Violet loves him, but because of his trade as a mnemonist (a mystery in and of itself). It is in the final pages that we find out, along with James, that the owner of the house plans to deafen the world with a chemical cloud that will emit a poisonously high-pitched sound; he will protect himself and his co-conspirators in a sound-proof chamber in the basement. He wants James to commit all of his documents to memory, so that they can be burned, the evidence against him destroyed. And the plan goes forth, and the book ends.

This is Ball's first novel (he is, more often, a poet) and, until we find out just what the evil plan is, it's an impressive first effort, imaginative, exciting, and beautifully written in succinct, staccato, spaced-apart sentences. James has flashbacks to childhood conversations with an invisible talking owl, his mentor; they are dim, dreamy, and tender. But at the end, I was as disappointed as I was by the end of The Turn of the Screw; this?! I thought. This is the terribly evil plot? A cloud that makes a deafening noise? But in fact, there could be no inventing a plot terrible enough not to disappoint, or cloy, or cause one to giggle; the threat is too great, the tone too ominous, the writing too fine to warrant the disclosure of what the terror could be. And terror itself is not terrible because of the specificity of the act; it is the aftermath that is terrible. And so no plot, even the flying of airplanes into the World Trade Center, can sound anything but silly until it actually happens, and fear and pain and madness ensue. We haven't any of that in this book (we wouldn't, I don't think, want it), and so it seems safe, if odd, to giggle at the noise-making chemical cloud.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Movies: Encounters at the End of the World

This is, somewhat disconcertingly, only the second Herzog film I've seen, although I have heard him being interviewed on NPR, and so was prepared for the charming accent and random philosophizing he brought as narrator to Encounters at the End of the World, his new documentary that episodically visits with a number of scientists and other collected kooks living at the McMurdo research base in Antarctica.

Aside from Herzog's always-compelling random thoughts (the man defines ideal manhood, as far as I'm concerned—fearlessness, passion, and curiosity), the film offers completely unbelievable footage taken by scuba divers (we get to watch an interview with one) swimming—yes—under glaciers. This is the kind of footage that is so primal, and yet so alien, that it makes you feel very small and meaningless, which is my favorite way to feel.

Art: Subway Poster Slasher Strikes!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Art/Performance: Fluxconcert 20080613

This is a review of the second formal FLUXCONCERT . Unlike the first FLUXCONCERT, the second showcases a completely fresh composition, in 13 movements, prelude, and postlude, courtesy of rising local star Ethan Wagner. Wagner reveals a surprisingly deep understanding of the Fluxus mentality, while managing to regularly subvert the genre with actual pieces of music that sound appealing. In Movement 8 (Nonsense Sounds), for example, Wagner writes: "Compose for the following sounds: Paper clip in a styrofoam cup; straightened paper clip against an upside-down wine glass; tearing paper (one sheet only)." It is a challenge to imagine, simply by reading the instructions, the beauty of these three subtle sounds together, and it is by each performer's own skill that the patterns of noise intermingle in a pleasing, rather than cacophonous, way. That the paper used is a yellowed page of sheet music is a sly wink to Wagner's classical training, which he has not, it must be said, at all eschewed, even in this production. For example, Movement 11 (Music Lesson) demands that one "Try to teach an audience member how to play something incredibly difficult on an instrument that requires a bit of skill." Rather than opting for something populist, like Stairway to Heaven on the acoustic guitar, Wagner places a novice pianist at the keyboard and demands that she play Rachmaninoff, to rather whimsical effects. A musical teacher himself, he parodies his trade with panache.

An underlying insistence on violence pervades the show (at the end of the aforementioned Movement 8, the wine glass is crushed inside a "sturdy bag," in Movement 13, Crunching Things, a person simultaneously breaks "a sack of thirteen light bulbs, a clock, a box of Premium saltine crackers, [and a stack of] cassette tapes," using a Bible, a mallet, his bottom, and his feet, respectively), as well as a coyness about technology (in the fascinating Movement 4, Sequenced Ticking, a performer uses a microphone and a laptop to manipulate the ticking of four individual alarm clocks over a specified time period to make a kind of digital sound scape; in a number of other pieces (Prelude; Movement 10, In Memoriam Tony Clune; and Postlude) the audience is asked to participate by either actively or passively inciting their mobile phones to sing and squawk). While it is impossible not to read these two tendencies as hat-tips to the current state of affairs in the modern world, the show's best pieces maintain music's traditional role: the creation of sonic beauty. It is a piece such as Movement 3, Caricature no. 3 (Fragments on a theme.), or Movement 6, No. 6 ("Melody for trumpet and guitar.) (both original, straight-forward compositions that your grandmother would be comfortable calling "music") that actually warms and softens the audience so that it can bear the detached, wry humor of the more Fluxus-oriented movements.

A special nod goes to organizer Perry Garvin, who not only alerted me to the existence of FLUXCONCERT, but also performed, with great gusto, "a patriotic song with deep conviction" for Movement 9, Devotion. Because the composer and organizer received mixed feedback with regard to their handing out, at the show's beginning, the score (the complete instructions for each piece), I will take this moment to cast my vote as heartily in favor. The instructions are written in a beautifully succinct language, constantly on the verge of wit, but bone dry and bone bare (consistent with Fluxus instructions of yore), and serve as not only a reference, but an elucidation, of the performance. A show without the structure they provide would devolve into mere entertainment, rather than art.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Books: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Sometimes, my reading leads me astray. I'll read an article that name checks a book or two, and if they sound interesting, I add them to my reading list. Months later, I read them, hate them, and can't remember whom to blame. But I do know that we can all blame editor Gordon Lish for the publication fo Amy Hempel's tedious, simpering short stories, and I know that I can blame a Slate article about Lish for the dually terrible recommendations of Lish's own My Romance as well as Amy Hempel's Collected Stories.

In the (completely patronizing) introduction to this collection, which includes all four of her books published to date (the woman has been writing for 25 years and all she's eeked out is less than 400 pages of short stories, the shortest one just a paragraph?), Rick Moody writes with gratitude for Hempel's painstaking attentiveness to small things, womanly things (which are, of course, the same?!), nursing each phrase with care while her male contemporaries were, as it were, blowing their loads over hundreds of pages at a time. This put even me, the anti-feminist, on the defense immediately, but as I began to read Hempel's stories, I realized that Moody was right (to a degree); her stories are painstaking, womanly, and about small things. They are not, however, brilliant or refreshing for that. They are cloying; she gives paper cuts where she should have used the knife.

Rather than dwell on any story in particular (really, I would prefer to forget I'd read any of it, and move on to my next post as quickly as possible), I will briefly mention that Hempel clearly has a strong affinity for dogs, who appear as objects of affection and shifting symbols for loss, need, dependence, etc. in more than half of her stories. I don't like dogs. I don't mean to be dim; a good writer might, if she intended, make me love a fictional dog. I don't much care for fat people (between dog-lovers and fat people, I see the hate mail on the horizon, as certain as a tornado), but John Kennedy Toole (a good example of a great writer) made me love the ill-tempered, filthy, obese Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. So I will not blame Hempel's tedium for her attention to small things, womanly things. I will instead remark that she's rather uncomfortably close to Lynne Tillman, and add that, as a female who occasionally tries my hand at that uncomfortable blend of fiction and memoir, I will need to take great care not to write like these ladies, and take instead, if I must have a female role model, the raging Flannery O'Connor for my flag.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music: Omar Sosa at the Blue Note

Writing about music is hard for me. There is no narrative to grasp hold of, and no imperative, even, for language at all. The better the music is, the harder it is to write about. And the music Wednesday night was great. I might have written before about the old Cafe Babar in San Francisco, where I used to hang out as a kid on Saturday nights, drinking hot chocolate at the bar and playing solitaire while my dad's band practiced in the back room; that's where I learned an appreciation for jazz. The cafe's owner had an absurd mustache, a crowning bald spot over his otherwise bushy gray hair, and the most amazing vinyl collection of jazz I've ever seen; I'd love to get a Fulbright just to sit in his house for a year, digitizing the entire thing for posterity. In any case, I've been listening to jazz since early childhood, and nothing gives me that warm, secure sense some people find in smells and tastes so much as the low loud trill of a trumpet, the clink clink of a piano, and the swish of a brush against a snare. I have the standard albums, Miles Davis Kind of Blue, and the bit more out there Mingus Ah Um, and Keith Jarrett's Coln Concert. But as for anything happening, jazz-wise, these days, I'm clueless. I'd pretty much assumed it was over and done with, having seen one or two crappy shows at Lincoln Center's dedicated Jazz space.

The looks of the Blue Note didn't help to inspire; because of its location (West Third and MacDougal), and its still cover charges, I'd always assumed it was little more than a tourist stop, where Midwestern couples could moon at each other over the atrocious "smooth" jazz before going back to the Hilton to horizontal mambo. Once inside, that fear is confirmed; the walls are paneled with strips of mirror and black sound-proofing; the tables are cheap and set in regimented lines instead of casually scattered; the stage is hung with a tacky black strip of cloth and a big, shining sign that reads "Blue Note" and features their ultra tacky logo of, you got it, a note that is blue. I was there with my mom, who was giddy, having arrived early and gotten to chat with Omar himself, and I was expecting the worst. And then the musicians came on stage, started playing, and totally blew my mind.

I had a great seat, about two feet away from Omar himself, and partially behind him, so that I could see his hands on the piano keys and all of the electrical pedals and samplers he had on the floor. Their music was not the Latin Jazz I had been expecting (for no other reason than the name "Omar Sosa," but a kind of post-Miles Davis fusion, heavy on Sosa's brilliant piano licks, with spoken lyrics in an unfamiliar African language, crazy weird percussion, ambient sampling, and killer trumpet, saxophone, and flute playing by Leandro Saint-Hill (to a person who cannot play one instrument, a man who has mastered more than three (for there were two different kinds of flutes, and two different kinds of saxophones) is beyond amazing), as well as drumming that sounded like rain and an electric bass (although I do always prefer the upright, I suppose this was a better fit). Sosa is a strong leader and the band was perfectly tight; watching their network of constantly shifting glances, warning and encouraging each other, was fascinating, as was the man's energy. Despite his obvious depth of skill and knowledge, the man plays with the fresh excitement of a child, a huge, open grin on his face, as if he can't believe how well things are going.

Sosa invited another musician into the mix, whose name I infuriatingly missed, who comes out of a completely different tradition (ancient American folky bluegrass, as in pre-Civil War), but who managed to blend with the group for a few fascinating numbers; he played banjo (for which I am a sucker), fiddle, and sang with deep, twangy mountain-man voice, reading lyrics from what seemed to be a pocket-sized bible, brown and worn with a hundred years' use.

I wished the set had been longer; I didn't really want the music to ever end, but the cocktail waitresses brought checks, interrupting the last number, because everything at the Blue Note, great music aside, works like money-making clockwork, and the tables needed to be cleared for the next shift of cover-charge paying people. That place must rake in a fortune, filling up fresh three times each night. But I can forgive them, if only for introducing me to Omar Sosa, who is, basically, amazing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dance: Compagnie Heddy Maalem

Shockingly, this was my first ever show at the Joyce, which, though it offers the best in contemporary dance performance in the city, does not offer the kinds of cheap tickets to which I usually gravitate. Since my mom was in town, though, I splurged, and treated us to a show about which I knew nothing featuring a company about which I also knew next to nothing. The Joyce website handily provided a 60 second video of the show, which I watched without sound, and found interesting enough. The blurb did mention that the music would be Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which should have caused some concern, but I went ahead anyway.

Compagnie Heddy Maalem's choreographer is a (white) Algerian; his dancers are beautifully-trained, atypically shaped Africans from six different countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Mozambique. Their costumes were spare and simple: solid-colored bras and hot pants for the girls, short shorts for the men (two men, separated from the group for semi-narrative purposes, wore longer, baggier shorts), and showed every incredible inch of flesh: obscenely round bottoms, massive thighs, bouncing breasts, wickedly latticed abdominals—these are stunning human beings. Much of the choreography required slow and languorous movements, and the dancers had stunning control.

The choreography did not, though, provide the dancers with any opportunities to show off their more balletic training, and I think that this is why the audience responded so strangely. The show was not classically beautiful, nor particularly pleasant, to be honest. The original Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinsky for Stravinsky, was offensive to audiences for its blatant sexuality, its bent knees and natural (unpointed) feet, and its non-idealized depiction of peasantry (it was, I mean to say, Courbet to the expected Bougereau). Maalem works in Nijinksy's tradition; this Rite is also (I would imagine much more so) blatantly sexual—at one moment, the entire group of dancers even forms an orgy-like cluster, one male and one female at the core, where he holds her head to his hip while thrusting, the other dancers reaching out to stroke each other's bodies. He has, though, a strong eye for creating tableaux, and at moments like these, where the dancers would solidify into a sequenced and horizontal block, slowly writhing, classical beauty (the kind we identify with a gestural painting like Da Vinci's Last Supper) does materialize, despite the palpable sexuality. Less moving are what I would call the marching sequences, in which the dancers, in regimented rows, prance across the stage in various formations. I believe this also derives from the Nijinksy, but it was neither beautiful nor interesting.

The final scene is a solo by one dancer who, in semi-darkness, to a slow-rising crescendo of electronic noise, at first seems barely to move, until a tremble rises up from within his body. It's a small tremble, and he shakes, and shakes, more and more, with increasing violence. The music mounts, and he dances more and more violently, as if unable to control something within his body. I couldn't help but read this as an expression of some sickness: the Ebola virus bleeding in his belly—pain, suffering, agony, Africa. At that moment, all the previous scenes fell into place as expressions of life on that continent today: militarism, group-think, violence, chaos, disease, sex, hunger (at one moment, a female dancer points at the tallest man's belly, where he makes, unbelievably, his individual abdominals metrically tremble and roil); despair. And I realized that never had I seen such relevant choreography (Ailey comes close, but even in their real-est moments, they still aestheticize black suffering for the delectation of white audiences.) If, of course, I'm not reading it incorrectly. I left that night with such incredible gratitude to the dancers, who were all sweet smiles during their curtain call, who have to work with such emotionally challenging material, for a generally bewildered audience that expected either traditional African dance or a more aestheticized impressionism.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Theater: Ensemble Studio Theatre's 30th Annual Marathon

I heard about this tiny theater's One Act Marathon (three sets of five one-acts each) through a random mention by an acquaintance, and, since my mom was visiting and needed to be entertained, I picked up a few cheap-o tickets and hoped it wouldn't be too dreadful. Luckily, it was totally brilliant, and we laughed our asses off. We saw program C, which consisted of the following:

In Piscary (Frank D. Gilroy), a co-habitating couple about to get married break their engagement over a fish tank and a game of scrabble, both which serve to focus the man's anxiety that he may be too good for his fiance, and both which serve to demonstrate that, in fact, she is actually too good for him. The play is well-written; the actors (particularly the woman) were perhaps over-doing it, but it was the first of the night, and we all needed the warm-up.

There's no question that In Between Songs (Lewis Black) is the main attraction of the show, and although my pop-cultural retardation means that I don't actually know who Lewis Black is, I have heard the name before, and I now know why. I fell not only into my mother's lap laughing, but almost out of my chair (no exaggeration). At the beginning of the play, two middle aged men sit on couches in suits and stocking feet, listening to Bob Dylan and smoking a joint. That's sort of hilarious already. The music dies, and their exclamations on Bob Dylan devolve into a bout of unstoppable laughter and a spiritual realization. A woman comes in from the kitchen (offstage), where she was making something, but can't remember what, having thrown the box out the window so that the contents could be "free." The conversation turns to distinguishing the 60s versus the 70s versus the 80s versus the 90s versus now, and then they realize the music has been stopped all this time (perhaps ten or fifteen minutes); something must be wrong with the stereo. . . but no, the next song comes on. Time expanded between songs to allow for the entire conversation to elapse. This is the perfect kind of one-act: the elucidation of small things in real time through plain characters. The three actors were pitch-perfect.

Flowers (José Rivera) is the strangest play of the evening, in which an adolescent girl wakes up one day with larger-than-ever zits which then begin to sprout leaves, and then flowers; she grows into a plant and her little brother is the only witness. Feminine teenage hysteria has never been so poignantly illustrated; the girl vacillates between thinking that she is being punished by God and that she has been chosen as a vessel for something amazing. Masculine teenage disinterest, too, is perfectly captured, as her brother continues playing video games and wondering why his sister thinks she's so special. . . until he realizes that she is, and keeps her from committing suicide with hedge clippers. At the play's end, she has elegantly twisted into a tree, and her brother tends to her with a watering can. The tone is less magical realism than simple metaphor, with a twist of ecological sensationalism. I think it's difficult for actors to play younger roles without being patronizing, and these two twenty-somethings did pretty well at playing their tween characters with tenderness.

My mom loved every play of the evening except Japanoir (Michael Feingold), but I didn't mind it terribly, though it was on the long side, and arguably not a genuine one-act (more like a very short 20-act). It was the only drama of the evening, consisting of an interview of a Japanese filmmaker by a caucasian woman intermixed with scenes from two movies (with seeming intertwining plots and doppelganger characters) he is filming: Love Movie and Money Movie. The filmic themes include family secrets, underhanded business dealings, illicit relationships, defiance, murder, cover-ups, prostitution, etc., and are far less interesting than the themes covered by the interview, including the nature of film, the filmmaker's relationship to other Japanese filmmakers, and Japanese versus Western film. His answers are, of course, semi-inscrutable (he is concerned about the air in his films; he proposes that film is darkness; he would like to make a film that consists merely of the sound of hot water being poured into a teapot), and the play thus manages to be amusing, valid, and offensive simultaneously. The actor who plays the filmmaker is perfect, as is his interviewer; the others—players in the films—have less to work with and therefore aren't quite as captivating.

A Very Very Short Play (Jacquelyn Reingold) isn't really that short, but it is hysterically funny, and is probably the most demanding (for the actors) of all the evening's plays. A man (with a giant basket) and a woman (reading a book) are seated in adjacent airline seats, and after he stares at her for quite a bit, he speaks to her; she tries to ignore him and focus on her book, but he goes on at poetic (Seuss, not Auden) length about her charm, eventually asking her just how small she is. She answers that she is one foot tall. He confesses to being more than twelve times her height. He produces a variety of foods from his basket and wins her over by feeding her a cream puff. They fall in love, and the pilot's voice (narrator's voice) over the intercom tells us that they exit to dance amongst the stars for a bit. Never was anything so inoffensively sweet.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Art: Detroit Institute of Art

My dad grew up in Detroit, and moved to San Francisco in the 70s; he was the first of six children, and the only one to ever leave Michigan. I remember going to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as a child, marveling at the expanses of lawns, tire swings, and houses that were only one floor, but had "lakes" (ponds) on their extensive lots. My cousins played in little league, knew how to roller skate, and regularly ate food cooked outdoors on Weber grills (on which I burned my hand at the age of five, when my cousin, with pigtails encircled with bows of red yarn, tried to teach me to roller skate, and I tentatively pushed forward while keeping a constant hand on whatever object was available to support me, in this case, a smoldering meat cooker that covered my right palm in blisters that kept me up crying all night.) Of course, all these families lived in the 'burbs, and I never saw Detroit itself, only heard the horror stories: the family friends who went into town for the Opera and were car-jacked, the wife being locked in the trunk during the thugs' two hour joyride, and then abandoned under a highway.

I hadn't been back to Michigan in almost fifteen years when I found out that my cousin—the one with the red yarn bows—was getting married. It was with much trepidation that I conceded to my father and bought plane tickets (fear of seeing the long-lost family again, not fear of Detroit). I wanted desperately to see the old Michigan theater, a glory-days movie palace that, in the 1970s, was gutted and turned, believe it or not, into a parking lot (the walls and ceilings still boast the original arches, stonework, and peeling paintings of the 1920s), and I woke up early the day of the wedding to drive downtown with my dad and see it on the way to visit his ailing sister, who wouldn't be at the wedding. The theater/garage was closed, and the two attendants wouldn't let me in, although I begged, pleaded, and offered cash incentives. The most I got was a tiny peep through the gate. We did, though, drive by the old railroad station, and stopped to snap some pictures.

The morning after the wedding, when everyone was sleeping of their hangovers, my mom and I were with my uncle and his girlfriend, who still live in Detroit proper (they bought a gorgeous old Victorian with stunning original details for a song about ten years ago. . . I am talking a five-figure sum, here, with a first digit of two. Unbelievable, given that my parents bought their house just outside of San Francisco almost ten years before that, also with a first digit of two, but a six-figure sum). They drove us, in their cigarette smoke-infused, cranberry-colored jalopy (we were happy for the ride) to the Detroit Institute of Art, which, I had heard, to my surprise, was an amazing museum. More to my surprise, the museum had been completely gut renovated within the last year, and its cool, silent rooms were fresh and lovely, with evenly painted mauve walls and shining wood floors and sparkling white rafters. It being early Sunday morning, and most of Detroit being rather cemetery-like anyway (silent, peaceful, mournful, grassy, now that half of the abandoned buildings have burned down and their ruins become de facto micro-prairies), the museum was mostly empty.

We only had one and a half hours to spend, so I wasn't able to take careful notes or spend too much time with any one thing, and still only managed to see about half of the museum, which has a surprisingly extensive collection. I didn't take pictures of any of the contemporary work, like the beautiful William Kentridge video that was projected onto a spinning table and then reflected up onto a metal can, where the movie played right-side-up, or the Yinka Shonibare batik-dressed mannequins on stilts that I recognized from his show at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. Instead, I wandered around snapping photos of paintings that caught my fancy.

I like different paintings for different reasons, of course. Sometimes, a painting is just plain weird, and I love it for that reason. Like this Jaws episode:

Sometimes, I see a painting by an artist I know well, but in a style that seems incongruent with his other work, like this Paul Gauguin self-portrait.

I generally cannot stand landscapes, but I found myself rather taken by this one:

And ultimately, I am always a sucker for good naked lady paintings, both the more romantic, like this one:

And the more stylized, like this one:

This last one is kind of like an Egon Schiele if Egon Schiele were a Pre-Raphealite. The artist is a Swiss guy named Ferdinand Hodler; I had never heard of him before, and this is apparently just a study for his painting called Day. Look at the way he bends her body to conform to the frame, as compared to the more straightforward portrait above. This is typical of Hodler's work, where bony bodies hunker down to "fit" inside the bounds of his wide but short canvasses. I think he is my new favorite painter.