Friday, October 31, 2008

Movies: Boomerang

What pushed me into the arms of this movie—on VHS, no less—was a breakup. Years of study have shown that nothing makes a broken heart whole again so well as a pint of Häagen-Dazs and a stupid comedy (though one ought always be careful with the insipid romantic comedies, one of which Boomerang comes dangerously close to being—stoner comedies, whose interest in sex is purely prurient, are generally the safest). More, Eddie Murphy needs to do little more than flash his crazy smile to have me in stitches. And so Boomerang seemed a benign enough choice, even culling bonus points for its early 90s styling (because, to be honest, those were the days I began to come of age).

Is it an absurdist prank to attempt to write a critical response to a movie like this? I didn’t bother to say anything about Pootie Tang, except that I could watch whatever I damn well please and oughtn’t be judged for it. Boomerang features another one of those early Chris Rock gems; the boy is nearly unrecognizable if you’re accustomed to his current suited, shaven, and iced-out television persona. In Boomerang he’s just one rung up the ladder from Pookie (his crack-addict character in New Jack Swing), a mail cart pusher who’s the eyes and ears of the company, and who wants a promotion to the top on day two in exchange. But the story belongs to Eddie Murphy’s character, a classic Casanova (slash player slash PUA, depending on your hyper-sexed male subgenre of choice) looking for the perfect woman (that is to say, the hottie with the surprisingly busted up feet doesn’t make it through one whole night). An ad exec (actually more of an art director, but with all of the pull of an executive, and none of the creative talent of an artist) at a cosmetics company, he sleeps with an aged Eartha Kitt (aka Catwoman) (the figurehead of the company buying out his employer) so that she’ll make him the head of the new department. Everything is coming up roses until he meets the hottest woman he’s ever seen, and finds out she’s his new boss—he slapped that sack for nothing. Adding insult to injury, the new boss lady doesn’t seem to want to date him.

Of course they do hook up on a business trip, and then again and again, sporadically, but she does a nice number out-Casanova-ing him, until he realizes that he was actually in love with Halle Berry’s character all the while (a very young, round-featured Halle Berry who belies the fact that today’s ultra-diesel Halle Berry is the icy, android product of certain cosmetic. . . adjustments), an artist at the company. Of course, he screws things up royally by being his typical ego-maniacal self, but at the very end, he wins her back by taking over her volunteer gig (teaching art to inner city kids) when she’s left the company to move onto her own creative directorial role at the competitor (where she has morphed most disturbingly into a clone of her old boss/competition/friend-turned-nemesis). And so all ends happily (for them if not for me).

Along the way, though, is the most fantastic thing of all, and it’s not Eddie’s brazen smile (of Halle’s shy one either), or Eartha’s growling, or the comic foiling provided by David Alan Grier and Martin Lawrence, or Robin Given’s narrow little body in black lace underwear. It’s the explosive Grace Jones as the even more explosive (and difficult) Strangé, the sex symbol who is to be the cosmetic company’s new mascot, and who, in Frenchified English, tries to teach a boardroom of executives discussing Parfum what the essence of sex is by tearing off her g-string and rubbing it in their faces. While Murphy’s ad man is lost in love (or tending a broken heart—I can’t remember), he gives his subordinate carte blanche to shoot the new Strangé perfume ad, and the results are a totally brilliant disaster (much better than the “brilliant” pap the recovered man later turns out, with the help of his new artsy lover), redefining provocation with a bloody scene of writhing menstruation turned birth, when Strangé at last pushes the perfume bottle out between her blood-covered legs. It’s kind of amazing that the movie includes something like this, even if it’s designed only to demonstrate the very disaster of the adman’s broken heart.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Movies: Lola Montes

This surreal monstrosity is more an example of pageantry than cinema, a poorly-linked series of expensive sets and costumes dominated by a less than compelling heroine and punctuated by unforgivably naïve social faux-pas that make a modern audience cringe, like white actors in blackface and midgets in the circus ring, topped off by the 19th Century insistence that a woman who sates her sexual desires at will ultimately be punished—but that is not to dismiss it. From a purely technical point of view, it’s an awesome extravaganza, with all the pomposity of a Russian novel, all the colors of your corner Bodega, captured at an almost panoramic (and I mean that in the 19th Century way) aspect ratio that might just give you a headache. But from an existential point of view (for the absence of both a compelling plot and female beauty will always leave one’s head in that sort of a philosophical centrifuge), it’s disturbingly honest and therefore upsetting.

The film is supposedly based on true events, and Lola’s life story is the kind to inspire young girls, shame old women, and dampen the jowls of men of all ages. What we see is a clunky metaphor realized: a dirt-floor circus filled with an audience of chanting thousands, who look down upon the beautiful and ballsy hussy with desire, rage, and jealousy. The ringmaster (a classic patriarchal figure who now serves as Lola’s father, lover, and pimp) narrates the heroine’s life history, beginning with her elopement with a drunken military man to escape a marriage, arranged by her mother, to an old and wealthy man when her father dies. From there, Lola takes lovers as she pleases, generating her own income by dancing (although she’s quite horrible at it—and it’s hard to decide whether she’s meant to be, or whether Martin Carol simply wasn’t screen-tested for ballet) and, it is implied, by ensuring that her lovers—including Liszt and a Bavarian King—are wealthy (when a young student tries to court her, she softens only for a moment before shunning him and the Romanticism of a happy and impoverished life).

But Ophuls shows us Lola behind the scenes as well, so that we see three Lolas: the Lola of the circus stage, surprisingly prim, proud, and resigned, not unlike Hester Prynne; the Lola of the flashbacks, carefree, sensual, with the exuberance of a pre-teen in one of those books for girls who like horses—she remains always true to herself; and finally the “real” Lola, the existential Lola, the backstage Lola, falling apart at the seams, mysteriously ill, a drunk in a cold sweat combating an endless dizzy spell. That’s the Lola who, at the film’s climax, takes the stage and climbs an impossibly high ladder, after being swung (I needn’t spell out the metaphor for able-minded readers) from hand to hand to hand between trapeze artists up into the tent’s aether. And once at the ladder’s top, her act culminates in a jump—a free-fall, really—down, which she performs each night without a safety net. This night in particular, her doctor worries, and insists that the net be used, but the ringmaster won’t allow it. And, in an existential coup de grâce that would break even Sartre’s own heart, when we expect her to plunge to sudden death, she lives, to proceed to a sideshow cage, where men line up for miles to pay a paltry sum to kiss one of the pale, limp hands she dangles through the bars, the coins collected by—you guessed it—the ringmaster.

And so even if the story drags, and the frills are grandiose, and the circus disturbs our contemporary morays, one barely needs to blink to switch out Lola for Brittney or Lindsay or any other more pedestrian looker who tries to make her way alone using only what she’s got. And while these ladies’ total complicity in their demise, fueled by lust for fun and flash, interrupts onlookers’ pity mechanisms (for we are always too consumed with desire, rage, and jealousy to empathize), their reality is ultimately as tragic as the hausfrau’s who condemns them out of said emotions. Even if Ophuls is beyond heavy-handed in conveying this, at least he doesn’t shy from an ugly reality that his 1950s audience glued their eyelids against, to the point that his studios sliced and diced his film beyond recognition.*

*My response is based on the restored version released by Rialto in 2008.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Art: Catherine Opie at the Guggenheim

The breadth of Catherine Opie's oeuvre is so extreme, and so disparate, that without knowing this exhibition is her mid-career retrospective, one might mistake it for a poorly-curated amalgamation of six different photographers' work. But to anyone with a bit of art historical background, what quickly emerges as the binding principle of Opie's work is an insistence on grounding deep conceptualism in deep aestheticism. This may be why she is my new artistic hero.

Though I'm not, nor have I ever been, part of the queer and/or body-modification subculture (a subculture with which Opie is a part of and with which she engages intently in more than half the pictures in this show), I am from California, and I do think this helps me identify with her pictures (Opie is based in LA, and California's own particular aesthetic is a strong presence in much of her work as well)—in addition to inuring me to the "shock" of her more sensational portraits of friends who play with gender and body modification (tattoos, piercings, carvings, etc.) There's no doubt that the early Portraits (the most stilted, and, on the whole, least interesting pictures in the show), shots of nearly-nude or suited up men and women who aren't readily identifiable as either, posed against bright backdrops reminiscent of the colors of the gay flag, could be construed as threatening, weird, or even degenerate by an insulated viewer. For me, they simply remind me of home.

And "home" is a, perhaps now the, key concept for Opie. These early Portraits are of her friends, who comprise a community. They inspire an unexpected contrast with Opie's Houses, portraits themselves in a way, of the fronts of Southern California homes built in the 1950s in wealthy areas; there is something equally as campy about their now almost quaint architecture and hedges (think The Flintstones) as the piercings and tattoos and carefully crafted 'dos of Opie's friends: an intensely constructed identity, a surface that masks the inside, to protect it, to defend it, to fake out potential aggressors. Opie might make a different argument, one of opposition: in the Portraits, her friends reveal their innermost secrets, wear their proverbial hearts on their sleeves; the houses, in contrast, seem pristine from the outside, but mask whatever darkness may lurk inside.

Despite the closed gates of the Houses, Opie's relationship with the home and domesticity is actually very healthy—in fact, all of her work pulsates with a vigorous good-health, a comfort, a vitality that one might not expect to see in work that documents a subculture often associated with suffering, darkness, torture, physical and emotional pain. These are not Nan Golden's punk-rock smears of disaffected youth. These are painstakingly made (most often large format) photographs that engage with something seemingly different to show that it is actually the same. This is most apparent in the Domesticity series, in which Opie photographs lesbian couples, sometimes with their children, in their homes, including a few of her own son in hers. She describes a relationship with the snapshot in these photographs, but it is clear that in some of them, particularly one of her son sitting on the floor, bathed in light, shot over the remains of breakfast food on the table, she is also deeply engaged with the Dutch still life painting of domesticity.

The relationship with art history, with painting in particular, is of key importance in what I think are her strongest pictures: the Large Format Polaroids of performance artist Ron Athey and Darryl Carlton/Divinity Fudge. These are perhaps the most affronting photographs; in one, Athey lies in a bed, his head at the bottom of the larger-than-life photograph, his arm raised and his hand delicately curled, twenty hypodermic needles knitted through his tattooed flesh. But the sheets are golden, and the focus fades in the background (the top of the picture, and the bottom of the bed), where his ankles are strapped with leather thongs to the bedpost. Like the others in the series, this is a highly baroque image. In another, we see Athey from the rear, his venous, muscular legs planted in black stiletto heels, one leg up on a platform; he pulls up the voluminous skirts of a tightly-bodiced gown to reveal his tattooed ass, a luxuriantly long string of white pearls issuing forth from his anus (anus not shown). The backdrop is of patterned silk; again, the focus is muted, the colors warm, dark, opulent. At last, an interesting photographic engagement with the history of portraiture that peaked with Ingres' sumptuousness, an aesthetic wealth that draws us in and comforts us, while our stomachs struggle with the needled flesh, the BDSM implications, our desires, our fears, our titillation, without ever being cheap or vulgar or even offensive; this is not Vito Acconci—there is no affront.

Opie is extremely aware of what she is doing here. She shows three self-portraits together; two of which I saw for the first time in an art history class, at which time I formed a strongly unfavorable opinion of Opie, which opinion has clearly reversed now that I have seen the rest of her work. The earliest of these portraits is of her bare back, into which a childish drawing of a house and two female stick figures holding hands have been carved into her skin, which is beaded with blood. The second is from the front; the word "pervert" has been carved, in an elaborate, filigreed typeface, across her chest—it bleeds; her bare, sagging breasts have nipples pierced through with fat bullets; her white stomach is doughy and hangs unabashedly over the waist of her pants (we see just the top of them; she's seated, and the picture is from the waist up). Her entire head is enclosed in a black leather mask/hood, fastened tightly around her neck. Her arms are laced with hypodermic needles, more than twenty on each side. Together, these two pictures were disturbing and revolting when I saw them in my art history book at the age of nineteen. This was sickness; this was an affront. But the third self-portrait of the series changes the first two—narrativizes them in a way. The third self-portrait is, in art historical terms, a Madonna and Child. It is Catherine Opie, again photographed from the waist up, again topless, but this time neither pierced nor bleeding (though tattooed, and still wearing the white raised scar of the word "pervert" marked indelibly across her chest, which is somehow, now that it ceases to bleed, beautiful), holding in her big, brown, capable hands, the perfectly marble, nearly translucent body of her blond baby bay, just over a year old, whose hand and mouth sucks on her breast (perhaps the first anatomically-correct suckling Madonna and Child). The tone is silent, holy, rapturous even. It is whole. In spite of Opie's fluid understanding of gender (she states that some days she feels like a boy, and some days like a girl, then clarifying that she feels more like a girl since she's had a baby), there seems to be a melting away of anger, of rage, and a shift inward, that happens here, which frames the previous two portraits differently, as part of a story, of something that Opie wanted, which she wondered whether she was entitled to have, and which she finally took, thereby finding peace. This is somewhat reductive, because there are serious implications to this narrative (can a woman only find peace in motherhood? Must one be a mother to be a real woman? Can a woman out of touch with her femininity be "cured" by bearing children?). These are all dangerous potential interpretations of Opie's personal narrative, which she is brave enough (some may say reckless enough) to imply, and against which she does not protect, but I'll leave that to be your discussion question when you go to the show.

Meanwhile, I will make the dramatic shift that Opie makes, and that the layout of the museum affirms, and discuss Opie's. . . dare I say less personal work. Perhaps it's safer to call it her more minimalist work, or her more structuralist work, or her work focused outside of, rather than on the site of, the body. This is work that consists of two paired photographic sequences of Ice Houses and Surfers, black and white panoramic shots of Wall Street, Chicago, and Mini-Malls shot in LA, and tiny platinum prints of Freeways. The Houses and Surfers, shown together in a corridor-shaped room, where they face each other, are reminiscent of the German work that comes from the Bechers' students: large-format color pictures made with a cool, detached eye, tracing a receding line of, in one series, ice houses in a field of snow and, in the other, wetsuited surfers, waiting in a flat, gray ocean for the next wave. The pictures are about waiting (the surfer waits for waves, the photographer waits for the shot), and about the uniconographic. They are steeped in the minimalist aesthetic (if you squint, they could be the white canvases of Robert Ryman). The Freeways, conversely, are steeped in the history of photography. They are tiny, stunning platinum prints, a kind of marriage between the tilted architecture of Rodchenko and the yellowed salt and albumin prints of Middle Eastern ruins taken by Francis Frith and Maxime Du Camp in the 1850s. If content-related anxiety distracted us at all from Opie's technical mastery in looking at her other photographs, we see it here in its pure form: silent slabs of concrete curving across a jewelbox panoramic frame. The highways are California's sphinxes, and so for all their unadulterated aestheticism, these pictures are as richly conceptual documents as any of Opie's others, perhaps just less viscerally so. But they are, like most all of her work, stunningly beautiful.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Movies: Back Door to Heaven (1939)

By far the weirdest, and the most absurd, of the four films I saw as part of MoMA's Hollywood on the Hudson series, Back Door to Heaven begins in a small town's one-room schoolhouse. For graduation day, each student (they appear to be about ten years old) must perform some little piece that relates to what they plan to do with their lives. The premise preposterous already, one little boy who is to be a lawyer recites Portia's speech from The Merchant of Venice; another, who is to be a banker, does arithmetic in his head. A boy who is to be an artist draws something on the chalkboard. A pretty little girl sings a song (because, as the schoolteacher brightly points out, women can have careers too these days!) and a boy, who we saw moments before with his alcoholic father and well-meaning but brow-beaten mother, who are dirt-poor, stands up and plays a song on a harmonica. After this, the sheriff arrives; it seems the boy stole the harmonica from the window of the hardware store, and so he is sent off to reform school, where he promptly engages in a fistfight with the local ringleader.

A placard then tells us that "time goes by. . ." and we now see the boy grown into a man, washing floors in a prison. Again, he gets into a fistfight. But, he and two other prisoners are set free one day, having done their time, and they go back to visit his old town. No one is doing so well as they had hoped (except for the banker, who now runs the whole town)—the lawyer hasn't ever tried a case, the artist is an alcoholic who trades his skill for liquor at the local bar, the girl is a somehow still chaste, but incredibly lonely singer in a dive. When the hero remeets the singer, their childhood affection is rekindled and they are instantaneously in love, but his no-good friends drag him down; they plan a robbery in a restaurant, and when he goes to stop them, he walks in just as they're shooting up the place. Now he's wanted for murder.

His old friends try to help him—the lawyer agrees to defend him for free—but he's found guilty nonetheless. He escapes from prison long enough to join the school reunion the banker is throwing for his classmates under the pretense of benevolence but actually only for positive PR, as he's tearing down the old schoolhouse and forcing their old teacher into retirement. Everyone at the reunion (all five of them?) are so happy to see the hero, and so sad to hear him shot to death by the police after he says goodbye and walks out the door, in possibly the most morbid ending to any movie ever.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Movies: Crime Without Passion (1934)

This film stands apart from most other old movies, because the screenplay, written by Ben Hecht, intends not to entertain, but to instruct (though it lacks the hokey didacticism of Back Door to Heaven). The hero is Lee Gentry, a standard Hechtian (or Randian, if you're unfamiliar with Hecht—the approximation is close enough) übermensch, a misanthropic, calculating criminal defense lawyer with little respect for anything but the power of his own mind.

He no longer cares for Carmen, a cabaret singer he's dated for two years (having stolen her from his once friend, Eddie White), and he's moved onto a sturdy blonde, but he can't seem to break it off with Carmen—she is too melodramatic and he hasn't the heart. But his blonde demands it, and so he crafts a scheme, to "catch" her cheating on him with Eddie White (though she did nothing of the sort) and thereby grant himself the right to break it off.

This plan works, until he gets a raving telegram from Carmen, in which she threatens suicide. At her house, he and she fight over a pistol, and he accidentally shoots her—she falls down dead. The phone rings. An apparition of his ego appears, and instructs him; answer the phone, but mask your voice. Pocket the gun; pick up your crumpled boutonniere; go to the theater to create an alibi. Gentry seems to have structured things perfectly, but, in a Dostoevskyan twist, he is wracked with guilt, and confesses to the blonde. Revolted, she leaves him.

Again, the apparition appears, explaining to Gentry that this is perfect; he can now go to Carmen's theater for her show—demonstrating that he doesn't know she has been killed. But there, things don't go well. He runs into another showgirl who says she saw him at the theater when she was waiting for her new boyfriend—but an hour later than the time Gentry insists it was (which is the time he was in Carmen's apartment). Worried, he decides to silence her with romance, madly promising her furs and jewels, if only she'll leave with him immediately.

Cut to the dressing room, where Carmen is lying down, but insisting she's well enough to go on—she's not dead at all! Only had been in a faint all along. Back outside, while Gentry's hands are on the showgirl, her new boyfriend comes in; it's Eddie White, again. The two men scuffle and Carmen's gun, still tucked in Gentry's pocket, goes off. Eddie White is dead; Gentry is immediately arrested—it's an open and shut case with one hundred live witnesses and a clear motive.

At the police station, Gentry, alone for a minute, receives another visit from the apparition; it tells him to kill himself immediately, rather than wait for the chair. Gentry puts the gun barrel in his mouth, but his hands shake; he can't do it. The police officer confiscates the weapon, and the film is over, with the certain implication of Gentry's death by electrocution.

Hecht was, for a time, my favorite author (the time that I was between 17-21 years old, wore black ball gowns and Victorian boots, and saw nothing wrong with Ayn Rand's conception of the world). There is still something about his self-punishing snootiness (like all his heroes, he was too intelligent for his society, too good for this earth, and therefore suffered suffered suffered) with which I still guiltily identify, something that I don't want to be but feel that I can't help being. It is the thing that made me ask to play Lady Macbeth in grade school Shakespeare productions, the thing that made me read Nietzsche in college. Like Hecht, I fight it, lest I end up like one of his sick characters.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Books: Budapest, by Chico Barque

These Bush years have made it both easy and fashionable to be a kind of self-loathing American, but a book like Budapest reminds me that I'm still proud to be patriotic, so far as literature goes. This is not to say that the US doesn't churn out an unfathomable amount of crap, only to say that the stuff that parades around the rest of the world as literature is, in fact, crap.

So. That last statement is completely unfair and uncalled for, and demeans anything of worth I might actually say in this venue. Allow me to qualify it. There is a kind of pervasive romanticism in non-American novels; Barque (who is Brazilian) writes with the same ebullient affection (as in tenderness, although it does make him, to an American reader at least, seem rather affected as well, or, to a British reader (we'll include the always-sound British with the Americans in this us-vs-them game), soft-headed) as Mann, Proust, Marquez, Kundera. That's company I'm certain he would be proud to keep—each of them famous and loved around the world, even by Americans. But time and again, I hate reading them. There's just a total dearth of. . . moxie, that ultra-American je ne sais quoi.

Otherwise, Barque's novel includes all the things I usually go for; it's a textbook post-modern novel (the pieces are out of order and have that déjà vu, mobius-strip quality thanks to the repetition of certain phrases) about a writer (actually, a ghostwriter: even more po-mo!). On a seemingly random stop in Budapest, he falls in love with the Hungarian language, and, belying a disaffection his romanticism papers over, he picks up and moves to that freezing, foreign city, leaving behind his wife, his son, and his post (an agency which has already begun to self-populate with doppelgangers who manifest his redundancy). With years that pass like days in this short, swift book, he masters Hungarian to the point that he is ready to do his old work in his new language. He writes a poem for the most famous of aging Hungarian poets, frozen with writer's block. And then, he gets kicked out of Budapest, for never having acquired proper papers. The twist of fate that ends his story is recognition, though, for a book he didn't write. After having written hundreds of books, articles, speeches, and even a poem under the names of other famous authors, politicians, travelers, etc., someone has published, under his name, a book he did not write, for which he is granted a hero's welcome back to Budapest, and even into the arms of his Hungarian lover (who was at first his language teacher), who had spurned him in all the years between.

This is an efficient and interesting plot, but one that I'd rather read in the neurotic prose of Roth or McEwen, or even the catty, clever prose of Evelyn Waugh, with whose gotcha! endings the finish of Budapest quite fits. But each of these men write with a kind of chill, completely without the blind romanticism (the kind that comes of sucking on nostalgia tea bags) of Barque and his globe-trotting compatriots.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Books: Beneath the Underdog, by Charles Mingus

Mingus' music discloses all his roiling passion, pride, and sorrow, but his book explains, in an equally compelling and personal language, most of what's behind it, if maintaining the mystique of personal mythology common to monomaniacs and brilliant artists alike. I never knew anything about him but what I could hear: the pulsing streets of New York, the swaying of slave's spirituals, the lone, cool thumping of a bass that sets the tone for a hundred wailing elephantine souls. His records can't be mistaken for anyone else's. But though he came to New York, I recognize our crazy city in his music because I know the city. I don't know a thing about Watts, in LA county, where Mingus grew up, except that it's poor, and that it's black. But it seems that's where Mingus' soul first started to roil.

The way he tells it, three things make Mingus Mingus (and this is not to be confused with the way he starts his book, "I am three"): sex, race, and music. I list sex first because he addresses it early; he seems to have an understanding of himself as a sexual being before seeing himself as a racial being, and before he ever puts his hands on a musical instrument, sitting in the sandbox as a toddler, pouring hot sand into his pants because it feels good. This childhood sexuality doesn't bother me, though his descriptions of his sexual self as an adult will be the undoing of this otherwise honest and unsettling memoir. His uncurbed sexuality starts causing trouble right away (called a pervert on the playground with pants full of sand), particularly when he falls in love with the untouchably beautiful Lee-Marie, who plays cello with him in the county junior orchestra. They can't be more than ten or eleven, but they embark together on a kind of endless love that will last all his life (though he'll bed hundreds of other women, and love them too) and her's, though it will destroy her eventually; her parents forbid her to see him, and so he sates his sexual needs elsewhere, pining for her in her tower all the while.

Meanwhile, he's playing the cello by ear, having been taught enough by a vagabond music teacher to do just that, but not to read music. This will set him up for another kind of rage, because every time a conductor realizes the young musician can't read, the racist epithets will spew, the drawn conclusion always being that "Dumb niggers can't read." Soon, he trades in his cello for a bass and starts playing along with the radio, the notes tuned in reverse until someone clues him in otherwise. I don't doubt that the insults were unbearable for the young man, excoriated for memorizing the treble clef when the bass isn't played on those lines, but I also don't doubt that his incredibly free musical soul gained more by learning less in early years. Even if he did get it from both sides: called a nigger by the whites and called a yellow shit by the darker, prouder blacks. It's tricky for a white girl this decade to engage with Mingus' supercharged discussion of race; 1850 seems so long ago, but when Mingus was a kid in Watts, his grandparents, all the old people around, remembered slavery, had been slaves.

Things get stickier when Mingus, a grown man now and playing clubs in New York and LA starts, against his better judgements, following the examples of his fellow musicians and stringing wealthy, white women along for their money. This evolves into a short stint as a pimp, with which Mingus never seems quite comfortable, although his (white, rich) lover at the time, Donna, seems to embrace the life freely. This is where the book, as previously mentioned, begins to derail, since Mingus, committed to Donna, decides nevertheless to "rescue" Lee-Marie (whom, we find out, he did marry when they were 18, but whose parents separated them, had their own daughter's tubes tied against her will, and threatened to commit her if she tried to see him again). A few gunshots later, he has his childhood love back in his arms, and brings her home to Donna; he is to have two wives, and they are both to be his whores, working the desires of wealthy men as a team to bring in money to support their man. As soon as he brings Lee-Marie home, she and Donna each are captivated by the other's beauty, and as excited as two girls on the first day of kindergarten who decide to be best friends; they immediately go to bed together.

I've insisted here before that memoir need not follow objective historical truth* as closely as a tack stitch follows a hemline. There is a validity to an author's fantasy life; his desires disclose as much (if not more) as his actions, and the way he wants to be seen says more about him as the way he actually looks. Thus, I found little to criticize in Mingus' tall tale of a trip to Mexico; he and another black musician drive down with a pair of white, wealthy Southerner women, where they check into a hotel and Mingus proceeds to hire two dozen Mexican prostitutes for an orgy in their room, each of which he satisfies before the night is over. These faceless, nameless women are the stuff of fantasy, meaningful only in reference to a place, a night, their sheer numbers. But for Lee-Marie, a woman who, for Mingus, at least within the confines of his book, most closely approximates an angel, who refused to ever so much as date another, both before and after their ill-fated marriage, to suddenly, happily, become not only a bisexual, but also a prostitute, is preposterous. Equally, for Donna, who to that moment had barely heard of Lee-Marie, who had Mingus to herself, and who had no idea her man was out gunfighting over an old flame, to welcome Lee-Marie with tender affection rather than jealousy, is preposterous. The three of them going to bed together, living together until Donna and Lee-Marie eventually leave Charles for a shared life of high-class prostitution, is the stuff of a different kind of fantasy, one that doesn't fit, one that shocks us so strongly out of our softened state that we call into question every other thing we took for granted.

All the while, there is a taught undercurrent of spirituality (what I would call pseudo-spirituality if speaking of any person I respected less); Mingus narrates his story in a simultaneous first and third person, as if he writes as a disembodied soul looking down on his body as it moves through the physical world, and he in fact describes a few out of body experiences he had, his soul trying to leave his body forever, to die, before due. He does it even as a baby, then as an adult studying yoga (during which eight-month period, he claims, he remains completely abstinent and free of sexual desire, though he doesn't explain what shook him out of it). For a skeptical reader like me, this works better as a narrative device than an actual spiritual discourse (yoga silences the soul's caterwauling; no yogis write Mingus music). No matter what he says in his book, you hear it in his music; his soul is screaming, restless, raging, reaching—always reaching heavenward with arms and open mouth, but tied to the ground from the waist down, his viscera, his balls, feet kicking.

*Perhaps a construct itself. . .

Monday, October 13, 2008

Movies: Animal Crackers (1930)

Animal Crackers is a madcap comedy, a Marx Brothers film (my first ever) in which I probably only caught one in every five of Groucho's jokes (one needs, I think, subtitles, or a screenplay, to catch them all). The plot revolves around a wealthy woman's unveiling of a famous painting she has purchased, but the painting is so famous that not only has one visitor to the party made a copy in art school—two have. And both get the same idea to switch their canvas out for the original, the first simply as a practical joke, the second in order to gain recognition as a talented painter (his is as good as, if not better than, the original), and thereby gain the right to marry the girl he loves (who is of higher social stature than he is, although she does love him). In the midst of all this picture switching, Chico and Harpo do some switching and stealing of their own, bringing even more confusion and madcappery to the scene. By the end, all three canvasses are recovered (all of which had been stolen by Harpo, who had also has obscene amounts of stolen flatware and silver tucked into his coat), and the film ends happily.

I never realized how much of Woody Allen's schtick (particularly in the early films) was taken part and parcel from Groucho Marx.

Books: The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The High Window; by Raymond Chandler

Hardboiled is, of course, the word to encapsulate all three of Chandler's first three novels conveniently packaged by the Everyman's Library into one volume, but to write it off at just that is to miss all the fun: the long-legged showgirls with big, red mouths; the zoot-suited gangsters who are as wide as they are tall; the spoiled heiresses and their limp-wristed male companions; the old drunk women and their window-peeping neighbors; the suspicious cops who puff cigars like religion; the rain, the whiskey, the cigarettes; the pistols, the blackjacks, the laudanum; the smutty photos, the blackmailers, and the private detective who begrudgingly toils in their seamy underworld.

Chandler is far better than your average noir hack writer, though he makes some occasional slips that at first had me wondering (commas where semicolons ought to be, and a habit of using the same word twice in one sentence, as if in too much of a rush to think of a synonym or more elegant construction).* That said, he proves himself with the wildest off-color metaphors and ironic similes (something like "the old bag was as fresh as a two-dollar whore at sunrise," which I actually just made up myself, since I didn't flag the book for the best ones while I was reading).

The Big Sleep is his best-known for a reason; not only is it the novel in which Chandler introduces Philip Marlowe, but it's the one with the most plot twists (and naked ladies), surrounding the murder of a (old, gay) man who runs an old-fashioned underground lending library of pornography. Farewell, My Lovely, by contrast, starts with an exchange of a rare jade necklace for ransom, and The High Window, a stolen rare gold coin. Jewels and money, as important as they are, are nowhere near as titillating as pornography, and while the other two novels contain their share of gangsters, hustlers, and broads, Chandler does seem to have lost some steam (plot-wise, never language-wise) as he wrote on. Maybe if The Big Sleep weren't so brilliant, we wouldn't have noticed.

*Witness: "He wrestled it around on the highway and drove back towards town along a three-lane highway washed clean by the rain. . ." That sentence would be a lot snappier without the phrase "on the highway."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Movies: Laughter (1930)

This is your great-grandma's rom-com (with a less happy ending, because old films are way less apologetic than new films). A beautiful showgirl has married into money, but can't stand her older husband (he spends all his time tallying his stocks and bonds with his male secretary) and still carries the torch for a piano playing composer she knows from her dancehall days, while a sculptor friend, from the same bohemian crowd, still carries the torch for her. Her fun-loving, flapper stepdaughter is only a few years younger than she is, and over a madcap weekend, the flapper and sculptor fall in love (with the help of a bit of booze), while the showgirl and piano player are playing house in a shuttered summer home after getting caught in a rainstorm during a country drive in a convertible automobile that ran out of gas (this is the movie's best scene; in order to warm up, they strip to their skivvies and dress up in the white and brown bearskin rugs found on the living room floor—complete with heads, which they wear as hoods!).

Things fall apart at a masquerade ball when the showgirl runs to stop her stepdaughter from eloping with the sculptor (who then kills himself), and the showgirl finally admits to her husband that she cannot, for all the diamonds in the world, remain married to him. She and the composer move to Paris, and we see them at a sidewalk cafe, happy at last, until the blinking diamonds on a wealthy woman's wrist catch the showgirl's eyes, and we see that she is beginning to bore of her composer, who is still reworking the same riff he was working back in New York. The grass, she reminds us, is always greener elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Politics: The Debate (catfight!)

I read an amusing article before the debate predicting the role that body language would play, which concluded with the fantastic line "a robot can't dance with a cat." While Obama did have a certain feline lassitude when he wasn't speaking, comfortably draping himself against the too-tall stool with a smooth grin that barely concealed the canary feathers between his teeth, McCain was less a robot than a different kind of cat: an exhausted, mangy lion at a third-rate traveling sideshow of the kind that probably hasn't existed since the 1930s, pacing his 6x8 wheeled cage, apt to bite any hand that dare poke through the bars, then realizing all too late he doesn't have teeth anymore.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Theater: The 39 Steps at the Court Theater

Though I took a college class on Hitchcock and watched more than half his movies, I never saw The 39 Steps, which perhaps made this production all the more fun: I had no idea what I was getting into, aside from some kind of mysterious comedy in which a mere four actors play 150 roles. Yes, a mere four actors play 150 roles.

This is even more impressive when the show starts and we see that one actor plays only one role, and one actress plays only three, leaving the other two to handle the remaining 146, often with the sparest of costume changes (the flip of a hat, say, or in one case, the turning of the body from right to left, to show one half clad in trenchcoat, the other in suit jacket).

The nail-biting hilarity begins when bored bachelor Richard Hanney goes out to the theatre one night and is followed home by a mysterious woman in a dark suit and hat, vamp-red lipstick, and an unplaceable Eastern European accent. That night, she's murdered in his apartment, and he sets off to complete her mission (she had disclosed to him before dying that she was a secret agent attempting to stop the export of military information, and that this would require a trip to Scotland to see The Professor). With little more information than this, Hanney sets off to save his country, chased all the while by the Scotland Yard as the murderer of the mysterious lady left in his apartment with a knife in her back. Madcap mayhem ensues, of course, as Hanney tries to escape the heat, find the Professor, and then escape from the Professor once he realizes said Professor is playing for the other team. The answer to the mystery ("What are the 39 Steps?") plays out back again in the theater, once Hanney has been in and out of police custody and picked up a nervous but lovely young blonde on the way.

What makes this production so fantastic (aside from the witty script and the positively brilliant performances by all four cast members, the protean pair in particular, with their special chemistry) is its whimsical candidness about the theater. The set is extremely spare, and the actors double as the crew, but they manage to use their bodies and costumes as props (lifting and shaking a jacket to demonstrate wind-flapping motion during a chase scene atop a "moving train"), and, when that won't do, they drop a backlit scrim and create a shadow tableau, with little puppets (complete with a Hitchcock cameo), flashing lights, and at one moment, descending whirly-propeller planes (a reference to North By Northwest! ((There's a Psycho shower shout-out, too, and tons others if you keep your eyes peeled (and ears: the line "The lady vanished!" references, of course, the Hitchcock flick The Lady Vanishes))).

Friday, October 3, 2008

Books: The Naked and the Dead, by Arthur Miller

In his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of this novel, the author gives a better summation than I can give here.  He admits to some embarrassment on returning to the text and finding much of it to be "Best Seller" quality--and it's true: an awful lot of sentences are filled with lazy metaphors.  He also explains that he was saved in his writing by Tolstoy, whom he was reading while writing.  That connection is apparent as well; there are moments when the hardened one-liner dialogue between men stops to allow for a (somewhat awkward) lengthy discussion of the nature of man and the future relationship between war, power, politics, and the individual.  I would disagree that this is what saved him, though.  When the book gets really good, it's the farthest thing from Tolstoy you could imagine.

When the book gets really good is toward the end.  Perhaps it's not until the end that we have a real investment in any of the ten or so characters (because of the novel's structure, for the first few hundred pages, it's hard to remember which soldier is which; one by one, dispersed throughout the novel, a short flashback gives the reader more insight into each one, so that we can understand him as a person, rather than just a soldier).  Or, perhaps it's not until the end that Miller hits his descriptive stride.  It is in the last few hundred pages that the men we are coming to know are sent out on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines (the Japs--it's WWII), and a power struggle begins between their de facto leader, Croft, and Lieutenant Hearn, who has a higher rank, but has only just been transferred to the platoon, so is a stranger.  As Croft's megalomania turns the mission into a death march up an insurmountable mountain (while the war is accidentally being won, in an ironic twist, by an insecure Major on the day that the bombastic General is away, rendering their entire mission pointless), Miller pushes his reader through the painful exercises that Croft does his men, marching on and on and on, despite the bleeding sores on their feet, the jungle sores on their faces, the 60 lb packs on their backs, and the dead and dying they've either left behind or sent back to camp.  It's in writing their extremely palpable suffering--in complete detail--that Miller achieves something worth reading fifty years later.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Art/Performance: FLUXCONCERT 20080925-27

Read about previous FLUXCONCERTS here and here.

In his first own original FLUXCONCERT, writer/director/creator of the FLUXCONCERT series Perry Garvin continues on a preëstablished trajectory to use the structural modes and practices of Fluxus to create performance art with richer, emotional meaning than the genre typically implies. From the outset, Garvin discloses that this piece is "an oblique exploration of love, loss, and the ambiguities of human bonding." That seems dangerous territory, but it is in fact the rigors of Fluxus that restrain this piece from tumbling into the nether regions of sentimentality that words like "love," "loss," and "bonding" intimate. And while we expect from Fluxus something cool, detached, and cerebral, it is in fact the mode's embrace of randomness that allows it to make those ambiguous, emotional concepts so tangible. For isn't coupling arbitrary? (And don't dare think that arbitrary equates with meaningless until you've seen the show.)

The work is highly structured, with a 48 minute clock divided into different increments for five roles (two of which roles are played by two place-trading players each). Person A (played by two performers who switch each minute) performs a different action each minute. His actions are the most physically rigorous of each player; early instructions include "force blood to head," "scratch bare chest vigorously," and "whip head back and forth repeatedly." Person B (also played by two performers who switch for each three minutes) performs a different action each three minutes. His actions are also quite physical, but rather than damaging his own self (and damaging is indeed the correct word; on the second night of the show, Person A had raised red wounds from the previous night's scratching, and while he whipped his head back and forth, I couldn't watch; his veins stood out through his skin, and I thought I would be sick for his pain), he damages external items, tearing sheets of paper (of increasing size) in half, breaking sticks (of increasing size) in half, blithely blowing bubbles (of increasing size).

Person C, seemingly isolated from the action on stage, facing away from it, and starting at minute 12 plays a random kind of score to the drama: three pieces of music in 12-minute intervals from "the very beginning of the piano's history," "the very middle of the piano's history," and "the very end of the piano's history." Person E, equally isolated from Persons A and B, from the very beginning until the last minute of the show, is tasked to "build a structure," which he does in the corner opposite the piano (is this structure, which ironically toppled at the show's end, the promise of a future? Of work completed? Of something accomplished, done, made, built? One can't avoid the intimations of home, of family). Half-way through the show, Person D enters, his only instruction "electric guitar" (he stands with deer-in-the-headlights eyes, making no sound to break the dull electric buzz of the amp, creativity stymied, paralyzed by the overwhelming potentiality of everything that could be done). The minutes are chimed by Garvin, seated in the last row of the audience. At the final chime, minute 48, each person ceases his other activities and lowers a drape over the entire stage, and the show is over.

So where, in all this, is the exploration of love, loss, and bonding? That is what happens between Persons A and B, who after a bit of lonely, destructive behaviors, begin a courtship (Person A is instructed to look at Person B, first through binoculars, then to reach out to Person B, from a ladder, once with a string, once with a tape measure, once with his own body, but never touching Person B. He is then instructed to throw things at Person B, then to "communicate" to Person B, using numbers, clay, flags (n.b. the impotence of all these actions)). In minutes 24 through 35 persons A and B come together, trading sounds and actions, but beginning at minute 36, physical brutality begins again. Person B is instructed to grasp onto Person A, while Person A is instructed to generate shapes, make vigorous movements, and finally remove Person B's grip. At one point, Person B's arms are wrapped closely around Person A's waist, and Person A picks up a blunted half broomstick from Person B's earlier stick-breaking activity and repeatedly jams that stick into Person B's ribs and stomach. Person B finally cannot take it and releases his grip; Person A runs off stage, away form Person B, who has suffered.

I should not need to explain this metaphor to you explicitly, having already disclosed the words "love," "loss," and "bonding," and yet the audience, to my great surprise, met much of this scuffling with laughter. But I felt no mirth. I've been both Person A and Person B enough times to recognize the loneliness, the desire, the shared reaching toward meaning, the devolving of shared experience into abuse, the mindless, fearful clinging, the desire, the loneliness. Garvin's world in this piece is the world of Beckett, of Pim and Bom in How It Is (which I'm certain he hasn't read, but I see he must have lived, as we all eventually do). If anyone is to end up anything other than completely miserable, we shall have to hope that he is wrong about the ambiguities of human bonding. But I don't think he is.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dance: Fall For Dance Festival

Now in its fifth year, the Fall For Dance Festival, featuring ten nights of six programs of four to five companies each for the absurdly low price of $10 per ticket, is popular enough that obtaining those tickets is infuriatingly difficult. I've had increasingly worse seats each year (this was my third; read about my second here), and wish that City Center would beef up their server for the flood of frenzied internet purchasers logging in at 10:59 the day that tickets go on sale; because of their poor system, the September 19th show, featuring Merce Cunningham, sold out before I could log in. And so, I bought tickets for each other program, and herein follows a discussion of what I saw.

I knew nothing about Shen Wei walking into the show, but was thrilled to see the company perform a highly structured modern piece called Map, set to a gorgeous Steve Reich soundtrack. The choreography was rigorously musical, a meditation on the workings of hips and shoulders (I sometimes wonder whether this kind of choreography appeals to anyone other than dancers themselves—without narrative or prettiness to grasp onto, unless one has a vested interest in studying what the body itself knows, this kind of work could appear impenetrable). With a threatening, almost cancerous tone, as the dancers' gray bodies broke into clusters, the piece fell apart at the end, as the dancers walked around with their arms flailing. The Fall For Dance Festival has a somewhat regular structure for each show, generally opening with a big modern piece. BeijingDance/LDTX is another company I knew nothing about, but their piece, The Cold Dagger, was equivalent to Map; set to a beautifully ugly composition by Henryk Górecki, with a large group of dancers dressed in black and white floor-length gowns (men and women both wore full skirts), the bodies recalled chess pieces in a violent struggle between groupthink and isolation. Again, to a dancer, the piece was dramatic, stunning, rich in physicality and, more than Map, socio-politically meaningful, but perhaps still elusive, masked, or even truculent to the uninitiated. I think that [bjm_danse] Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal's Les Chambres des Jacques, with its cobbled soundtrack ranging from Vivaldi to the Cracow Klezmer Band and its fresh-faced dancers clad in white, flouncing peasant shifts with colored bodices was much more accessible, while the choreography was equally if not more interesting for the audience and challenging for the dancers (more the men than the women, who seemed to be showcased less). The staging, utilizing square spotlights to highlight different groups of dancers at different times, added to the visual appeal, but ultimately, the piece was perhaps too light, too musical, too fun, too empty. Here I am in danger of insinuating that dark is deeper than bright, but I will come back to that thought in a bit.

The FFD program has space enough for smaller companies to do smaller pieces; there are a number of solos, duets, and trios sprinkled in that give perhaps lesser-known dancers quite a hefty audience. Sheron Wray (whom I perhaps not unfairly mistook for Camille Brown, who performed in last year's festival) danced Harmonica Breakdown; like Brown's piece last year, the music was so good that it upstaged the dancing (which was fine, but a bit repetitive). Kate Weare Company showed The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us, an amalgam of a solo and a duet that didn't fit together at all—while the solo was very gut-based (think Martha Graham), the duet was cooler, more cerebral (think Merce). Both Kate (in the duet) and the female soloist danced beautifully (if Kate was a bit more rigid), though Kate's male partner seemed rather too lunkish to carry off her choreography; ultimately, there was little to bind these pieces, and little for the audience to hold onto for later.

Fang-Yi Sheu's Single Room, a disturbingly too-erotic piece, showcased Sheu's acrobatic flexibility, balance, and control (think Circque de Soleil) Sheu is a beautiful dancer with particularly gorgeous feet, but the porno-sax music and the masturbatory writhing against the table (an obvious structural metaphor for a bed) made the piece seem rather cheap. Contrast Sheu's cool and effortless gymnasticism, though, with something deeper: Talia Paz in Love. With the spindly, erotic elegance of a long-legged spider, Paz completely hypnotized the audience so that we barely noticed how repetitive (and frankly, uninteresting) the choreography (and music) were. It didn't matter, though; I would pay money just to watch Paz walk down the street. Her body is perfectly refined; she seems to have control over every last nerve ending, surging with a lush je ne sais qua even to the surface of her skin. Here is a woman who defines visceral dancing: she is everything I want in a dancer. Little surprise that she comes from Batsheva Dance Company.

Two crowd pleasing male duets came from Richard Siegal/The Bakery with The New 45 and The Lombard Twins with Lombard Play Piazzolla—The Dance Concert, but as far as I'm concerned, neither lived up to their promise. With liquid, animation-like whimsy (as in, I've only ever seen cartoons able to move this way), Ayman Harper and Mario Zambrano started strong; the music was a jazz suite and their groove was unstoppable. . . until they (or should I say their choreographer) ran out of steam; here was a piece that needed a strong editor to cut out all dead space in between the maddeningly fantastic dancing. The Twins, by contrast, were over choreographed, and desperately needed a shot of the funk that powered the Bakery dancers. Perhaps never has such physically virtuosic dancing left me so cold. These guys are completely ripped and have complete control over every micro-movement, but they are soulless automatons. Even their choreography had soul, but these so-called hip-hop/street-inspired dancers could not get down (as Robin Dunn always says during her hip-hop classes, the funk is in the floor—you've gotta get down low to be funky). And, on the topic of not being able to get down, Keigwin + Company performed a very disappointing rendition of (my least favorite of the Elements series) Fire, in which a very non-funky Julian Barnett replaced the very funky Samuel Roberts in Walk it Out, turning what, with Roberts, seems a modern embrace of hip-hop into a modern critique of hip-hop—how surreal to see that happen.

Each FFD program includes a traditional dance of national heritage, and I will admit that these are not usually my favorite. The all-male hula group The Gentlemen of Hälau Nä Kamalei performed an indolent piece called Kahikilani, which tells a surfer's love story (involving much more chanting than dancing) without any of the vigorous jumping and squatting I expect from Polynesian dancing. The Pichet Klunchun Dance Company performed Chui Chai, another storytelling piece, in which five females, weighed down by ornate and heavy gold costumes showcased the painstakingly slow traditional dance of Thailand, mannered, imperial, and decorative. This dance, which relies on hand gestures and flickering eyes to tell the story, is ill-chosen for the City Center space, where no one but the front section of the orchestra and perhaps the first rows of the dress circle are close enough to note these subtle details. For the rest of the audience, the piece only became momentarily dynamic with the introduction of a male dancer, in lightweight black pants and tee shirt, who was actually free to move, and who moved with the beautiful, loose freedom of a modern dancer (his choreography, oddly, echoed the movements of the Shen Wei dancers). While theoretically the juxtaposition of the traditional and non-traditional dancing seems interesting, I felt only an anti-imperial insistence, certainly not the actual intention of the piece. (More on this later as well.) Similarly, the traditional Indian dancing of Madhavi Mudgal in Odissi: PRAVAHA was too gestural and mannered to be at all captivating (when I see dance, I want to see whole bodies moving!) Mudgal enlisted the younger Arushi Mudgal to dance alongside her for the piece's second half, and she was definitely more fun to watch—her movements sharper, deeper, executed with more bounce and zest—but ultimately, this kind of movement is not athletic enough, doesn't engage with space enough, and again, insists on storytelling (this time perhaps less narrative, but still an "invocation," an offering, to Shiva (the Indian Lord of Dance), rather than a self-centered (and I mean that in a positive way, a centering-in on the self, on one's own body) exploration or expression). Had she not brought along a group of excellent live musicians, I would have had nothing on which to focus, except for the sensual insinuations of young Arushi's green hips.

I will stop here to discuss Garth Fagan Dance's From Before, even though this modern, New York-based company does not fit the traditional heritage dance category. This is because From Before is a contemporary study of traditional African and Caribbean dance, a piece that looks to be what Merce Cunningham might distill after studying traditional African movements. I will admit that my skin bristled when reading about this piece (the program's notes read, "extracting the essence. . . discarding ritual trappings, allowing the movement to speak for itself); the phrase "ritual trappings" is rather strong, potentially offensive. But as soon as the (all black) cast came onstage, in their neon colored, liquid chrome bodysuits, in the deep squats and tilted angles of Horton and Dunham techniques, with rolling and pulsing pelvises and ribs, their bodies what God intended when God made bodies (if God made bodies): in a Godly image. Though the choreography lagged here and there during short pauses and breaks, this was the best FFD performance of the year, with the most stunning dancers and the most physically-captivating choreography. Other "traditional" companies should make a study of this kind of distillation; Garth Fagan succeeds at what Pichet Klunchun seems to have been pushing toward: making traditional movement relevant.

One thing that keeps traditional dance irrelevant is its adherence to ancient, backward class and gender relations; I already intimated the erotic servitude of women implied in Mudgal's piece, and railed against the imperialism celebrated by Pichet Klunchun, whose dancers are so weighted down by gold threads and crowns that its no wonder they can only move their hands and eyes, and so slowly at that. But ballet is another traditional dance that always infuriates me, both in its inequality (highlighting two principal dancers, while the rest of the company functions as movable scenery) and its hyper-traditional treatment of gender. The two pas de deux I saw this year, one from the Houston Ballet and choreographer George Balanchine (Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux) and one from the Oregon Ballet Theatre and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (Rush), were equally tedious in their reconstitution of the heteronormative man-spins-woman, man-lifts-woman, man-supports-woman-while-woman-lifts-leg pas de deux formula. Wheeldon has failed to impress me before, but between these two pieces, his was the more interesting, if only because his dancers wore more contemporary black and blood-red unitards than the flouncy, BeDazzled costumes of the Houstonians. Wheeldon's choreography, in fact, could have been interesting if his dancers performed it more staccato; they seemed to be more interested in being pretty than vamping it up and creating real drama.

But even more offensive than the pas de deux was another Balanchine piece, Pithoprakta, performed by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Pithoprakta is a kind of modern ballet, debuted in 1968 and set to Iannis Xenakis' eponymous music from 1955. Now. For reasons I've just established, I like to see ballet being broken more than anything else. Think, in 1968, what Balanchine must have been feeling, watching someone like Merce Cunningham dancing to the music of John Cage. Pithoprakta is his response: a lewd caricature of what his backward, pea brain thought Cunningham et al. were doing. But this flat-footed parody of modern dance fails to please fans on either side of the modern-ballet divide: it's awkward, ugly, snarky, and still manages to get mired in ballet's worst tendencies (the showcasing of principal dancers, the stiff, inorganic torsos, the preening, emotionally vacuous prima ballerinas who can barely crack a fake smile). What a travesty. Balanchine's inside-jokey choreography, which attempts to satirize modern's interest in full-body contact and spatial play, only serves to show how little ballet people understand modern dance, and the choice of Xenakis' grating score discloses that the man little understood the potential for beauty in modern music as well.

Dare I continue to rail against ballet and discuss the unintentional farce that was the National Ballet of Canada's Soldiers' Mass? This all-male piece, premiered in 1980 in the Netherlands is, particularly in these times when our country actually is at war, conceptually embarrassing: a theatrical, naive paean to a kind of heroism that doesn't exist, never existed, outside, perhaps, of literature and film, the only places where war can be noble, honorable, lofty, and fought for ideals. Everything about this piece—the choreography, the staging, the costumes, the healthy, corn-fed bodies of the dancers—is a fantasy, Dickensian in its elevation of suffering, of sorrow, to a meaningful end. Contrast this delusion with Hofesh Shechter Company's Uprising, another all-male (modern) dance that discloses, in its raw, primal physicality, the reality of war: the darkness, the turpitude, the sickness. War is violence, and violence is perversion. Shechter is an Israeli who danced with the Israeli Batsheva; while I cannot praise Batsheva and Artistic Director Ohad Naharin's GAGA method highly enough, and while the palpability of Shechter's message is an effect of his GAGA training, I must also express my certainty that Shechter's cold-eyes look at war, at fighting, comes from being an Israeli. It is difficult to watch this piece and not think of checkpoints, of questioning, of bullying. It is impossible not to think of America's own flirtation with secret torture and abuse of prisoners. It is impossible not to think of renegade terror cliques: small groups of terrified young men with nothing to live for but the hope of tremendous suicide, taking out as many "enemies" as possible. And in the tussling, random grouping, and escalated slapping Shechter here displays, we see illustrated with perfect clarity how war happens: by confusion, by ignorance, by rage, by snap judgments, by the escalation of the thump-passed, and it's gritty, and it's scary, and it gets you in your belly, where it sinks you down (while the Canadians are aiming for your heart, to pull you up). This is where I come back, as promised, to my implication that dark is deeper than bright. Perhaps I've decided that it is.