Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shanghai: Day Zero (Arrival)

My preemptive strike against jetlag was successful (I slept a mere hour the night before my 7:00 AM flight to Shanghai via San Francisco, so that the miserable eighteen hours of economy seating would pass in a medicated haze of tea with lemon, wet peas and carrots, and melted cheese on processed turkey and heat storage-hardened bread). Upon landing at Pudong airport around nightfall, I procured my luggage and swished out to the taxi stand, having already changed currencies at Travelex when my flight landed an hour early in nostalgic San Francisco (whose brown hills I could only stare at wistfully from floor-to-ceiling windows, hearing the voices of my parents on the phone only fifteen minutes away, all sealed away from touch by the TSA). I showed the driver the Chinese characters Lynn had sent me via PDF, but unlike most of New York’s foreign cabbies, he was only partially literate in a language clearly not his own. Four an hour on the highway, there was nothing to see but enormous billboards advertising Mercedes and BMWs. Finally, we exited onto city streets, and thanks to some photographs of the building Lynn had emailed me, we found it. I went up seventeen stories in the cold, stale elevator, onto a cold, dark, concrete landing. Lynn lives in a bunker.

When she opened the door in leather motorcycle jacket and straight bangs, first we had a big hug, and then I looked around with some surprise. Inside the bunker, one doesn’t know that one is in a bunker; the walls are paneled with inlaid wood; the sofas are brown and white gingham. The ceilings have swirling panels built in with recessed lighting and enormous, flagellate light fixtures. It looks a bit like the eighties, and my bedroom has pink and white polka-dot wallpaper with a Mini Mouse runner through the middle. Lynn, the artist, the world citizen, looks very out of place here, but the apartment is her grandmother’s and so, we are here. I am just grateful to have a place to stay.

It was still early, though I was in a bit of a daze—uncertain whether I was hungry or not, tired or not, or whether my feet were even on the ground for certain—but I took a hot shower and we went out. Lynn brought me to the kind of bar that one finds all over lower Manhattan, complete with a secret mode of entry (the heavy iron door slides open when one puts one’s hand in the correct part of the relief logo—nine circles forming a square). The drinks menu gave cocktail names in English, but the descriptions were all in Chinese, so while Lynn drank chilled sake, I ordered something that came flaming: a tiny glass with floating layers of Kahlua, Bailey’s, and Vodka, the clear alcohol at the top cushioning the pale blue plasma that I quickly puffed out. After one drink, we proceeded to a restaurant quite the opposite: Charmant, a Taiwanese comfort-food joint littered with white expats and Chinese locals alike (so that I could have just as easily been back in the Bay Area). Again, the menu was daunting (with English descriptions of dishes that appeared rather suspicious), so I told Lynn to order. It seems most restaurants here serve family-style anyway—in fact often only bringing one menu to the table—and so this has become the dining program while I’m here.

The food began to come out: a cold dish of fat, translucent noodles in watery peanut sauce, a pot of bony chicken nodules in a rich, hot, sweet barbecue sauce, with whole cloves of garlic and liberal shavings of ginger root, tiny clams in a salty broth with a wet green vegetable Lynn called loofah, a heaping plate of sautéed greens, sturdier than spinach but not as sturdy as kale, and a broth swimming with dumplings (soup here served last, unlike in the states). The restaurant, though, is known for its desserts, and so we had to order it: a disturbingly tall and narrow tower of shaved ice, dripping with a sort of mung bean syrup (a milky, pasty, only mildly sweet thing), and dotted with chewy pink cubes and black balls at the bottom (taro and milk pearls). Strange, but not unpleasant.

Back home, Josh had come back from work, and so we all chatted a bit before going to bed. My mouth felt terribly tingly, and washing up in the bathroom, I saw why; my lower lip had swollen to thrice its normal proportion. “Perhaps,” I told Lynn, “I am allergic to clams?” Without much more worry, I put some ointment on it and went to bed. Although the apartment was terribly cold (concrete walls don’t make for cozy nests), I slept and slept and slept.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Books: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

I started this book expecting to hate it; I have a disposition against female authors, and this one in particular, judging by her jacket photo, was younger and prettier than I, in addition to being, of course, a more accomplished writer. The flap’s synopsis looked insipid (a high school heroine named Blue?!), and the table of contents gimmicky (each chapter is named after a classic). The pages were even littered with coy illustrations. Having just come off of The Emperor’s Children, I thought that this would be another girly dud.

But once I started reading, I fell for it instantly. Blue Van Meer is an over-read, under-socialized girl starting her senior year of high school. She’s been raised by her father, a traveling professor of all things revolutionary, and has attended countless schools in as many US states, often moving every semester, getting the bulk of her education on lengthy cross-country drives with dad, forced to read aloud from old Hollywood biographies and recite Romantic poetry and Transcendental quotations from memory. Suddenly, she finds herself fixed, for an entire year, at a prestigious and pricey private high school, struggling to navigate a confusing social scenario, in which the most popular set is forced to include her at their pet teacher’s behest.

Pet teacher? Yes—this is one of those very special teachers whom students idolize (she teaches only one class: Film). This teacher invites her favorite six students to her house for weekly dinners, outlandish affairs with wine, show tunes, and globe-trotting menus. She takes them on camping trips. One might think it strange—if not a bit disconcerting—that a teacher would develop such close relationships with her students (it’s even intimated that she might have had a sexual affair with one of the boys, who is particularly attached).

And it does become disconcerting, when she takes them on a camping trip and—holy cannoli—commits suicide by hanging herself, right there for Blue Van Meer to discover her. The girl's social life is wrecked when the popular set then turns against her. Things get worse when Blue’s father disappears, after she tells him about some research she has done, linking both him and the mysterious teacher to a group of urban terrorists active in the 1960s.

It was at this point that I fell out of love with the book, racing to finish it and untangle the mystery. I felt cheap about doing so. I was no longer reading for the pleasure of the prose, but for a simple answer. The pages caught fire.

And so, it turns out, Pessl is just another Messud. Her voice is younger, smarter—more precocious, and more prone to fantasy, but engaged in the same scheme: creating a literary page-burner. The prose is littered with allusions and quotations, and the savvy, well-read and well-cultured reader picks up on these and delights in them, but is ultimately driven by the juicy, gossip-filled plot: will Blue lose her virginity to the mysterious Black, on whom she crushes? Is the mysterious teacher having a secret affair with Blue’s father? We know at the start to expect something bad, because the entire novel is written in flashback, from Blue’s dorm room at Harvard, where she can’t stop seeing the specter of two dead feet dangling in the air. And so we wait for that bad thing to happen, deliciously nervous, racing through page after page.

Is this bad? I don’t know. I felt let down at the end, as though Pessl assumed I needed a fantastic twist to keep me engaged in an otherwise perfectly good coming-of-age tale. As an epilogue, though, she includes a quiz (including multiple choice and an essay question), the questions of which imply that Blue may simply be an over-imaginative, over-read teenage girl, that the surprise ending may be nothing more than a fantasy she has constructed to protect herself from the truth (that the beloved teacher actually did commit suicide, rather than being silenced by a murderer in the dark). This possibility sits better with me—ambiguity is always a safe haven for uncertain writers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Movies: A Pervert's Guide to Cinema

Last year, I’d never heard of Sophie Fiennes, and now I’ve seen two of her documentaries in one month. She unquestionably knows what she’s doing, both in finding interesting subjects and filming them in the appropriate way. A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema is a lengthy lecture from philosopher and critic Slavoj Žižek, filled with delicious illustrative clips of movies (mostly Hitchcock and Lynch). Žižek speaks to us sometimes from a white soundstage, where he seems pasted onto the screen, a dark, kinetic speck surrounded by blinding light, but mostly, he lectures from within the scenes of the movies he’s describing: the hotel toilet bowl from The Conversation, the rowboat from The Birds, the chair where Neo must choose between red and blue pills in The Matrix. It’s a little unsettling, but so is his thesis.

In the past, I’ve only dipped a toe in Žižek and other psychoanalytic film criticism, when I took a Hitchcock class at UC Berkeley with DA Miller, shocked to discover that all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre centers around the anus, and our obsession with keeping it clean. That felt mostly like Miller’s own obsession as a standard-issue, leather wearing, Bay Area gay man. Žižek, a bearded Eastern European who talks to quickly he spits, frantically waving his hands, as if he were my mother trapped in my father’s body (he really does look awfully like my dad. . .) doesn’t seem to have much personally invested in what he argues, which makes him slightly more believable. He’s actually incredibly convincing, even though, once out of the theatre, one is slightly stunned by what he’s convinced one to believe.

Žižek’s first premise about the cinema is that it teaches us what and how to desire. He illustrates this nicely with a scene from a 1930s movie in which a woman walks down the street and stops so that a train can pass by; each of the train’s lit windows becomes a movie screen, offering up fantasies of the romantic love she had just arranged to encounter later that night. But Žižek has an even more compelling premise about the cinema, which is that it enables us to act out drives that we cannot safely act out in the actual world, the primary one being, of course, to kill the father (please, no Freudian readings about Žižek looking like my father, and taunting me from the cinema screen.) Of course, he’s no fan of the mother either, blaming the birds on Mitch’s mother, who does not want Mitch to engage in a romantic liaison with another woman.

This kind of analysis may be a bit heavy for Hitchcock, whose better films can be enjoyed on a purely cinematic level. But when considering Lynch, a cult favorite in my set whom I’ve always tried to watch, the analysis is more helpful. I’ve tried to watch Lynch’s films, but I’ve been trapped in a strange no-man’s land (much like the Zone in the Tarchovsky movie that Žižek also considers, alongside its inversion, Solyaris): half horrified, half incredulous (the incredulity likely a mechanism my intellect uses to protect me from that incredible fear). Now I’d like to take a full-semester course on Lynch, taught by Žižek, because the thing missing from this film is a transcript. The man talks so quickly, and says so much, that, particularly for someone like me with very little background in psychoanalysis, important things are hard to catch. And he makes me want to catch them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Books: Cigarettes, by Harry Mathews

Because this book is so much more comprehensible than TheConversions, I expected that Harry Mathews had written it first. In fact, Cigarettes is his fourth novel, The Conversions his first. While it’s strange to see an author grow less experimental with age (wait, is it? Now I am unsure. . .) I’m not ashamed to admit that I liked this later book much more than the confounding Conversions.

Mathews is clever (and cruel) enough that Cigarettes might not be as simple as it seems, but in spite of my fascination with the nesting Russian Doll effect in postmodern fiction, I remain a sucker for good, straightforward storytelling. Cigarettes, which is a series of interlocking vignettes, love stories of the amorous and familial kind, that together comprise a novel, contains no mysteries that it doesn’t solve, no conspiracies threatening the hermetically-sealed setting (an idealized summer resort town a few hours outside of New York City, with moneyed artists and insurances salesmen for residents). The only remotely postmodern thing about the book is that the stories are told out of chronological order, so that we find ourselves shuttling between the sixties and the thirties, watching parents meet and fall in love after we’ve already seen their children do so.

This episodic, interlocking technique, particularly given the melodramatic sexual and familial intrigues, smacks of soap (the book was published in 1987, perhaps the very height of the televisual genre). One sister is given a greater inheritance than another; a man is banished from his house by his wife and his lover, now possibly lovers themselves. A young gay man fascinated by masochism, and watches his lover die from a heart attack while he’s trapped in a cast of concrete, unable to reach the phone. His sister, a young girl who’s moved to the City on her own, wastes away to near death because of a mistreated thyroid condition, driven mad by an angry voice inside her head she terms “the squawk box.” And so, the book is incredibly readable, in that indulgent, romance novel with big words kind of way. If something here is deeper than simple character study (a sketchbook, really, in words), I was too seduced to notice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dance: NYCB Emerging Choreographers at the Guggenheim's Works & Process

Works & Process couldn’t have chosen two more different choreographers to showcase for their New York City Ballet’s Emerging Choreographers program. Unfortunately, the difference was not merely in style, but also in quality, a choice that served only to embarrass the immature Melissa Barak, whose silly dance looked like the winter recital of a small-town ballet academy compared to the awe-inspiring, fiercely seething work offered by the more self-possessed Douglas Lee.

Works & Process offers a protean format in which works are rarely shown in full. Instead, a choreographer might choose to show a long series of snippets, discoursing on each in between, or to stage a 90 minute rehearsal or demonstration for the audience, the dancers never actually “performing” the work as it will eventually be set for stage. This night’s program began with a lengthy rehearsal staged by Barak, followed by a preview from Lee’s new ballet (LifeCasting, which premieres at NYCB on the 22nd), followed by a performance of the sections earlier rehearsed by Barak and her dancers.

Unfortunately, this granted the bulk of the program to the nattering Barak, whose youth is of course forgivable, but whose inarticulateness is not. (Perhaps it would be more fair to blame moderator Ellen Sorrin for both inane and immaterial questions and an unwillingness to cut off the meandering Barak, or to blame the program’s creator for giving the bulk of discussion and performance time to the less interesting of the two speakers and creators.) Barak’s compositional concerns, it seems, remain entrenched in the child’s dream of growing up and becoming a ballerina. During the rehearsal, each of her decisions were made with the comment, “Oh, that looks pretty. Let’s do it that way.” I do believe she even encouraged her dancers to be “more cutesy.” She invoked the dual gods of frippery—George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins—who have equally contributed to the dated wreckage that is the NYCB.

Lee, however, who comes to us from the Stuttgart Ballet, promises that there is indeed a future for ballet, on a fast trajectory away from pomp, priss, and paint-by-number emotions. While his ballet features four solos by the extraordinary Robert Fairchild (who dances like a raging phantom made simultaneously of steam and steel), a principal with the NYCB, Lee includes more pas-de-troix than pas-de-deux, searing combinations of bodies that tangle in and out of each other, and rarely, if ever, places any action center-stage, using space as equitably as he uses bodies—it is hard to tell which, of his eleven dancers, are principals, soloists, etc. There is, thankfully, no prolish corps de ballets. Lee seems to have taken this lesson, along with the lesson of the mobile torso, from modern dance. And yet, Lee’s work doesn’t feel exactly contemporary. Pointe shoes preserve a dramatic line; the work recalls the stylized angst of German Expressionist painters’ portraits: terrified eyes, extenuated limbs, balanced asymmetry. I cannot wait to see the work in its entirety.

In conversation, Lee was politely dismissive of Barak, barely acknowledging her outright. She mentioned, when asked about her choice to become a choreographer, that she more fell into it, and still considered herself primarily a dancer (she danced with NYCB for nine years, and now dances with the Los Angeles Ballet). When asked a similar question, Lee made a point of calling himself a choreographer who also dances (he is a principal with the Stuttgart), rather than the reverse. Perhaps if Barak one day makes the same transition, she will emerge from Balanchine’s skirts and create something more relevant.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Movies: Dance of the Enchantress

Though I’m not certain what I expected, Dance of the Enchantress did not meet my expectations. Not a full-length recording of a single performance, nor an instructive documentary, the film serves more as a meandering touchstone, shifting from shot to shot of varying Mohiniyattam rehearsals and performances, cut with the occasional shot of rain or still pond, and a dancer’s wistful eyes, intimating, but never offering, narration. The film’s subtitles provide translation of the music’s lyrics, which narrate a rudimentary bur surprisingly ardent love story, but one without the depth or continuity to keep the audience engaged. The dancers are not given time on screen to differentiate themselves from each other so that, in their matching consumes and gestures, they become disappointingly interchangeable. And so, our focus shifts from and back to the film, our eyes constantly following the women’s measured movements, our imaginations wandering. We learn little, feel less, and have been lulled into a kind of pleasant stupor by the time it’s over.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Books: La Maison de Rendez-Vous, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

I’ve considered myself a Robbe-Grillet fan for years; though I’ve only ever read Jealousy, that book was astonishing enough to lodge its author permanently in my pantheon. Watching Last Year at Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay, only reconfirmed his place. Reading La Maison de Rendez-Vous, though, might have shaken me out of my certainty. Robbe-Grillet is known for his circularity—repeated, slightly changing sentences and scenes that play and replay with minor adjustments—and he uses that method consistently to construct a mystery where there oughtn’t be one, delaying the gratifying realization to the last pages (or, in a film, the last minutes), often so suddenly that one who wasn’t paying attention (and it’s easy to forget to pay attention, given the repetition) misses it.

In La Maison, the mystery surrounds a group of ex-patriots in Asia, who circle around a debaucherous estate: perhaps a place where the lady Ava simply holds black-tie parties, complete with nightly performances, or perhaps a brothel—those performances seem to include a strip tease in which a trained dog slowly removes the clothing from a lissome Asian model with his teeth. On the night in question, an envelope stuffed with sachets of powder—drugs, likely—is delivered, and a Eurasian girl named Kim—or is it her twin sister?—walks the streets with a giant dog on a leash. Everything seems to be in dream-state; does the girl walk with a dog, or is that only a mannequin in a shop window? Has a man been murdered, or is that only the plot of the play? (You may remember that the play at the beginning of Marienbad mirrors the film’s plot in a similar way.)

The best method, I think, for reading (or watching) Robbe-Grillet is to refrain from fighting—to move through, let the words wash around you, and absorb what you can without trying too hard—a kind of passive osmosis. If you don’t fully absorb what has happened in the first reading, the book can be started again without to strong a shake, the repetitiousness simply repeating. I may have even read Jealousy twice back then—I can’t quite remember. But I haven’t time to read La Maison again, and I’m not terribly compelled to—the difference between this book and the other.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Books: Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Eliot Pearlman & The Logogryph, by Thomas Wharton

When I was small, my father brought my to the library every Saturday, where he left me to wander the aisle of the young readers’ section while he did his research in the adult area. Because I had an hour or two to spend, and because I was too young to have heard of any authors to investigate (I was the most voracious reader I knew), I would walk along each shelf at a snail’s pace, reading the title and author of each book before moving to the next, pulling out the interesting ones, and adding them to my stack or putting them back on the shelf. Usually, my stack was too big to check out, and my father would make me put some back to save for the next week. I would then spend the rest of the weekend decimating the stack, finishing five, eight novels in two days, proving that I could have taken out more.

Last month, I found myself downtown with a few hours to kill, nothing to read, and in weather too brutally cold to simply wander. So, I found a library, and walked the shelves for the first time in years. I picked out two unknown volumes, one very big and one very small, both with an exciting air of mystery printed into the opening pages. They were Australian Eliot Pearlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Canadian Thomas Wharton's The Logogryph, respectively, and I read them, as I almost never do, in tandem, because Pearl’s book was just too big to carry around, and Wharton’s book was just too precious to gobble up in one sitting.

Pearlman’s book seemed to reminisce another I had just finished, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, both in length and scope, readability, and literary intention. But where Messued failed egregiously, giving her characters name-brand authors like Tolstoy to masticate like plastic chewing gum*, Pearlman’s obsessed protagonist Simon is obsessed equally by his ex-girlfriend Anna, who left him a decade ago, and the literary theorist William Empson (after whose tract Seven Types of Ambiguity is named). Pearlman divides his novel into seven sections that illuminate one story from seven different perspectives (that is, seven interlocking characters’ voices, though all voices have the measured, intellectual tone of Pearlman, who seems to identify best with protagonist Simon and his equally-obsessed psychiatrist (Simon becomes the doctor’s Anna). Though the cast of characters includes a prisoner, a prostitute, a gambler, a stockbroker, and a number of love-triangles connected like those infuriating twenty-five cent puzzles that come apart with a twist, so long as it’s in the right direction, the novel is never the dishy, shallow, or merely entertaining the way The Emperor’s Children constantly is. We never doubt the characters, who are the fully dimensional needy, expressing the full gamut of human desire and disappointment (Messud’s characters, on the other hand, try on lifestyles like outfits; they are needy, but their needs are skin deep.) Pearlman’s is the first happy ending that hasn’t offended me in some time.

The Logogryph, though it is tiny, contains even more than Seven Types. It’s a proposition for a book more than a mere book, a kind of literary experiment in the vein of Borges, though richly emotional and therefore much more captivating. Wharton proposes a book, unbound, that contains, well, everything. At moments, he includes lists, more myriad than those of Julie Andrews’ most favorite things. He also includes snatches of stories not his “own”—for his own story is that of his obsession with the young girl he knew as a child, who lived at “the English House,” whose mother kept a garden and gave him a suitcase full of mold-scented novels when he was a child. Some of the stories turn out to be those belonging to the English House, the story of how it was built, long before he’s born, for the woman who will come to garden its grounds, but others, like the story of a half-raving missionary who, fascinated by the new world’s natives’ storytelling practices, wanders their country, collecting their devil-inspired tales, are related only thematically. Certain of the sections, like one on the aqueous recordings of the underwater people of Atlantis, are more Borgean and less compelling, but they quickly pass, giving way to the tender lists of lost items and the poignant, suppressed longing for the girl of the English House. The book, tiny, printed on fine paper with icons stamped onto the beginnings and ends of each chapter, is a curio in itself, a spectacular library find for a blustery, empty afternoon.

*this metaphor isn’t mine—it’s too good. It comes from PK Dick.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Movies: Tanz und Ekstase: Alain Platels VSPRS (VSPRS: Show and Tell)

When VSPRS: Show and Tell began, I was certain it would be awful. I am predisposed to dismissing conceptual and ugly art out of hand, and VSPRS was both—seasoned by the heavy dose of pretension required to put something so conceptually ugly onstage. The first dancer, shot from behind, shuddered compulsively while masticating an entire round of French bread, never swallowing, with the apparent goal of putting the entire thing into his mouth at once. At last, another dancer came onstage; he wore a suit and performed a series of compulsive ticks to shrug himself out of and back into his clothes. The next dancer, a woman in fire engine-red tights and black high heels, performed an inelegant, vampy flamenco (a dance I don’t care for from the most acclaimed, much less the theatrically indulgent, muddling novice). The fourth dancer, another ugly, big-bottomed woman, whose long, black hair hung free, had drawn herself a unibrow, and, like the woman in tights, was ranting. She rattled off a (somewhat amusing) poem about her poo-poo, but, strangely enough, did not gain my affection.

This was perhaps unexpected, as filmmaker Sophie Fiennes had before cut away to a discussion of the piece by a sympathetic audience, one member of which said that the woman in the unibrow had moved her to tears. This was a frumpy Frenchwoman (VSPRS is choreographed by the French Alain Platel, performed by the French ballets C. de la B., and the film was, thus, shot in France) whose looks did not suggest an appreciation for avant-garde theatre, so my expectations were for something more accessible. Instead, the stage, covered with an undulating, stringy backdrop to suggest something organic and internal (perhaps the inside of the mind, perhaps the inside of the digestive tract), on which a fascinating ensemble of world musicians, led by the blind violinist Tcha Limberger and including the strangely appealing, bald and black soprano, suggested a kind of Freudian gesamptkunstwerk.

The next two dancers won me over, for not only did they not speak, they also danced. Certainly, the other performers to this point had “danced,” technically, but these two (who I later discovered both worked in the circus) did astonishing things with their bodies, that brought me to quick tears of jealousy and joy, longing and ecstasy (ecstasy would become an important word, but I felt the intimations of it already). These two, who used their arms as second sets of legs, shifting with the most natural ease from right-side-up to upside-down to, seemingly, inside-out, undulated, with exquisite delicacy, terrifyingly slowly, over and across and through each other, an asexual mating ritual of no creature we know, subaqueous, feline, invertebrate. Their dancing was beautiful—not the pretty, easy beauty of the prima ballerina in her tutu turning endless pirouettes, but raw, animal beauty—the human body performing at it’s physical limit to express visceral truths that remain just out of the reach of words.

Each of the dancers, though, had words to describe the work, and by cutting to conversations in the dressing room between groups of dancers, with and without their choreographer, or the occasional one-on-one interview (always by the choreographer, never the filmmaker), we begin to gather a better understanding of the piece—why the majority of the dancers shudder with ugly tics, and why the recorded audience members had been moved to tears. The dancers had studied old footage of the emotionally disturbed, spent time practicing the movement and speech of the deranged. Each has created his or her own kind of mad character, who, at the dance’s climax, trembles with increasing force to a kind of shared apex (their hands, at the beginning of this “ecstasy,” rubbing at their genitals). The dancers describe the work as incredibly freeing—they’ve accessed the dark recesses of their own minds and emotions, tapped into them for every performance, so that the work is deeply personal, a manifestation rather than a construction. The physical release created by the more than ten minutes of trembling contractions required by the ecstasy leave them essentially naked, yielding, liberated, fresh. This knowledge enabled me to better appreciate the work as a whole, but I still kept my focus, when possible, to the circus dancers, to the rail thin ballerina with ragged hair who assumed the posture of a crucified Christ, and to the other dynamic, young dancers who worked primarily with their bodies rather than their voices and faces. Concepts are fine, but dance ultimately must always be primarily about the body, rather than the mind.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Movies: Che

It’s little surprise that Cuba—a country much more glamorous than Bolivia—gets the full Hollywood treatment by super-savvy Soderbergh in Che Part One, leaving landlocked Bolivia, the unbeating heart of Central America, to the gritty, guerrilla styling of handheld in Part Two. The aesthetic difference between the two halves is startling; though an untrained eye might not notice the taller frame of the second, one does notice a zooming in and down: many more scenes on or near the ground, and many more shots of bodies than vistas. The Cuba film alternates between that country's warm tones and a lusciously grained black and white, which describes Che's 1964 visit to the United Nations in New York; the constantly-shifting timeline is anchored by elegantly bold titles. The Bolivia film, though, is relentless; the frame is crowded with bodies pushing through vegetation; we almost never leave the training camp, except on marches that offer more of the same. The few splashes of color come from a hostile barrio, filthy and faded, where twenty townspeople crowd into their tiny mountaintop church and listen to Che lecture on the importance of health care. There are no open shots of the sea, no red sports cars, no filmy cigar smoke. There is a disobedient donkey, a child with a maggot in its eye, and a hirsute and wasted Che, wheezing in a brown poncho. Dialogue is exchanged for gunshots. Inspiration is exchanged for pleading.

While this difference renders the Bolivian film an almost insufferable punishment, that treatment is completely valid and appropriate. The Bolivian people didn't have half the love for Che that the Cubans did; they didn't trust him and they wouldn't join him. Che in Bolivia is an example of a man past his zenith: what does one do when one has accomplished one's greatest goal? Cuba was Fidel's (though Che had been his right-hand man, he was also always originally Argentine, and too much a guerrilla—the grittiest brand of idealist, but an idealist nonetheless—to become a politician), and Che had to find a country, a revolution, of his own. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Bolivia is something of a suicide mission (as his stint in the Congo, which Soderbergh does not include, almost was) for a man so committed that death was always preferable to compromise.

In a question-and-answer period after the screening, Soderbergh pointed out that Che's character arc is actually a straight line, and that the drama comes from the possibility of deviation from that standard (of which there is little). This is why, he explained, the film might seem cold, dry, or unemotional (an audience member noticed the lack of music, which uncompromising choice I commend). To one constantly cloyed by sentimentalism, though, this "minimalism" (it's not, really, minimal; it only seems so in comparison to the barrage of hyperbolic films in vogue this decade) is so incredibly welcome. Soderbergh needs no crutches; the screenplay (in Spanish, another key refusal to compromise), the acting, and the framing of each shot are all so taut, so on point, that we are inspired to think and feel (as opposed to being cued to unthinkingly feel, like Pavlovian dogs). Soderbergh also mentioned choosing these jungle battle scenes less for any polemical reason than one of identification: making a movie in the jungle with a disorganized group of assistants is something like fighting a revolution in the jungle with a disorganized group of recruits. But the brilliant director was too humble to go so far as to explain his other synergy with Che: complete dedication, and a refusal to compromise. Had this film been made in English, it would have been unwatchable. Had this film been a mere two hours, it would have only told half the story. Had this film ended with a shot of the astounding Benicio Del Toro collapsing to the plangent pluck of a guitar string, it would have garnered my wrath. Instead, Soderbergh films the execution from Che's collapsed eyes: the dusty floor, and the shadowy shoes of his executioner melting into the frame's corner. It's gorgeous and perfect.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Movies: Ballerina

I have never been a fan of classical ballet, finding the music soporific, the choreography repetitive, and the dancers rigid. In its traditional form, it is an art that constantly affirms outmoded gender and class relations. But Bertrand Nostrand's intimate documentary, which follows five Russian ballerinas for three years, managed a rare feat: it changed my mind about the entire thing.

This is Nostrand's first feature-length documentary, and certain aspects of it (the title sequence, the generalization-laden voiceover narration) are a bit rough. Nevertheless, Nostrand cuts to the quick of the most important thing: the dancing. Filming at school, in rehearsals, and on stage, Nostrand shows the obscene amount of work that these girls do. Russian ballerinas are not in any way coddled, and a very telling interview with a French (male) ballet dancer, highlights the difference between Russian and European training, technique, and style. The Russian dancers are given more responsibility at an earlier age; they therefore mature more quickly. Perhaps more importantly, they dance with more spirit than their European counterparts. Rather than being clones, they have very distinct personalities, which they bring to their roles, acting as much as dancing. Though this may sound unfair, Nostrand's footage backs it up: there is nothing rigid about these dancers; their faces are open and expressive (rather than spackled with paste-up smiles like Americans), and their arms and torsos bend with exaggerated curves, stylized lines that recall the twisted, anxious bodies drawn by Egon Schiele.

The Kirov Ballet's style, too, is instantly discernible as far more expressionist and manered than the dry, pompous designs of the Balanchine-obsessed New York City Ballet. Balanchine may have been from the same city (and the Kirov certainly stages his work), but Nostrand's footage of ballets choreographed by Petipa (La Bayadère), Grigorovich (The Legend of Love), and especially Fokine (Schéhérazade) demonstrate a shared, distinctly Russian sensibility that leaves Balanchine the odd man out.

Of the five dancers that Nostrand singles out, four are stunning: the snaky Diana Vishneva, an "older" dancer who brings a dark, seasoned grist to her work; the equally dark Ulyana Lopatkina, who after a two-year break to nurse an ankle injury and have a daughter not only reestablishes her previous technique, but also acquires a new soulfulness not typical in ballet; the impish Evgenia Obraztsova, whose limpid eyes and open face are the most innocent you will ever see in a dancer of her intelligence and technique; the elegant Svetlana Zakharova, whose extravagant arms and neck make even Swan Lake worth watching. The fifth dancer, Alina Somova, is young, and her dancing still seems unsteady to me; she lacks the endearing naivete of Evgenia Obraztsova's expression, while her legs, like a filly or fawn, still falter. Nostrand does good work, though, recording her rehearsals, where the Director says simply, dismissively, again and again, "I don't like it," without giving much more helpful feedback. Her will, then, is stronger than her legs, as is the will of each of these other dancers. I wonder if any art requires so much work, physical and emotional. Certainly not film-making.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Movies: Master and Commander

A beautiful and expensive set piece is useless if empty of equally compelling plot and/or characters. Master and Commander, therefore, is nothing other than an exquisite waste of money, a too-long advertisement for the Weather Channel (know before you go!), in which sheets of driving rain and bucketfulls of seawater drown out the little dialogue there is between a cast of one hundred men and boys all wearing the same clothes. The only distinguishable figures are, of course, the inexorable Russell Crowe as, yes, the master and commander of the ship, and his right hand man and philosophical foil, the ship's surgeon and lone thinking man. Everyone else—young or old, thin or fat, with hair long or cropped—is ultimately interchangeable, and we only know to feel sorrow for the drowning of one or the shooting of another by musical cues: plangent strings, for the most part.

Not only does this film offer little in the way of plot or character development; it lacks even mere points of interest, excepting a brief excursion onto the Galapagos islands, where we see a few giant turtles. This is, in fact, the only moment during which any genuine emotion springs up; otherwise, Weir depends on hackneyed visual clues (a letter and a tiny photograph; a native woman with inviting eyes) and musical cues (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, sullied by its use in commercials hawking everything from car insurance to vanilla yogurt, fits the cliche requirement nicely) to ensure that the audience emotes at the necessary junctures. With so much gray water washing across the screen, I barely noticed that a likable character had just drowned to his death. Luckily, the strings, screeching across Crowe's furrowed brow, confirmed that this was a moment for sorrow. Similarly, blue skies and a rousing round of plucked strings confirmed that troubles had blown by, and that Crowe had come out on top. Unfortunately, we had known that he would from the film's first few minutes, rendering the entire "adventure" unnecessary. Next time, I'll just spend two hours on my sit 'n spin.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Movies: Gruz 200 (Cargo 200)

An amusing list of pithy comments ("so bleak and horrifying that you might think Francis Bacon served as DP;" "incredibly perverse and weirdly fascinating;" "a goth cousin to Delicatessen;" "as vile (and strangely aesthetically pleasing) as anything you might see in contemporary torture porn") promised more than this film could quite deliver; I left the theatre feeling only mildly sordid and mostly confused.

The soot-clogged industrial landscape of Leninsk offers little redemption for the well-meaning Professor of Scientific Atheism. He is on his way there to visit his mother with a trunk full of groceries when his jalopy breaks down in a desolate area. The nearest sign of life is a rural compound where a rifle-wielding utopian serves him excessive quantities of vodka out of a jar. A Vietnamese servant fixes his car while a homely woman sets the table with mushroom soup, brown bread, and pickles. The utopian and the professor argue about the existence of God, the utopian insisting that with the abolition of religion comes the abolition of ethics. The professor remains firm that ethics predate religion.

Meanwhile, the professor's niece is at home sleeping while her gawky, wannabe rockstar fiance goes to the disco and picks up her best friend. They leave the club and he drives her to—you guessed it—the same rural compound which, we now begin to understand, is a vodka outpost. He leaves the girl in the car and goes inside to get the booze; the professor has just left and the utopian isn't in a very good mood. They start drinking. When the girl gets spooked by a ghastly face staring at her through the window, she comes into the shack just in time to see her companion fall over, dead drunk. Meanwhile, the utopian has begun leering at her.

The woman of the house makes a half-hearted attempt to protect her, locking her in another shed for the night with a rifle. But the ghastly man gets the key and finds her, taking the gun right out of her trembling hands and shooting dead the Vietnamese mechanic before instructing her to remove her underwear and get down on hands and knees. He dispassionately molests her with the neck of an empty vodka bottle; the next morning he handcuffs her to his motorscooter and drives her to—you guessed it again—smoke-spewing Leninsk, and his mother's apartment. There, he handcuffs her to the bed while his vodka-chugging, television-watching PTSD or mildly demented mother ignores the screaming and crying from the bedroom: the ghastly man has, incidentally (because of his position in the military), received the body of the girl's paratrooper fiance, who had been serving in Afghanistan, and deposited it in bed beside the girl. As it rots, he brings in another man to rape her (again, from behind) while she cries and he watches dispassionately, reading aloud letters her fiance had sent to her (which he has procured by visiting her distraught parents, who trust him as a government detective looking for clues.)

It is onto this scene that the mushroom soup wench, livid that the utopian was arrested (and subsequently murdered by prison guards), breaks into the ghastly man's apartment and shoots him dead. The girl, still cuffed to the bed, is nude and howling between two—and now three—men's dead bodies, but the wench stomps off, leaving her there. The demented mother still says nothing, except "we've got flies," which is something of an understatement, thanks to the rotting bodies in the bedroom.

We never see the girl saved. Instead, we see the professor enter a church and inquire about the rite of baptism, and we see the fiance befriend another young man (incidentally, the professor's son) at a rock concert and invite him to join in a smuggling venture. Then the credits roll. The utopian, then, would appear to be right: a Godless country is beyond dangerous. But this is not a very compelling argument; my take is that a country without mental health care is beyond dangerous. Clearly the ghastly man (who almost never even touches the girl, but stares at her incessantly, and calls her his wife) is mentally ill, as is his mother. The utopian and the fiance are alcoholics. The wench has suffered to the degree that she no longer empathizes with another woman's suffering. In fact, dispassion, a total lack of human empathy, is rampant, from the guards who beat prisoners to death to the fiance who never returns to his betrothed's apartment, where she cries in her mother's arms. Is this because of Godlessness, or because of psychological damage inflicted on an entire class of people?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Movies: Bigger Than Life (1956)

To a savvy contemporary audience, Nick Ray’s over-the-top domestic drama about the negative side affects of experimental “miracle drug” Cortisone for the otherwise terminal rare vascular disease afflicting kind husband and father Ed Avery seems rather like an anti-feminist propaganda film (Father knows best!) littered with product placements by the milk lobby, topped off with a PSA to only take prescribed medicine as directed by your doctor. In fact, in its rigid hierarchy of trust, which demands that one subverts one’s own common sense to the unsound demands of the authority figure (son obeys mother, wife obeys husband, family obeys doctor, even when mother is being bullied, father is suffering from drug-induced psychosis, and doctor isn’t very cautious about the drug’s dangerous side-effects, in spite of knowing about them), the film feels rather hokey, though still terribly funny in a midnight-movie kind of way.

If one stops to consider even for a moment that Lou Avery's stand-by-your-man complicity in Ed’s madness and cruelty is de rigeur for the average American family in the 1950s, one will have trouble enjoying the movie. If instead one revels on the almost-Hitchcockian obsession that lights Ed’s face in the climactic scene, where Lou tries to pit feminine mettle against masculine brute force to protect their son from a sacrificial murder with broken scissors and then gets locked in the closet, only to be rescued by a male family friend who breaks in and physically subdues Ed by brute strength alone, starting a brawl that takes them both tumbling down the stairs and through the banister, turning over a piece of furniture in every room of the house, one can watch the film with the kind of shell-shocked glee that only comes with old movies.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Played as a double feature with Fight Club as a film that shaped the young David Fincher’s cinematic sensibilities, this classic is surprisingly spare, a kind of extended chase sequence that sets a posse of six at first unidentified lawmen blazing after the unstoppable Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman), the brains (with a twinkle in his eye), and his partner, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), the crack shot (with a glued-on mustache).

After one too many railroad hold-ups set the posse on their backs, the friends enlist their friend (and the Kid’s lover) Etta (“I’m 26 and I’m single and I’m a school-teacher. . . That’s the bottom of the heap!”) and run away to Bolivia (via steamer from New York, their short stay in that city depicted in a long montage of sepia-toned still photographs, rather than moving film). There, they immediately begin robbing banks again, earning the risible moniker Banditos Yanquis, until the posse shows up there too, forcing them into a “straight” life, and sending Etta on her way back to the States alone.

The still photograph figures prominently again when, at the film’s end, the two are cornered by not only the police but a regiment of the Bolivian army, who line the parapets of the courtyard in which the Banditos are hiding, pointing their rifles at the empty plaza. Rather than show our heroes shot full of holes and falling down dead, the film freezes into a sepia-toned still at the moment they charge out to their deaths, guns the air, grins on their faces. They are, then, memorialized completely without sentimentality, which cool touch I would like to say Fincher learned for use in Fight Club, even if he forgot it in time for Benjamin Button.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Movies: Fight Club

Some movies barely warrant one watching. Some movies require two or three, before you can completely understand them. Most movies with a gimmick are great the first time, but totally boring once you know the twist. Fight Club, though, is a movie with an easily digested gimmick that, somehow, never gets old. I just watched it for the sixth or seventh time, and found it as exhilarating as the first. The gimmick, of course, is that Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is the same person—the surprise alter-ego—of the insomniac Ed Norton (whose character’s name isn’t revealed explicitly to the audience until it’s revealed to him, though clever audiences might get an early inkling).

What makes Fight Club so spectacular is less the gimmick (though Ed Norton is really so amazing that his shock is our shock, each and every time, even when we know what’s coming) than the motivating philosophy: divorced from our base instincts, we are sick, miserable, and frankly shameful; functioning merely at our base instincts, we are dangerous. Either way, we are followers, gullible herd animals looking for a leader, and desperate for stimulation. Our consumerist society is ugly, but anarchy is no better.

Durden’s Fight Club evolves into the anarchist army Project Mayhem, a kind of antics-oriented terror organization whose ultimate project is to explode the office buildings of all major credit card companies and the credit bureaus in order to reset everyone’s debt record back to zero (for the sake of the film’s grander philosophical considerations, don’t waste time quibbling about how feasible this scheme is). When Norton’s Tyler realizes that his Pitt ego has been planning this, he knows that his initial impulse against socialization—starting a brawl with himself in a roadhouse parking lot, leaving his designer condo and cable television for an abandoned house with barely-working power, and balling the strangely appealing but appallingly depressed Marla Singer/Helena Bonham Carter—however healthy and necessary it was, went overboard, but it’s incidentally too late. The film has a rather dark happy ending; holding hands, Norton’s Tyler (head dripping from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that killed Pitt’s Tyler) and Marla watch the buildings all around them explode. Strangely, we feel warm inside, knowing that everything is going to be okay, whatever that means (it’s to Palahniuk and Fincher’s credit that they don’t consider showing us).

Even if Norton’s Tyler is ultimately the sound, rational voice, once liberated, Pitt’s Tyler is the one with the actual take-home message of this film, the dark but surprisingly valid reminder that you are not a special snowflake, that you (that is, we) are the all-singing, all-dancing manure heap, that God not only doesn’t care about us, but might not even like us. Does it sound a little silly? A bit teenaged-angsty? In our decade’s pan-spiritual, new-aged, positive-intentioned society, I find it rather honest and refreshing. Right before the movie’s climax, before Norton’s Tyler realizes what exactly is going on, Pitt-as-Tyler is driving a car through a rainstorm. He takes his hands off the wheel and increases the gas, illustrating his instruction to Norton-as-Tyler to “let go.” He asks the people in the car what they want to achieve before they die; how they would feel about their lives if they died at that moment. Norton-as-Tyler, who has yet to let go, cannot answer the questions. The car crashes, runs off the road, flips over. They all emerge unscathed. Pitt-as-Tyler whoops with glee to have added another raw experience to his life. Norton-as-Tyler remains unconvinced. But is it silly, teenaged-angsty, to live your life with zest, as if any moment could be your last? Pitt-as-Tyler promotes recklessness in a way that I can’t condone, but his ultimate message—you’re not your job, you’re not your car, you’re not your clothes; “the things you own end up owning you,”—is not only valid, but completely liberating. Let the fuck go and live your life a little closer to your physical edge, and if you forget how, watch the movie again.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Movies: Waltz With Bashir

With the aesthetic fluency of Grand Theft Auto, the moral nuance of a kindergarten classroom, and the psychological profundity of the Batman comics, this film offers nothing compelling for an audience that’s graduated from high school, though it is being marketed as a political documentary for educated adults. The plot (whether or not a documentary should have plot is a separate issue; this film has one, though it’s rather weak) centers around the filmmaker’s search for an accurate description of his participation in the Beirut massacre when he served in the Israeli army more than twenty years ago. He travels the globe, interviewing old comrades about their memories, hoping someone will remember what role he played. Ultimately, his memory becomes a composite of all the other memories he hears. At the end of the film, to render this guilt-fueled drivel relevant, we are shown actual footage of the scene of the massacre. Theoretically, after 90 minutes of animation, the sight of actual corpses, stacked and bloodied, and the anguished faces of ululating women are to move us. In fact, this low-resolution video of collateral damage, so inferior to depictions of violence we see at the movies every day, doesn’t even permeate our boredom, much less access some kind of political empathy or moral outrage. This is not because we are desensitized; this is because Waltz With Bashir is a terribly-made film.