Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movies: Away We Go

Ugh. Call me shallow, but I have no interest in watching two rabidly ugly, functionally-impaired people who are madly in love with each other despite each person's lack of attractive qualities muddle through a cross-national house-hunting extravaganza while they nervously await the impending birth of their accidental, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Like many of Dave Eggers' other creations, this screenplay appears to be disturbingly based on events of Eggers' own life. This is an aspect of his oeuvre that has never bothered me; in fact, I've adored it. Away We Go's pregnant heroine Verona can only be named after Eggers' wife and co-screenwriter Vendela Vida, except that Vendela is beautiful and Verona is a monstrosity. Similarly, Burt is a sham stand-in for Dave, but where Eggers is attractive enough, intelligent, and accomplished, Burt is an ill-groomed, malapropism-spewing loser who sells insurance futures. Don't get me wrong—the couple is well-intentioned, but watching well-intentioned idiots in the real world always makes me flinch. Why pay $12 for the experience when I have it for free every time I go to Brooklyn?

The film's only olive branch is offered by director Sam Mendes, who asserts his preference for the aesthetically pleasing in the film's only bearable scene, which happens to feature the sometimes aesthetically pleasing Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal playes Burt's cousin LN (say "Ellen"), and when the homely Burt and Verona walk into her university campus office, she is bare breasted, long-haired, and bathed in Mendes' signature buttery light (Mendes: the Vermeer of filmmakers). She is radiant, suckling a radiant baby at one breast and a pink-cheeked boy of three or four at the other. The hippy-feminist-Madonna extravaganza continues when Burt and Verona go to her home for dinner, meet her long-haired and Indian-garbed husband, see the family's communal bed (the couple does not hide their love-making from their children), and attempt to dine with them. From a writerly perspective, it is pretty flat-footed satire, snarky and perhaps even a bit jealous, but Mendes films the scene so beautifully that we can ignore the immature Burt and Verona when they snap, shout, and flee (even though this is a moment when we in the audience are supposed to cheer them on). Personally, I'd much rather be an LN than a Verona.*

*IF I had to be a child-bearing woman, that is. And why is it that in each city, each couple the the couple encounters has children? Even in the idealized Montreal, where the couple has five adopted children, each from a different country, the wife is consumed by grief because her womb refuses to be fruitful and give her a child of her own. Ugh. That Verona should really have had an abortion. How can people so dysfunctional that they don't even know where they want to live, and need to go visit five random cities to choose a home, properly raise a child? Ugh.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Books: Spring Torrents, by Ivan Turgenev

This short Russian novel came highly recommended from a friend during a discussion over which Tolstoy novel is superior, Anna Karenina or War and Peace. That is, the person who recommended this book knew his stuff.

And so I was a bit disappointed when, more that halfway in, it didn't seem anything more than a typical 19th Century love story: simple, melodramatic, and hyperbolic. But after spending the first three-quarters of the novel convincing you that nothing particularly interesting is going to happen, that the naive hero Sanin has simply fallen madly for the beautiful young Italian girl originally engaged to a wealthy German shopkeeper, who serendipitously loves him back, has broken her engagement, and agreed to marry our simple hero, Turgenev dissolves the fantasy that is love-at-first-sight, fate, and happily-ever with the last few page turns.

In order to appease his love's mother, Sanin needs to raise an impressive amount of money rather quickly. The only way he can think of to do this is to sell his Russian estate, but he doesn't know how he'll manage to do that without returning home—and leaving his fiance even for a few days seems unbearable. Luckily, he runs into an old school friend, who has a beautiful and wealthy wife who owns the neighboring estate and will likely buy Sanin's. He takes a short trip out of Frankfurt to the countryside, where his friend is staying with his wife, where he proposes the sale to the attractive but somehow menacing woman. She asks for a few days to think about it, and during those days, she requries that Sanin attend the theatre with her, dine with her, and then go horseback riding. Out in the woods, she leads their galloping horses to a secluded shack. Sanin hasn't liked her one bit from the moment that he met her, but he is defenseless. She is beautiful, and wild, and fully in control. She had intended this from the start, her cold, cynical intellect charmed but rightfully lacking faith in his charmingly effusive affection for his fiance.

Because he is a weakling and a romantic, Sanin does not return to Frankfurt and marry the Italian girl, keeping this small tryst a secret, as most men would and, frankly, ought do. Instead, he writes his finace a letter filled with lies and never speaks to her again, instead following this woman like a servant for years afterward, going so far as to peel a pear for her husband one afternoon when the three are riding together in her carriage. (Said husband is a rather interesting character, who looks on his wife's many such trysts with detached amusement, getting all of his pleasure from overeating).

The story is told in flashback, and when we return to the "present" (1870, when all of the action had taken place in 1840), Sanin, alone, is reminded of the Italian girl, and writes her a letter. She writes back. After receiving Sanin's engagement-breaking letter 30 years ago, she emigrated to America with her family, where she married a successful man and had some lovely children.

Though not much of a feminist, I absolutely love the fact that, in the 19th Century, when the bulk of tragic love stories (like Anna Karenina) culminate in the death of a woman who has cheated, here is a story featuring two perfectly strong women and a weak and snivelling man. While Sanin's temptress does succumb to the early death that faces all 19th Century female characters who engage in sexual activities out of wedlock, no emphasis is put on her passing. I find it rather delightful that the young Italian girl is far from ruined by her broken engagement, and simply moves on to the next (and likely better) relationship. But the thing I find most delightful is that the inane Sanin is punished, repeatedly, for his idiocy and romanticism. This is less a story about men and women than about realists and romantics, and there's nothing I enjoy more than the popping of a romantic's white balloon. How impressively modern!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Art: Dan Graham at the Whitney

Dan Graham is the ideal candidate for a retrospective at the Whitney; the artist and the institution share all the same character flaws: both are hyper-cerebral, tedious, self-important figures suffering from an identity crisis. Graham is not so much an artist as a scienceless sociologist who flits from medium to medium dabbling in linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences. One of the retrospective's featured pieces is a video that, according to the wall text, juxtaposes the heady dancing of middle American Shakers with the same of teenagers at Woodstock. This piece is actually a poorly-edited "documentary" filled with pseudo-scientific, politically-motivated, "radical" "insights" (e.g., rock-and-roll is a something created by corporate adults to entertain and thereby control/defang young people. This statement holds some truth, if one removes the term "rock-and-roll" and replaces it with "pop," but Graham overinflates the bogeyman and centralizes it in a big, bad, single-minded and intentional consciousness that just doesn't exist. Most of his work lacks the subtle nuance that would make it potent.

Other work includes a large selection of printed work Graham placed in magazines (the original mock-up of Homes For America, sheets of semiotic "poetry," and ads inviting investors to send money in exchange for shares in Dan Graham (something that Duchamp had done less seriously and with more aplomb artistic eons ago)), a number of mirrored-glass installations (a small-scale fun house version of a Richard Serra, a room behind clear glass through which you see people in the other room, and yourself reflected in the mirror behind them, and a revolving door a guard ushers you through that only has two compartments, as opposed to the usual four), and a number of embarrassingly dated "post-modern" video projections (a filmed performance in which a nude man looked at a nude woman only through a camera, and she looked at her nude self on a television screen playing the camera's recording in real-time, a dual-projection of two nude people (Graham and a woman) holding movie cameras pointed at each other, and a room in which a camera records your image and projects it onto the opposite wall, while a camera on that opposite side of the room records the images of people there and projects it onto the wall on your side).

The issues of space and media and personality and control that Graham keyed into as long as fifty years ago are still very much relevant, if not moreso, in today's society. Unfortunately, Graham's work is too stilted and cerebral, too detached and obtuse, too moralizing and judgemental, to act as potent social criticism. It is too easy to write him off as a disgruntled, nerdy crank who, despite being very much stuck in the aesthetic of the early 1970s, nevertheless has aged without grace and continues to try to be relevant to alternative kids today, including a model skate park graffitied with names of punk bands in his oeuvre.
It's a little embarrassing, but mostly tedious and easy to forget. Poor Dan Graham. Poor Whitney. Both want so hard to be hip and relevant and radical and edgy, but ultimately they are just sort of ugly and boring. Posers, trying too far too hard, look like this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Books: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Don't let the Oprah's Book Club sticker deter you—this is a smart and worthy piece of literature that doesn't unravel into the sentimental garbage favored by the talk-show set until the very end, by which time Franzen has so assuaged your fear that you were the only one ever heartless enough to feel the way you do about your family that you forgive his minor incursions into the absurd.

At the outset, The Corrections appears to be about someone a lot like a lot of people I know, and in fact a bit like myself. Chip is a hipsterish 20-something who is very smart, very self-involved, and very much in need of a reality check. He wants to be a writer and has drafted a (bad, self-indulgent) screenplay, but is not getting the response for which he hoped. He's not getting the response for which he hoped from his girlfriend (who happens to be married to someone else) either—she's just dumped him. And his aged parents are in town from the midwest, on their way to a cruise. And he thinks that if he can just make a few corrections to his screenplay, he will win everything: the money, the girl, and the approval of his parents (even though he completely rejects their middle-American mindset).

But Chip has a brother, and he has a story too. Gary has a beautiful wife and three strong, smart boys, and a well-paying job in finance, and a big suburban house. But his wife hates his mother, and doesn't want to go to his parents' house for Christmas. It's the middle of the summer, but mom, who lives for Christmas, is already making plans and insists on having all of her children, and grandchildren, under her roof. As loathsome as the prospect of a holiday stuck with his entire family sounds to Gary, he is willing to do it this one time, hoping that by fulfilling his mother's wish, he can remove them from their big house and sell it, moving them into a small apartment near him. They are getting old and the house is losing value every day due to deferred maintenance.

Only their sister Denise seems to have any patience for her parents, but hers is wearing thin as well. An extremely successful chef in the middle of opening a new restaurant, Denise has had far less success with relationships. She was married once to another chef, an older, unattractive man of whom her mother hardly approved—probably because they eloped and didn't give her mother Enid the opportunity to throw a big party and show off to all of her small-town neighbors (another thing for which she seems to live). Now, she thinks she is being courted by her restaurant's financier—a fantastic guy who happens to be married. The attraction is mutual, but she stops herself when given the opportunity to make him an adulterer. But she begins spending more and more time with his wife Robin, and realizes that the reason she's never felt sparks with any man is that she is attracted to women. She and Robin have a torrid sexual affair.* Their summer of love ends when Denise cheats on Robin with her husband, and refuses to apologize. Something about Robin activates a mean streak, a sadistic impulse. And clever, fashionable Denise just doesn't want to be a frumpy lesbian raising Robin's daughters.

All three grown children get their much-needed reality check when their father's already tenuous health suddenly declines further. Alfred Parkinson's disease has evolved into early dementia, and hallucinating and in diapers in the middle of the night in their cruise ship stateroom, he chases an invisible turd that taunts and cusses at him. He cries out for Enid to help him, but, exhausted and embarrassed, she has gone to the ship's doctor asking for pills to help her sleep. He has given her something he calls "Aslan" (named for C.S. Lewis' magical lion, which has incidentally appeared in one of Gary's sons reading), which is actually a highly-addictive, controlled substance known in the US as "Mexican A," which drug, incidentally, played a part in the early end of Chip's career as a college professor.

Alfred has an accident on the ship and we guiltily hope that he has died, thereby solving many of his family's problems. Frankly, he's not a very likable man. He has, of course, worked hard all of his life as an engineer, and provided for his children as necessary, but he is sullen and stubborn and parsimonious. Now that he has retired, he spends all of his time sitting in an ugly blue chair in the basement, ignoring Enid's constant complaining. When he had opportunities to make extra money—by investing in his company's stock when he knew a big merger was coming, by working two more years for the new ownership rather than retiring and thereby doubling his pension, or by squeezing more money from a pharmaceutical company that wants rights to one of his patents—he refuses them. He refuses to discuss finances or his health or emotions with his wife or the rest of his family. He has a shotgun and some shells in his basement laboratory, and, when we find out that he lived through his cruise ship accident, we again find ourselves guiltily hoping that he will use the gun. And when his children come home for Christmas and see it, they guiltily hope the same.

Alfred doesn't kill himself, but the family's story unwinds into a final chapter focalized through the aged patriarch, who is by now so demented that though he is in the hospital, he thinks he is in prison. He doesn't recognize his children or his wife until they repeat multiple times who they are. He is paranoid and embarrassed and afraid. He wants to die. We want him to die. But he lives. The family moves him into a home, and things settle. Gary stops fighting with his wife. Chip meets a new girl, gets a teaching job, and continues editing his screenplay. Denise gets a job at another restaurant, one not financed by an adulterous liaison. Enid relaxes and ceases to be such a neurotic, judgemental nudge.

It's hardly an inspiring or feel-good story (which you probably think is why I like it so much). It's brutally honest and admits things that we don't like to admit. Chip, Gary, and Denise are very different, but we identify with each of them (perhaps Denise the least; hers is the least-deep character, and I can't help but think that she reveals Franzen's uninformed understanding of women—even though he completely nails Enid. Denise seems to be Franzen's fantasy, while the other characters seem deeply rooted in realities that he experienced first-hand). The book is long, but never feels tedious; it's plot-driven, but never feels gossipy, like so many other contemporary New York novels. It's simple but smart, and ultimately very real. I don't know what ray of light Oprah could have found in it, but I'm not a reader looking for a ray of light. I like the sad, ugly, mean truth.

*This is one of the aforementioned incursions into fantasy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Books: Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis

My first Amis book, Yellow Dog was a disappointment. I read it concurrently with The Corrections (too heavy to carry around the city), and though Yellow Dog is half the length, it took the same amount of time to read.

Despite its hyper-intellectual, gritty, smutty plot—veritably propelled by the two-pronged fork of violence and lust—the book is totally uncompelling. We follow two protagonists, both writers, and thus assumedly both projections of Amis. One has an ideal life (a gorgeous wife, two lovely toddlers, a best-selling novel, and a successful career in both music and film) that quickly devolves after he is attacked and suffers severe brain damage (he becomes a paedophiliac alcoholic who tries to rape his wife repeatedly); the other has a life in shambles (ugly, fat, erectilely dysfunctional, he drives a filthy van to his stinking pad, where he lives alone; he earns his living by writing smut for a daily wank magazine), which is briefly touched by the promise of love from a woman called k8 ("Kate"—she has bad texting habits), until, of course, he finally meets her in person, and finds out she used to be a man.

There are two other subplots, one in which a fictitious King of England worries about his teenaged daughter, who has been filmed bathing in the nude by an undisclosed party, which threatens to release the tape to the public, but does not request ransom or express any other reason for its actions. The other follows an airplane about to crash; one of the passengers is a woman whose dead husband, in his coffin, is in the cargo hold. This subplot, unlike the other threads, is set off in distinct, single-page snippets at the end of each chapter, and written with a different, more objective voice.

Somewhere at the end all of the separate strands come together, but I couldn't be bothered to pay enough attention to notice how. This is because, in the midst of all of this pedestrian dreck, Amis' writing is actually rather difficult, and not only because of his Anglicisms. If the book were four times as long, it might even be a Pynchon. Like novels by that author, Yellow Dog has a few brilliant moments (most "quotations" from articles by the wank-writer), but they are not worth the slog it takes to find them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Movies: Whatever Works

I sit down to new Woody Allen films with some trepidation. His name is no longer associated with embarrassment by the critics, who seem to think that he was redeemed by Scarlett Johansson, but this is a spurious claim—the stilted Matchpoint was insufferable, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a flatulent, cliche-ridden puff piece that likely germinated during a wank. But real fans die hard, so I went. And it was. . . good.

Okay. It was incredibly lazy. After making approximately one movie per year for the past forty years, Allen assumes that we all know that he knows how to make a movie. But other movie-making geniuses, Scorsese for example, don't throw craft out the window just because they're a few years past their 70th birthday and they're tired.*

Basically, Whatever Works is a brilliant screenplay—one of his best in years, probably the best since Deconstructing Harry. And Larry David is the best stand-in for Allen in years (though Kenneth Branagh made a good try in Celebrity)—perhaps even better than Allen himself, since he brings an additional layer of his own maudlin michegas. And the decision to dump can't-act-her-way-out-of-a-paper-bag Scarlett with flavor-of-the-month Evan Rachel Wood is a step in the right direction, even Wood is a bit wooden at times.

That wooden quality is the basic problem with this movie. Allen paints in broad strokes—the bodies and the sets are really only there to help us focus on the words. It would probably do better as a play. Watching this movie actually feels, for the most part, like watching a rehearsal.

Some readers might be surprised that I'm not offended by the movie's completely implausible happy ending, in which nine characters end up happily coupled (well, three couples and one threesome). But I think that careful viewers will see that this is not a happy ending at all. The story simply stops at a happy moment. Based on the Shakesperian shifts of emotion that we have just witnessed, and our trusted narrator's constant reminders that whatever happiness we find in this brutal world is fleeting, and should be grasped for as long as possible, with full knowledge that it will soon disappear, the savvy viewer knows that if we were to visit these characters again in a few months, in a year, in three years, we would find them in the depths of loneliness and confusion. That's the case for most movies with happy endings, but those other filmmakers won't acknowledge it. Allen is one of the few writers who not only understands, but accepts the human condition. And for that, he is a genius, even if he is lazy. The circumstances in which we live are hardly motivating.

*Okay, Scorsese won't be 70 for a few more years. We'll check in again when he's 74 to see if he's gotten lazy as well.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Art: Younger Than Jesus at The New Museum

I have a hard time paying attention to the art at the New Museum. This is because the building is so beautiful, and the art is so atrocious. When I go there, I usually find myself enjoying the gap between the floor and the wall.

I came away from this show with distinct memories of only two pieces. One was a banana peel on the floor. I remember it because my mom saw it, and said, sarcastically, "Is that an installation?" She thought it was trash, but wouldn't put it past the New Museum to include it as art. I was certain that the gestapo-like museum guards would have noticed and discarded it if were not art, so I said, "I don't know. Let's see if there's a wall label." Indeed, there was. It was art. The artist had instructed that each morning, a museum guard peel and eat a banana, and discard the peel at a random location in the gallery. Luckily, the guard had randomly chosen a location near the wall label that day.

The other piece that I remember was a bed, minimally austere in that it was a white cube of sorts (a platform bed on a low plinth), with that post-minimalism humanist twist—it was topped by a meringue of white sheets and down comforter, and, according to the wall text, had a woman sleeping in it. I found this rather intriguing (as my first impulse had been to climb into the bed myself), but did not see anyone under the covers. Perhaps she was very small and had curled into a ball and covered her entire body, including her head. Or, perhaps she was in the bathroom.

So I remembered one thing because it looked like it wasn't supposed to be there, and another thing because it wasn't there, even though it was supposed to be. A bit like the lovely gap between the wall and the floor. Somehow, the building managed to be a metaphor for its contents before there were any contents. That is great architecture.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dance: Trey McIntyre Project at the Joyce

Most professional dancers have incredibly chiseled bodies, but Trey McIntyre's dancers take "diesel" to an entirely new level. Perhaps counter-intuitively, their massive, sinewy legs, like those Michelangelo once liberated from blocks of marble (principle John Michael Schert begins Leatherwing Bat in the pose of the Vitruvian Man—different Italian artist, same idea(l)), afford them an incredible lightness and ease; they don't appear to be working at all, or even bound by gravity. This is not an incidental quality—McIntyre is quite conscious of it, as evidenced by the company's two most recent promotional photo shoots: one in which the dancers are suspended underwater, and another in which they soar through the crisp blue aether, weightless in both.

For the show's first two pieces, I admit to being more taken by the dancers themselves than the choreographer. I was constantly distracted from the exuberant movements of Leatherwing Bat by the soundtrack, a medley of children's songs sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary. However charming Puff the Magic Dragon is—don't get me wrong, I love Peter, Paul, and Mary—two men dancing to it is just kind of, well, gay. I'm sorry. Really, it's not the gay per se that is the issue here, but the sentimentality. A man and a woman dancing to the song would likely be just as cloying. But also, my Berkeley education trained me to jerk my knee whenever I see dance that illustrates music—even rhythmically—so this very literal performance, in which one dancer was, indeed, being "swallowed by a boa constrictor" of other dancers, who surrounded the appropriate body part at "oh gee, it's swallowed my knee" and "oh heck, it's up to my neck," fell short of my intellectual standards. (serious), the second piece, was far too serious, a dance very much of a new typology dead on arrival. The three dancers wore white dress shirts and khaki pants, and their unsmiling, frenetic motions to repetitive, unemotive music were less captivating than my typical workday. Art intended to comment on the vapid tedium of our contemporary corporate culture needs to be very wary of being vapid and tedious itself.

But McIntyre redeemed himself—as an Artistic Director, as a choreographer, and as a middle American (the company is based in Boise, and the carefree, gritless, jubilant quality feels very out of place in neurotic, hyper-intellectual, self-conscious New York)—with Ma Maison, a piece so astounding that I questioned whether I was watching the same company. It was a fair question, because the dancers wore masks. Yes, masks. A kind of tribute to the New Orleans' funeral jazz tradition, Ma Maison features nine ghoulish skeletons dressed to the nines in black and white and pink and green and yellow, in fishnets and stripes and tri-corner hats and pearls, dancing like mad to the wailing horns of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. For the first five seconds, it feels like a gimmick, and then you realize that it's brilliant. Race disappears, and the ultra-white, effete, and emotionally flaccid performance of Leatherwing Bat goes with it—these dancers are suddenly loose in their joints, shaking and shimmying and rolling like, well, non-whites.* It is as if putting on the masks and the fun, madcap costumes let the dancers drop out of the aether and back to the ground, where, as one of my dance teachers used to say, the funk is.**

*Sorry. This is the most politically incorrect post ever. I mean everything I say here with a non-judgemental love for all people, even Osama Bin Laden, whom my yoga teacher says I must love.

**"The funk is not up there. You got to get down, down, down, down, down," etc., cue James Brown impersonation.