Sunday, September 26, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Three: The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust

Apparently, readers are itchy because I haven't posted on Proust for more than a month. Blame Marcel for writing such a dreadfully dull third volume, in which nothing of consequence ever happens, other than the attendance of chatter-filled dinner parties and "at-homes" in which the characters gossip about who is a Dreyfusard and who is an anti-.

Frankly, I find the Dreyfus Affair rather dull. As an undergraduate, I constantly heard it referenced, so I finally looked it up. It made so shallow an impression that, coming across it again in The Guermantes Way, I had to again look it up. As it turns out, the case is quite a bit more interesting than Proust makes it out to be. Still, Volume III now represents to me, in a particular way (i.e., not the way Marcel intended) lost time.

If I thought the volume warranted more discussion, I would offer it, but so far it seems that it is only worth reading to fill in the logical lacuna generated by reading only Volumes II and IV (the former filled with the titillations of heterosexual desire, the latter promising the titillations of homosexual pursuits (or so it seems; I've only read the first few pages)).

Music: Gotham Chamber Opera—El Gato con Botas

To file this post under "music" is a bit deceptive, but not any more deceptive than the Guggenheim promising "El Gato con Botas" and presenting "Puss in Boots." The Gotham Chamber Opera will be offering the Spaniard Montsalvatge's opera both in the original Spanish as well as English translation performances, but I was rather disappointed that the Works and Process preview gave us the lesser of those two choices.

I was equally disappointed that, promised "puppets" in plural form, we were only shown one puppet (though it was a puppet comprised of plural pieces, and quite an astonishing puppet at that), for this production at the New Victory Theater is a puppet production, inspired by Artistic Director Neal Goren's admitted discomfort with the idea of live people playing animal characters. No self-respecting opera star is willing to dress up in a cat costume, it seems—save that trash for Broadway.

The excessively caffeinated Goren practically stole the podium from moderator Anotoni Pizà, whose greatest moment was cutting off the conductor's effusive stream to ask him whether or not he keeps a pet cat. But the more intriguing character was Mark Down, the Artistic Director of Blind Summit Theater, the collaborators responsible for the puppets. For these are not Sifl & Olly sock puppets. The one puppet we saw tonight—the ogre—requires seven sweating puppeteers, never mind the opera singer who stands alongside them, sweating and heaving himself.

I found nothing particularly interesting in Montsalvatge's music (I'm by no means an opera fan, but I still think I can recognize whether a particular work has any value), but the puppet—oh the puppet! What a creation of astonishing artistic and physical genius. Never have I seen such an enormous living, breathing thing made of seven sculpted hunks of foam mounted on poles, operated by the nerdiest subcategory of theater nerds: professional puppeteers. What stars they are, these puppet-wielders, brutishly, nimbly, willfully dancing this other being into life.

I say, more puppets, less singing.

Dance: Maa: A Ballet by Kaija Saariaho, Choreography by Luca Veggetti at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

I was previously unfamiliar with both Kaija Saariaho and Luca Veggetti, but bought tickets (as I generally do) to all of this season's Works and Process shows involving dance. While I enjoyed the dancing, though, Kaija Saariaho's composition absorbed me more fully, the bodies onstage merely echoing faintly the deeper sensations the music inspired in me. The evening began with a piece for four dancers and a live harpist, but the vibrations that impregnated the air were and were not the sounds of a harp. The skittish rhythms and unsettling tone progressions were not those that flow mellifluously from a typical harp. The musician's visage expressed the screwed concentration of a violinist playing something by Steve Reich, rather than the beneficent glow that typifies the classical harpist. The music was intellectual, architectural, vast, and though without what one would call "melody," extremely beautiful. How surprising, then, when the composer revealed herself for discussion, an elderly, fragile thing with orange hair and a smear of red lipstick.

Saariaho explained that what we had heard was not merely harp, but harp processed through live electronics—the source of the sound's vast "-scape."* Maa was composed in 1991, as a ballet in seven parts for choreographer Carolyn Carlson. Saariaho described her artistic differences with Carlson with the generosity that comes, in part, from age—originally imagining the piece for seven dancers, Carlson ended up casting 24; agreeing with Saariaho that the piece would be abstract, she eventually inserted narrative drama. Veggetti, on the contrary, uses seven bodies with no narrative outside of the dialogue between the shapes of the music and the shapes of their bodies. . . perhaps to such an extreme it becomes a fault.

What Veggetti said of consequence during the interluding panel discussions was the importance of casting dancers with skill, aside from the artistic and emotional openness to try something new. Skilled indeed—sometimes restrained by that skill—are his dancers, the majority of which are Julliard students or graduates (as are the musicians—what a disturbingly talented lot of young people). Frances Chiaverini, a great**, tall dancer, combining somehow the sleek, heavy musculature and subtle force of a thoroughbred and a panther, nevertheless stands out amongst the group; to her, of course, goes the solo la Terre.

Veggetti prizes ballet's long, high leg and proud, upright head. Never, not once, did a dancer drop her head into a movement, giving into the sensuous abandon I prize in the best practitioners of contact/release. That said, from modern dance he takes the liquid torso, the element of chance (his dancers danced not in shoes, and not barefoot, but in thin, slippery socks, in which they could run across the stage, sliding to a stop), and an interest in inter-body counterbalance. The more interesting moments of choreography are the architectural pauses, where one dancer uses two other bodies, firmly planted, to push herself slowly into a floating arabesque, or some other root-to-rise expression.

But after this evening, I won't look for Veggetti's work again; it is fine enough, but in a world of many dance-makers, not sufficiently compelling. Saariaho, contrarily, has completely captivated me, and I have already begun seeking recordings of her echoing, mysterious music, and wondering when I will be able to see her newest opera, Émilie (a monographic monodrama on the female mathematician and physicist Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, who also happened to be Voltaire's mistress).

*My description, not the composer's.

**as in "big"

Movies: The Back-Up Plan

Even on an airplane, some movies are better left unwatched. No one thinks of J-Lo as a great actress, but I'm still trying to understand how one can go from making a film with Steven Soderbergh to dribbling out such a diarrhetic stream of inane romantic comedies, of which The Back-Up Plan is the latest fecal plop. The plot is barely worth recounting; Lopez plays Zoe, a single girl who owns a frou-frou pet store and a dog with no hind legs. Frustrated by dating and ready to be a mom, she gets artificially inseminated—but then meets the man of her dreams later that day. Hilarity, as the saying goes, ensues as their relationship develops and he adjusts to the reality of becoming the father of a stranger's babies (she's having twins).

But what I found most offensive about this movie was not the plot. Instead, it was Zoe's self-absorption, insensitivity, and inability to communicate. Throughout the film, she makes unfair demands of her beau, and again and again, even though he chafes under this treatment, he returns to her and her insanity. I'm more and more disturbed by media that present poor examples of relating as successful models. Women will watch this film, and expect men to smilingly succumb to this kind of treatment; then, when real-life men fall short of these false expectations, real-life women will be disappointed and confused, but won't identify their own spoiled behavior as the problem.

For the record, I am a girl, and I did cry—multiple times. The film is drivel, but it is effective drivel. Luckily, I can keep my critical faculties plugged in and calculating, even when my permeable emotional self is penetrated and besieged. The two must remain as separate as church and state when entering Hollywood's territory.

Theater: Fela!

I discovered Fela Kuti the same week I discovered Midnite, thanks to another mix-CD from the same source. Months later, I saw posters all over downtown Manhattan announcing FELA! with the very special name Bill T. Jones at the bottom. I have been following Bill T.'s work for awhile, first having heard him speak when I was a dance student at Berkeley, up until reviewing Serenade/The Proposition nearly ten years later. He is one of the few artists I have ever encountered whose work is driven by an immense intellect, expressive of political rage, modulated by honest emotions, and sculpted by rigorous aesthetic standards. He is—and I say this without shame—the perfect artist.

How did Bill T. become Bill T.? Certain biographical facts are helpful, as are certain habits. While studying dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970s, the big, black Bill T. met a little red haired theater student named Arnie Zane. They became lovers, then partners, forming Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. Their work played with their difference of shape, size, and color, and their sameness of gender—some of the first modern dance that addressed gay issues. In the late 1980s, AIDS took Arnie from Bill T. and the rest of the world, but the company still bears both names together. And yes, Bill T. is HIV-positive.

He is also a voracious reader, and an intellectual task-master. When he starts thinking about a new work, before stepping foot in the studio, he reads. For his last cycle of works—three pieces on Abraham Lincoln, of which Serenade/The Proposition was a part—he read over 100 books on Lincoln and the American Civil War. He made his dancers read, too. In fact, as if they were high school students, each had to choose an individual figure from the period to research, bringing their intellectual and emotional knowledge of that personage to the studio.

I am certain that during the creation of Fela!, he and his cast worked in the same way. Kuti was a performer, but he was, perhaps more importantly, a political figure. I don't doubt that Jones identifies with him in some ways—both artists whose intellects refuse to let them igore injustice, both black, both HIV-positive. The first half of Fela! is mostly fun: an introduction to the sounds that make up his Afrobeat music, a dance lesson that gets the audience up on its feet and ticking its collective pelvis around an imaginary clock. Toward the end of the first act, though, things get dark, as we see the Nigerian government becoming uncomfortable with Kuti's power. It is in the second act that we see Bill T. as we know him really come forth. Fela's personal compound, where he lived with his mother and many wives, was literally besieged by the police; his women were raped; his mother was killed. For this scene, mugshots of members of the female ensemble are projected above the stage, and the women, one-by-one, tell us—in one cool sentence each—what the police did to them. Here is Bill T. demanding heart and mind from his dancers, as well as body.

The show is as good as a two hour Broadway show about Fela Kuti can be. That is not to say that it is perfect; the confines of telling such a big story in such a short time make for a show that is a bit episodic, conveyed in one of my less-favorite formats: flashback. And oddly, Jones does not address Kuti's HIV-status, which I found strange, even disingenuous. That said, the scale of Broadway, in exchange for what it takes, offers quite a lot in exchange. Jones has long been integrating projection into his work, but it has never worked so seamlessly as it does here, bringing Fela's mother back from the dead when her portrait opens its eyes and turns to chide her boy on stage. In the past, Jones hasn't had the funding for production to match his imagination, but now that he is a Tony Award winner, he will continue to work on Broadway, and I have no doubt that he will carve greater and greater width down that strip of fluff and flashing lights for meaningful political and artistic discourse.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movies: Carne (1968)

One of the most well-known "collaborations" between Argentinian writer-director Armando Bo and his actress wife Isabel Sarli, Carne (which is not available on DVD) was recently offered to American audiences at Walter Reade Theatre's mini-retrospective of Sarli's work. Not knowing what to expect, other than an Argentinian Bridget Bardot, I went, finding myself in the rather awkward position of watching a soft-core porno at an art-house filled with stylish hipsters and film nerds eating popcorn. Forty years ago, this film played at theatres near 42nd street, where lonely men in the audience kept their hands busy with something else.

The film is disturbingly biographical, if you follow its extended metaphor. Sarli, 1955 Miss Argentina, was "discovered" by Armando Bo, and recorded her first nude scenes with him unwittingly. Recounting the story, she describes the way she told him she would not do a nude scene, and he promised she could wear a nude-colored swimsuit. "Later, when we were shooting the film in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, needless to say, there was no swimsuit. I made them keep the camera very far away. I didn’t know anything at the time. I wasn’t even aware of zoom lenses and things like that. When I watched the film at the premiere, it was a terrible shock."

In Carne, Sarli plays Delicia, a meat plant worker who is raped in a tunnel by one of the men who works in the plant. She hides the fact from her lover (played by Bo), who seems to know that something is wrong, but spends too much time brooding to do anything about it. Soon, Delicia is raped again, by the same man (called Macho)—this time in a meat locker, on a cold, red, cow's carcass. This begins as an almost Hitchcockian suspense scene, in which she sees Macho's eyes between the dressed carcasses hanging from hooks, then his feet down below, and begins to hurry away (in her tight dress and high heels), as he chases her between the swinging rows of meat. But, it quickly devolves into a cheap and rather disgusting soft-core rape scene, which today's audience is supposed to gleefully watch in the name of "camp."

But there's actually very little artistic delight to be had in this "exploitation" film, because it is so truly exploitative. This isn't art or games or an empowered woman playing with her sexuality on-screen. As the plot goes on, Macho kidnaps Delicia and takes her, in a meat truck, to the outskirts of town, where he has collected a handful of his friends and coworkers for a game of cards, a few drinks, and—for a price—a turn at Delicia. She is locked in the truck with a small cot. Macho is the first to enter, and he rapes her a third time. When the next man comes in, she is shocked, still unaware of her fate. She tries to reason with him, but is unsuccessful. Four more men follow. Only once is she given a break—in the strangest of scenes—by a man who admits in a high-pitched voice that he is a homosexual, with a crush on Macho.

All the while, Delicia's behavior is very strange. She sits simpering on the bed, begging not to be taken, while tossing her hair and caressing her (extremely large) breasts. After she is let go, she runs home and takes a long shower; Bo's camera follows her here, where she again writhes and caresses herself as she flashes back to the ordeal she has just experienced.

At the film's conclusion, Delicia's lover finally realizes what has been happening, and finds Macho, challenging him to a fist-fight. He gives the wrong-doer a good beating, kicking him into a muddy creek. This is the extent of his punishment. Delicia and her lover go off to live, we assume, happily ever after.

Sarli and Bo made more than 25 films "together," and though this is the only one I've seen, both from it and from what I've read, I gather that he was no better than a pimp. Sarli describes Bo's brilliant ability to write a script in a few hours, but what little script Carne has was quite clearly written by a hack—and I refuse to blame the translated subtitles. What Bo did—take a beautiful naive, sweet girl, and put her naked body onscreen for the delectation of strange men, against her will, to line his own pockets—is what Macho did. No wonder it was so easy for Bo to write this script; it's a confession. What breaks my heart is that Sarli loved Bo nevertheless, sharing her body with the public against her will because he told her she had to. She had offers to work with major studios, to take control of her own career, but she refused, devoted to her abuser to his death.

It may be trendy to watch dated porn as art, but Sarli is deeply unsettling onscreen. Her discomfort and ambivalence are more palpable than the "sexual frisson" for which she is famous. The notion that I could watch a woman willingly suffer this kind of abuse and giggle, or say "hmm," stroking my chin, is ludicrous. Equally distressing was the presentation of the series, by its female curators, who did not for a moment problematize Sarli and Bo's working relationship, instead giggling about their memories of watching their first Sarli films illicitly, on Argentinian cable television. If films like this are going to be presented to a thinking audience, they had better be contextualized.

Music: Midnite at S.O.B.'s

I'm writing about this show nearly two months after the fact; I admit, I've been remiss, and I have excuses that you either already know, or don't care about. The one applicable excuse, though, is that I've been in somewhat of a quandary as to how to describe this experience. I was introduced to Midnite by a handcrafted mix-CD without track listings. I eventually found out that all the very best songs came from the same people: Midnite—and, because I am the luckiest, the person who made me this mix-CD also bought tickets for the Midnite show at S.O.B.'s.

When I used to go to late-night movies at Film Forum, and would descend into the Houston Street 1-train subway stop, I would always hear a pulsing beat leaking out of the vents of a utility room off the tracks. I used to think, "Damn, that MTA knows how to party!", picturing a secret break room behind those doors with a bumping stereo system. Eventually, I realized that the beat was coming from S.O.B.'s, a club right up above the subway station. That was years ago, but this was the first night I had ever been inside. It's a small club, wider than it is deep, which is good, because basically everyone is right up in front of the band—and Midnite is a band you want to be up close to.

I don't know much about them and I won't pretend to know more than I do; what you need to know is that they are from St. Croix and they are the antidote to what Reggae has become under the tutelage of Sean Paul. But at that opposite end of the spectrum, they don't merely inhabit what sound Bob Marley once did; they are something completely their own: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and totally rocking. Vaughn Benjamin is not a singer; he is a prophet. Streams of language bubbled up out of his mouth, and the rastas in the audience, with their dreadlocks bundled up in scarves, watched with reverence. A few times that night, while the band played over four hours straight, one of the older rastas in the audience, a lumbering man with dreadlocks down past his waist, held his locks up to Benjamin, simultaneously giving and receiving blessing.

We danced and danced and danced. A few times, I recognized a series of lyrics that linked back to mix-CD, but I don't know what songs were played; the experience was too organic for the "performance" of tracks. Not was the show like one of the drug-fueled interminable meanderings of, say, Phil Lesh—each moment was startlingly lucid, deep, memorable. I still see Vaughn's eyes glowing with a knowledge simultaneously dark and bright as he looked out and through us, holding the mic in fine, slender hands up close to his lips, murmuring warnings, instructions, and dedications.