Monday, November 15, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Four: Cities of the Plain, by Marcel Proust

I was expecting, since the more recent Modern Library version of this volume is entitled Sodom & Gomorrah rather than the innocuous Cities of the Plain, that this would be the book in which Marcel comes out. It's not. It is, however, the volume in which Marcel's eyes open to the existence of homosexuality, chiefly as expressed by the behavior of Baron de Charlus, my favorite Proustian character to date. Wide-eyed Marcel, in a lengthy passage about bees pollinating flowers that I would argue rivals the famed madeleine pages, witnesses through a key-hole of sorts, the Baron flirting and then copulating (I think—Proust is very subtle) with Marcel's lower-class neighbor Jupien. The remainder of the volume, following the Baron in his wooing of the working-class, devil-may-care violinist Charles Morel, elucidates Charlus' strange treatment of Marcel in the previous volume: his possessiveness, his tenderness, his raging midnight invective; for before desiring Morel, the Baron desired Marcel.

But our young Proust is busy with Albertine, chasing the vivacious brunette but pretending not to care, loving her so long as she appears out of his reach, tiring of hers when he has her full attention. The middle section of the book drags a bit, as the author returns to his tedious habits of the previous volume, cataloging conversations at parties, most of these now at the Verdurin's "Wednesdays," dinner salons with many of the same "faithful" that witnessed Swann wooing Odette so many volumes ago. Charlus, by way of Morel, somehow becomes one of the faithful, despite his disdain for this set, whose members aren't aware of his pedigree and fraternal relationship to the Gueremantes.

The "excitement" in the volume comes toward the very end: the juxtaposition between the final sentence of the third chapter—"The idea of marrying Albertine appeared to me to be madness." and the final sentence of the fourth, and of the volume: "I absolutely must—and let's settle the matter at once, because I'm quite clear about it now, because I won't change my mind again, because I couldn't live without it—I absolutely must marry Albertine." This sudden change of heart is inspired by Marcel's "discovery" that his earlier suspicions about Albertine's lesbianic tendencies are valid, this "fact" confirmed by Albertine's mentioning that one of her dearest friends, who was like a sister, like a mother to the orphan, is the very same girl that was the fragrant lesbian lover of the composer Vinteuil's daughter. Marcel, that masochist, tells us, "I who until then had never awakened without a smile at the humblest things, the bowl of coffee, the sound of the rain, the roar of the wind, felt that the day which in a moment was about to dawn, and all the days to come, would no longer bring me the hope of an unknown happiness, but only the prolongation of my agony. I still clung to life; but I knew that I had nothing now but bitterness to expect from it" (1155). Oh, Marcel—you do it to yourself.

Dance: Voices and Dance within the Americas, at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

This night, the Guggenheim presented three short pieces by three different choreographers: one American (though his biography describes Jonah Bokaer as "an international choreographer") and two Cubans, Judith Sanchez Ruiz and Maray Gutierrez.

Gutierrez could not make it to speak on the panel, and Eduardo Vilaro, Ballet Hispanico's new Artistic Director, took her place, though he didn't have much of interest to say. The real star of the night was Ruiz, who danced in her piece before joining the panel. With energy as buoyant and vibrant as her barely-controlled curly mop top, Ruiz described, in a charming foreigner's English, her interest in the Cuban American feminist performance artist Ana Mendieta. I know Mendieta's work, though I had never thought much of it, and was fascinated by Ruiz's ability to do what I thought Mendieta, like many politically-inclined artists of the '60s and '70s, was never able to do: make work successful on interconnected aesthetic, physical, and emotional levels, in addition to and in support of the intellectual-political intention.

Ruiz collaborates with Korean-born, New York-based artist Sun Kwak for this piece, which starts with Kwak's "signature expression." Kwak, shoeless, small, and dressed in black, armed with a massive roll of wide, black tape, attaches the free end to the center of the stage front, and pulls the tape across the stage, choosing a line, bending one leg to reach down and smooth and flatten the line she has created, tearing the tape when the line is complete, and beginning again. Her work is rhythmic and repetitive, with minor variations and subtle flourishes. After she works for some time, two dancers (one of them Ruiz), step out, and begin to dramatize Kwak's patterns, playing with the artist's gestures, mimicry, variation, improvisation. This builds until Kwak completes her "drawing," and leaves the stage; another dancer eventually enters.

Ruiz's piece is distinctly feminine, even if her intention is feministshe described during the panel discussion her interest in Medieta's meditations on "women's work," which is rather refreshing after the somewhat indulgent images of liminal masculinity presented by Bokaer in his Filter, also inspired by the work of an artist: Cuban-American photographer Anthony Goicolea, who takes a place on stage as a dancer. Goicolea's multiple-self portraits are beautiful and haunting, some of the most impressive staged photography I've seen, but I thought Bokaer's piece failed to capture the full promise/threat of the artist's photographs. The stage was dotted with gold-leafed, bare-branched miniature trees (Goicolea's creations) and offered a see-sawing platform at its center, allowing the look-alike dancers to play gently with weight and gravity as the "floor" moved. But the dance, perhaps too faithful to the photographs, relies too heavily on tableau, and felt stilted rather than silent, oppressed rather than suppressed. The rich underchurnings of Goicolea's photographs, strange to say in this movement-art, are missing. It's Ruiz instead who conveys the pre-eruption of bottled emotion with her trembling bodies.

The final piece of the evening, Puntos Suspensivos, further carried this perhaps unintended theme of suppressed and exploding emotions, but only one of the six dancers honestly embodied the piece's intention. Toward the end, the dancers slowly stepped forward, stretched across the stage in a horizontal line. Cued by the music, one at a time and apparently at random, a body would recoil as if shot and fall to the ground, then get up and walk forward again. The soloist's body moved in clear response to this invisible trauma, but every other dancer anticipated her moment, acting instead of reacting, dropping instead of falling.

Movies: Howl

I have the greatest respect for the intention and ensuing construction of this film: the elucidation of Ginsberg's poem Howl through biography and history, but multiple complaints about its execution.

My foremost accusation is against the animators, a Thai outfit led by Eric Drooker, in a style is too techno-age to suit Ginsberg's time and tone, which nevertheless comes off as dated. This is animation that might have been considered super-edgy in 1995, but would never have been considered—at least by me—as appealing. Nor is it unappealing in the way some of Ginsberg's lines call for: "yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars;" it's not rich enough to demonstrate half of that.

The animated sequences accompany Franco's reading of pieces of the poem (not in entirety, and not straight through, but in jumbled sequences, which I don't mind). His reading is a bit over-studied at times; there is something distinctly schoolboyish in Franco's voice as he reads or recites. But his physical performance as young Ginsberg is more natural, less hiccuping—or maybe still hiccuping, but in a way that jives with young Ginsberg's own uncertainty.

Much of Howl reminds me of Milk—is it just that we again have Franco, in hippy-hipster San Francisco, sorting out being gay? Both films use the dictated monologue-incited flashback structure (which I lamented in Milk), and so it was little surprise to see, when the credits rolled, that Gus Van Sant (Milk's director) served as Producer here. It's hard for me to squelch the gossipy girl in me who wonders if Van Sant has a gay crush on Franco (who is supposedly not gay, but. . . really?), if not more.

I loved Howl from my first reading (in a Catholic high school English class—that's how far we have come from the 1957 obscenity trial), but despite this film's many frustrations, it nevertheless deepened my affection for the work, explaining to me just who Carl is, and what Rockland was, and why that matters. It could have been so much better, but the movie is still good.

Dance: The Music of David Lang Interpreted at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

I saw this show six weeks ago, but haven't yet forgotten my surprise that two pieces of music by the same composer—the so-called laws of nature and forced march by David Lang—could be so different. The aim of the program was rather to demonstrate how differently two choreographers might interpret this music, offering first Jessica Lang's (no relation) interpretation, then Pontus Lidberg's, displayed on the bodies of the same dancers from Morphoses. And yet, while there was certainly a difference to be seen in the choreographer's linear tone, it was far more subtle than the overt difference in the two musical selections each were given to work with.

Lang composed the so-called laws of nature for a percussion ensemble, providing in the score instructions for creating the "instruments" with which to make the sounds. The resonant eastern chimes are actually the vibrations of teacups, which plink and tinkle with the organic delicacy of rain on a wind-free lake. While Jessica Lang ties her dancers to the staccato rhythm of these sounds and Pontus Linberg to the length of their reverberations, both choreographers work in a modern, sensorialist vocabulary. To find a parallel in painting, Lang uses the bolder lines of the Expressionists, and Lindberg the softer insinuations of the Impressionists, but the intention is shared, and the styles are only separated by a decade, and a taste of hardship.

The audience's hardship is in being assaulted not just once, but twice, by the interminable forced march, a meandering piece for virtuoso electric guitar which Lang gleefully admitted was an experiment in extending a phrase, forced into a march's time signature (and enforced by a loathsome snare), for as long as possible. The choreographers were given freedom in ordering the musical selections, and Lang chose to begin with the so-called laws and conclude with forced march. Our respite was only for the short duration of conversation between the choreographers and composers before we were again subjected to forced march, for Lidberg chose to use it first, perhaps in hopes of getting it out of the way, and then assuaging us with the softer patterns of the so-called laws. Unfortunately, after sitting through forced march twice, our nerves were raw and frazzled, and no balm could do them any good—even the magical, color-changing costumes that echoed for Lidberg the mid-night blooming of a flower that only shows itself every hundred years, and which showed itself to him while he was choreographing the piece.

Movies: Back to the Future, I & II

When I was a kid, I videotaped Back to the Future II off HBO and watched it again and again and again. I had only seen the original movie once, and even then probably missed the opening sequence, because when I watched it on DVD last month, it was completely unfamiliar. What surprised me most was the quality—or lack of quality—of the film. Accustomed to the texture of classic as much as contemporary films, this thing looked like it was shot on VHS by a group of fifth graders on a ten-dollar budget. This is not to detract from its brilliance; I was totally captivated.

Plenty of websites are dedicated to the analysis of the technical possibilities and impossibilities of the film, but as much of a nerd as I am, my attraction to these movies has little to do with time travel (despite the fact that one of the other few movies I obsessively watched on VHS as a child was also structured by time travel: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Though I am fascinated by the presentation of various “presents” and futures based on seemingly minor edits of the past, I’m more interested in the characters’ emotional development. These aren’t “deep” movies dedicated to character development, but they manage to convey something essential in their sweeping way: our emotional health and stability is derived from our parents’ emotional health and stability.

I could be critical, and insist on deconstructing the movies’ typological characters—Biff of the 1950s is the same bully as Biff of the 1980s, who is the same bully as Biff of the 21st century—he never grows, changes, learns to do anything other than beat Marty McFly over the head for stolen homework. But Biff is a mere personification of everything in the world that is base, lazy, complacent, gross in appetites and behavior. Marty, the plucky hero, the uncertain dreamer, he who knows what is right, though he is often in deeper than he would like, is the counter force, everything in our would that has potential. So long as that shoot is protected and cultivated, the future is promising.

Analysis aside, everything about these movies is simply so fun and imaginative that I spent the four hours watching them yelping in glee. I felt the same way watching ET. There is a quality of wonder and creativity particular to movies of the 80s, and I don’t think this is subjective (I was born in 1982). Culturally, we are so savvy today, so postmodern, so ironic. Nothing ruffles us. We are so cool, we’re cold. We’re dead. Our films are filled with fast cuts and flashy effects and explosions and noises and slick, shining bodies; even our arthouse flicks are cool, over-experienced, jaded. Before the 80s, movies were stuck—grotesquely over-produced in Hollywood, emotionally flaccid in the arthouse. I’m making sweeping generalizations here, and I’m not saying that brilliant movies weren’t made before and after the 80s (obviously—I do enjoy grotesque over-production and slick bodies and emotional impotence, I swear!). I suppose I’m saying that for a moment in the 1980s, movies were as plucky as 1980s Marty McFly, with the potential do amazing things, though still lacking a bit in tools with which to do them. I’m just afraid that, cinematographically at least, we are living in the alternate future of Biff-world.