Sunday, March 30, 2014


A matinee screening of "Noah", unfortunately, reminds me of Jesse Ventura's remark that organized religion is "the haven of weak minds." The midday audience was overwhelmingly elderly, crippled, and hard of hearing. The aisles were crowded with wheelchairs and there were many mentally retarded people in attendance. Cell-phones rang periodically during the show and the old folks chatted loudly about the picture, querulously posing inquiries to one another that the images and dialogue on the screen had either just answered or were about to answer. Characteristic of many Christians, the more pious members of the audience seem to have no acquaintance with the Bible at all and appear to derive their knowledge of the story of the great Flood from dimly remembered Sunday School programs taught by Junior High Girls at the end of the Depression or, perhaps, from coloring book images that they may have completed in Vacation Bible School if there was such a thing in 1944. Bladders are weak, of course, when you're old and a swollen prostate can apply unpleasant pressure and so the elderly men were constantly on the move, hiking back and forth unsteadily in front of the screen, tottering over seated people in the dark, the whole time guzzling from huge containers of soda pop. An ancient man behind me seemed to have no idea what was happening on the screen: when Noah (Russell Crowe) figures out how to cultivate grapes and gets himself stinking drunk, the old codger tremulously asked: "What's he drinkin'?" His wife had no clue -- she apparently had not seen the lush grapes that Noah was manipulating in the montage leading to his intoxication. "I think it's water," she bellowed. "Water?" the old guy said. "Is it poison or something?" I assume the entire scene, Ham cursed because of beholding of his father's nakedness, meant nothing to them at all. And throughout the showing of Darrin Aronofsky's film that I attended, the retarded adults gibbered and moaned, people muttered to one another, and the entire auditorium gurgled with phthisic coughing and gurgling. Oddly enough, about a third of Aronofsky's epic is very good and powerfully compelling. This is the part of the film, more or less following the orgy of CGI effects involving the building of the ark and the great, and unconvincing, deluge. Once the film shifts away from the biblical story into pure Midrash, a tale of Noah's madness and his conviction that all humanity, including his own family, must be expunged from the earth, the movie attains a kind of wacky grandeur and is genuinely fearsome. It's too bad that it takes the movie so long to find itself. The first two-thirds of the picture is Genesis as imagined by Peter Jackson -- it's all sub-LOTR (Lord of the Rings) stuff: the antediluvian world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland that looks a little like the decimated terrain of Mordor. It's inhabited by hordes of ruffians under the command of Tubal-Cain. Tubal-Cain looks like Rod Steiger and he is prone to Nietzschean speeches about man's will and his dominion ove the earth. As the film progresses, this rather static and caricatured figure, however, becomes more interesting and deepens -- ultimately, many viewers will end up siding with the Promethean Tubal-Cain in his opposition to the dour and half-crazy Noah. Noah interprets his mandate from God to require that he sacrifice his own family. Through an extra-biblical series of events the Noah family has acquired a step-daughter, apparently the victim of hysterectomy by dagger at the hands of Tubal-Cain's hordes. The stepdaughter is ostensibly barren until she runs into Methusaleh in his lava cave high atop an Icelandic mountain. Methusaleh is played by the leathery Anthony Hopkins and he's a doddering old fool who decides to restore the stepdaughter's womb and fallopian tubes. The stepdaughter immediately has sex with Shem, gets pregnant, and this pregnancy triggers Noah's resolve to kill the newborn children if they are female and, therefore, potentially mothers. There's a crazy logic about this all -- if human beings are intrinsically fallen and evil and if Noah is supposed to save all the "innocent" animals, it stands to reason that allowing humans to breed and, once again, swarm over the earth will just be replicating the evil that has attracted God's wrath. At least, this is Noah's view and, like an Old Testament prophet, which I guess he is in a way, Russell Crowe's Noah decides to kill the stepdaughter's children, twin girls. In some ways, Crowe is like John Wayne's character, the Indian-killer, in "The Searchers" -- Wayne's searcher vows to destroy his niece who was raped by the Sioux and who is married to an Indian chief, but when he sees the girl grown into Natalie Wood, he can't fulfill his oath. Similarly, Crowe has a tremendous scene where he poises a blade over the soft-spot on the head of a sleeping baby, is about to slaughter both infants, and, then, in a wonderful gesture that is brilliantly filmed spares the children. (The old guy behind me shouted out to his wife: "Did he kill the baby?" "I don't think so," Ma said.) The psycho-drama on the ark involves Tubal-Cain who is now a stowaway, aided and abetted by Ham who irrationally blames dad for the death of a girl whom he rescued from a mass grave in the camp of Tubal-Cain's orc-like army. Tubal-Cain is treating the beasts in the ark as a kind of Chinese buffet, chowing down on the sleeping quadrupeds and, even, tempting Ham to have a few bites. The ark crashes onto Mount Ararat just at the point that the stepdaughter is giving birth, the pigeon bearing some foliage in its beak alighting atop the big barge, and, in its bowels, Tubal-Cain, Noah, and Ham are all engaging in a desperate and gory knife fight -- this is wild and hysterical but it's also every effective. The first two-thirds of the film involves a big and unconvincing battle between Tubal-Cain's hordes and the Nephillim, called "The Watchers", imagined as stony figures who look somewhat like Transformers made of boulders -- they have the ability to mimic heaps of rock and, then, suddenly spring to life crushing everything around them. The Nephillim build the ark, an impressive edifice, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air come to it spontaneously to be anesthetized by Noah so that they slumber peacefully during the great Green Screen spectacle of the Flood. Most of this part of the film is unintentionally comical -- the Nephillim clamber all over the roof of the ark cutting and sawing like a crew of Mexican roofers and the CGI flocks of animals that enter the ark are, more or less, unconvincing as are most of the special effects in the film. (There is one great shot, however, of an ocean crag swarming with naked and drowning people that is worthy of Fritz Lang or Cecil B. DeMille -- it has a powerful old Silent Film magic about it.) Aronofsky is not good with special effects or battle-scenes. He's an old-fashioned director who makes his point with the human face and voice, and once he lets those aspects of the film prevail, the movie becomes, for a one-third of its length, an excellent picture of its type.

The Great Beauty

Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (2013) is an episodic and astonishingly gorgeous elegy, a lament for lost opportunities: unless Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth, a questionable proposition at best, the movie shows us that the pursuit of beauty may be destructive to truth and authenticity. Although the film is wholly successful on its own terms, the picture is designed as a rejoinder to, and commentary on, several of Fellini’s greatest pictures, particularly, I think, “I Vitelloni,” “La Dolce Vita,” and “8 1/2” -- and the spooky, psychedelically bright colors and grotesquerie derive from “Juliet of Spirits.” Sorrentino likes to announce new sequences with punches in the eye: a close-up of howitzer firing or a woman’s mouth open wide as she screams at the camera or a beautiful naked girl haloed by iridescent neon. Often, these shots seem unmotivated and we discover their meaning only a minute or two later when the narrative reaches the image that has earlier served as a kind of epigraph for the episode, a sort of self-quotation signifying the tone or meaning of this specific sequence. Important events occur off-screen and the deaths of several characters who seem important to the story, if that’s what it can be called, are made the subject of mere allusion -- at times, the movie is maddeningly elliptical, self-absorbed, it seems, in a revery on a kind ofsinister beauty that is both seductive and lethal. (Sorrentino gets an amazing range of emotions on screen and he pulls out all the stops -- in some scenes, his Roman party-goers look like beautiful zombies or vampires.) The film’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, is introduced dancing gracefully at a wild party thrown for him on his 65th birthday. Gambardella is a journalist who writes for a periodical something like Warhol’s old “Interview” -- a terminally hip and chic publication that is edited by a frazzled female dwarf. Gambardella is like Truman Capote in some ways -- he once wrote a beautiful novel (he deprecates the book as a “novelette”) called “The Human Apparatus” and was famous by the time he was thirty for being a great writer. He never wrote another book and, as the film opens, is a celebrity, a droll, dapper bachelor who knows everyone, who is invited to all the best parties and the most outrageous avant garde events, and who is now famous chiefly for being famous. Jep’s failure to live up to his youthful potential, his inability to write a second novel, is one of the enigmas the film explores. Like Fellini, Sorrentino is a moralist, a severe critic of the depravity of Roma’s “la dolce vita’ and, yet, also an avid consumer of the erotic decadence and ossified piety that seems to characterize the city. Fellini and Sorrentino both delight in staging orgies, lavish and sybaritic banquets, strange religious interludes -- the depravity that they portray is so startlingly picturesque and appealing that the moral tenor of the film is lost in the spectacle. In a way, Sorrentino is less hypocritical than Fellini -- the seductive appeal of the sex and high-fashion, the endless parties, the bizarre salons and pseudo-mystical hermitages of the very wealthy and the very beautiful, all of these distractions which are shown with the utmost glamor, are, in fact, surrogates for the “great beauty” that Jep has been seeking and that he has failed to create despite (or because) he lives in the very center of Rome, perhaps, the grandest and most inspiring city in the world. Fellini showed us beautiful naked women and, then, punished us for desiring those women; Sorrentino is more honest: the theme of his film is distraction -- Jep has never amounted to much of anything, at least, as a writer, because he has been too busy exploring the decadent pleasures of Rome: the fantastic and surreal beauty of the leonine society women in their alabaster mausoleum-like lairs and the city’s marble corridors and churches like baroque theaters and spurting, monumental fountains, these blandishments are metaphors expressing the very temptations that seem to have sapped Jep of his artistic ambition. His apartment overlooks the Coliseum and he sleeps during the day, partying all night or simply wandering the streets as the camera prowls alongside or behind him -- the film is largely constructed from wonderful gliding tracking movements, the steadi-cam traversing the nocturnal plazas and the immense arcades lit so as to reveal some wonderful work of art glowing like honey in the niche of a distant window. (The photography is very deliberate, expressive, showy -- it is like the camera-work in Kubrick’s late films, particularly “Eyes Wide Shut.”) As in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, Jep has a doomed girlfriend and there is a suicide; periodically, young girls appear, images of innocence, and there are sea-monsters and helicopters flying over Rome and nostalgic flashbacks featuring a vividly blue sea and islands and a little lighthouse atop some tumbled rocks the color of amber. As in “La Dolce Vita,” the divine appears, or, at least, threatens to appear -- in “The Great Beauty” there is a hideous, mummified crone of a saint who seems to suggest the horrors of a life of discipline and rigor, the very kind of life that the film invites us to condemn Jep for rejecting: at the end of the film, we see two sets of stairs ascending in the darkness: one is the Scala Sancta that the old Saint climbs on her knees, creeping upward like a beetle or a snail; the other are some steps where Jep recalls that he met a girl that he loved, forty years earlier, the lighthouse overhead sweeping its gleaming lantern-light across the stony landscape. Who is to say whether the secular or sacred ascending steps are better or, even, if they are fundamentally different -- it takes enormous discipline, I suppose, to lead the life of a dilettante in every respect, to be the perfect gentleman, to attend faithfully every party and to aspire to be completely shallow, while, at the same time, retaining the ironic intelligence and detached wit of the pure observer -- it is, I think, another kind of monasticism possibly no less severe than the holiness that seems to have wilted and burned the old woman, alleged to be 104 and either holy beyond words or a complete idiot, both possibilities suggested by the movie but not resolved. Early in the film, someone mentions Proust and the picture has a distinctly Proustian-sensibility -- it is about super-annuated princes and princes in their marble palaces, strange forms of sexual perversion, expensive courtesans, the cruel rigors of fashion, the decay of the body and horrors of growing old and the mystical power of memory -- all of these subjects wrapped in a cool, abstract mantle of elegiac beauty. Ultimately, “The Great Beauty” closes the loop on “I Vitelloni” -- in Fellini’s first great film, the young man who wants to be a writer must leave the provincial city on the seacoast for Rome; in “The Great Beauty,” Jep’s old friend connives and bullies his cronies into allowing him to perform a theater-piece -- it’s about memories of his youth before he came to Rome. The theater piece is apparently successful, but, success is, of course, inherently disappointing. The old man tells Jep that he is going to leave Rome and return to the country: he explains that he has lived in Rome for 35 years, but the city has disappointed him. It is like the revelation in “Swann’s Way” that the hero has spent his whole life in the pursuit of a woman who didn’t really interest him and who wasn’t his type. The film is long, about 2 1/2 hours, and feels epic and, like 8 1/2 and “La Dolce Vita”, if you’re not in the right mood it just seems to go on and on, piling up examples of decadence and moral failure -- but this is a great film and I’m ashamed that I don’t know anything about either the great actor who plays Jep, an appealing slender man with a knobby face, something like Fred Astaire (Toni Servillo), or the director, Paolo Sorrentino. I look forward to seeing his other films -- on the evidence of this extraordinary film, he seems to me to be a great film artist.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cable News Networks

Although it is a shameful thing to admit, I spend most lunch hours at home, playing with my dog and watching cable news. I suppose that I should be taking clients out to lunch or schmoozing with the captains of industry, or, at least, conniving with fellow attorneys. But I rarely do any of these things. My office is exactly five blocks from my home and I am so lazy that I generally drive to work, drive home at noon, and, then, make the commute to and from my work one more time daily. My dog is happy to see me at noon and I reward her enthusiasm with a treat. Then, I make myself something to eat and ease into my recliner to watch cable news. This is what old people do. Until recently, I favored MSNBC because I thought Andrea Mitchell had some gravitas and, therefore, credibility and, of course, I admired the fetching Tamron Hall, to my eyes one of the most beautiful women on TV. If Andrea or Tamron were becoming too shrill or tendentious, I would switch to Fox for a corrective view of world and political events, although the anchor for news programming around noon on that network is the abhorrent and proudly ignorant Gretchen Olson, a sublimely dumb blonde of the type apparently favored by Roger Ailes. By contrast, CNN offers the robotic and grim Wolf Blitzer, a news anchor noteworthy primarily for his wonderful name. Noontime cable network news provides a few tidbits of information embedded in a wasteland of catheter commercials and ads for emergency call-centers designed to pluck ailing senior citizens off their kitchen and bathroom floors when they have fallen -- apparently, the demographic to which I now belong. Interspersed among this depressing stuff is even more paranoid and upsetting material: elderly and minor Tv celebrities pitching silver and gold ("What's in your safe?), the withered Henry Winkler advocating the inscrutable "Reverse Mortgage" -- just yesteday didn't he play a juvenile delinquent called "the Fonz"? -- and interminable commercials featuring "our wounded warriors", limbless, disfigured, brain-damaged with shaved misshapen and battered skulls, and men in uniform angrily demanding donations on behalf of "these heroes." During this time of the day, half of each hour is devoted to commercials and so using the remote to flip between CNN,FOX, and MSNBC is a necessity -- generally, the stations stagger their ads so that, at least one of them will be broadcasting news, while the other two are promoting Viagra and anti-gas formulas along with the other commercial fodder that I have itemized to their constituencies. In the last month, I have been appalled to observe that Andrea Mitchell has been exiled to tete-a-tetes with David Gregory on Sunday's "Meet the Press" and replaced by some effete kid (Ronan somebody) who has the demeanor of a chipmunk on amphetamines. The comely Tamron Hall is gone as well -- what can possibly have happened to her? In her stead, there is another black woman but one who looks a little like Cicely Tyson in the "Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman", an allusion that, also, I am afraid dates me rather severely. In the past two weeks, all three networks have been broadcasting news about nothing other than the missing Malaysian airliner, Flight 370. What makes this comical and sinister, of course, is that there is literally no news to report on this subject. Accordingly, all three cable networks are presently spending more than 60% of their on-air time in proclaiming the news that there is no reliable news about the vanished aircraft. Each host on each network feigns concern, adopts a brooding tone, and, then, over images of a speck of something floating in the water, mournfully announces that there are no new developments in the case. This proclamation is often made to the accompaniment of a chorus of experts who speculate about the absence of any reliable news -- since each network has only a few aviation experts, mostly avuncular-looking old pilots, gents with cherubic smiles and jovial, ruddy complexions who seem almost completely brainless, CNN poaches commentators from FOX and FOX steals experts from MSNBC and the same people turn up every hour, their demeanors increasingly frayed by the requirement that they say absolutely nothing over and over again. Some of these guys seem to own only one or two presentable suits and they show up on-air in the same ties displayed the preceding day on another network and their irritation at the stupid questions to which they are required to provide non-answers is increasingly palpable, although one must acknowledge that this irritability runs a distant second to their willingness to repeat over and over again for the benefit of the camera that nothing is now known about why this plane vanished and that nothing may ever be reliable known about this tragedy and that everything to date is speculation, but, at least, they are earning honest wages by commenting on the fact that all reliable reports verify that there is nothing at all to report. As the search continues, completely fruitlessly day after day, the attention shifts from the lost pilots, one of them with a puzzling asymmetrical half-smile on his face (clearly, this could be the mark of dangerous terrorist) to such abstruse topics as Malaysian politics, doppler radar effects, military satellite technology, Indian Ocean meteorology, styles in Chinese mourning, all interspersed with geography lessons as to a part of the world unknown to almost all Americans watching these programs. The stations are locked in a perpetual feedback loop, each of them striving to report the latest absence of news more quickly than their rivals can report this rapidly developing absence of news and, as soon as one network innovates, advertising some speck of no news at all as a "breaking development", the other two networks slavishly follow suit, usually within a half-hour. For instance, this noon all three networks featured identical half-hour segments on the submarine technology necessary to locate the aircraft's pinging black box -- a somewhat premature report since no one knows where the aircraft is, let alone where in the vastness of a vast ocean it's black box might be located. There are two disheartening things about this grotesque spectacle: one is trivial, the other profound. It saddens me to see actual journalists, people like the formidable Christiane Amanpour or, even, the boyish Dennis the Menace David Gregory, forced to confront the camera and expound at length on the fact that they have nothing to report at all. The more profound and amazing aspect of this carnival of no-news is the fact that the ancient Bloodlands of the Ukraine are about to erupt into a shooting war likely to entangle all of Europe in a cataclysm that will, at least, have enormous and terrifying economic consequences, if not sequelae far more grave and deadly. Generally, three to five minutes per hour are devoted to the possible inception of World War Three in the Crimean peninsula. And closer to home, a rain-sodden slope in Snohomish County, Washington slid off the mountain, buried a small-town, a catastrophe that is both awful and remarkably picturesque, the great pale gouge of the landslide like a suppurating open wound in the tapestry of evergreens and mountain meadows, a thread of glacial blue river dammed by this battering ram of mud and flooding the land nearby. As I write these words, 175 people are missing in upstate Washington, probably about three hours from Seattle. FOX, CNN, and MSNBC have broadcast hundreds of hours of footage showing maps of Malaysia and vacant sea -- I haven't yet seen one minute of live-action footage from the scene of this spectacular and terrifying natural calamity near Seattle: the networks have been content to broadcast their no-news news about this home-grown disaster from what looks like an alleyway in Seattle, journalists standing on the street in a town that is not damaged in the slightest, within the odor of a Starbucks, a frieze of other journalists chatting on cell-phones but showing no apparent disposition to rush to the scene of this catastrophe. So far, the only images of the Oso, Washington disaster have been some still photographs of mud with shards of drywall sticking out of it. The crisis in Crimea is a real news story that no one wants to cover, presumably because no one knows how to think about this geo-political conundrum. The landslide in Snohomish County is a no-news story of the kind that the Cable news networks seem to favor and specialize in zealously reporting: the dead are still dead, the missing remain missing, the mountain still sits athwart the village with no sign of departing. But why isn't no-new from Washington accorded equal time with no-news from the South Indian Ocean?

Nebraska (second thoughts)

The great French director, Robert Bresson, made most of his films using non-professional actors. Bresson counseled his performers to show no emotion, to avoid any semblance of "acting", to treat the camera as if it were an intimidating enemy -- be impassive, disclose nothing. Whether this strategy is completely successful in Bresson's films is impossible for me to ascertain -- the movies are subtitled and the actors speak in French and I have no idea whether their intonations and prosody ring true to people who know that language. (If French critics can be believed, Bresson's direction of his non-actor actors is impeccable.) Many of the performers in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska", a film that I have earlier considered, are apparently non-professionals or semi-professional Midwestern thespians -- summer-stock and community theater actors. A second viewing of the film confirms something that I felt on first watching the movie in the theater -- the minor players and secondary characters, often, seem subtly inauthentic; there is something stilted about the way that these characters read their lines. Indeed, we often have the sense that the secondary characters are, in fact, reciting their parts. The dialogue, as written, is impeccably Midwestern, understated, and blunt. People from Nebraska (and I was born there) are plain-spoken and the women, in particular, have ranch-wife sensibility -- they don't mince words, can seem rude, swear frequently, and are startlingly candid about family history and sex. I thought this aspect of the film was truthful, but the performers often seemed slightly abashed -- again, this is an aspect of Midwestern self-effacement: many of the minor roles in the film are played by people who seem slightly embarrassed to be on-camera and there is a hesitancy and very slight over-inflection in their speech. The prosody isn't quite right. I wonder if these folks aren't over-directed and if it wouldn't be better for them to try to avoid acting at all. This defect in the film seems most notable in scenes in which people are supposed to express sentimental or friendly feelings or trying to be ingratiating. None of the minor characters have much difficulty expressing rancor, bitterness, or hostility. On second viewing, it also seems to me that Will Forte's character as the solicitous son is muted to the point of implausibility, although the actor's performance is effective and his mournful physiognomy is central to the picture's grim landscapes and funereal tone. Although these defects in the film are more evident, and, perhaps, irritating on second viewing -- this is a picture we would accept more warmly if it were spoken in German or Croatian and subtitled -- the movie is powerful and lingers in the imagination. In fact, the film is sufficiently disturbing that it triggers disquieting and morose two a.m. reflections, the sort of brooding that occupies the mind when you can't sleep and dawn is still four hours away. Bruce Dern's Woody Grant is plausible as a man whose whole life has been something like a steel trap. His ceaseless attempts to escape his family -- although motivated by the plot about the million dollar prize money offered in Lincoln -- arise from a lifetime of imprisonment interrupted periodically by panicked flight. Apparently, Grant's marriage was always unhappy and he had no interest in his boys or being a family man. We learn that he has become a drunk partly to elude his unhappy marriage, that he once had an affair "with a half-breed on the reservation" and planned to leave his wife, but that, apparently, the birth of Will Forte's character, "a beautiful baby...a little prince" as he is described, sealed his entrapment. Presumably, Grant returned to his family when his wife was pregnant with their second child and, then, made another attempt at escape -- this time leaving Hawthorne, Nebraska and his obligations in that place for Billings, Montana. Grant is a man who has spent his life trying to avoid destiny -- he fled his family farm, presumably, because he couldn't accept the tyranny of working the land for his father, went to Korea, married unhappily, tried and failed to escape that marriage, fled his home-town only to fail in another place. In the context of this biography, the low-key happy ending that Payne imposes on the story seems specious. Woody Grant's exodus across the barren high-plains has nothing to do with securing a legacy for his sons (as he says at one point) or acquiring a truck: it's like Tolstoy's desperate and hysterical flight from his wife in the last weeks of his life, a last-ditch effort to escape what he has always been.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Top of the Lake

Great mystery follows the model of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories. An event occurs that seems beyond the range of ordinary experience, an atrocity that can’t be assimilated to sociology or natural explanation -- the only possible explanation appears to be supernatural. And, then, the detective intervenes and the wonderful mythological calamity, the supernatural eruption into our world, is explained in terms of ordinary, if complex, depravity. As a result the genre is inherently disappointing -- the wonderful, impenetrable darkness that looms over the opening parts of the narrative, a fabulous night abounding in intimations of weird gods and monsters, is dispelled. We are left with mere evidence of human frailty and, often, the narrative turns inward -- the detective ends up seeming as monstrous and frail and wicked as the criminals that he encounters, and, ultimately brings to justice. On the moors, the footprint of a monstrous dog is seen, a murder occurs in a locked room, in “True Detective,” the corpse of a woman is decked with the horns of a stag, and in Jane Campion and Garth Davis’ “Top of the Lake,” an eleven-year-old girl is pregnant and declares that the father of her baby is “no one.” In the end of “Top of the Lake,” the mystery is solved; we learn the paternity of the child and come to understand why the teenage-mother thinks that there is no father for her infant. The most vicious of the bad guys, who turns out to be not as bad as we thought, is killed. Order is restored to the world and what is lost is found The outcome is intrinsically disappointing, all loose ends tied-up logically enough, but without accounting for the pall of the eerie, the downright weird, and the archetypal that hovers magically over most of the six-hours of the series. Set on the shores of a majestic fjord -- it’s really a great, inland loch -- amidst the pinnacles and glaciers of the South Island of New Zealand, “Top of the Lake” makes use of a bizarre and magnificent landscape as the stage for its Gothic fairytale. At one end of the lake, a commune of women live in storage containers, a colony of female refugees under the spell of a crone, enigmatically played by Holly Hunter. The women’s commune is called “Paradise” and it seems a quixotic attempt to imagine what a world and society would be like without men and their casual brutality and violence -- ultimately, Campion is honest enough to show that Paradise is pretty nightmarish, that the society of women is no less atrocious and retrograde than the society of men. At the opposite side of the lake, an alpha male and bully Matt lives in a compound that embodies a wholly masculine world -- the place is full of dogs, women who seem to occupy a status lower than the dogs, and half feral sons and brothers. This place, paranoid, and surrounded by surveillance cameras and armed to the teeth is the male equivalent of Paradise -- the other thought experiment that the series proposes: what would a wholly masculine world be like? In between these two extremes, which both seem oppressive and inhuman, totalitarian regimes based upon gender, there is a village where people go about their ordinary daily lives -- although since this is New Zealand everything seems a bit offbalance; the people are all tattooed elaborately and they seem to drink a great deal and fight with one another. (It’s a bit a like the world in Lee Tamahori’s “Once were Warriors”, another picture set in New Zealand and featuring Maori culture.) The bulk of the series concerns the search for the pregnant 11 year old -- the little girl has absconded to the wilderness -- rainforests and glacial canyons -- above the lake, and, like everyone else in New Zealand, she is armed and dangerous, a kind of indomitable woman warrior. A young woman from Sydney, Australia is visiting her dying mother who lives in the town and since she is a female detective and experienced in child sexual abuse cases she becomes involved in the search for the pregnant child -- a search that has a natural and suspenseful deadline based upon the baby’s due date. The young woman fled the village years before after being gang-raped and she spends much of the series either drunk or sulking. She falls in love with the son of the alpha male Matt whose daughter has gone missing and there are a variety of interesting romantic entanglements, barroom brawls, and menacing encounters. Obviously, there is some kind of larger skullduggery afoot and, after the fashion of a typical crime film, our heroine quickly finds herself in deep, and dark, waters. The action plays out against gender differences that are starkly and, I think, honestly dramatized. In New Zealand, the men and women often seem to be members of different species, scarcely able to communicate except by violence and rape. The show is lyrically filmed and takes great advantage of the natural beauty of the environs and the clash between male and female visions of nature and reality is effectively portrayed. In one scene, Tui, the pregnant child, gives birth behind a kind of wet stump, a bird impassively watching her; a child falls off a mountain and cascades thousands of feet to his death and, then, when his body is brought back across the lake in a boat, the dead boy’s mother runs hip-deep in the lake to pull the boy from the boat and cradle his corpse, even though the dead body is almost as large as she is. When Tui shoots down her assailants, she hisses, a feral sound, like a cat or a goose. The seven episodes have their dull passages and, periodically, the narrative gets confusing and doesn’t make much sense -- there are too many red herrings and some extraneous characters. For five episodes, no one can find Tui and she seems to be perfectly concealed in the outback. For the last two episodes, everyone seems to know where she is and, yet, no one really comes to her aid except a half-crazy old man whose mother was a midwife and who is wholly ineffectual in assisting her. The radical sex-segregated communes that organize the action and provide the schematic structure for the story are revealed to embody their opposites: Holly Hunter’s guru is a sibyl who speaks in a gruff no-nonsense voice and seems more decisive and misogynistic than most of the men in the show: she characterizes her followers as “crazy bitches” and leaves them, ostensibly to found another commune in Iceland. Matt, the leader of the male commune, is obsessed with his mother and flagellates himself on her grave and, in some ways, seems more feminine than many of the rather hard-bitten, practical and desperate female characters. Although the show’s ending brings us to a conclusion that dispels many of the program’s beautiful mysteries, an ending that is a bit too prosaic for me and too logical, this is a crime show that plays fair -- it follows its premises to their logical conclusions, and, unlike “Twin Peaks”, for instance, actually resolves most of the issues that are posed by the narrative. It’s an excellent crime film and worth the investment of six hours. (The 2013 series written by Jane Campion with Gerard Lee is available on Netflix.)

The Prestige

Magic explained is always inherently disappointing. Beautiful, profound “effects” invariably involve confederates in the audience, mechanical apparatus, trapdoors, smoke and mirrors and other sordid technology. “The Prestige” is a 2006 film directed (and written) by Christopher Nolan involving a duel to the death between two magicians. To say that the film is confusing is an understatement. The adversary magicians are played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale and, in their tophats and tails, they seem fraternal, indeed, almost doubles of one another, particularly since both tend to speak in hushed portentous whispers, move the same way, and have similarly pretty assistants and wives -- indeed, for a time, the two men share a mistress, the comely and nubile Scarlett Johansson. It is a debilitating chore for the viewer to keep the two sinister-looking blokes separate in your mind, particularly since they often go about in disguise, and generally act the same way and have identical motivations (to thwart one another) and this competition involves lurking in the audience, getting selected to participate on-stage in a trick and, then, confounding that illusion to calamitous, indeed, mutilating results -- one magicians loses a bunch of fingers and the other has his leg broken so badly that he hobbles about for the balance of the movie. (The film has a disturbing subtext involving self-mutilation -- in this respect the movie is reminiscent of Tod Browning’s macabre thrillers starring Lon Chaney, silent films that often featured similarly murderous show-business rivals.) The two adversaries perform tit-for-tat betrayals, steal one another’s stunts, and, indeed, each other's women and, finally, compete for a trick that seems to involve teleportation. This latter trick turns out to be the shoal on which the film founders. It turns out that Nikolai Tesla, the wizard of electricity, has figured out a way to actually teleport objects, or duplicate them, or, perhaps, to use modern computer diction, to print them in an elaborate, arc-emitting Bride of Frankenstein 3-D printer device. At this stage, the film becomes merely silly and the proliferation of confusing doubles reaches a saturation point. Apparently, the men have duplicated themselves, innumerable times in the case of one of the magicians, and things go completely awry. It’s as if the filmmaker decided that artifice and illusion is insufficient and that actual magic -- teleportation or electrical cloning -- is necessary to drive the plot and make the narrative, which has long since ceased to make any sense, come out right in the end. The film is handsome enough and the first half of the film, most of which involves interesting and elaborate misdirections and stage machinery is amusing enough in a hokey sort of way. The second half of the movie, more dire and involving the sepulchral presence of David Bowie, imitating the Yugoslavian genius, Tesla, is foolish -- once we figure out that anything is allowed and that the movie will, in fact, rely on real magic and not illusion, we rapidly lose interest. The acting is monotonous -- the rival magicians sulk and rage at one another but don’t show much in the way of genuine or unique character. Michael Caine is wasted in a role that is largely expository and a number of fine British character actors do yeoman-work. The sets are impressive and the film has a picturesque gas-lit aura, although the murky London streets and the misty mountains and forests of Colorado where Tesla is working are familiar to us from other movies, most particularly the Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr. The film is reasonably engaging, but told in a complicated flash-back and flash-forward structure that really doesn’t do anything for the viewer but add to the confusion. This is an ambitious picture that doesn’t ever quite work.

Friday, March 21, 2014


In Lars von Trier's 2003 film, Dogville is a hamlet located in the Colorado mountains, a desolate place perched at the end of a road that climbs a canyon above Georgetown. There is an abandoned mine and collapsing mill and a scatter of rustic, decaying cabins where a half-dozen families live among the ruins of the ghost-town. The costumes in Lars von Trier’s parable suggest that the film takes place around the era of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the characters embedded in the wreckage of the town seem to be dreamers, eccentrics, half-mad hermits: an elderly doctor suffers from hypochondria; an tramp trudges up and down the mountain harvesting fruit and gathering wood; a Black woman cares for her crippled daughter; the tramp's wife is raising seven children in a shack and trying to educate them; there is a small store that sells ceramic figurines operated (surprisingly) by Lauren Bacall, a blind man who conceals his blindness from the villagers who, nonetheless, know that he is blind and the doctor’s idealistic son, a handsome young man, who dreams about writing a novel and presents lectures of an improving and optimistic tenor on the subject of something called “moral rearmament.” The town is presented as a diagram, some rectangles painted on the studio floor and labeled with the names of houses that are represented by a window here and there or a fragment of a moldering façade. A church steeple is suspended overhead, apparently cradled by some wires and it serves as a kind of sundial, marking the hours as time progresses by the course of its shadow angling across the barren studio terrace where the action takes place. There are some pieces of disheveled furniture sitting within the markings on the floor signifying the walls and corners of the structures and a heap of plastic stones that is a metonym for a mountain peak; some wooden scaffolding is defined as a mine-shaft and, at the edge of the town, there is a radiant tree that seems to be lit from within, a gleaming apparition that suggests the natural world surrounding the forgotten village. Von Trier presents his allegory through a combination of florid narration, something like excerpts from an overly fastidious and desiccated 19th century novel and a series of tableaux that play out in herky-jerky close-up, a hand-held camera hopping from figure to figure, the images randomly edited and stuttering with pointless time-cuts -- the hair-shirt mendicant technique of the Dogma movement that von Trier helped to found. Night is represented by a black void surrounding the shards and ragged debris signifying the village; during the day, the cubist bits of wall and window and the scatter of furniture is surrounded by a glacial white emptiness. Cumulatively, the effect is like a version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” combined with the more austere, and acerbic aspects of Beckett and Friedrich Duerrenmatt -- indeed, the plot, such as it is, of “Dogville” is similar to “The Visit” ("Der Besuch der alten Dame"), the Swiss playwright’s nasty account of a town’s descent into cruelty and madness when a wealthy stranger comes to town. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a woman on the lam from some gangsters who appear suddenly in town in a long black Cadillac like something from “Public Enemy.” The doctor’s son, who is planning his lecture on “moral rearmament,” conceals the girl in the mine and, while speaking to the assembled and grumpy townspeople, decides to illustrate his uplifting lecture by staging an example of human benevolence. He presents the frightened girl to the townspeople and suggests that they shelter her from the gangsters and, in fact, make her a member of their community. The townsfolk are suspicious but they agree to allow the woman to remain in their midst if she will visit each of them in turn and spend her days performing simple tasks for them. This arrangement proves to be congenial and the girl is accepted into the community, paid well, and falls in love with the doctor’s son. But, then, the police appear and accuse the girl, who the townspeople hide once more in the abandoned mine, of committing bank robberies in California -- a reward is placed her head. Of course, the townsfolk know that the girl could not possibly have committed these crimes -- she has been with them during the past several months, but they are worried and a seed of doubt is placed in their minds. The doctor’s son suggest that the refugee can earn the continued trust of the townspeople by working harder for them and for less pay and so the scene is set for Lars von Trier to turn aside from the bucolic, rather dull idyll that comprises the first half of the film to the kind of action that he favors -- scenes of degradation, rape, and humiliation as the town’s people first begin to exploit the girl and, then, abuse her savagely. Von Trier is famous for cruelty -- he is like Fassbinder, a connoisseur of torture and sadism, and the film shifts into high gear as the villagers collude in persecuting the helpless woman. Her plight puts her at their mercy and von Trier shows us that powerlessness invites sadism. Von Trier’s lurid dramaturgy and his peculiarly stilted dialogue -- at times “Dogville’s” characters rant in the hushed, rabid tones that you hear in an Ed Wood movie -- always reaches a point where the audience simply can not accept what is being shown on the screen. The viewer experiences a very real rage directed at the film. You want to howl with indignation at the gratuitous cruelty, the unnatural and pretentious diction, the abstract mise-en-scene, and, indeed, von Trier’s unashamed deployment of obsessive imagery that appears in his other films. The exercise seems ridiculously self-indulgent…but, here is the mysterious aspect of this director’s filmmaking: notwithstanding your intellectual conviction that what you are seeing is tawdry, absurdly melodramatic, and tediously didactic, somehow his films engage your emotions; you’re ashamed of your emotional reaction to this material. You walk out of the experience somehow both humiliated and inspired. There is no other director in the world who can achieve these kinds of effects and, against all criticism, you find yourself consenting to von Trier’s imagery and, as you argue with his ideas, you must acknowledge that very few movies induce this sort of reaction in you -- that is the desire to refute everything that you have been shown and told. Although it is abhorrent and grandiose in a particularly lifeless and Teutonic way, you find yourself haunted by the scenes in his films. In “Dogville,” Nicole Kidman’s “Grace” is manacled to a heavy piece of metal, a steel fetter around her throat welded to a bell that rings as she walks. (The scenes of Kidman dragging the chain and weight across the sound-stage are similar to the more graphic and horrifying images in “Antichrist” in which Willem Defoe has his ankles drilled through to pinion his feet to a log.) The men in the town systematically rape her -- the narrator (John Hurt) assuring us that it “was no more disgraceful than a hillbilly caught having carnal knowledge of his cow, embarrassing to be sure, but not really criminal." The children in Dogville salute each rape by ringing the bell in the steeple -- a detail that echoes the final scene in “Breaking the Waves” in which the heroine is raped to death while, high overhead, massive celestial bells toll. Everyone assures Grace that she is being tortured for her own good. Even her boyfriend, Tom, the young writer who invited her to stay in the town is appalled by her -- her gentleness and the aura of martyrdom that accompanies her has effaced his love for her. He telephones the gangsters who were threatening to kill her and summons them back to the town so that they can take her away. The gangsters are led by James Caan, who seems confused by the long dialogue scene that he has with Nicole Kidman -- he turns out to be her father and the film slips into a bizarre parody of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”. Caan lectures Kidman and says that she is too arrogant, always holding people to her impossible standard of virtue and that she should treat the villagers as fellow human beings, that is, as moral agents culpable for their actions. After some hesitation, she agrees to this proposition -- the narrator tells us that the sun has come out and she sees the squalor of Dogville for what it is: a horrible, inhuman place. The gangsters torture and kill everyone in the hamlet, burn down the buildings, and Grace executes Tom with her own hands. Of course, the audience feels a savage glee at the comeuppance visited upon the self-righteous and hypocritical townspeople. But it’s humiliating to be manipulated into this state of blood lust and our own vicarious thrill at seeing the villagers murdered -- a scene that has an ugly emotional charge and that is filmed like a squad of SS men liquidating a Polish village -- is profoundly disquieting. A dog’s silhouette chalked on the floor of the sound-stage suddenly becomes a real animal and the beast growls and lunges against his chains. Von Trier ends the picture with a gratuitous provocation -- David Bowie’s jaunty tune “Young Americans” played over a montage of starving children and haggard Okies, images of the Depression, and, then, a picture of Dick Nixon and half-a-hundred still photos of corpses in the ghetto, drug addicts expiring on the sidewalk, victims of rapes and beatings staring impassively into the lenses of the cameras. (Roger Ebert famously condemned "Dogville" as anti-American -- in fact, it is anti-human.) The fate of goodness and Christian virtue in the world seems to be victimization that turns into savagery that is the exact opposite of that virtue. Is this fair? Is this truthful? And, more problematically, if this is truthful is this a story that we need to be told at the dawn of a new millennium?

Thursday, March 13, 2014


In its first five minutes, everything seems wrong with the 1943 UFA extravaganza, “Muenchhausen”. The scene is an ornate palace where a formal ball is underway -- noblemen in wigs mince about and elegant women in colossal gowns swivel and tilt across the dance-floor like weirdly immobile automatons. The images are overlit -- some candles gutter in the foreground but they don’t seem to impart any light to the sequence, a curious defect, it seems, in a film from a studio that once was famous for using light as a vibrant living presence to shape and order space. The costumes are unconvincing and the leading man, Hans Albers with a half-demonic glint in his eye, seems far too old and mediocre and stolid for the part of the roguish hero. A Moorish servant in embarrassing black face sulks in the background. Nothing is convincing and the imagery seems strangely inauthentic and stilted -- of course, the viewer avid to find clues of Nazism in this film, Hitler’s attempt at a Teutonic “Wizard of Oz”, will interpret these defects as evidence of the pallid and clumsy philistinism of Fascist cinema. But, suddenly, one of the half-embalmed movie stars in the film, a starlet corseted and stiff, asks Muenchhauser to turn on a light and there is an insert of a hand on a modern electrical switch and we discover that this lackluster ball with its inauthentic minuets is, in fact, a costume party at a rich man’s house, that the Moor in blackface is one of the revelers, that the mincing fop is, perhaps, a Weimar-era homosexual, and that, in fact, we have been tricked, and well-tricked, and that the film will be far more complex and difficult to interpret than we might have expected. Fleeing her fiancée, the woman kisses Muenchhausen and drives away in a fast-looking sports car. Shot in Agfacolor and designed to within an inch of its life, “Muenchhausen” is a curious artifact -- it’s dull and talky at times, and cold as ice, but the picture has tricks up its sleeve and is filled with vivid and grotesque, if often, cruel inventiveness. The strangely middle-aged Muenchhausen, now in modern dress, sits in his garden with the young woman, the refugee from the party who tried to seduce him and her grimacing, fiancée, the depraved-looking Weimar homosexual. The set is dense and claustrophobic with a kind of jellied Maxfield Parrish color -- shallow focus and pastels of indeterminate hue, like withering flowers, pushing the characters close to the picture-plane. Close-ups are sudden, intense, obscurely motivated and have some of the force of an August Sander photograph -- the lens is too tight to the face and the colors aren’t exactly right: the pale lustrous complexions of the many beautiful women in the film have a leaden, arsenic-tinted appearance, the females seem corpse-like and the décor frequently has a strange burnished glint; the colors are petrified, like Watteau and Fragonard with all the warmth removed. In his humid, shadowy garden, a set a little like one of Hans-Juergen Syberberg’s inventions in films like “Ludwig” and “Hitler,” Muenchhausen proceeds to tell the story of his ancestor, the famous Baron Muenchhausen who was a contemporary, it seems, of Catherine the Great and, perhaps, the youthful Kant. Cagiolstro, a sinister magician, tempts the hero to exercise his power to capture Poland -- how did contemporary German audiences view a scene like this? -- but the hero, who is an adventurer and duelist and lover, is more interested in pursuing women than power. The scene is shot in huge, glistening and statuesque close-ups that are sinister and dream-like. Muenchhausen departs for St. Petersberg, portrayed as a wonderland midway between early Kandinsky and Chagall, all onion domes and Cossacks and wild men in gilded cages. He has an affair with Catherine the Great and fights a strange “cuckoo” duel -- a gunfight in a pitchblack room in which each man shoots when the other says “cuckoo”, the dark screen suddenly flashing tableaux-like images at us that are gone before we can interpret them, scenes glimpsed by the light of the flashing guns. A rifle can shoot a hundred miles and some garments bit by a rabid dog become rabid themselves, raging in an armoire until they are exposed and, then, shot dead, the maddened shirts and pants suddenly inert and fluttering to the ground like dead butterflies. Cagliostro has a painting of a beautiful woman that comes to life and winks at the hero. As the film progresses, the plot becomes increasingly extravagant: Muenchhausen rides a cannonball into a seraglio; the camera leers at naked harem girls and exotic tortures take place barely off-screen. He rescues a glacially indifferent Italian princess -- the women are all beautiful, ice-cold mannequins -- and visits Venice with her. An elaborate documentary style scene of a water-borne festival on the Grand Canal follows - I think the film shows the festival in which Venice marries the waters, the Sensa festival depicted in images that are a hybrid of Canaletto and Callot -- and, then, Muenchhausen departs skyward, riding in a golden tear-drop-shaped balloon up to the moon, a blue grotto pockmarked with craters that sputter with geysters. Cellos and violins hang from weird lunar trees and time moves at a vastly accelerated rate, seasons pass in the course of an afternoon and cherries on the trees ripen and wither in minutes. Muenchhausen's servant dies of old age and the baron has a peculiar colloquy with the severed head of a woman set atop stalks of asparagas-like lunar vegetation. The theme of the film is now revealed to have something to do with time -- perhaps, this material is self-reflective, a meditation on how film compresses or elongates time, or, even more, trivially, an essay on special effects made by slowing or speeding-up time or, by time-cuts, eliminating it entirely. We have seen time imagined as a foul-looking, crazed, and febrile slave, counting the seconds with a pendulum in the sultan's court -- the most memorable and alarming vision in the film. The moon with its deadly accelerated time, a kind of cursed version of Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", symbolizes the morbid, dreadful empire of time, an empire that Muenchhausen seems to have escaped. At the film's denouement, we have returned to the modern rococo palace -- it is sunset and the pastel darkness, like something from Redon, dooms all the vistas. Inexplicably, and without much, motivation, "through (his) own voluntary act," a kind of "triumph of the will", Muenchhausen, who now seems like an avid-eyed vampire, renounces his immortality chosing to die with the woman he loves while the Weimar homosexual and his ghastly-pale beloved flee into the browns and golds of the Nazi night. The peculiarities of this film, which is episodic, bizarre, and, by Hollywood standards, not very good, may require vast amounts of explication, or, perhaps, none at all -- it is certainly peculiar and effectively made but one wonders what we would make of the picture if it were not a product of Nazi Germany. (And it is is, indeed, curious that the be-monocled Baron Muenchhausen looks surprising like Fritz Lang as he appeared in Hollywood and, indeed, as he looks in Godard's "Contempt". In some respects, the film can be read as Goebbels' revenge and lament for the loss of Weimar Germany's master film magician, Fritz Lang.)

The Dream of Valentino

Composed and premiered in 1994, Dominick Argento’s “The Dream of Valentino” was originally condemned as too long. For this Minnesota Opera Company revival, Argento, who is now 86, cut forty minutes from his score and there are some obvious elisions in the libretto -- Valentino’s first marriage (to an ambitious lesbian) dissolves as soon as it has happened and, in the very next scene, he is married again to another ambitious lesbian, although one that is older, and a bit warmer, than the first. Nonetheless, at less than two hours in length, the show still seems too long. Charles Nolte’s libretto is wholly lacking in dramatic conflict, I think, by design: the story is about a completely passive man, the beautiful Valentino, an Italian immigrant with “bedroom eyes,” who is said to be “catnip to women” and who is completely at the mercy of others throughout the opera. Some inadequately developed backstory establishes that Valentino is a momma’s boy, enamoured with his fierce “stage mother” who has groomed him to be a “lion of the Roman stage.” After his mother dies and he ships out to New York, he falls prey to his first wife, a lesbian in the fading Nazimova’s “knitting society,” apparently a coterie of homosexual women. At the same time, a film mogul schemes to make money off the handsome young actor, and, also, perhaps, seeks to ruin him motivated by resentment and jealousy -- the mogul’s wife has confessed to the film producer that she prefers the image of the beautiful young man to her flesh-and-blood husband. A Broadway playwright, another woman avid to exploit Valentino, and secretly in love with him, tries to guide his career and clashes with the Mogul -- the only real drama in the play and a conflict that is curiously undeveloped. The opera chronicles Valentino’s marital problems (he keeps marrying lesbians) -- the film hints that he is gay himself -- and, then, the hero dies of appendicitis. Along the way, the Mogul sings of contract litigation (he intends to hold Valentino to his agreement) and we get an entire aria built around the word “injunction.” In the final scene, the Broadway playwright and the Mogul argue over the significance of Valentino’s career -- a pointless argument since it is pretty apparent that Valentino was a hollow man, a mere receptacle for the fantasies of others and that his career had no real significance of any kind. As Bertolucci, a great artist, demonstrated inadvertently in “The Last Emperor”, it is impossible, or, at least, supremely difficult to make an engaging film about a completely passive character -- in Bertolucci’s film, the last emperor of China is a plaything of historical forces and, although the picture has a satisfying Marxist resonance (history after all is the supreme dramaturge), the movie is static, overly pretty, and, ultimately tedious. “The Dream of Valentino” succumbs to the same problems. Argento can’t decide if Valentino is “the last gentleman,” a noble figure trapped in the tawdry spectacle and publicity of Hollywood -- this was H. L. Mencken’s famous interpretation of the movie star -- or whether he is merely a conflicted homosexual, ensnared by the closet in which he is immured and destroyed by his own sexual incapacity and cowardice. The opera suggests both interpretations and this should could be construed as reflecting Argento and Nolte’s subtlety and sophistication -- in fact, I think the ambivalence was probably carefully designed into the libretto -- but it’s not executed as a profound or interesting ambiguity, but rather as indecisive confusion. Two scenes, at the beginning and end of the opera respectively, demonstrate what’s wrong with the enterprise. Early in the opera, the doyenne of Broadway sings an aria about Valentino forsaking New York for the bright lights and fame of Hollywood -- the woman sings intensely and she gestures histrionically but during the entire scene, Valentino is asleep in a chair. She sings the aria over him as he slumbers. At the end of the opera, the Broadway writer and the mogul sing competing arias about Valentino’s life and the meaning of his death -- during this scene, climactic to the opera, Valentino is dead, lying in his casket. Accordingly, the hero of the opera is missing in action in each of the show’s major scenes. Argento writes effective parodies -- there’s a good orchestral tango in the opening scene and some Mozart-like minuets scoring a scene involving a misguided attempt to star Valentino is a period drama set just before the French Revolution. But the vocal lines are ugly and needlessly complicated -- Argento is fond of unmotivated and screeching octave jumps in the middle of his declamatory passages and there is nothing approaching a fine or lyrical “number” in the opera. The subject matter is probably intractable. In one of the central scenes, Valentino agonizes over whether his role as rococo fop reflects his true (gay) self or is merely another part that he must play at the behest of predatory Hollywood. The opera’s treatment of homosexuality seems oddly conservative and retrograde today and Valentino’s anguish at being required to play the part of an effete dandy seems to be much ado about nothing. I saw the opera at the Ordway on March 9, 2014. The show was handsomely designed, had nice costumes, and there was one immensely effective moment -- it had nothing to do with singing -- when a mob bursts through a plate-glass window to adore the dead Valentino. Professor Argento, looking fit and spry, was present in the audience and took a bow at the curtain call.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Wind Rises

The great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, directed this animated feature in 2013 and it is his valedictory work -- Miyazaki has said that he is retiring from films and that this will be his last movie. The movie illustrates in unmistakable form the fact that the Japanese, or, at least, Japanese artists of Miyazaki's age, remain unable to come to terms with World War Two. A sad and extraordinarily gentle work, the cartoon simply comes to an end, one that seems profoundly unsatisfying, when the war appropriates the aeronautical designer Jiro's plans for graceful, feather-light aircraft to military fighter production. Miyazaki doesn't know what to make of this and so he fills the screen with images of war-planes like delicate origami constructions -- they are shown to be derived from the hero's study of fishbones -- the same kind of elegantly folded and graceful bird forms, cranes, that the Japanese put afloat in the river at Hiroshima each year on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city. We learn that of all the war planes built to Jiro's plan, none returned. Giant clouds livid with fire fill the screen and, then, there is a final elegaic sequence in which Jiro dreams that he has arisen from a field strewn with smashed fragments of his planes; in his vision, he climbs a hill away from the brutal wreckage of the war, meets his muse, the Italian plane designer, Caproni, and, then, sees his wife who had died of tuberculosis -- and, suddenly, the screen goes black. The audience is puzzled. The whole film has been building toward a conflict, Jiro's appalled recognition that the aircraft that he created as things of pure and abstract beauty have been defiled, used to rain fire and death from the sky on other human beings. But, the film averts its eyes and, instead, ends abruptly, in an unsatisfying fantasy. This is not to say that the war is absent from the film -- in fact, the war is portrayed with unstinting emotional power, but in a sequence that is, ostensibly, about the great Edo earthquake. This is a characteristic strategy of Japanese films -- displacement. Godzilla, a movie featuring a fire-breathing nuclear-spawned city-destroying lizard, of course, is really about Hiroshima and the incendiary fire-bombing of Tokyo; the war is implied but the imagery of destruction is displaced away from its actual context (the war) and fantasized into imagery about a giant reptilian monster. (The apocalyptic fantasies of Neo-Tokyo wracked by catastrophe in the anime "Ikiru" have a similar evasive effect -- we see a city destroyed, and, in fact, repeatedly destroyed, but this is shown as taking place in future.) The destruction wrought by the aircraft, accordingly, is invoked allusively in the powerful, and grandiose (and disturbing) imagery of the great earthquake and fire. By evading the dramatic conflict that drives the entire film, Miyazaki makes the movie seem fundamentally pointless, an exercise in pure aestheticism -- it is as if the movie is as blinkered and short-sighted as its somewhat dim-witted, if earnest and brave hero. Nonetheless, any film animated by Miyazaki and his Ghibli Studios is worth seeing and this movie is fantastically beautiful if, perhaps, twenty minutes too long. The opening half-hour, comprised mostly of glorious fantasies of peaceful aviation, is extraordinarily moving and beautiful (but the pay-off for these episodes -- the depiction of planes used for warfare-- isn't provided and so this sequence retrospectively ends up seeming rather remote and disconnected from the real substantive issues that the film addresses. (The dream sequences, which occur frequently in the film, are its highlights -- but this, in turn, emphasizes Miyazaki's evasion of real-life conflict in favor of visionary dream.) The movie luxuriates in countless details that are fantastically beautiful: the halo of insects around a light in the evening, wind stirring water, subtle light effects, clouds lit, as from within, and radiant as stained glass, the texture of an ancient beam supporting a house. There is a sex-scene (implied) in which a woman lies underneath a startlingly red kimono hanging like a flayed and crucified angel over the lovers' futon -- when Jiro's bride exposes her chest, decorously covered in a white garment, the movie has a startling erotic charge. One sequence in which a woman is praying at a sacred spring in a forest and, then, after encountering her lover, is caught in a sudden rainstorm is one of the most rapturous and gorgeous sequences of pictures in film history -- it is like the great imagery of rain puckering the surface of the French river at the end of Renoir's "A Day in the Country". The wind rises and the water in the spring becomes opaque and we see the storm darken the landscape and pelt a little Shinto shrine -- this all has a visionary clarity that is also stylized and the falling rain is arrayed in powerfully abstract patterns. There is a wondeful frieze-like image, repeated in the film, of oxen hauling planes to an airstrip where they will be tested and the quotidian details of aeronautical engineering are carefully shown, Brancusi-like images of graceful curves and hyperbola in flight. The movie is generous and cosmopolitan -- in one sequence, we hear Schubert's "Winterreise" sung from within a tenement house while streetfighting, portrayed expressionistically by shadow figures, convulses the streets of Dessau. A kind German cites Mann's "The Magic Mountain" and there is an extraordinary image of people dying from tuberculosis wrapped in cocoons on the terrace of a sanitarium while a snowstorm, filmed aerially, fills the air with falling flakes. The movie is crammed with depictions of the wind, many of them very beautiful. But this all has a sinister edge: when we see the sky fill with crane-shaped origami of fighter planes, we recall that the wind ("kaze") was central to the imagery of the Japanese war effort -- "Kamikaze," that is, "divine wind."

Matisse -- works from the Cone Collection

Henri Matisse was, apparently, fantastically prodigal with his artistic talent. Video images displayed in this exhibit at the Minnesota Institute of Art show him knocking-off a pretty, if nondescript, painting of a woman against a floral background in what seems to be about five minutes. He must have created tens of thousands of artworks of various kinds and forty or so of them were sold to Cone sisters, two Baltimore socialites. These works, which include sketches, lithographs, fifteen or so paintings, and a number of Rodin-influenced and rather knobby bronzes, form the nucleus of the MIA show -- the last room contains some large books that Matisse illustrated late in his career and a few examples of his art made by the technique of cutting colored paper and, then, collaging these to form bold, and colorful, patterns. I recognized several objects in the last room as being favorites from the Museum's permanent collection and this art is significantly different in its character and rather impudent, improvised tone than the other works in the show. In general, Matisse almost always disappoints me and this show was underwhelming. Matisse endured a spiritual crisis around the time of World War I and created a number of epic-sized and astounding paintings during that decade -- these pictures are profound, mysterious, and troubling: images of huge blue doors and voids that suggest the encroachment of death or nothingness on his imaginationn. But the paintings in this show don't include any examples of these masterpieces. To put it bluntly, Matisse couldn't really draw -- his draftsmanship is always very questionable and there are a number of sketches and lithographs in the show that are so poorly drawn as to be grotesque. Sometimes, Matisse happens on a jazzy, abbreviated line that reads as a boldly sketchy, if expressive, outline of a face or form. But, in most instances, his drawings are hideous -- limp stringy hands with fingers stretched out like taffy, misshapen limbs that bulge where they should curve and that seem not only boneless, but also devoid of any muscle texture. He gets proportions all wrong -- although one set of variations on the image of a lying nude, shows that he labored assiduously to convert the defects in his draftsmanship into expressive distortions of form; the effect is successful in some of his paintings, the distorted hips and shoulders and the ugly starfish-shaped hands and feet do have an expressionist authority, but the display of variants demonstrates that Matisse is opportunistically modifying an image that he never did draw with any kind of authority or fidelity to life. One nude is so absurdly ugly as to be inadvertently humorous -- this is called "Seated Nude, Left Arm on Head," an image of a woman who seems to have a little Hitler moustache and is drawn with her breasts comically pointed in two different directions; she has elongated limbs and forearms that make her look like Gumby in the old animated films featuring that pliable hero. In his best work, Matisse flattens his figures into the decor so that they become just another element of the Moorish architecture and arabesque-scrolls in the tapestries against which they are displayed. There is one great canvas in the show: "Interior, flowers and parakeets" made in 1924 -- that picture displays Matisse's genius with color and pattern and the image is astoundingly subtle and dense with variations of yellow and green, a florid interior that manages to be both exuberant and claustrophobic at the same time: the little parakeets, one of which has its beak open to sing, seem to be trapped inside the lush, overwhelming decor. There are no human figures and so Matisse's draftsmanship problems don't detract (or distract) from the painting's excellence. Another paintings, "The Yellow Dress" (1929 - 1931) also has great authority and clearly represents an image over which Matisse labored long and hard -- the painting has a mask-like face similar to the kind of crystalline cheeks and eyes and brow that you see in many paintings by Cezanne, but the colors of the paint are extraordinarily subtle and indescribable -- tints and hues for which I have no name. Matisse turns everything into wallpaper, but in some of this better paintings, the wallpaper is a decoration of genius. Unfortunately, most of the paintings in the show are uninteresting, forgeries that Matisse produced himself, imitating better and more innovative canvases that he didn't sell to the Cone sisters.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Elena is probably about 55. She is a buxom, handsome woman who lives with an older man, Vladimir. Vladimir is about twenty years older than her, depressed and ailing and very wealthy. The couple resides in an elegant spacious, condominium with walls of glass and dignified mostly empty rooms. Vladimir has been married to Elena for about two years, although the two have been a couple for a decade. Vladimir has a daughter from whom he is estranged -- the girl is strangely nihilistic, vacant, and remote. Elena has a middle-aged son, Sergei, the apple of her eye, although he seems to be feckless, unemployed, and probably alcoholic. Sergei lives in a ratty, squalid tenement in the shadow of three huge cooling towers looming over a nuclear reactor in a tract of deserted vacant land. He has two children -- they are Elena’s grandchildren -- a baby, and a ne’er-do-well son, Sasha. A bribe is required, it seems, to extricate Sasha from military service and procure his enrollment at the University. Elena pleads with Vladimir, begging him for the money to arrange for Sasha’s matriculation, but her husband is stingy -- he feels some kind of loyalty to his own daughter and is reluctant to provide the cash that Elena needs to help her grandson. Vladimir coerces Elena into sex and, in fact, compensates her by saying that he will provide the funds to Sasha. But, then, while swimming at the gym, he has a heart attack, almost dies, and decides that the bulk of his estate must be paid to his daughter. Returning home, weak and convalescent, Vladimir sends for a lawyer to draft his will, planning to bequeath the majority of his money to his daughter and limiting Elena’s participation in the estate to an annuity. Elena, who has worked all her life as a nurse, kills Vladimir with an overdose of medication, although she tells the medical examiner that the old man died while they were having sex. She, then, loots the dead man’s safe and takes the money to her son, thereby assuring that Sasha will not be conscripted and can attend the university. While the family is celebrating in Sergei’s miserable apartment, the lights go out. Sasha leaves the , and, with a gang of juvenile delinquents, gets into a brawl in the brush and wasteland at the foot of the cooling towers -- he’s almost killed, but the director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, isn’t interested in facile irony. (He’s too austgere and cerebral for effects of that kind.) The kid recovers and we learn that Sergei’s down-trodden wife is pregnant with Elena’s third grandson. The family moves into Vladimir’s apartment and we see the baby lying in the bed formerly occupied by the old man who Elena has murdered. The sun sets and the world seems cold and grey. Zvyaginsev surprised filmgoers with his premiere movie, “The Return”, a strange, haunting allegory about a father and his children and their trip to a remote island in an abandoned area of Russia. As a director, Zvyagintsev’s theme seems to be fathers and their children -- in “Elena”, Vladimir is despised by his daughter, although she also seems to love him in a perverse sort of way, and, although, he tries to secure a legacy for the young woman, he is thwarted by Elena. Elena clearly loves Vladimir, acts like a dutiful wife, and has lit a candle in a church before an icon for his recovery, but she is implacable and determined -- nothing will stand in the way of her feral impulse to assist her grandchild even though both her son and Sasha are completely unworthy of her devotion. There isn’t a lot to “Elena,” although the film is exquisitely shot and boasts a gorgeous score by Philip Glass (we also hear the growling voice of very late Bob Dylan on Vladimir’s car radio.) Like “The Return,” “Elena” feels like some kind of allegory, although the exact correlation between the characters, who seem largely symbolic, and the themes that they embody is unclear to me. In an extra on the DVD, Zvyagintsev comments on the film, but like Tarkovsky, his ideas seem dauntingly abstract and he is so solemn and Slavic and impenetrably moral that it is impossible to understand what he is saying. The film seems to function on the contrast between the plutocrat, Vladimir’s sterile wealth and the squalid, if lively, apartment where the unemployed Sergei sits around drinking and bullying his kids and pregnant wife -- Sergei’s kind of folks, Zvyaginsev suggests will inherit the earth, although they are something like the cockroaches that will survive the apocalypse that dooms humanity to extinction. The movie contains much symbolic imagery -- a white horse and rider killed at a railroad crossing, sinister crows cawing to one another in the icy dawn, the power outage, and those looming, menacing cooling towers at the nuclear power plant. It’s an intelligent, well-wrought film with carefully measured, if highly muted, performances, the very epitome of a European art film of the most rarefied kind -- long takes and intentionally uncommunicative images (and great tracts of silence) -- and, although reasonably engrossing, the movie doesn’t amount to much.