When you reach a certain age, artists you grew up with, whom as a critic you championed, become sufficiently established for not only prestigious performances in which they're hailed as icons, but for more or less hagiographic films. This late summer in New York saw not only a series of Lincoln Center Festival performance of Laurie Anderson's latest piece, "Homeland," graced with a cameo from her husband, Lou Reed, but for films about Reed from Julian Schnabel, about Patti Smith by Steven Sebring and about Philip Glass by Scott Hicks. Glass has a cameo in the Smith film, too.
"Homeland" was disappointing. Any artist who creates a distinctive style in their youth -- and all of these artists did just that -- runs the risk of repeating the formula. Anderson's sequences of quirky, witty, touching vignettes, with her droll, middle-American intonation, often altered electronically, her washes of electronic sound and her fiddle interpolations, work fitfully now but predictably. "Homeland" is a sadder and more despairing than most of her earlier work. But the real problem is the overfamiliarity of the format. Reed's cutting guitar solos kicked up the energy in a very welcome way.
Whatever you think of Schnabel as a painter, he had become a remarkable filmmaker. His documentation of the 2006 Brooklyn performances of Reed's 1973 album "Berlin" do not transform what was already a theatrical experience in which had had already had a hand, complete with film footage of Emmanuelle Seigner as the heroine who comes to a bad end. But gradually you realize what a wonderful job of framing the music he has accomplished.
"Berlin" was tepidly received 35 years ago. As the rock critic of the New York Times, I was one of the few who liked it. It may not contain songs on a level with Reed's (or the Velvet Underground's) greatest, but the arc of the album sustains a compelling aura of sadness and empathy. Reed's presence, singing and playing and scowling, stands out, but the band is fabulous and Schnabel's balance of subservience and subtle artistry is pretty thrilling. For proof, see Reed's reaction shots, his facial expressions of affection, paternal pride and awe, as the ethereal Antony -- body language from Joe Cocker, with a voice that translates Roy Orbison into ever more blissful gender confusion -- sings an encore.
The Smith film is an obsessive oddity, shot over a decade of devoted following about, with Sebring shooting anything that happened to come to mind, his or hers. Whether it will mean much to non-Patti devotees, I don't know. I'm a devotee, so it meant a lot to me.
There is too little music ("Horses" is oddly bifurcated with the litany of dances -- "Do you know how to Pony?" -- preceding by half an hour another performance of the introducion; the transition from intro to rock is one of her magical moments of Smith's art, and Sebring misses it). And yet the details of her life, her loves, her memories, are compelling. I was sucked happily into its dreamy flow.
The Glass film, too, offers insights for the admirer, though Glass himself shies away from personal revelations and much musical self-analysis. There are lovely shots of his Nova Scotia hideaway and his many friends and collaborators. The oddity is the weight placed on his most recent wife, Holly; it seems a lovely family unit until it suddenly dissolves, painfully, toward the end. Glass himsef is reportedly upset, presumably as much by the exposure of his personal, private life as by the loss of his wife.
And yet for all the uneveness and sameness and overproductivity of his work, Glass's masterpieces are truly masterly, and there are enough audio and video excepts from the early ensemble work (not enough of that, actually), "Einstein on the Beach," "Satyagraha", "Koyaanisqatsi" and more to keep any Glass fan happy. Like me.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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