John Rockwell: July 2008 Archives
I went to see the Russian director Sergei Bodrov's film "Mongol" the other night. It was beautifully shot, tho did 12th-century Mongols, still rustling horses and stealing one another's wives, reallly have such spotless clothes and perfect teeth? The casting and acting were good, the images striking, and the battle scenes pretty much up to Peter Jackson's standards in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. On in Ridley Scott's contemporaneous crusader movie "The Kingdom of Heaven," which I just saw again (the kids rented it) on DVD.
"Mongol" is also the first film in a trilogy, this one aiming to trace either Genghis Khan's life or that of the Mongol Empire to c. 1400. But if you want to see spectacular shots of central Eurasian steppes, yurts, yaks and such, you could do just as well with Ulrike Ottinger's documentary "Taiga." I only saw an hour of this, at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival (the whole thing lasts 501 minutes, but who besides imdb.com is counting?). The steppes and the way of life have hardly changed a bit, assuming Bodrov's vision is historically accurate.
I got into the Mongol business last summer in the aftermath of the Lincoln Center Festival presenting -- courtesy of the Festival d'Automne a Paris, which curated the programs in the first place -- Mongolian bardic history, music and dance. The bardic history consisted of solo chanting of a fascinating manuscript called "The Secret History of the Mongols," which forms the basis of much of what we know -- and what Bodrov knows -- about the inner workings of the empire, and especially the early life of Genghis Khan. Assembled back in the 13th and 14th centuries by scribes writing for the exclusive readership of the Mongol royal family (hence secret), it came to public view a century or so ago and was translated into English more recently than that. A terrific read, if you wish to pursue it, though full of weird, decades-long gaps in the narrative, like the whole process by which Genghis united the Mongol tribes. Bodrov doesn't try to fill in those gaps, which makes for sudden forward lurches in time.
Better still is Jack Weatherford's book "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World," which combines personal biographical detail, the sociology and anthropology of the Mongols, military tactics, political and economical analysis of the empire and sometimes polemical speculation of the Mongols' role in elevating barbarous Europe toward the Renaissance. Weatherford is determined to portray the Mongols not as rapacious slaughterers of the innocent but as enlightened harbingers of modernity. Rather like defenders of Moorish Spain, so much more advanced and tolerant than primitive late-medieval Europe. Despite one churlish and semi-llterate put-down among the Amazon reader reviews, I recommend Weatherford's book most highly. Among other things, it's a barn-burning summer read.
Since the world clamors to know (well, I made that up, but we can hope), I found Mark Morris's modern-dance version of Prokofiev's original version of "Romeo and Juliet" at Bard College thin, reasonably enjoyable, capable of considerable improvement and hardly worth the vituperation its foes have heaped upon it.
First, the recently unearthed 1935 score and scenario are inferior to the Soviet-approved revision seen at the 1940 world premiere. Romeo and Juliet capering in heaven is hardly as cathartic as their tragic deaths; to avoid Shakespeare's ending seems like mere Prokofievian bad-boy brattishness.
Second, some of those who disliked Morris still praised Leon Botstein and his musical performance with the American Symphony. I found it lead-footed and clumsy. Perhaps Botstein needs to further hone his conducting skills, but perhaps the Soviet score needs to be thinned out to match the notes for orchestration he apparently left in the short score, which he never orchestrated himself. A lighter, more fluid musical performance might better suit Morris's choreographic style. And less like a weakly wagging tail on an overly robust dog.
Third, the (vaguely homophobic, even when bruited by gays) notion that Morris is uncomfortable with heterosexual dance duets seems silly. Anyone who saw his half-hour duet for the concluding "ballet" in Simon Rattle's note-complete Glydebourne version of Mozart's "Idomeneo" would be disabused of that idea. If the music at the end of this "Romeo" sounded like a pale reworking of earler themes in the score, that was maybe due in part to the thinner orchestration.
That all said, Morris's "Romeo" could use some work. He faces a real problem, in that we are all used to seeing this music danced by our grandest ballet companies, and the dancers stretching ballet movement vocabulary to its limits. The best Morris dancers convinced because their grace, their pointed feet, evoked ballet. Whether using actual ballet steps, as in his San Francisco Ballet "Sylvia," or working with his own troupe as he did here, Morris tends to underchoreograph the big moments in these evening-long story ballets. I liked some of the recurrent motifs in this "Romeo," like the title figures' coltish backwards kicks, but their dance relationship needs to be deepened.
Still, there is material here well worth developing, and Morris is still a major choreographer with an ongoing career to unfold. The case of Twyla Tharp, whose "Rabbit and Rogue" was the only new work in American Ballet Theatre's otherrwise predicatable rehash of the "classics" at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring, is sadly different. She was such an innovator, as an experimental dancer nearly 40 years ago and in her early forays into ballet. Unllike Morris, she seemed to know exactly what to do with ballet vocabulary, how to extend it and enliven it without compromise.
But even from the start she had a fatal predilection for gaseous, clumsily symbolic scenarios. In recent years she's given us her truly embarrassing Bob Dylan musical and now this new ballet for ABT. It was full of rather too insistent energy, but to what end, and in what way a betterment of her earliest ballet experiments? Energy became merely hectic, and the story-telling cliched.
It's sad, but she has done such great work, and is still full of such vigorous determination, that one can hope for great work to come. In the meantime, she has now, at long last, managed to organize a devoted cadre of disciples who fan out across the country and the world, staging her classics. So at least Twyla is everywhere still with us -- if not, one hopes just for now, great new Twyla.
Steve Carell's dimly amusing comedy "Get Smart" has a labored climax in which the bad guys want to blow something up (the hall? the president, who's in the hall? the city? the world? -- I saw it a few weeks ago) by triggering their explosive device to the climax of the "Ode to Joy" movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, not that as I recall there is any reference to Beethoven or the symphony itself. Carell tackles the conductor, thus preventing him and his assembled forces from finishing the symphony and setting off the explosion.
What amused/bemused me was the conductor, who was so old he looked half dead -- gaunt, frazzled, confused. How he would have survived a real tackle beats me. What was interesting was that this image, like the fat lady with the spear, breast plate and horned helmet, is how Hollywood and American pop culture see classical music: something so irrelevant as to be ludicrous.
But the odd bit was that the performance took place in Frank Gehry's Mouse House, AKA the Walt Disney Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not only is the hall one of Gehry's finest achievements and magnetically hip and alluring to audiences old and young, but the L.A. Phil had been famously progressive about hiring young, vital and dynamic music directors: the exact opposite of the decrepit figure in "Get Smart."
First there was (and still is) Esa-Pekka Salonen, the baby-faced Finn, and soon there will be the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who will be all of 28 or 29 when he assumes the music directorship and is the current boy wonder of conducting. Whether he will evolve into a great maestro remains to be seen. But he is exciting, he's young, and he could survive a Steve Carell tackle with aplomb. Of course, maybe the president or the city or the world would be vaporized, but Los Angeles's reputation for youthful conducting talent would prevail.