John Rockwell: December 2008 Archives
I can't say I've seen every one of Pina Bausch's extravaganzas that she's brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music over the years. But I've seen a lot of them, and "Bamboo Blues," the latest, is the best Bausch for a very long time.
This is good and bad. Good, because it's good. But bad, because it means that many of her more recent shows have fallen victim to repetitiveness. Like Laurie Anderson, who is thrilling the first time you encounter her but whose performances seem to repeat themselves in mood and format and technical trickery, Bausch's mannerisms had begun to grate. You even had to wonder if she herself had grown tired of them. A sequence of skit-like numbers strung along a loose theme with an exotic set and quasi-zombie dancers staring you down with heavy-handed irony.
"Bamboo Blues" sort of fits that pattern, but there are bracing differences. First, the choreography is far more energetic and fluid than usual. Second, there are a host of striking young dancers from all over the world who really DANCE, as opposed to acting morbid and droll. Third, the loose theme -- India, and in particular the strongly Hindu tropical India of the south, along with a requisite dollop of Bollywood -- is nicely exotic, augmented by some beautiful curtains and projections. Fourth, and by no means least, the music is just terrific. Cut after cut of arresting, often Indian-flavored international pop with an edge, all played on a sumptuous, highly directional sound system.
Bausch has often seemed eager to undercut emotion with parody or kookiness. There is some of that here, as in the gum-chewing, evening-gown-clad beauties who pose langorously to set the scene. Sometimes it's amusing, sometimes disruptive.
But what is here, more than ever, is romance and sex. Many of the couples, and couplings, have a real charge to them, and the virtuosic choreography and dancing, full of leaps and flying jumps and sinuous entanglements, only reinforces the erotic aura.
Like most Bausch evenings, this one goes on a little long. Some might complain that apart from a few highlights the shorter second act doesn't so much build on the first act as protract it. Yet I found myself consistently engrossed, a true test of which is looking at your watch and being surprised at how much time has passed. "Bamboo Blues" plays through Saturday, and it's eine Reise wert, as we might say in Bausch's home base of Wuppertal: worth a trip.
As a white male of a certain age, I don't find much on prime-time TV to amuse me. "Boston Legal," which ended its five-year run earlier this week, did. It was hardly a perfect show; it had its cartoonish aspects. But the dynamic between William Shatner as Denny Crane and James Spader as Alan Shore, Shatner's sly ditziness and Spader's stem-winding liberal court orations, had just enough of a weird charge to transcend the ridiciulous, and several of the subsidiary characters over the years -- one thinks of the elegantly charismatic Tara Summers last year and this -- were touching or funny or disturbing or some combination thereof.
My wife and I don't watch much primetime TV, separately or together, but we made it more or less of a ritual to watch this (she and a friend make "Lost" a quasi-religious ritual, but I never got into that, and neither she nor I got "The Sopranos"). I make periodic stabs at trying to appreciate "30 Rock," newly inspired by Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. It's a cute show, but Alec Baldwin brings just enough strange tabloid baggage to trouble the effervescent mood and the various characters don't quite gel into a coherent ensemble.
Still, "30 Rock" is another grownup show. But to prove the catholicity of my tastes (or that I am a dirty old man), a word on the film "Twilight." This is based on a series of vampire novels aimed squarely at girl tweeners, and many critics have made much of the supposed antispetic quality of the central couple, a pale vampire and an even paler human girl, who yearn for sex but never quite get there: something to do with his fear that if fully aroused he will run amok and nibble her into cursed immortality. Most of the movie, outside the couple, is Hollywood silly.
But the young actress Kristen Stewart -- who really is still a teenager, unlike her vampire boyfriend, Robert Pattinson, who like most male Hollywood teenagers looks (and is) in his 20's -- has made a speciality of overtly erotic yearning. She did it in Sean Penn's film "Into the Wild" and she does it again here. Who needs nudity, who needs porn, hard or soft, when desire is this apparent?
The film was written by a woman based on a novel by a woman and directed by a woman. Women seem to get filmic eroticism better than slam-bam men. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, has dropped out of the two sequels, after a fight with the (mostly male) producers. We shall see if the aura can be maintained. At least Stewart will be back.
What is it these days with vampire movies and vampire television? Cloaked weirdos puncturing and draining the throats of nubile young women have long been a cinematic staple. I used to enjoy imitating the sound of Klaus Kinski gleefully moving in on the arched throat of Isabelle Adjani in Werner Hezog's "Nosferatru": a loudish "clunk" followed by furtive little slurp-slurp-slurps.
Anyhow, a down-home, quasi-trailer-trash parallel to "Twilight" can be found in the HBO series "True Blood," currently on hiatus but soon to return for a second season. In both cases the vampires, or at least the good vampires, have forsworn attacking humans, either through moral will power or the availability of an artificial blood substitute. In "True Blood" the nubile, more knowing and full-blooded human female is Anna Paquin, with Stephen Moyer as her pale lover. In "Twilight," Pattinson can read minds; in "True Blood," Paquin can, though love blocks the telepathic receptors.
I find "True Blood" kind of dumb, myself, without Stewart's redemptive qualities. But it's up for a lot of awards, so maybe I must just be on the wrong side of the demographic divide.
A couple of months ago a posting of mine about a performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at Carnegie Hall occasioned a grumpy response from one Bill McKenney. I had complained that the Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, was "a tad too theatrical." Other aspects of the performance, which I liked a lot overall, struck me as "a little too pushy/Broadway." McKenney thinks I should retire from writing about music, and especially music and theater, and concludes that I have "an aversion to theatricality." You can read his comment at the end of my original posting.
Well maybe, but more likely McKenney's definition of theatricality, which he seems to believe applies to all forms of theater, needs a little rethinking. It's true that I have an aversion to what I hear as over-emotiing, or hectoring, from the stage. I was fascinated by Simon McBurney's production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" on Broadway. McBurney is the force behind London's Theatre de Complicite, which I presented in 1996 as director of the first Lincoln Center Festival. I admire him, even his sometimes rather too Gary Oldmanesque acting as a Hollywood villain.
Some critics complained about his "All My Sons" as the victim of an arty Euro-concept smothering a naturalistic play. My problem was the hoarse, hectoring acting of the principals, all of them good actors (even Katie Holmes!). For me, whatver concept/conceit McBurney was trying to impose, he encouraged the actors to fall back on Broadway cliche, or maybe he felt that was their inclination and he should go along witih it, or maybe he actually believed that Broadway audiences would only accept shouting and hectoring, would only believe the actors to be acting if they shouted. Even with the now-ubiquitous individual head microphones that one might think would obviate the need to shout in the first place.
At this late date there are all kinds of theater and all kinds of acting, much of it more filmically understated than, say, Jubliant Sykes. I can dislike him without disliking theater. There's British physical theater (theatre), there's Robert Wilson's formalized theater rituals, there's Robert Lepage's rather too understated acting (as in his latest original theater piece, "The Blue Dragon," which I saw last month in Los Angeles).
Theatricality has broadened into a delta of fine streams, to borrow a metaphor from Lepage's "Seven Streams of the River Ota." So that it's possible, likely even, to prefer one stream over another. They're all theater, and hence theatrical.
At some point a third of the way into Charlie Kaufman's new film "Synecdoche, New York," Hazel, brilliantly played by Samantha Morton, goes to a house she proposes to rent (buy?) with a real-estate agent. They discuss its merits and demerits, never mentioning that the place is on fire, with flames leaping about and smoke filling every room. Whenever we revisit Hazel in her house, the flames are crackling away, but the house hasn't burned down and no one says anything. Eventually, after she ages with fantastic verisimilitude, she dies. Smoke inhalation, someone speculates idly. Otherwise, never any indication of why, never the slightest surprise. The fire just is.
The title "Synecdoche," not exactly a marketing winner, actually means something relevant to the plot, but it is also a play on Schenectady, a song about which is sung at the beginning by the angelic Sadie Goldstein, playing the four-year-old Olive. It's a sad, gloomy film, frustrating to some. I used to consider Rex Reed the most reliable film critic I knew, in that whatever he liked, I hated, and vice versa. Recently he's been confusing me by liking some decent movies. But he HATED "Synecdoche," restoring my faith in him.
A lot of people find Kaufman annoying, and nowhere more so than here. His movies play mind games. They are full of nutsy allusions and plot dead ends and details that don't make literal sense, like that burning house. But to me, "Synecdoche" is the work of a poet. Kaufman creates metphysical stage (like Robert Wilson) or film magic, and magic needn't, shouldn't, be explained.
The movie is the story of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character's adult life, right up to the end: the last word is a simple shocker. He's a theater director, and the conceit is that he tries to make his life, and those of everyone he cares about, into a gigantic, world-encompassing play. I won't go on; see it yourself, but by the end, art has swallowed life, whole.
I called this post "commercial art" because it's astonishing that a film this grand and complex could be released commercially. In New York, at least, it's been playing for weeks, and there was a decent crowd at a 6:30 show last night. Its (no doubt modest, financially) success gives the lie to those who still claim that commercial art, art made by the entertainment machine and released to the world by base commercial interests, is necessarily compromised.
This is no scruffy indie rock record or "Blair Witch Project," appealing for its very modesty. No, this is a Wagnerian vision, grounded in present-day American reality and dreams. And it has a cast to die for, from Hoffman and Morton and Ms. Goldstein to Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest and many, many more.
For me, it gave hope that mainstream American culture, so riddled with greed and corporate compromise, can still engender art with a capital A. "Synecdoche, New York" is certainly art, but with no invidious elitist connotations at all. Except, maybe, to Rex Reed.
Having made fun of Peter Travers recently for gushing over Gus Van Sant's film "Milk," I finally saw the thing and am inclined to similarly gush. Which doesn't make me into a Travers-style serial gusher, but at least the guy likes good stuff.
"Milk" means Harvey Milk, who moved to San Francisco in 1972, helped transform that city's Castro dictrict into a gay mecca, was elected a city supervisor and was shot to death (along with the mayor, George Moscone) in 1978. The assailant was another, painfully unstable supervisor, Dan White. White was only charged with manslaughter, spent a mere five years in jail and committed suicide two years after he got out.
Aside from a string of brilliant performances, starting with Sean Penn as Milk, and despite a slightly over-artsy obsession with "Tosca," in a performance starring fat singers on a tacky set, which I don't quite understand, the film is superb in its evocation of San Francisco in the 70's and its nuanced view of Milk himself.
Brilliant and charismatic, he was also self-obsessed and, by the end, morphing into a calculating politician, willing to go back on his word and just a little power-mad. But his charm and his passion for gay rights never flagged, and Van Sant's film captures all that and much more. "A TOTAL TRIUMPH!" I might be inclined to say, but Travers already said that. So I'll just settle for Tony Scott in the NY Times, who called it "a marvel."
Kenneth Anger is a sort of marvel, too, in his own wildly eccentric, flamboyantly gay way. Reminds me of David Del Tredici; the two ought to collaborate. Born in Santa Monica and now living back in Los Angeles, Anger was a child actor and dancer and then a filmmaker from an early age, active in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and other European hotspots. His films were and are defiantly, wonderfully avant-garde, and reflect his lifelong interest in the occult.
A couple of weeks ago he was at the RedCat Theater in the bowels of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, regaling a full house of latter-day hipsters with some of his recent shorts (he's resumed making films after a 20-year hiatus) and a restored print of one of his classics, "Scorpio Rising," from 1963.
"Milk" portrays a gay culture; "Scorpio Rising" epitomizes it, albeit from 15 years before Milk's heyday, when gay life was still closeted. Its dream-like images of motorcycle club members fetishistically polishing their gleaming machines and then cavorting obscenely at a masked party, interspersed with brooding photos of (male) 50's biker heartthrobs and, with delirious incongruity, footage from an old Hollywood film about Jesus and his desciples, make for an astonishing 29 minutes.
At 80, Anger was still there, buoyant and ebullient. But it was sobering to be reminded that Milk was assassinated just as the AIDS tsunami broke, putting an effective end to the defensive, triumphalist bravado of the gay culture of the late 70's in San Francisco, New York and world wide. One of the members of Milk's entourage, Clive Jones (in a lovely performance by Emile Hirsch, the star of the film Penn directed, "Into the Wild"), went on to conceive and oversee the deeply moving AIDS quilt.
Jones survived, along with Anger, but the heady vision that gay values would sweep to acceptance, or even prevail, did not. Would Milk have long outlived White's murderous bullets? Have Californians, and Americans, learned anything, with the passage of Proposition 8?