John Rockwell: January 2009 Archives
This is a blog about culture, but culture can mean anthropological or sociological as well as artistical. This entry, I guess, will be a bit of all three.
For our winter vacation Linda and I visited my cousins in Atlanta (who had moved there decades ago from Kalamazoo) and ended up for a night at Miami South Beach and then three nights in Key West, a Caribbean island without colonialist guilt.
In between, we made something of an Obama pilgrimmage. Linda had worked hard for him, and I had done my bit, too. She had always wanted to visit the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Our first idea was to begin with the Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., north of Charleston. This was the home of Michelle Obama's Robinson ancestors during slavery times. But you could only go on a tour, and the day we could have made it had been booked by a group from the University of South Carolina.
So, after a night in Charleston, we headed south for Kiawah Island. I had recently written an essay on Porgy and Bess for a forthcoming Harvard anthology. Gershwin had visited Kiawah to soak up gullah music and mores (post-Africans who lived there, and who migrated to Charleston for work during Porgy times, called themselves gullahs in S.C. and geechees in Georgia); it was renamed Kittiwah in Porgy and Bess. There was supposedly a statue somewhere of Goat Cart Sammy, the inspiration for the character of Porgy. But no: like so many of those islands today, Kiawah has been gentrifed and whitewashed into a gated golf community. One (white) security guard had never heard of Sammy, or Porgy. Oh, well, the public dining room of a seaside country club (great view) was OK in a deracinated sort of way, though empty (recession, you know).
So it was on to St. Helena Island, home of the Penn Center, where Martin Luther King Jr. had planned strategy and tactics among sympathetic allies, white and black. There was a moving exhibition about life under slavery, full of displayed texts of reminiscences of former slaves and photos over the years of the center's educational activities, which date back to 1862, when the Union seized control of the islands during the Civil War. In the planning stages before King's assassination was a "retreat house" where he could study and contemplate looking out over the gorgeous marshes. It wasn't finished until after his death, but it's there now, and you can rent it. We didn't know about that until we got there, but maybe one day.
Then, after a night in Savannah, it was on to Sapelo Island. You take a ferry to get there, and you can only visit the lone community of Hog Hammock with an invitation from a resident -- especially if you want to spend the night in one of the three bedrooms at the Wallow Lodge (clean, comfortable, a kitchen but you have to bring your own food; no restaurants on the island).
Sapelo is a typical coastal island, with flat marshes, pines, oaks, beaches. Yet it is untouched by the rampant real-estate development elsewhere along the coast. The island is owned now by the state of Georgia, which uses most of it as an environmental research station.
Otherwise, except for the few mostly white scientists at the station and the odd hunter, all the people you see, the real inhabitants of Sapelo, are black -- "saltwater geechees," as opposed to the inland variety and to the gullahs. They are descendants of the slaves who used to pick cotton on the island. Fifty years ago there were some 500 of them, spread among several communities. But the owners of the "big house," a mansion built on the site of the former plantation owner's home by the Reynolds of the tobacco company, oversaw the forced collectivization of the island inhabitants to Hog Hammock (through financial incentives and cruder negative pressures). (Hog is from a family named Hogg who lent it their name; hammock is a term for a raised piece of ground above marsh level.) Some 70 inhabitants remain.
We were lucky enough to arrive on the Sunday before Christmas, and were taken in hand first by Nettie Evans, who was on the ferry and who runs the local historical society, and then by Cornelia Walker Bailey, who owns the Wallow Lodge. She and her husband Julius and their two grandsons took us up the road to the First African Baptist Church, where there was a two-hour Christmas pageant and service followed by a fried chicken, sausage etc. spread. We thus had a chance to see the whole interrelated community, or most of it, in one place.
We thought we had been pretty lucky, and we were, but then I got an e-mail from Noel Holston. He and his wife had stayed at the lodge on New Year's Eve and found a bunch of newpapers and magazines we had left behind. Turns out he was a National Arts Journalism Program fellow and had been the television critic of Newsday before relocating to teach at the University of Georgia journalism school. They attended the island New Year's Eve service, which was followed by a midnight feast in the woods at which pig's feet, peas and rice, venison, cornbread and Sapelo oysters were the bill of fare!
Sapelo feels almost under siege, from the state of Georgia and from the threat of Kiawah-style (or Hilton Head-style) development. Many of the island inhabitants work on the mainland now or go to school there, taking the ferry at the break of day. There is a kind of petri-dish artificiality to Hog Hammock now, as if the traditions of the islanders are about to be washed away by the mainstream culture, if not another hurricane.
In the meantime, Mrs. Walker has written a book called God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, and it is just a wonderful read. It purls along like elegantly crafted oral story-telling, and it brings the traditions and customs and past tragedies and, one hopes, future triumphs of these remarkably resilient people alive. If you can't get to Sapelo, read the book. It's as artistically cultural as any cultural anthropologist or sociologist might wish.
The Dance Films Association presents same all over the country, and every January allies itself with the Film Society of Lincoln Center to sponsor the invaluable Dance on Camera series in New York. I haven't seen anywhere near all of this year's offerings (yet), but I have seen a sequence of dance shorts in which two Moves stood out -- the Australian company Chunky Move for its delightful Dance Like Your Old Man, in which six women do same, and Richard Move's Bardo, built on a solo he choreographed for Katherine Crockett as part of a Sept. 11 memorial trio commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company, which blends eerie Surrealistic imagery with Crockett's iconic torso.
But what I want of focus on here is Sophie Fiennes's VSPRS Show and Tell, a 72-minute documentary she made for the European cultural television channel Arte about the Flemish choreographer Alain Platel's dance VSPRS.
Everyone's a critic. Even the most abstract art work is commenting critically on something -- a tradition, a counterweight to a form that implies a narrative. When a work is specifically about another work, then it is criticism for sure. So is a musical interpretation of a score. (Maybe every critic is an artist, too, or at least the better ones are, in that an eloquently written review can aspire to artistry.)
Fiennes is an English documentary film maker with a fascinating resume. She is also the sister of the actors Ralph and Joseph. She had already done one Platel film, about an apparently remarkable dance/installation he did for Michael Morris's ArtAngel series in London. So clearly Platel trusted and liked her and assumed she would convey his disturbing VSPRS to a wider television audience.
Critics are never "right." Each one has a point of view which may conform to that of the artist and may conform to that of another critic, but not necessarily. So my take on VSPRS, while sharply different from Fiennes's, is not being trumpeted here as superior to hers (even if mine is illumined by the light of divine inspiration).
The 90-minute dance is set to a jazzy arrangement of Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Virgine (1610), or Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, i. e., Mary. In German it's called the Marienvesper. In one of the film's conversations, Platel recalls an incident when he was a 17-year-old student in a religious middle American household. Someone was ill, and the family undertook a group prayer in which everyone held hands. Platel was not a believer, but he had a mystical experience in which he became ecstatically convinced that Mary was about to walk through a door left partly open, with bright light streaming into the dark room from beyond. He didn't say what he felt when she didn't show up (assuming she didn't), but he did say that a) the experience of almost-epiphany made a profound impact on his life and b) he had forgotten about it until that moment. Sort of hard to reconcile those two, but...
VSPRS is difficult to watch. Ten dancers perform in front of a curious raised set piece on which 10 musicans play. For most of the time the dancers stagger and twitch and shake and mouth bizarre verbiage. It's intense and grating.
In his younger years Platel treated people with various physical and mental disorders, and that's what fascinated Fiennes in the short three weeks between her receiving the assigment and shooting the film. This grotesqueness is what she thinks the piece is about. She reinforces her theory by including footage old and new of disturbed people, including children, shaking and hopping and contorting themselves. The dancers were in some sense inspired by all that. Towards the end there is a kind of freakout ("ecstasy," they call it), in which everyone rolls about spasmodically, mastubating, to Monteverdi's Magnificat. One woman in the question-and-answer session afterwards thought it was exploitative. Maybe, but more from Fiennes than Platel.
Where Fiennes and I part ways is that the set, which is covered in white material that Fiennes never explicitly identifies as underwear, starts glowing from within. Painfully, the dancers struggle toward the top, forming a kind of chain of fools, some dropping back to earth, others helping them up again, upwards and onwards.
For me, the religious implications of all this are clear. It's music about the Virgin Mary. Platel had a transformative experience about her as a youth. All the twitching and grimacing is like a Boschian depiction of hell, or hell on earth. But at the end, Platel seems to imply, mankind tries to transcend his bestiality.
In the question and answer session, I asked Fiennes why she had jettisoned that aspect of Platel's work. It just didn't interest me that much, she said at first, adding that she was confined to two camera positions in each of seven live performances and never got good footage of the upwards struggle. She also said, though, that after a few performances she had enough from the front and experimented shooting from the rear. Meaning she could have shot up top, too. She chose not to, so her first response to me -- that she made a critical decision to ignore that part of the piece -- holds the truest.
For me, the contrast between agony and ecstasy, or at least the aspiration for ecstasy, is what VSPRS is about. I know nothing of Platel's spiritual beliefs, but now he's working on a new piece called Pitie set to a similarly jazzed version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (not the whole thing, I trust). So there's something about the spiritual that is currently compelling his attention. To ignore that, for a documentarian, seems willful. Fiennes made a powerful film, but one very different from what I critically perceive to have been Platel's intention.
My contribution to the chorus of affectionate tributes (cf. Alan Rich, Norman Lebrecht, Joshua Kosman, Alex Ross) to the arts patron Betty Freeman, who died Saturday in Beverly Hills at the age of 87 (we think it was; she was forthcoming about her birth year, 1921, but not her birth day).
I met Betty in 1971 when she came up to me during an intermission at a Monday Evening Concert and said she liked my reviews in the Los Angeles Times. We were friends ever since, although unlike others I never took her up on her invitation to stay with her when in Los Angeles. I last visited her at her home on Nov. 22. As usual she was frail but full of beans, with fervent tastes fervently expressed, along with fervent diappointments in things that had disappointed her, like the failure of book publishers to take an interest in her proposed collection of the hand-drawn calligraphy in affectionate notes that Bob Wilson had sent her over the years.
It was Bob who kept me informed of her various falls and infirmities in recent years. I would call her up all solicitously, and she would always inform me that everything was just fine, thanks very much. Apparently she was still telling friends that days before she died of pancreatic cancer.
Others have chronicled the astonishing number and range of composers she helped, either with checks arriving unannounced through the mail (Phil Glass recalled getting at least one for $5000 when he really needed it, back when he was driving a taxi and doing plumbing and $5000 was real money) or outright commissions for major works. Wikipedia has a list of those she helped.
Betty had been a pianist and her first love as a patron was the California post-modernist scene, highlighted by her championing (with money, a foundation, photographs and a documentary film) of the music of Harry Partch. Later she became drawn to latter-day European modernism, boldly swimming against the post-modernist tide, when most critics and listeners in the U.S. were abandoning the modernists and the modernists themselves, always responding to their own inner voices, to be sure, and never cravenly following fashion, were sweetening their own music.
Her modrnist tastes were often in sync with those of her dear friend Gerard Mortier, whose Salzburg Festival she loyally supported. I remember summers staying with her up at the gorgeous chalet Dick Colburn and his wife of the year rented overlooking the entire Salzburg valley, with other house guests being the likes of Gergiev, Abbado and Boulez.
Betty gave musicales in her home (with Rich's aid) and photographed a myriad composers and curated shows of those photographs in concert halls all over the world (never seeming to dream that the halls might want to show her work in the hope of donations, though to be fair the work was often terrific, born of an access few others could hope to achieve) and had a considerable art collection and counted not only composers (Birtwistle was a special favorite) and performers and administrators and critics but also artists (Hockney ueber alles) among her friends.
At times, as Rich indicates, her extreme and, to some of us, sometimes downright eccentric likes and dislikes, along with her pig-headed perversities, drove her always-forgiving friends mildly batty. We had an intense argument in November, inspired by the Doctor Atomic DVD, about her refusal to read librettos or follow subtitles in opera; for her, it was just music. But her generosity (social as well as financial) and her absolute reliance on her own taste and no one else's (here I think Ross gets it slightly wrong; she only gave when she loved, at least most of the time) made her a unique and remarkable person. As so many others have already lovingly attested.