WagnerBlog

The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Thursday, March 31, 2005

A Bloody and Noisy Julius Caesar



The production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, that is about to open at the Belasco, is a bloody and noisy reading of this venerable warhorse. The arriving audience is greeted by muted martial music that sounds like it's coming from a junkyard band consisting of rusty horns and tattered bagpipes. This drone -- which after a while almost becomes contagious, but ends up ultimately being annoying -- is played up to the start of the performance. On stage, we see a curtainless stage cluttered with dilapidated Roman ruins, a couple of headless and armless classical statues near the side balconies, as well as a shopping cart filled with junk. Before the start of the play a homeless man staggers onstage, sits on the floor by his cart, and scratches his scraggly beard. He is, of course, the Soothsayer. Not the seer that Shakespeare intended, I'm sure, but then again, this is not the production that he had in mind either. A giant banner on stage with Julius Caesar's image is adorned with a laurel wreath and a crown. Caesar wears a beret and fatigues, as if he were the ruler of some modern police state.

And that's exactly the point of departure of this production: to make it modern. Set in a contemporary dictatorial country, the largely male cast is dressed in suits and ties during Rome's times of peace, and when civil war erupts after the title character is assassinated everyone switches to military fatigues and camouflage.

But this conceit by director Daniel Sullivan is obviously not new. As a matter of fact, it has almost become a cliché by now to set a classic play in a time period other than what the author originally intended. By the way, everyone should know that back in 1937, the then newly-formed Mercury Theater staged a modern-dressed production of Julius Caesar. That brave experiment revolutionized modern Shakespearean staging. That ground-breaking production was produced and directed by Mercury Theater founder Orson Welles.

I attended the Wednesday matinee on March 30, not so much because I wanted to see this play, but more because I wanted to experience Denzel Washington on the stage once again. Many years ago, when I was a freshman undergraduate at Fordham University in Lincoln Center, my English professor, Robert Stone, urged us to see a performance of a play that had been written by a student at the college. In the cast, playing a wheelchair-bound, cantankerous old man was a senior making his last performance at Fordham. His name was Denzel Washington. As a junior he had starred in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, and Shakespeare's Othello. By the time he was a senior, thanks largely to the tutelage of Robert Stone, Denzel Washington was on his way to becoming a star.

He gives a very powerful and believable performance in the role of Brutus. It is the best role Washington has had since he starred in Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. The declamatory style that he adopts for the role of Brutus reminds me very much of the cadences he adopted when he played the slain civil rights leader. He is the star of this show, the reason for its existence, and the sole reason why you should go to the Belasco to see it.

Otherwise, the production is confused, bloody and very noisy. I don't remember ever having seen a more graphically violent play on Broadway. The stage blood flows freely in this production, not only during the murder of Caesar, but in the second act scenes of war. Also, in an effort to make things really relevant, the director has staged a particularly disturbing torture and decapitation scene that will remind everyone of the realities of the current situation in Iraq. The second act also features unnecessary, earth-shaking special sonic effects that, although very realistic, also go overboard. I am certain that the people outside the Belasco Theater can hear the roars coming from within.

The only roars that matter, in my opinion, are those coming from Mr. Washington's performance, and those from the appreciative sold-out crowds.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Wall to Wall Sondheim Saved for Posterity



Last Saturday, March 19, Symphony Space celebrated composer Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday with a gigantic marathon of the composer's music called "Wall to Wall Sondheim." I was scheduled to perform in that concert as a member of the Juilliard Choral Union. Unfortunately, personal and professional conflicts did not allow me to participate in the event. The Choral Union sang during the last hours of the show, and closed the evening with "Sunday in the Park with George," arranged and played by composer Jason Robert Brown. Luckily, the entire affair was broadcast by XM Satellite Radio, and the buffs were quick to post it to Usenet. I downloaded and burned all twelve hours into one shiny CD-R -- don't you love the MP3 format?! -- and have plans to spend my Easter week vacation listening to the whole thing.

I hope this will be a great week of listening and discovery. Truthfully, though, I am riddled with fears of interruptions. I remember that funny, clever British comedy by Simon Gray Otherwise Engaged, where London publisher Simon Hench buys a recording of Wagner's Parsifal, and all he wants to do is unwind in his den with the recording and a glass of brandy. His prospects are dashed, time and again, by annoying interruptions.

I must say that the first two hours (I am listening to it as I blog) have already featured "Into the Woods," "Gypsy," "Company," and esoterica from Sondheim's days as an undergraduate in Williams College. It promises to be a very enjoyable marathon. Click here for a complete schedule of the event, with a list of performers and musical numbers.

Der Rosenkavalier at the MET

On Saturday night, I went to the MET to hear my first Der Rosenkavalier. After almost thirty years of attending opera, I had never gone to hear this great work anywhere, although I had seen the MET telecast many years ago, had listened to many Saturday broadcasts of it, and was somewhat familiar with the score. A few years ago, I realized that I had not gotten around to studying the great opera comedies. Over the past few years I have tried to do something to rectify this, and thus far have also attended performances of Verdi's Falstaff and Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.



Saturday night was Der Rosenkavalier's turn. It was extraordinary! One of the best performances I have ever attended! Memorable in all accounts, how many times does an opera-goer have a chance to say this? In the pit, Donald Runnicles led the orchestra, and this well-oiled ensemble has not sounded better. I was excited about going to see Runnicles conduct since I own a recording of the Parsifal that he recently led in Vienna in April of 2004. Runnicle's take on Wagner's last work rivals James Levine's reading when it comes to beauty of expression and expansive tempi. I was sitting on the side of the orchestra (M-35), and I must say that the side overhang reflected sound quite nicely without the flatness that tends to be the major complaint of the orchestra seats at the MET.

What a cast! Susan Graham's Octavian was a very likeable interpretation, her voice secure throughout her range. She is such a sensitive artist. The Marschallin was sung by Angela Denoke, who is making her debut at the MET this season. This German soprano is a rare find, and she conveyed both the beauty and the inherent sadness of the character perfectly. Sophie was endearingly portrayed by Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova. The scene in Act II where she rattles off Octavian's baptismal names was superb. Baron Ochs was Peter Rose, and about him all I can say is that I have so much admiration for any non-German (he was born in Canterbury) that can learn this vocally demanding role with its tricky rhythms, low E's, and generally talky and complex nature. He was superb, and a wonderful actor as well. His dismissal of the Italian tenor in Act I was brilliant (he clapped twice after the aria, and boorishly motioned him to go away). By the way, Matthew Polenzani was superb in his cameo as the Italian tenor. His fine instrument soared above the orchestra, having no problem whatsoever with the devilishly high tessitura that culminates in a high C-flat.

The rest of the large cast was also superb. The three noble orphans sang harmoniously, Annina and Valzacchi (Wendy White and Greg Fedderly) were deliciously oily, and Håkan Hagegård's Feninal was hilariously befuddled. It is captivating to see how this artist has mellowed since the days when he starred in Ingmar Bergman's film of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

On the other hand, it is sad to report that Paul Plishka's voice has not weathered the test of time as well. Now in the sunset of his career, he was quite wobbly throughout the small Act III role of the Police Commissary. There is a rumor that he was booed at the opening night performance, and has not taken a curtain call since. Last night, to the best of my recollection, he did not appear for a curtain call.

This revival of Der Rosenkavalier best exhibits the MET's ability to command the best singers in the world, and present performances the likes of which will rival and surpass those of any other opera house in the world. This kind of quasi-perfection happens very seldom, but when it does, it is beautiful and memorable.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Rowdy PARSIFAL In Berlin

At the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the new production of Parsifal, which premiered on March 19, was greeted with roars of boos from a shocked and angry crowd. Filmmaker Bernd Eichinger, who is directing opera for the first time, set Wagner's work in an Apocalyptic, post September 11 New York City. Using video projection extensively, the director's vision included Kundry as a homeless bag lady in Central Park, the Knights of the Grail as East Village punks, and the city as a nightmarish urban landscape of exploding skyscrapers.

For those familiar with this summer's Bayreuth production of Parsifal by artist Christoph Schlingensief, the use of video and prominent and frequent lapses in bad taste is nothing new. In that production, which is set in Africa, the conclusion of Act III features video images of a maggot-infested rotting carcass of a rabbit projected on a screen in the background as Parsifal brings a tribal spear to a group of tribesmen.

What next? Can the necrophilia Parsifal be far behind? My production of this work, which I always thought was a little out there, now seems downright tame these days.

The following is the review of the production from the Associated Press.

"Parsifal Draws Boos and Shouts in Berlin"

BERLIN (AP) -- A German film producer's version of Richard Wagner's Parsifal was greeted with boos and shouts from the audience and sharp criticism in newspapers Monday following its debut at Berlin's Staatsoper. Reviewers attacked Bernd Eichinger's production as dull and confused, singling out its use of video clips including the Earth seen from space and pagan temples. The capital's Berliner Morgenpost daily said Saturday's premiere was greeted by "a concert of boos.''

The staging included scenes in modern-day New York in an apparent reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, a marked departure from the traditional medieval Spanish setting. The contrast was very apparent with the depiction of exploding high-rises. Kundry, one of the main characters, is led around on a dog leash by the sorcerer Klingsor. The Berliner Zeitung reported that the applause afterward dwindled in a few minutes to about 30 people still applauding when the performers took their final bows.

Eichinger has been a prominent figure on Germany's film scene for decades, most recently producing "The Downfall,'' a portrait of Adolf Hitler's final days in his Berlin bunker. It was nominated in the best foreign language film category at this year's Oscars.

However, his excursion into opera met with little enthusiasm from domestic critics. "Eichinger showed a video for every state of the soul, degrading Wagner's music to the status of a soundtrack,'' the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.

It's the first time the Staatsoper has done Parsifal, Wagner's last work, in 13 years. The next performance of Eichinger's Parsifal is set for March 28.

Here is the full cast of the opening night performance:

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Production: Bernd Eichinger
Set Design: Jens Kilian

Amfortas: Roman Trekel
Titurel: Christof Fischesser
Gurnemanz: René Pape
Parsifal: Burkhard Fritz
Klingsor: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Kundry: Michaela Schuster
Flower Maidens: Ekaterina Siurina, Adriane Queiroz, Simone Schröder, Anna Samuil, Carola Höhn, Katharina Kammerloher
First Knight of the Grail: Peter-Jürgen Schmidt Second Knight of the Grail: Yi Yang
Squires: Anna Samuil, Katharina Kammerloher, Peter Menzel, Gustavo Peña
Altsolo: Simone Schröder

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The MET -- 2005-2006 Season Preview

The roster of works and performers for the Metropolitan Opera's 2005-2006 season has just been posted on the MET's new website. The season is replete with Wagnerian good news. Not quantity, but lots of promise for quality.

The 1998 Robert Wilson Lohengrin, which I have written about on the pages of Wagner Operas, will be making a return. If you have not seen this production, do not miss it. It is an unforgettable rethinking of the opera. This time around, the cast features Karita Mattila, Luana deVol, Ben Heppner or Klaus Florian Vogt, Richard Paul Fink or Greer Grimsley, and Stephen West or René Pape. James Levine will be conducting. To read further about this production click here.

Parsifal will be back for three performances in mid May, 2006. The cast will include Waltraud Meier, Ben Heppner, in his first Parsifal in the house, and Thomas Hampson singing his first Amfortas at the MET. René Pape will reprise his memorable portrayal of Gurnemanz, which he sang here back in 2003. James Levine is scheduled to conduct.

Other non-Wagnerian highlights of the up-coming season include the return of Verdi's La Forza del Destino and Falstaff. Bryn Terfel will bring us once again his amazing interpretation of Shakespeare's boozy, lovable knight, and James Levine will lead the MET orchestra. The Forza cast includes the interesting casting of Deborah Voigt and Salvatore Licitra, and will be lead by Gianandrea Noseda, the principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. During late December and early January Alban Berg's Wozzeck will come back to challenge MET audiences. This amazing score will also be led by James Levine, and will feature Katarina Dalayman, Clifton Forbis, Graham Clark, Alan Held, and Walter Fink.

For a complete list of next season's works click here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

T&I at the Bastille

The new production of Tristan und Isolde that is currently in preparation at the Bastille Opéra in Paris is the culmination of "The Tristan Project," a conceptual piece that began at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and is the brainchild of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, stage director Peter Sellars, and video artist Bill Viola: the same creative team which is now preparing the Bastille's premiere on April 12. The production will play for eight performances until May 7.



"The Tristan Project" was described by a Los Angeles Philharmonic press release as "a multi-discipline arts experience" presenting one semi-staged act of the opera on one night, along with works influenced by the opera; the kind of works that, in the opinion of maestro Salonen, could not have been composed without Tristan und Isolde having paved the way. The other pieces accompanying Wagner's opera were a suite from Claude Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite," and the West coast premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "Cinq reflets de l'Amour de loin." On artnet.com you can read all about the performances that took place in Los Angeles.

It is my understanding that the Paris Opéra production will not be "The Tristan Project" but T&I itself; it will not include the other pieces that played in L.A., and the entire opera will be performed in one night, as is the customary fashion. Performing the role of Tristan, Ben Heppner will sing seven out of the eight performances, and Waltraud Meir will be his Isolde throughout the run. It promises to be "the" opera event in Paris. For a preview of this production go directly to the Opéra National de Paris website.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

"The Gates" -- Gone but not Forgotten

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates" an installation that was in the works for two decades, and which captivated New York City for a mere sixteen-day stay is now history. As I write these words, the last of the 7, 500-plus gates still left in Central Park are being dismantled, according to the wishes of the artists, and nothing of the exhibit will remain for posterity. All will disappear except for thousands of swatches of saffron-colored cloth, millions of pictures, miles of film and videotape, and the lingering memory of the structures, forever preserved in the minds of people from around the world who came to New York City to experience this event.



According to the Pricewaterhouse Coopers Hospitality & Leisure practice, "The Gates" contributed to record February hotel occupancy in New York City during the last two weeks of the month. Occupancy averaged 84.2 percent during the weeks that the Christo and Jeanne-Claude project was in place, compared to an average of 71 percent for the preceding six weeks. The project brought an additional $26 million to New York City, and that is good for the city.

I visited "The Gates" four times. Twice on my own, and twice with friends. On three of those occasions I had my Nikon D-70 with me, and during my visits I took over 100 photographs of Central Park and the installation. There was snow on the ground during my second and third visits. That definitely added to the visual terrain of the park. "The Gates" photographed nicely against the snow, I think.

If you click here, you can see sixteen of those photographs, one for every day that "The Gates" were on public view. I hope that you enjoy these pictures.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bryn Terfel's Walküre

While New York City suffers through an unbearable Wagner dearth, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is basking in the glory of its new production of Die Walküre which premiered Saturday, March 5, and which is causing a sensation. This is the second installment in the still unfinished new Ring cycle, which will take some years to be completed. Although the staging is being received favorably and boos are not ringing out as in most current productions of Wagner's works, the talk of London town these days is not about sets, costumes, or direction, but rather of the first Wotan being sung by Bryn Terfel.



He has beguiled us with his Don Giovanni, enchanted us with his Falstaff, and his readings of George Frideric Handel have set the standard for a whole generation of singers. And now Bryn Terfel is exploring the German repertory. At last! He allowed us to enjoy his larger-than-life Jokanaan last year at the MET, taking some of the limelight away from Karita Mattila's striptease Salome. And now, he is trying out the role of Wotan, for the first time, at Covent Garden. The most human of gods is now being interpreted by one of the best loved singers of our generation. The news from London is that he is glorious. Here's what the critics are saying:

Rupert Christiansen writes in the Telegraph that "In his first Wotan, Bryn Terfel fulfils his destiny as an operatic singer. His clarity of projection, firmness of line, richness of tone and nobility of presence all bespeak rare artistry."

Here is the NY Times review by Paul Griffiths:

Bryn Terfel's First Wotan as Horns and Hounds Bay

By PAUL GRIFFITHS

LONDON, March 6 - The new Covent Garden production of Wagner's "Ring" revolved Saturday night into its second quadrant, with a performance of "Die Walküre" every bit as exciting as the "Rheingold" in December. Once again, the excitement was thoroughly and fundamentally musical, its dual sources in the singing and in the pit, where the company's music director, Antonio Pappano, made the score consistently intense and animated.

When Mr. Pappano was in charge of the Brussels opera, in the 1990's, his performances moved with the certainty that nothing is more dramatic than opening orchestral music to its full richness, detail and flow: its full expressive potential. In this "Walküre" the determination is the same, as is the triumph. Right from the opening storm music, where the main attacks seem to be punching out into the auditorium, there is the thrill of music speaking its utmost.

Mr. Pappano has his musicians fully committed. The brass sections, in particular, bring Wagner's musical onomatopoeia to life: the baying of Hunding's hounds, the snorting of Wotan's war steed, the bitter cosmic laughter. The strings beautifully underscore the tentative burgeoning of desire and recognition in the first act, with phrases caressingly dovetailed into silence. In the final scene, as Brünnhilde quietly starts to turn the mind of her father, Wotan, from fury, the woodwind counterpoint is delicately but firmly in support, with all its effects of color, contour and harmonic surprise on view.

But the essence of Mr. Pappano's work is dynamic, not only in the general briskness of his tempos and the thrust of his forward motion but also in his careful staging of the moments of orchestral outburst. The music following Brünnhilde's change of heart in her interview with Siegmund comes with its terror and colossal joy: the joy that she will now help the hero, the terror that she will be unable to do so. Similarly, in the last act, the interlude before Wotan's closing monologue has rapturous power, which certainly comes from its immediate context as a statement of father-daughter love but also from its place within that 70-minute act, as the arrival at the peak.

Arriving there with Mr. Pappano and the orchestra is Bryn Terfel in the role of Wotan, which he is singing for the first time, outstandingly. This is a god becoming a man, and growing. In the early stages of the second act, he finds places where he can let a phrase run loose a little, green and fresh, before he pulls it tight again. Then, as he is cornered by his wife, Fricka - sternly and strongly portrayed by Rosalind Plowright - he exchanges the easy confidence of command for a force born of awareness and experience. You hear this happening in his slow, soft turns within a trap from which he cannot escape. "I can do what I will" is changing into "I will do what I must."

The "will" is the same. Mr. Terfel's Wotan from this point abandons suavity to gain massively and musically in power. He sings, of course, what is written. Yet he seems to be improvising: to be Wotan. Just as, in his physical presence, he makes every gesture and movement come from the character, so his singing - always absorbing, always purposeful - projects the consciousness of the flawed immortal. The more he goes down, the more he rises.

His rage as he enters in the last act is stark, a rage Wotan is directing at himself, for his powerlessness. At the end he reaches up to magnificent pride. Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde is also a farewell to his own divinity, yet he goes like a god.

His Brünnhilde, Lisa Gasteen, is human all through. Her voice is rich and rounded, and she uses it to create a character of loveliness and eager sympathies. She does not need to learn from Siegmund and Sieglinde what it is to feel: she knows, and responds. The flame in her voice is warm, not hot, and easily blown by emotional circumstances.

Katarina Dalayman's Sieglinde is conversely complex. At first, as a domestic slave, she is wary, with a thoughtfulness that makes it possible for her to advance gradually, increasing in strength and resilience until she is fully steering the love scene with Siegmund. She later conveys distress and resolve with equal strength, her bleakness as engaged and luminous as her passion.

Jorma Silvasti offers a nicely gentle Siegmund, but one who can rise to the certainty of selfhood in the second act. Stephen Milling is the boorish, malevolent Hunding to the life, physically and in the superb rippling muscles of his singing.

Alas, as in "Rheingold," Keith Warner's direction is weak and sometimes vulgar.

Performances continue through March 28.

Monday, March 07, 2005

From Hell: Constantine

Sad, sad news: if you currently Image Google the word Constantine, your first hit will be a still showing Keanu Reeves, as renegade occultist and high-tech exorcist John Constantine, smoking a cigarette and finishing a bottle of cheap booze. Sadly enough, the Roman emperor Constantine, responsible for declaring himself a Christian and thus altering the history of the world, only comes in a distant third in Google-land.



Keanu Reeve's new film Constantine is terrible. The movie, directed by Francis Lawrence, and adapted from a seminal graphic novel, is the latest in Hollywood's new trend to adapt works of this genre into popular films. This time around the results are very poor. But I am not surprised. It is not the first time that Hollywood takes a stab at this form of entertainment and fails to achieve the kind of results that have proven to be so successful on the printed page.

A few years ago, From Hell came pretty close. The Allan Moore, Eddie Campbell graphic novel was ably adapted by the Hughes Brothers into a visually captivating film starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, and Robbie Coltrane. Propelled by the mystique surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, the movie did very well at the box office and received very positive critical praise from many critics. When I attended the film, I did not know that it was an adaptation, and much less of a graphic novel, a genre that I was still calling comic books back then. Once I got around to reading Allan Moore's book , I thought that his work was vastly superior to the Hughes film. The novel was in black-and-white, somehow making the grisly events portrayed even more gruesome, and giving the work a dark Victorian look. My first thought was that the film should have also been made in black-and-white. But green-lighting a B&W movie these days in Hollywood is next to impossible. Besides, nobody in Hollywood nowadays seems to know how to work in B&W, except for maybe Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, or Jim Jarmusch. The graphic novel's elegant pen and ink drawings had given way to a rainbow of Hollywood colors, and somehow, it was all wrong.

Another Allan Moore work (and my particular favorite) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen became a disastrous movie starring Sean Connery. The least said about this film the better. Suffice it to say that, enthralled by this book, I seriously looked forward to the film adaptation. When I finally got around to see it (on HBO, mind you, the reviews kept me away from the theaters and saved me a few bucks) I could not believe my eyes. This movie changed my life. After that, I no longer looked forward to Hollywood adaptations of novels, graphic or otherwise.

I should have stayed miles away from Constantine. One of my friends had a nice "I told you so" after I informed him how much the movie stunk. Wondering about it, I think that the reason why I went to see it was due, no doubt, to its amazing trailer, which promised a compelling visual feast back in December, which lured me back to the theater months later, and ultimately delivered very little of what it originally promised. But a two minute trailer is really all that Constantine has going for it.

By the way, this is Francis Lawrence's first film, having previously only directed music videos for Britney Spears, Will Smith, and Aerosmith. No wonder the movie was awful, and the trailer highly effective and promising. Now that music videos have become the training ground for future hacks, we are certain to expect a lot more Constantines filling digitally-projected screens in every multiplex in America. Now if we can only get a real exorcist to drive these movies back into the infernal abyss from whence they came, then we could all sing hosannas and other triumphant sounds of victory.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Oscars 2005 or Why Chris Rock Sucked


Does Chris Rock's rude and irreverent view of the world qualify him to host film's most prestigious gala event? Should his race-obsessed patter be the language of choice for this kind of event? Apparently Oscar wants to grow up, throw away the knickers (although Oscar always stood proudly in his golden nakedness) and enter modern times. The question is whether that is too much to ask of a show that year after year takes a gamble in looking fresh and new, but which always prefers to look back to the glory and limelight of decades past.

One of the best loved segments from the Oscar ceremony has always been the omnibus of film clips at the beginning of the show. It is here that the reverent tone of the show is set yearly. This time around, was no exception. In the past few years, when Billy Crystal has broken that tradition by including song-and-dance segments, and spoof film clips featuring himself, it has always been with a loving eye to the world of movies. The other segment of the show that's an audience favorite is the "In Memoriam" section. In addition, lifetime achievement awards such as the honorary Oscar awarded to Sidney Lumet this year are inherently nostalgic looks at Hollywood's greatness, thus forcing us to examine careers that have spanded generations, and settling us once again very much in the safe world of sentimentality and nostalgia. Exactly what the Academy Awards should be about. Besides, everybody knows that, when in doubt, the Oscar vote will always go for the safe movie. In today's New York Times, Caryn James expressed it best when she wrote that Oscar "knows it ought to move into the 21st century, but hates the idea."

Chris Rock hosting the Academy Awards was no big deal. It was the latest way that the show wanted to stay fresh and relevant. He just wasn't very good. Nothing worse than threatening to bring an M16 and at the last minute trading it in for a cap pistol. I was expecting that seven second delay to be working overtime, instead it is unlikely that it was ever used; although it should have been working nonstop to edit out the barrage of annoying "OK's" that seemed to follow every joke made by the host. This repetitive nervousness made Chris Rock sound like a lame, under-rehearsed soap-box speaker instead of the million dollar baby comedian that his reputation is built on.

For ease of delivery and genuine humor, all that Chris Rock has to do is go to the videotape and watch Robin Williams' segment as a presenter. His five minutes of screen-time wiped Chris Rock off the map. After that, Chris Rock was fighting for his life, and his appearance was at best -- inconsequential.

When Quincy Jones, P. Diddy, Spike Lee (whose get-up made him look like a Brooklyn version of Secret Squirrel's sidekick Morocco Mole), and Oprah Winfrey praised Chris Rock's performance it was an Afrocentric knee-jerk reaction to one of their own having arrived. It certainly could not have been in praise of the comedian's terrible performance. The worse part of the evening came when they rolled a segment that Rock filmed in a movie theater lobby interviewing black audiences. It seems that everyone there had seen the highly forgettable White Chicks but had managed to miss the best-picture nominee The Aviator. This kind of slap-in-the-face at the movie industry's lack of connectivity with minorities landed like a lead balloon in the industry-filled audience, and Hollywood does not like to have its feeding hand bitten away.

I don't even went to get into the Jude Law insult in the beginning of the show, but I was very happy when Sean Penn came out in defense of his fellow actor. Jude Law is an amazing talent, and maybe Chris Rock has never heard of him because he has been too busy watching bootlegs of White Chicks.

NB: Click here for a complete list of Jude Law's films.