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Sunday, November 27, 2011
Hugo, Movie Magic via Martin Scorsese
When young Marty was a kid growing up in New York's Little Italy, often his health did not allow him to play with the other neighborhood kids. He would observe the world from his Elizabeth street window, and fill notebooks with storyboards of imaginary films. As a child, he was already measuring reality through the frame of a window, similar to the way the camera eye composes a shot. When we first meet young Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) his big sad blue eyes are staring at the world from inside the giant clock in the large railway station in which he lives. His "Hunchback of Notre Dame" existence consists of winding the big clock to ensure that he will not be sent to an orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), as well as stealing gears from a toy seller with a past (Ben Kingsley) in order to make a mechanical automaton -- a legacy from his dead father (Jude Law) -- come to life. As young Hugo begins to work for the mysterious toy seller he learns that the old bitter man is a very special person, none other than Georges Méliès the great film pioneer magician who between 1896 and 1913 made more than 500 short films including the classic "A Trip to the Moon" but who fell into bankruptcy and obscurity after the Great War. Before long, young Hugo and his pal Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) are on a mission to deliver Méliès (Isabelle's godfather) back from obscurity.
This is Mr. Scorsese's first 3-D film, and it finds him in a playful mood with his new toy, echoing the world of cinema right and left. His trademark moving camera, traditionally always on the prowl, here achieves a sense of depth that Alfred Hitchcock was able to capture in his one and only 3-D film Dial M for Murder. As a matter of fact, there are many homages to the Master in this film. The way that Hugo spies on the regulars that gather at the railway station reminds us of Jimmy Stewart looking out of his Rear Window. Even Hugo's dwelling inside the clock, with dozens of moving gears and mechanical parts, reminds us of the inner workings of a motion picture projector. The stairs that lead up to it bring us back to the Master by giving us a sense of Vertigo.
But when the movie flashes back to the end of the 19th century, that's when the real cinematic magic begins. Scorsese's recreation of the heyday of Georges Méliès and his wondrous, hand-tinted, theatrical and fantastical films is an unforgettable, loving homage to the time when the movies began. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable performance as Méliès, forgotten and wounded in his old age, but as a young man sunny, full of enthusiasm, and wide-eyed at the possibilities that this new medium can offer.
In many ways I picture Martin Scorsese sharing this enthusiasm when making this film. A work so different from the rest of his other works, and yet so close to his own heart and imagination. It might just become the movie that he will be best remembered for.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
J Edgar, Clint Eastwood's film with Leo DiCaprio
In 1995, three years before the titanic turn that turned him into "Leo," DiCaprio showed that he could portray sexually ambivalent characters convincingly. In Total Eclipse, he played the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a performance soaked in absinthe and featuring a torrid and graphic lust affair with older poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). It was the first and last time that we would see DiCaprio having sex with a man on screen. After Titanic the very thought of it seemed ludicrous. Now, In J. Edgar, DiCaprio once again plays a character awash with feelings for a man, but whereas his Rimbaud was a sexual animal on the prowl, the extent to which his Hoover shows affection does not go beyond a momentary touch of Clyde Tolson's hand. As played by Mr. Hammer, Tolson is just as sexually inept as his boss, and this leads to quite a memorable scene in a hotel room.
Aside from spying upon J. Edgar Hoover's sexual peccadilloes, the film largely focuses on delineating the beginnings and growth of the FBI, while portraying Hoover as a monster who seeks the limelight at any cost and who keeps secret files on everyone. Clint Eastwood relishes the chance to do early 20th century period once again as in his Changeling back in 2008. The color palette provided by cinematographer Tom Stern (who also shot Changeling) captures well the 1930s as well as the 1970s, the two decades which the movie explores.
Any film that covers half a century for its character is going to need old age makeup, and as usual, this is where today's films always falter. The glory days of Citizen Kane, where with simple theatrical makeup Orson Welles was able to transform himself into an old man, have disappeared. The credits to this film lists twenty makeup artists, and the results are mediocre. The film features liberal use of prosthetics in well-lit scenes: never a good combination. For example, one daylight exterior scene at the racetrack reduces Armie Hammer's face to that of an immobile waxen dummy. Somehow, DiCaprio pushes his performance through the latex and in the struggle with makeup he manages to survive. Naomi Watts, who plays Helen Gandi, Hoover's longtime secretary, ends up looking creepy.
If you can get through the makeup I am sure that you will enjoy J. Edgar. It is the kind of well-made, well-paced film that Hollywood tends to favor around Oscar time. Already, the buzz is on for DiCaprio. This is the closest he has come in his career to making us forget that he is Leo and making us believe that he is the character. Maybe it's the make-up, after all, adding gravitas to his performance. Perhaps this year the Academy will honor his efforts.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Richard Peña to Step Down from the NY Film Festival
The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced this evening that FSLC’s longtime Program Director and Head of the NYFF Selection Committee, Richard Peña, will step down from those posts at the conclusion of next year’s 50th New York Film Festival, and his 25th year with the Film Society. At that time, Peña will continue his involvement and has agreed to stay on to help design and organize a new educational initiative at the Film Society.
Dan Stern, President of FSLC’s Board of Directors made the announcement prior to the Closing Night Gala screening of THE DESCENDANTS, saying, “For the past 24 years Richard Peña has served as the Chairman of the Selection Committee for the Festival as well as the Program Director of the Film Society. Richard has informed the Board that at the end of 2012—after the Festival’s 50th anniversary, and his 25th at its helm—he will step down from both posts. Richard has been with the Film Society through the opening of the Walter Reade Theater as well as the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and we are pleased that he has accepted our invitation to stay on to help create a new educational initiative at the Film Society.”
Regarding the timing of the move, Peña said, “Heading into the fiftieth anniversary of the Festival, it seems a perfect time for a transition, both for me personally and for the organization. Working at the Film Society has been beyond a "dream come true," but in the years left me I would like to possibly explore other areas of interest, both within and beyond the cinema. I also feel that, like at any other cultural institution, change can be important, as it will bring in fresh ideas and approaches to lead the Film Society into its next fifty years.”
FSLC’s Executive Director, Rose Kuo said,“Richard Pena has been a shining light for more than two decades at the Film Society, guiding us in the discovery of artists like Pedro Almodóvar, Mike Leigh, Lars Von Trier, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Sang Soo and many more. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with Richard and I am delighted that he will continue with us as he transitions to a new period in his career and life.”
Peña has been the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival since 1988. At the Film Society, he has organized retrospectives of Michelangelo Antonioni, Sacha Guitry, Abbas Kiarostami, Robert Aldrich, Roberto Gavaldon, Ritwik Ghatak, Kira Muratova, Youssef Chahine, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Saura and Amitabh Bachchan, as well as major film series devoted to African, Israeli, Cuban, Polish, Hungarian, Arab, Korean, Swedish, Taiwanese and Argentine cinema. In addition, he is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema, and from 2006-2009 was a Visiting Professor in Spanish at Princeton University. He is also currently the co-host of WNET/Channel 13’s weekly Reel 13.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
The 10 Best at this Year's NY Film Festival
7. My Week With Marilyn. A sunny tale of showbiz legends Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, via director Simon Curtis. Fluffy entertainment featuring great performances from Eddie Redmayne, Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh.
8. Melancholia. An examination of the mental breakdown of a recent bride as the world is threaten by total annihilation. An enigmatic story from Lars von Trier with tour-de-force cinematography, memorable Richard Wagner music, and a knockout performance by Kirsten Dunst.
9. Tahrir: Liberation Square. A cinéma vérité documentary about the recent revolution in Egypt. Stefano Savona's work puts you right in the middle of the action, his camera uncannily acts as a magnet that draws forth the events right to you, and you right to the middle of history.
10. The Artist. A loving Valentine to classic Hollywood movies. French director Michel Hazanavicius's silent film is a lot of fun to watch and an audience crowd-pleaser. It features many fine performances by a French and American cast, and one canine actor that almost steals the whole show.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In at the NY Film Festival
It's hard to discuss this movie without giving away its juicy secrets. Let's just say that it is always chilling to watch any story where a doctor disregards his Hippocratic oath. It is a premise that takes us straight into the horror genre and the world of mad scientists breaking the laws of nature. In this film, Antonio Banderas, back working with Almodóvar after a hiatus of twenty some odd years, plays Doctor Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but obsessed scientist who early in the film, in the middle of an academic presentation, announces to the medical community that he has invented a type of synthetic skin more resilient to damage. His invention could very well revolutionize plastic surgery. What his colleagues don't know is that this seemingly altruistic doctor is obsessed with a mysterious woman whom he has locked up in his house (The beautifully radiant Elena Anaya), and whose perfect skin is a result of the experiments that he has performed on her. There is more here than meets the eye, and as The Skin I Live In starts shedding its layers the film goes deep beyond the outer epidermis. Almodóvar manages to pull off this feat with the mastery of a skilled surgeon digging his scalpel as far in as it can go.
Lately, Almodóvar's scripts have examined how events in the past color our present existence. With this film, the director weaves a Freudian tale (based on a French novel by Thierry Jonquet) that descends into the darkest side of sex. We flashback in the story in order to reveal past events that are key to understanding the narrative. In this respect, this film owes much to Hitchcock's Vertigo. Even Alberto Iglesias's startling music reminds us very much of Bernard Herrmann's memorable score to that film. Throughout his career, but especially in his last few films, Almodóvar, like Hitchcock, has examined and re-examined the psychological aspects of sexuality, and this film might just be the pinnacle of that deep obsession. His films have always been obsessed with flesh, and now this one takes this subject to a new level.
Stylistically, Almodóvar has never been afraid of showing his characters running the gamut of emotions. In an Almodóvar film one can expect raw nerves and usually one gets a fair share of them. At times, though, this style does not translate well outside of the Spanish-speaking world and oftentimes Almodóvar is accused of allowing his actors to overact, and his stories to go out of control in a passionate avalanche of excess. Spanish language and culture can, indeed, be more baroque and likely to relish in excess than American audiences are accustomed to. As a result Almodóvar and kitsch are words that often and sometimes unfairly go together in the minds of many film goers. Without a doubt, The Skin I Live In is the most over-the-top that Almodóvar has been in a long time, but somehow, the director makes it work because he believes in the logic of this crazy world that he has created.
The Skin I Live In will haunt you for a long time after you've seen it. It is a totally satisfying well-made film, if at times too frank, too gruesome, and too self-absorbed in its own world. It is a chance to witness a modern master of the cinema at work in the territory that he knows best.
Sunday, October 09, 2011
My Week with Marilyn at the NY Film Festival
If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it's because it's more or less the same territory covered in the 1982 hit comedy My Favorite Year. The locale has changed from the Sid Caesar show in New York City to Pinewood Studios in England, but the premise feels essentially the same. In My Favorite Year young intern Mark Linn-Baker is hired to make sure that his movie idol, the alcoholic devil-may-care Peter O'Toole, stays out of trouble for a week and shows up for a live TV broadcast. In My Week with Marilyn, Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark, an underling who works for Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), ends up becoming the only person on the set who can reach out to pill-addicted Marilyn (Michelle Williams) and ends up becoming her one true friend.
Despite the fact that we've all seen this before, the casting is quite inspired making the movie a sheer pleasure to watch. Gathered here are the very best American and British actors, sometimes in tiny blink-and-you-miss them roles. There's the remarkable Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, as well as Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones, Emma Watson, and Derek Jacobi in relatively miniscule roles. Zoë Wannamaker as Marilyn's acting coach/guru Paula Strasberg, and Dominic Cooper as Marilyn's photographer/Svengali Milton Greene have more screen time and are quite memorable in their roles.
But the film is all about Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark in the middle of the Olivier/Monroe storm. Mr. Redmayne, who was wonderful in London and New York in the play Red playing Mark Rothko's assistant (and incidentally winning the Olivier Award for his performance), is totally believable as the ingenue who in a week matures into a man. His fresh, freckled face and full lips contrasts well with Mr. Branagh's airbrushed thin lipped near-caricature of Olivier. Branagh plays the great actor/director as a lion in winter who mistakenly thought that hiring Monroe would make him feel young again. Soon he realizes that her natural qualities sharply accentuate how much he is aging and how dated his technique can seem. This Olivier detests method acting but longs to be relevant to a young audience. Ms. Williams gives a memorable performance as the troubled and needy Marilyn Monroe. Beautifully photographed in vibrant 1950s style by Ben Smithard, she plays her as a child who might have grown up way too soon without having had a childhood at all. Now, caught up in the whirlwind of fame, photographers, fans, and the pills that her entourage keeps feeding her, she longs for somebody real, and that's where Mr. Redmayne's Colin comes in. The scenes where they both leave the set and visit the English countryside have an idyllic, warm quality. Forget about Marilyn the sex symbol, this is the Marilyn anyone would have loved to have hung around with -- vivacious, fun, naughty, but always with a complex center that was hard to reach.
Despite all the backstage and personal drama, director Simon Curtis manages to keep things sunny throughout. We are even reminded at the end of the film that following the Sturm und Drang of the Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier went on to score one of his biggest successes playing Archie Rice in John Osborne's angry young man play The Entertainer, and Marilyn went on to do Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time. Sir Larry got to be relevant with the young crowd, and Marilyn went back home to prove to everyone that she was a great actress. One leaves a showing of My Week with Marilyn with the feeling that everything is right with the world.
As The King's Speech proved last year, this is the kind of film that Hollywood adores. American audiences love British drama, and in this one you have one of the best loved American icons in the center of it all. I expect that My Week with Marilyn will do very well at the box office, and especially well come Oscar time.
Friday, October 07, 2011
Melancholia by Lars von Trier at the NY Film Festival
This inevitable interplanetary crash can now be seen as a metaphor for Mr. von Trier's recent escapades. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Melancholia took center stage as a result of Mr. Von Trier's wrecking ball behavior and his comments about Nazism. At the screening of the film this week at the New York Film Festival, the absent von Trier sent an e-mail to the Film Society of Lincoln Center stating that in the future he will no longer be giving any press conferences. If he keeps his promise, this is a good decision. Many times he fails to recognize that his films speak for themselves, and that no show-biz shenanigans are needed to supplement what to this moment has been a uniquely successful career. Artistically and stylistically he is one of the great talents in world cinema, and many feel that with Melancholia he might have reached the zenith of his career.
Melancholia begins with an amazing tour-de-force prologue featuring scenes reminiscent of Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad to Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. While the soundtrack plays Richard Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde we see images of irrepressible beauty, and surreal splendor that introduce us to Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, who gets married while in the throes of a deep depression as we see a planet called Melancholia approaching and ultimately colliding with planet Earth. In essence, the prelude offers us a complete film in the same way that Wagner's prelude is a musical encapsulation of his entire opera, or how the "News on the March" documentary that begins Orson Welles's Citizen Kane offers a miniature version of the story that will follow. But it takes Richard Wagner many hours to resolve the harmonic conflict that he sets up with the famous "Tristan chord" in the third measure of his score. It is not until many hours later that his music resolves itself into a crescendo of tonality, very much the process of Mr. von Trier's film which ends with an apocalyptic crescendo reminding us of Wagner's other work, the end of the world opus, Götterdämmerung.
The nucleus of Melancholia is structured in two acts. The first, labeled "Justine," is devoted to a disastrous wedding reception, the length of which makes the interminable wedding scenes of The Deer Hunter appear the length of a freeze frame, but which feature incredible performances by the likes of John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlotte Rampling, who play the most salient characters of Justine highly dysfunctional family. The second half, called "Claire," named after Justine's sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, develops the mental landscape of several of the main characters while focusing on Justine's descent into the kind of madness where we realize that the impending interplanetary cataclysm might just all be in her mind.
Melancholia is a long and tedious film filled with sumptuous imagery that harbors an empty nihilistic core at its center. And although most of the performances are memorable (especially Ms. Dunst and Ms. Gainsbourg) we fail to connect with very few of its characters at any level.
Ultimately, I recommend the film because of its deliriously beautiful imagery coupled with a very impressive use of music. In addition, Lars von Trier is a serious artist, and any new work of his ought to be experienced. Here is an artist who has never sold out to popular tastes or become commonplace. You may not understand all of Melancholia (I don't think anyone, including von Trier does) but it will make you think beyond the proverbial box where Hollywood persists on trapping us.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Roman Polanski's CARNAGE at the NY Film Festival
Unable to come legally to the United States, Roman Polanski shot the film in Paris, although the Brooklyn setting of the story is maintained. As the two couples, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan. All the performances are first rate, and the script allows each actor more than one moment to shine in the spotlight. Ms. Foster, as the righteous, art-loving Penelope gives a performance of theatrical dimensions, at times verging on over the top histrionics. Kate Winslet, her American accent perfect as always, goes from sophisticated elegance to bitter drunkenness with convincing results. Christoph Waltz, playing her lawyer husband, a man more in tune with his Blackberry than with his own wife or son, has an air of detached ennui that fits the character perfectly. But perhaps the most satisfying of the quartet is Mr. Reilly, who slips into his role so effortlessly and convincingly that the performance is totally worthy of a well-deserved Academy Award.
Mr. Polanski is no stranger to filming in enclosed spaces. Repulsion (1965) showed us what he can do inside of a claustrophobic London flat as a schizophrenic Catherine Deneuve descends into madness. Two years later Rosemary's Baby (1968) explores how a dream Manhattan apartment can turn into a prison -- complete with next door witches and warlocks -- for Mia Farrow. Likewise, in this film, the Brooklyn apartment where all the action takes place, is not big enough to contain the emotions that erupt within it.
Once again, Roman Polanski gives us a film filled with ironies and unanswered questions, and in the process, puts us in the middle of a ride that will take us a long time to forget. At the heart of his latest work are four performances that will remain with us long after the last frame flickers on the screen.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
NY Film Festival: Tahrir: Liberation Square
I couldn't agree more: it's not so much that Savona's camera invades the space, the feeling one gets is that the revolution somehow manages to come to him. His camera is both a curious observer and an active participant. But it is not a foreign hungry lens capturing earth shattering events of a foreign nation, but rather a homegrown magnet where the various episodes just seem to naturally gravitate towards him in wave after wave of memorable images that become indelible in our minds.
An unforgettable scene features an older man passionately talking straight into Savona's camera explaining that this revolution was started by young people, and that even though he is in his sixties he wants everyone to know that he feels like a young man who is ready to die for his country. Savona at times allows his images to go momentarily out of focus, thus giving the documentary a news report immediacy that creates the illusion of putting us right inside the front ranks of the revolutionaries. At the same time, we also know that this is a carefully crafted film, its 91 minutes having being boiled down from more than thirty hours of raw footage.
Egypt is currently a work in progress, and Savona's documentary feels unfinished in a good way. He didn't start filming at the beginning of the revolution simply because he was not in the country to capture the opening salvos. His "in medias res" results reminds us that the politics of Egypt currently are in a state of transition. This he captures beautifully in the last shots of the film where a woman rants and raves to a crowd of onlookers yelling at them that once the revolutionaries leave Tahrir Square the old regime could come back. It is a chilling reminder of the uncertainty of the political tides after a revolution, and it addresses the current problems that the country is going through today.
If you want to know the details of the Tahrir Square Revolution and its aftermath keep following the world's newspapers or buy any of the books that have recently been appearing about the events. If you want to be there, watch Stefano Savona's unforgettable documentary.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
The Main Slate for the NY Film Festival is Set
Here are the rest of the films of the 49th New York Film Festival:
4:44: Last Day On Earth, directed by Abel Ferrara (USA)
A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Corpo Celeste, directed by Alice Rohrwacher (Italy/Switzerland/France)
Footnote, directed by Joseph Cedar (Israel)
George Harrison: Living In The Material World, directed by Martin Scorsese (USA)
Goodbye First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (France/Germany)
Le Havre, directed by Aki Kaurismäki (Finland/France/Germany)
Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin (USA)
Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany/Italy)
Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo (Mexico)
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
Pina, directed by Wim Wenders (Germany/France/UK)
Play, directed by Ruben Östlund (Sweden/France/Denmark)
Policeman, directed by Nadav Lapid (Israel/France)
Shame, directed by Steve McQueen (UK)
Sleeping Sickness, directed by Ulrich Köhler (Germany/France/Netherlands)
The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (France)
The Loneliest Planet, directed by Julia Loktev (USA/Germany)
The Kid With A Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France)
The Student, directed by Santiago Mitre (Argentina)
The Turin Horse, directed by Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky (Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/USA)
This Is Not A Film, directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (Iran)
This year's festival promises to be an exciting one with the return of Abel Ferrara, Steve McQueen, Aki Kaurismäki, Martin Scorsese, and Wim Wenders. It has been a long while since Mr. Wenders has been represented at the festival, and any new film he makes is always eagerly awaited. Lars von Trier's Melancholia will certainly be one of the hot tickets in lieu of the fact that the director scandalized the Cannes Film Festival this year by confessing to the press that he was a Nazi. If he makes an appearance here to present his film, both the Q&A and the audience's reception promises to be very interesting.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Roman Polanski Film to Open New York Film Festival
New York, NY, July 29, 2011 - The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE will make its North American Premiere as the Opening Night film for the upcoming 49th New York Film Festival (September 30 – October 16).
"From KNIFE IN THE WATER (which screened at the first edition of NYFF in 1963) to REPULSION to THE TENANT, Roman Polanski has shown himself to be an absolute master at making the most restricted spaces come to dramatic life. In CARNAGE, aided by four remarkable performances, he has reached a new pinnacle in his already extraordinary career," says Richard Peña, Selection Committee Chair & Program Director, The Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Based on Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”, the 2009 Tony Award-winner for Best Play, CARNAGE follows the events of an evening when two Brooklyn couples are brought together after their children are involved in a playground fight. Produced by Said Ben Said, the Sony Pictures Classics release stars Academy Award winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz and Academy Award nominee John C. Reilly.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Biogas at Bayreuth: The new Tannhäuser production
When Festspielchief Katharina Wagner staged her revisionist, controversial production of Die Meistersinger in 2007 she opened the Regietheater floodgates at the Green Hill, assuring the world, as she inherited the helm of the festival from her father Wolfgang Wagner, that Bayreuth would remain a place of outrageous experimentation in the staging of her great-grandfather's works. Four years earlier avant-garde artist Christoph Schlingensief had already set down the template for what was to come with his notorious production of Parsifal that set the action in Africa and featured film footage of a decomposing rabbit. When Katharina's turn came up to stage Meistersinger critics and puzzled audiences questioned what a shower of sneakers and masturbating statues of famous Germans had to do with Wagner's only comedy. But the die was already cast. It became clear that the principal aim of these productions was to provoke. As music critic Alex Ross wrote in his insightful review of the Schlingensief Parsifal "The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it ... you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you." In other words, they want you to hate it, they want you to boo, and if you do, then they have a triumph on their hands.
This opening night saw Thomas Hengelbrock conduct the Dresden version of Tannhäuser with a professional swift hand. The orchestra and especially the chorus received the biggest hand of the evening, and they deserved it. The chorus was particularly focused, achieving a smooth, pure sound that suddenly reminded everyone that the Bayreuth sound is quite special when things are done correctly. Unfortunately, Lars Cleveman, in the title role received only a lukewarm reception from the audience, and Stephanie Friede, as Venus, was booed. Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth sang with an assured tone. Both Günther Groissböck (Landgraf Herrmann) and Michael Nagy (Wolfram von Eschenbach) received the biggest applause of the evening. Needless to say, Sebastian Baumgarten and the rest of the production team were booed very loudly.
Hopefully, this production will remain at the Festspielhaus for only a few years. No doubt it will be replaced, in the near future, with another more indignant exercise in provocation. This is what Bayreuth is all about these days.
Monday, July 25, 2011
First video of Sebastian Baumgarten's Tannhäuser
Israeli Musicians to play at the Bayreuth Festival
Germany's 100th Richard Wagner opera festival kicked off here Monday in an edition that will include a taboo-busting performance by an Israeli orchestra.
The annual tribute to the works of the 19th-century composer, a fervent anti-Semite who later inspired Nazi leaders, will include for the first time a concert by musicians from Israel, which maintains an unwritten Wagner ban.
On Monday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet led a parade of political and business elites mounting Bayreuth's famed Green Hill to the concert hall built in 1876.
Audiences were keenly awaiting the opening performance of Tannhäuser, a romantic opera considered the seminal work of Wagner's younger years, but the Israel Chamber Orchestra's concert Tuesday was the hottest ticket in town.
The musicians are scheduled to perform Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" during a concert otherwise dominated by works by Jewish composers including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.
Performances of Wagner's work are almost unheard of in Israel.
When Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem in 2001, dozens of audience members stormed out.
Israel Chamber Orchestra first clarinettist, 27-year-old Dan Erdmann, said he had attended that concert with his father.
"He (Barenboim) indicated to those who wanted to leave to do so but at the same time, the orchestra was ready to play for those who chose to stay," he told AFP.
"Thirty or forty people left, some of them shouting and cursing and slamming the doors. The rest stayed and gave a standing ovation at the end."
Ten years on, the Israeli concert is not part of the official Bayreuth Festival program but it has nonetheless set some tempers flaring.
"The decision of the Israel Chamber Orchestra sadly represents an act of moral failure and a disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"Nobody suggests that Wagner's music not be played. But the public Jewish refusal to do so was a powerful message of indignation to the world that exposed Wagner's odious anti-Semitic ideas and those who championed them."
The city of Bayreuth and the Wagner family, which notoriously courted Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, are meanwhile trying to break with the past.
Bayreuth plans to start a Jewish cultural centre while Katharina Wagner, the 32-year-old great-granddaughter of the composer and co-director of the festival, has pledged to open the family archives revealing the extent of her ancestors' entanglement with the Nazis.
Felix Gothart, a leader of the Bayreuth Jewish community, which now has about 500 members, twice the number in 1933 when Hitler came to power, was also critical of the decision to invite the Israeli musicians to play this year.
"As soon as a single person was offended by the fact that Wagner is being played by Jews in Germany it would have been better to keep a lower profile," he told AFP.
However the president of Israel's fledgling Wagner society said he was delighted that an Israeli orchestra would be performing in Bayreuth, saying it could represent a new beginning.
"I hope that the concert will mark a new step towards the lifting of the taboo in Israel against Wagner, one of the principal composers of the 19th century, and that he will soon by performed freely in our country," Jonathan Livni said.
The Bayreuth Festival runs to August 28.
Friday, July 22, 2011
The Bayreuth Festival Begins
In addition, on August 14th there will be a live video broadcast of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuensfels. This production premiered last summer to great critical acclaim. This year the leading roles will be sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, and Georg Zeppenfeld. For information about how you can watch this transmission click here.
In addition, to prepare yourself for the video transmission you can listen to "Of Rats and Men and Lohengrin" my podcast of last year's opening night by clicking here.
The Bayreuth Festival is always an important cultural event, and this year's live video performance of Lohengrin will allow fans all over the world the chance to experience Mr. Neuensfels controversial vision of Wagner's opera (see picture above). If anything, it promises to be a puzzling but fun staging, and I am sure it will be greeted, as it was last year, with the usual mix of bravos and boos. Make sure you tune in.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Alexander McQueen - Savage Beauty
The exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, hits all the right points in establishing McQueen as more than just a fashion designer, but a visionary in tune with historical artistic movements and British socio-political concerns. Gallery after gallery we meet the many sides of a very complex artist not afraid to change styles even further than those dictated by the ever-changing whims of the fashion world. There's the Gothic McQueen, the primitive McQueen, as well as the exotic, naturalist, and nationalistic McQueen. But throughout all the different phases of the man, there are two constants that never waiver: an intense grounding in Romanticism as a point of departure for all his ideas, and solid craftsmanship skills learned while an apprentice at Anderson and Shephard, Gieves & Hawkes and other bespoke tailoring houses on Savile Row. The meeting point of a fervid imagination and spectacular couture is at the very heart of this exhibition, and the MET has done a terrific job not just collecting all the dresses together, but providing the appropriate lighting, ambiance and music (George Frideric Handel's Sarabande used in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon and a haunting composition called "Disco Bloodbath" by Mekon are unforgettable) that makes us seem as if we are attending an actual McQueen runway show.
And then there are the accessories. The majority of the mannequins in the show are presented wearing appropriate headgear or masks fashioned by influential British hairstylist Guido Palau. These are essential to every single creation, and I would not dream of imagining this show without them. Unfortunately, the exhibition catalog, which does a very good job of capturing in photographs this show, fails to include any of them. Thankfully, the catalog does picture the amazing "butterfly hat" created by Philip Treacy for the "La Dame Bleue" Spring/Summer 2008 show as well as many other accessories that were key to the McQueen experience.
Whatever your interest or knowledge in the fashion world you are going to be impressed by how well this exhibition has been put together. What's more, you are going to come out with a greater appreciation for the world of haute couture. No doubt you will emerge from the show with some definite favorites in mind. You might be carried away by the incredible flower dress (pictured above) that McQueen created for the Spring/Summer 2007 show which he called "Sarabande." Or you might be totally fascinated by the dress made entirely of pheasant feathers for his "Widows of Culloden" collection a year earlier. Two impressive creations filled with a pervading sense of finality. From his Jack the Ripper collection to the very end, McQueen was not afraid to court Death throughout his career.
On my second visit to the exhibition I was fascinated by the hologram that concluded the "Widows of Culloden" show. Model Kate Moss appears out of the void, floating in space, wearing an incredible billowing dress of ivory silk and organza while the music of the film Schindler's List plays in the background. So brave and noble of McQueen to conclude his show in a celebration of Kate Moss as a fashion icon only months after the model had been involved in a drug scandal.
Here is the incredible finale to "The Widows of Culloden."
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Mark Rylance Does it Again!
"Walking through a Wall" by Louis Jenkins
"Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side."
Monday, May 30, 2011
The Tree of Life
And to get us through this epic journey, Malick has chosen some of the most ravishing classical music ever assembled for one motion picture. Whatever you think of Malick's masterful film, I am certain that you will not be disappointed by its superb soundtrack featuring the music of Brahms, Berlioz, among many others. And neither will you be disappointed by the powerful performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a struggling 1950s couple, as well as by their three children portrayed by Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tyre Sheridan. Sean Penn, playing one of the grownup children, gets inside of his cameo role revealing a profoundly deep sense of alienation. Without uttering a single word he is able to convey that he is one of the many lost souls trapped in our modern world of concrete, steel and glass. Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's memorable images are outstandingly beautiful whether capturing Eisenhower's America or the Jurassic prehistoric period.
When Herman Melville wrote and published the entertaining Omoo in 1847 it turned out to be a popular narrative of the South Seas aboard a whaling vessel, selling very well in the US and England. In 1851 Melville published the dark and brooding Moby Dick, another tale aboard a whaling ship, but this time a narrative filled with digressions referencing the Bible, philosophy and cetology. Needless to say, it was a critical and popular failure when it was published. Today Omoo is a nearly forgotten work, while Moby Dick has achieved the status of a classic. Allow me to predict the same fate for Terrence Malick's new film. The Tree of Life is destined for a place in the pantheon (if you allow me an auteur term) of great American films.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Is Lars von Trier a Nazi?
“The only thing I can tell you is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew, then later on came [Danish, and Jewish, director] Susanne Bier, and suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. That was a joke. Sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew. If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family was German. Which also gave me some pleasure.
“So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things — yes, absolutely — but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I’m just saying that I think I understand the man. He’s not what you could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit, yes. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War! And I’m not against Jews. No, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke. I am, of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence? I just want to say I’m very much for Speer. Albert Speer, I liked. He was also, maybe, one of God’s best children. He had some talent that was kind of possible for him to use during, um… Okay, I’m a Nazi.”
Is Lars von Trier a Nazi? I sincerely doubt it. He enjoys being a provocateur, and he likes to exercise this devil-of-an-impish streak whenever he can. Unfortunately, he neither seems to lack any common sense, nor does he know when it is best to quit and stay silent. To add to the problem, lately he seems to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis that has made him stop drinking but which inexplicably has catapulted him into the realm of psychobabble whenever he faces the press. And then there is his new tattoo -- letters on his knuckles that spell the word FUCK (See picture above). Either a homage to Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (where Robert Mitchum's character has the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles) or another of Mr. von Trier's desperate attempts to get a visceral reaction from his audience.
The Cannes Film Festival has banned Lars von Trier because it is illegal in France to say or write anything anti-Semitic. This action strikes me as too sudden, too harsh. It feels very much like the actions of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, misguidedly following the letter of the law, inflexible and harsh.
My opinion is that Lars von Trier, as an artist, was trying to tell the press, in his awkward, rambling way, that he has an artistic admiration for the work of various accomplished artists that rose to prominence under the Third Reich. Albert Speer is arguably one of the most famous, as well as infamous of the architects of the first half of the 20th century. His grandiose designs spell out National Socialism like no other. His "cathedral of light" design is perhaps the most famous and lasting of his monumental ideas. It was achieved by pointing 130 anti-aircraft searchlights into the night sky and thus causing the effect of columns whose capitals disappear into the night. Every year on September 11, two massive searchlights aimed at the New York night sky give the feeling that the World Trade Center towers are still standing. It is an idea very close to what Albert Speer first devised in the 1930s for the Nazi rallies. The documentary work of Leni Riefenstahl, (where she captured on film Speer's work) for example, is stunning in its execution, although its subject matter propagandizes the evil machinery that helped to create it. One is not a Nazi if one is impressed by Riefenstahl's work. Both Triumph of the Will and Olympia are stunning documentaries of the 1930s, beautifully photographed, stunning in their scope, and masterfully edited. They serve as vivid records for the nightmare that was brewing in Germany at that time.
When it comes to the works of Richard Wagner (whose music has been featured in some of von Trier's films) the debate has been going on for more than half a century as to how we should think of him as a composer. What are we to think of Wagner, whose works highly influenced and inspired Hitler and the formation of National Socialism? I think the answer is very clear. Even though Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, we must separate the man from his twisted ideology and his evil disciples, and concentrate on his true genius which lies in his sublime music. We must do the same for Speer and Riefenstahl -- separate the artists from the ideology that bred them. No, I don't think you are a Nazi if you like Wagner, the very idea is preposterous. And, no, I don't think that Lars von Trier is a Nazi either, even though his own ill-chosen, rambling words condemn him. He is just a confused artist unable to accurately verbalize what's on his mind. I personally don't think he should give press interviews. There is no point to it. Watch his controversial, maddening, but memorable films. That's ultimately how history will judge him.