Sunday, November 25, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Lincoln begins with a chaotic battle from the middle of the Civil War: brother against brother in hand-to hand butchery.  A scene that reminds us that war is hell, but justified when the cause is just.  Like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg is not afraid to dig deep into the viscera of combat, making the conflict between North and South comparable to the good fight in the first half of the twentieth century that saved democracy but killed so many young men on the beaches of Normandy.

Lincoln dramatizes the final years of the Civil War in which the president is trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would emancipate the slaves.  At the same time, he realizes that the South could surrender and come back to the table and stop the amendment before it can become law.  The president is torn between the fact that an early peace could save thousands of lives in the battlefield, and the ideological moral stance that slavery must end in the United States, and it must end as quickly as possible. Juggling all of these themes, Steven Spielberg has fashioned a mighty film, full of bold strokes, that never gets lost in its own weighty story. Clearly, one of his best works.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a remarkable performance in the title role.  His interpretation of our sixteenth president is a personal achievement in his career, and one of the most beautifully crafted performances in the history of cinema.  He embodies the spirit of Lincoln without channeling Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) or, God forbid, Benjamin Walker in this year's hilariously absurd Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He does it largely by inventing a new voice for himself: a reedy homespun tenor that from now on we will always associate as the voice of Abraham Lincoln.  Also helping him give a great performance are an army of makeup artists (rarely does contemporary makeup succeed in aging an actor correctly.  This time they nailed it!), the great costumes of Joanna Johnston, and the memorable cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, who with his images manages to transport us back a century and a half. (I can only imagine what the film would have been like if it were shot in Black & White: Matthew Brady photographs and daguerreotypes come to life!)

The rest of the impressive cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who plays the president's wife as if she had a thorn buried deep inside her heart.  David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, memorable as the puppet master of backroom politics, and Tommy Lee Jones absolutely brilliant as Senator Thaddeus Stevens: an old fashioned abolitionist Washington politico with a secret that has not managed to leak.

Tony Kushner deserves special praise.  The Pulitzer prize winning author of Angels in America has written a literate, intelligent screenplay that resonates with our current political crises, and reminds us that any successful democratic political system is filled with messy compromise.  It's "sausage-making," in the words of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

In mid November President Barack Obama hosted a screening of the film at the White House with the cast and crew of the film present.  It might not be a bad idea to follow the Executive Mansion showing with a secondary one in the halls of Congress.  It might just remind or teach a few of our present lawmakers and representatives what politics are really all about.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Philarmonia Orchestra presents Wozzeck

The Philarmonia Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen visited New York City earlier this week and presented two performances at Avery Fischer Hall.  The first was Gustav Mahler's transcendent Ninth Symphony on Sunday, and the second was a semi-staged performance of Alban Berg's first opera Wozzeck a day later.  Monday's performance of this atonal seminal 20th century work was a memorably exciting experience headed by Simon Keenlyside in the title role (two days after finishing his run of The Tempest at the MET) and Angela Denoke as his wife Marie.  Even though this was billed as an opera in concert none of the soloists used a score, and each of the fifteen scenes that make up this work was acted out as if the work were being performed at the opera house.  What little room was left on the Avery Fischer stage (Berg's orchestration is huge) was used by the cast economically and effectively.  Not for a moment did the evening feel like a stiff concert performance.

Simon Keenlyside had much to do with this.  The moment he appeared on stage, in the first scene, following Peter Hoare's finely acted Captain, Mr. Keenlyside was immersed in his character: a Wozzeck full of ticks, with stooped shoulders, a resigned face and the nervous habit of using one foot to scratch the other.   One has to be totally heartless not to feel sorry for this poor soul.  These days Mr. Keenlyside might just be the best actor working on an operatic stage.

Mr. Salonen conducted the work with his usual attention to detail.  Being a composer himself whose work bares the stamp of modernism, he chose to highlight the atonal aspects of the score.  He whipped the Philarmonia Orchestra into a frenzy achieving very exciting near ear-splitting climaxes.  Particularly memorable -- as well as frightening -- was the D minor interlude that leads to the final scene of the opera.  The players of the Philarmonia, in particular the string section, seemed possessed, giving it their all, and producing a prodigious unforgettable sound.

It's always interesting to see how many people leave a performance of Wozzeck before the work has concluded.  Clearly, these people had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  For the uninitiated twelve tone music can be as alien as the sounds from the dark side of the moon.  However, listen carefully and repeatedly to the work and you will begin to hear the spirit of old Vienna.  Study the score and you will decipher how Berg fashioned a scene between Wozzeck and a quack doctor who is doing experiments on him from one of J.S. Bach's favorite musical forms: the passacaglia.  If you go and do your homework, Wozzeck is not as strange as it first might sound.

Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the MET

When The Tempest, Thomas Adès's opera based on Shakespeare's play of the same name, premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004 it did so with the kind of success that recalled the 1945 triumph of Benjamin Britten's Peter GrimesThe critical and popular success of the work made it clear that British classical music was back on the map. Britten's work was hailed as the most important musical British work for the stage since Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas  and The Tempest has been hailed by today's critics as the greatest British opera since Britten.  It has gone on to have a very early active shelf life with a revival in London as well as productions in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and Santa Fe.  This year the opera made its Metropolitan Opera debut with a new production staged by Robert Lapage Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang the role of Prospero, which he created at the London premiere.

In Lapage's grand production, Prospero has been banished from Milan to a remote island, and with the aid of magic, as well, I imagine, with a lot of elbow grease he has recreated the La Scala opera house in the middle of his remote exile.  This enchanted isle is also home to Ariel, a supernatural creature who, in the composer's hands, almost never sings below high C.  The result is an ethereal, if at time unnatural sound: a kind of Queen of the Night run amok who refuses to lower herself to dwelling within the staff.  The MET is lucky to have Audrey Luna singing this role: a coloratura soprano who ably manages to reach the stratospheric tessitura called for.  Caliban is the other non-human being living on Prospero's new kingdom, and by the logic that made Ariel's vocal line seem audible, at times, only to canines, you would think that the composer would make Caliban the lowest of the lowest basso profundo.  Instead, Adès writes the part for a stentorian tenor, and gives him the last words of the opera.  In the role of this monster, who ends up inheriting Prospero's island, Alan Oke is memorable and quite wonderful in the part.  It is Prospero, however, who casts the longest shadow in this work, and Simon Keenlyside will own this role for many years.  He sang with conviction and expressive beauty of tone.

Adès's music is complex and subtle, mostly tonal with some ravishing forays into the kind of atonality that does not send audiences screaming out to the lobby.  Still, the music very much smacks of the contemporary conservatory; meaning that in our current post-minimalist period the score creates an intellectual, lush sound scape reminiscent of the best work by the best post-post romantics. The storm that begins the work is a memorable symphonic prelude, clearly comparable with Verdi's Otello and Wagner's  Die Walküre, two other works that begin with a musical depiction of the powers of nature at their wildest.  In general, my biggest complaint with this work is the libretto by Meredith Oakes.  Instead of using Shakespeare's words, she adapts the narrative into a series of rhymed couplets.  Her choice of this poetic scheme gets tiresome quite fast and it ultimately makes for a substandard libretto.  For instance, a few years ago when I saw Phèdre at the National Theatre in London with Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper, Jean Racine's alexandrine play was translated into free verse, and it saved us from an evening of constant rhyme.  Its libretto robs The Tempest of a place among the truly great modern English language operas.  Say what you will about John Adams's Nixon in China, but if in the large scheme of things 1980s minimalism turns out to be only a blip in the history of music, Alice Goodman's amazing, poetic, revelatory libretto will be remembered and studied as an example of what a contemporary modern opera libretto should be like.

The fact that we saw The Tempest with Adès himself conducting his work continues a tradition at the MET of presenting an operatic work lead by its creator.  From Italo Montemezzi leading his L'Amore dei tre re in the 1920s to John Adams leading Nixon in China a few years ago, this is a fine creative tradition that the MET should continue.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

New York Film Festival: Flight

In Robert Zemeckis's excellent new film Flight, Denzel Washington portrays Captain Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot whose experienced skills at the helm of an airliner are only second to his ability to party hard the night before, and then sit in the pilot's seat, high as a kite on liquor and cocaine, and get himself ready to roll.  On a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta, he steers his plane through a hellish storm and into clear skies in a way that only a zonked-out buckaroo could.  Near their destination, the aircraft inexplicably malfunctions and enters into an out of control tailspin. In a feat of unprecedented skill, and in one of the film's inspired images, Captain Whitaker succeeds in turning the jet upside down, thus averting a crash, and lands the plane in a patch of country field, thus saving himself and all but six of the souls on board. Although the media hails him as a hero, the NTSB has questions about the crash, and as an investigation begins Captain Whitaker's alcoholism and drug dependency surfaces as he confronts his private demons.  The title of Zemeckis's film refers to the plane trip as well as the examination of how the crash sends Captain Whitaker into a personal journey -- a flight that ultimately makes him discover his true grace.

Along the way, Kelly Reilly as a down-on-her-luck substance abuser enters Whip's crowded orbit.  Already there are John Goodman as Whip's whimsical rock-androll dealer, Don Cheadle as his defense lawyer, and Bruce Greenwood as Whip's best friend and fellow pilot.

The screenplay by John Gatins is excellent when it comes to going places we least expect.  This was a script that took the writer twelve years to complete, and after such a long gestation process it is surprising that it has turned out so good.

The entire film revolves around Denzel Washington's character, and the actor gives a truly superb performance, one that I suspect has been carefully crafted by Mr. Zemeckis with a Best Actor Oscar very much in mind. But awards aside, Mr. Washington is really impressive in this role, adding yet another memorable character to his long list of superb characterizations. 

New York Film Festival: Fellini-Satyricon

I've begun to dread the words "a brilliant new restoration," or "a brilliant new 35 millimeter print," when it comes as part of the presentation from Richard Peña, the outgoing head of the selection committee at the New York Film Festival.  Usually, the results are dreadful.  It happened a few years ago when with these usual accolades he introduced a dreadful print of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, and last night was another disappointment as the N.Y. Film Festival chef himself announced another Peña special: a "brilliant new restoration" of the 1971 classic Fellini-Satyricon, Federico Fellini's imaginative, daring, surprising and exasperating adaption of the ancient Roman classic by Petronius.  I imagine that next to the crumbling negative from which the Italian restorers worked, this presentation is indeed brilliant.  But comparing it to other results that are being achieved around the world in an effort to save our film history, this restoration leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall, as with this year's 8K Lawrence of Arabia restoration, the film looked dark in many key places.  The first reel, in particular, that introduces the Encolpio, Ascilto, Gitone love triangle, and takes place at night, looked dreary, as did the scene with the clown Vernacchio.  In addition, very little restoration was done on the sound.  It would have been helpful if the restorers would have expanded the audio spectrum.  Instead, the film sounded monaural, with the voices sounding particularly flat.  Nino Rota's moonscape music, which is a mixture of modern and ancient sounds, suffers the most as a result of the inadequate soundtrack.

Petronius's book survives only in fragments, and Fellini's episodic approach, one of the director's trademarks, echoes this brilliantly.  Ultimately, the greatest aspect of this work is the director's uncanny ability to create an ancient world that never quite existed the way he shows it to us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia: New Blu-Ray Disc

I'm watching the UK release of the latest restoration of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-Ray, and I have to report that I'm seeing the same surprising results as I saw last week at the New York Film Festival presentation. This restoration presents a reduced color spectrum, much more limited than the one I remember from the 1988 restoration and DVD release. This has to be the palest, most anemic restoration of Lawrence yet. The scene above, for example, struck me as needlessly monochromatic.  Although the film looks stunningly sharp and incredibly clean, the colors are very muted, and several of the night and dusk scenes look so dark that the viewer is unable to discern any facial features. I don't believe that this is what Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young intended when the film premiered back in 1962.

The previous restoration was done with the participation and assistance of David Lean. Now that he is gone, something tells me that he would not be pleased with the results achieved here.   It's almost as if the colorist had decided that the film needs a more contemporary look.  Lawrence is anything but a contemporary film: it is a gigantic production the likes of which, proverbially, they don't make anymore, and it belongs to a group of epic films (Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Vikings) whose color spectrum was designed to dazzle and impress audiences.

I certainly hope that in a future release the color is corrected, taking the lead from the results achieved back in 1988.  Lawrence of Arabia is a great film, and it deserves better treatment.

Monday, October 08, 2012

New York Film Festival: Lawrence of Arabia

Last year the New York Film Festival presented a stunning restoration of 1959's Ben Hur.  Watching it on the screen for the second time in my life, it made me remember how impressed I was when I first saw it as an 11 year old on a re-release in the early 70s.  This year, the Festival presented the new 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, and I'm afraid to report that I was not impressed.  Throughout the four hour run of the film scenes appeared to be dark, and the color somehow was not as I remembered it.  Of course, I'm basing myself on the 1988 restoration of the film which was a restoration hallmark, and to my eye visually faultless.  Robert A. Harris, who was responsible for that restoration, introduced this showing praising Grover Crisp, Sony's executive vice president of film restoration for not taking any short cuts on this project.

Harris said that the restoration presented in 1988 used a process called "wet-gate printing," which hides about 90 percent of the imperfections in the film. Harris went on to say that "When Grover started scanning this at 8K [resolution], he opened a Pandora's box and he's been dealing with that for over two years now. The film is scratched, it has nicks, it has tears. There is actually heat damage from the desert. He was able to bring in a software company to create a methodology to help with that."

After so much work on this digital restoration, the NY Film Festival showing might have just suffered from a projection problem.  I remember well the 50th anniversary showing of Gone with the Wind at Radio City Music Hall.  The entire film looked dark.  Therefore, the new Blue-Ray release of the film on November 13 will hopefully reveal the real results of the work that has been done on this classic film.

Below is a trailer that was made for this new restoration of Lawrence of Arabia.

New York Film Festival: Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills (După Dealuri), Christian Mungiu's outstanding new film dramatizes real life events that occurred less than a decade ago in a remote monastery in rural Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), a young girl who grew up in a loving, affectionate relationship in an orphanage with one of the novice nuns, comes to visit her friend in an effort to get her to leave the monastic life and go to live with her in Germany. The young novice, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), has found peace in her new life.  She has traded her love of Alina for the love of God, and is reticent to return to the real world.  Soon enough, this case of thwarted love turns ugly as Alina's temper explodes into a sacrilegious rage that turns her into an out of control violent jealous creature. The austere priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), known as Papa and Mama to the nuns, become convinced that the girl is possessed by the Evil One and, together with the rest of the nuns, they conduct an ill-fated exorcism with dire catastrophic results for everyone involved.

Shot on film, with a stunning crisp luminosity which must have taken a long time in post-production, by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, the movie is composed of long sequence shots that according to director Mungiu better shows the natural flow of time and reduces the director to an almost invisible entity. At the risk of making it sound as if this is a current auteur fad, this is the third film that I see at this year's festival which employs this technique.  The other two are Michael Haneke's Amour and Antonio Méndez Esparza's Aquí y Allá. Although Beyond the Hills runs 150 minutes, the carefully choreographed long sequences not only echo the orderly life of the monastery, but surprisingly also anchor the chaotic sequences that make up the exorcism.  Thus, the film flows along and actually gives the appearance to be shorter.  As the director commented before Sunday's showing: "This is a long film where a lot of things happen, not a long film where nothing happens." It is really eye-opening to discover, though, how the directorial decision to shoot long takes works perfectly in all the various dramatic situations of this film.

Ms. Flutur and Ms. Stratan who play Alina and Voichita respectively, and who are both newcomers to film, give impressive outstanding performances that are well deserved of the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress prize that they shared earlier this year.  I was especially taken by Ms. Stratan who is able to convey brilliantly in her scenes with Ms. Flutur a mixture of pious belief and deep personal doubt.  In the trailer below you can see a scene between these two fine performers.

Ultimately, the finest accolades must go to Mr. Mungiu who has crafted a deeply entertaining, and thought provoking film, and who has managed to avoid taking sides in this thorny issue.  As he explained in the question and answer period following the film, he does not blame the members of this religious community for wanting to help Alina through the use of Christian Orthodox dogma.  They at least did something, even if that something ended up being the wrong decision.  Instead, the director adds that the people who are the most guilty: are not shown; they are those who abandon children in an orphanage in the first place.  At Cannes, the director called this "the sin of indifference" and in his mind it is the main theme of his film.

For more comments by the director, in the video below you can watch the New York Film Festival press conference that Mr. Mungiu gave via Skype one week ago.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

New York Film Festival: Amour

While Life of Pi takes pleasure in showing us the toll of the sea on a shipwrecked boy, Amour, the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, allows us to explore the toll that life takes on us when we dare to love.  Michael Hanake's film is an austere and ascetic miniature, but the force of emotions displayed are nothing short than titanic.  This story of an elderly couple, whose wife suffers a stroke leaving the husband to take care of a partner who rapidly spirals into a miserable decline, is reminiscent of the work of Ingmar Bergman.  In fact, it is hard while watching the film not to think of the director's great Cries and Whispers, a film that also deals with death and despair inhabiting the great interior of a country mansion.  Amour haunts a big Parisian apartment, filled with books, bric-a-brac, and a warm lifetime of living.  The great Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji lights this impressive set with a fading light that oftentimes seems to turn the apartment itself into a character.  The movie is shot with long takes, languidly taking their time, allowing the viewer to enter inside the couple's endgame.

In a stroke (absolutely no pun intended) of casting genius, playing the elderly couple Anne and Georges, two aging music teachers, are Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, the stars of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the 1959 breakthrough film by Alain Resnais.  Their performances in this new film are nothing short of stunning, and the chemistry that they had back in the days of the fledgling French New Wave is readily visible here.  It is heartbreaking to experience the decline of Anne as portrayed by Ms. Riva.  The way she twists her face, seemingly sucking the very life out of it, together with her cries of pain and unintelligent attempts at speech, embodies a performance of Academy Award caliber.  Likewise, Mr. Trintignant is very impressive as her patient husband.  During the course of the film Anne calls him a "monster," but Georges is almost never given to hysterics during his wife's long ordeal, although, just underneath the surface, anyone can see that he is ready to explode with unspeakable violence.

Michael Haneke has crafted a film that reminds us that the way of all flesh is at times unbearable and unjust.  In his previous film The White Ribbon (2009), he dared to show the genesis of evil -- the beginning of Nazi ideology as seen from the point of view of a small northern German village.  Now, the Austrian director, working in French, attempts to come to terms with life and its ultimate end, a landscape perhaps more complex, even more mysterious, and arguably richer than that of the birth of political ideologies.  The success of Amour lies in the fact that Mr. Haneke does not hold back.  As with his previous film it is a work that is often hard to look at, but never strikes a false note.

Friday, October 05, 2012

New York Film Festival: Life of Pi

The 50th New York Film Festival began with Ang Lee's new film Life of Pi, based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel.  The film, shot in 3D begins by showing scenes from a zoo that's owned by the main character's father. This title sequence has a childhood charm as the animals mug for the 3D camera.  Selected letters from the various names of the movie's titles swing freely, as if hanging off an invisible branch of an unseen tree.  Even before the film proper begins a sense of fantasy and make believe has been injected into the narrative, a subtle foreshadowing of the incredible story that the director has prepared for us.

Life of Pi, essentially a film about the art of storytelling, reveals its narrative like concentric circles.  The older Pi Patel, played by Irrfan Khan reveals to a writer, played by Rafe Spall, the chapters of his unusual life.  We learn that as a young Indian boy Pi's inquisitive mind and restless imagination lead him, as he grew up, to adopt Christianity and Islam together with the Hindu tradition into which he was born.  The ever inquisitive, Pi, whose name is short for piscine (he was named for a pool in Paris) also wants to manually feed the zoo's most dangerous animal: a Bengal tiger curiously named Richard Parker.

When Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals and move to Canada, the family packs their belongings and all their animals, and board a Japanese freighter.  During a tremendous storm the ship sinks, and the only survivors on a small lifeboat are Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the Bengal tiger.  In the aftermath of the furious storm a bloody Darwinian struggle of the species occurs in the lifeboat leaving alive only the tiger and Pi to fight for mastery of the small vessel.  Soon enough Pi realizes that in order to avoid being eaten by the ferocious cat, he must learn to feed Richard Parker as well as himself.  As the story progresses, Pi also realizes that he must maintain the tiger alive if only to fend off the horror of the interminable loneliness of being stranded in the middle of the sea.  The two characters enter into a codependent relationship as their strengths begin to fail after two hundred days adrift. Eventually Pi is rescued on the coasts of Mexico, but the tiger is nowhere to be found.  When two officials of the Japanese Maritime Department question Pi as to why the ship sank they fail to believe Pi's story of his survival with the animals.  When pushed further, Pi offers a totally different account of the shipwreck and his rescue -- a realistic and brutal tale devoid of any of the magical-realist events that we have seen.

Late in the structure of the film, the narrative suddenly veers into this unexpected Rashomon territory.  Is the story we have seen a fantasy?  Is the new story that Pi tells the Japanese officials the real way that the events occurred?  How accurately can the older Pi remember events that happened so long ago?  Is he lying?  Is he telling the truth?  What is truth?

Even though this is the most interesting aspect of the entire narrative, it seems that Ang Lee wants to avoid the whole Rashomon comparison.  He does not dramatize the alternate story, deciding to stage it as a monologue for Suraj Sharma, the fine actor who plays the teenage Pi.  What takes one third of the novel to be revealed is compressed into mere minutes that are clumsily tagged on to the end of the film.  The result is that we are made to believe the magical story that we have seen, and like the two Japanese officials we reject the more realistic account of the events.  The magic of truth at 24 frames-per-second wins again. 

At the film's premiere last weekend director Ang Lee revealed that he is still tweaking the film, which currently runs 120 minutes.  It would be interesting to compare the film when it opens in November of this year to this work in progress that the New York Film Festival presented as its opening night selection.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New York Film Festival: The Dinosaur and the Baby

The Dinosaur and the Baby is a documentary film by André S. Labarthe from 1964 that paired the legendary Austrian film director Fritz Lang in conversation with the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard.  Lang was a revered idol in the pantheon of the "auteurs," ensconced there by Godard and his colleagues during their formative years when they were film critics at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s.  By 1963 Godard had already established himself as the true modernist of the "French New Wave," and had convinced Lang to play a mirror image of himself in his film Le Mépris. This documentary reunites the two directors in a discussion that ranges from camera placement to the use of improvisation.  Their conversation is interspersed with scenes from Godard's film as well as sequences from M, Lang's 1931 masterpiece about the manhunt for a child murderer. The film is being shown as part of the New York Film Festival.  The entire film is posted on YouTube, so if you are unable to attend the festival showing of this interesting documentary, you can watch it right here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Master: A New Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

The title of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master, a thinly disguised examination of the career of L. Ron Hubbard, the author of Dianetics and creator of the Church of Scientology, might lead you to believe that the film is a biopic centered around one man.  Instead, its narrative revolves around the relationship between the Hubbard character, here called Lancaster Dodd, and Freddie Quell his wayward protégée. Dodd, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rosy-cheeked guru of a new cult, and Joaquin Phoenix is a shell-shocked, scrawny World War II veteran whose chance encounter with Dodd while he is taking his formal portrait at a department store where he has landed a job after leaving the V.A. hospital leads to a relationship filled with tension, love, regret and pain for both. When they first meet, their picture session ends in a fight, and their last encounter in the film produces a tearful, angst-ridden version of the song "On a Slow Boat to China,” which Mr. Hoffman sings to Freddie with a sad grandeur that recalls Orson Welles at his imposing best.  It is a singular, unforgettable moment in the film that crystallizes the thwarted love between these two very different men. Dodd is an intellectual mountebank who seems to be convincing himself of his new creed the more he lectures to his converts about it. Freddie is a walking contradiction ruled by an uncontrollable id. At times he is grateful that Dodd has taken him under his wing, but he does not know how to become the perfect acolyte of this new religion. When someone doubts the word of the Master he is quick to let his fists fly and punish any doubter or unbeliever. The film is a brilliant study of the relationship between master and servant; and at times both characters cross the line to become their polar opposites before changing back to their primary archetypal roles.

In addition to the volcanic performances of the two leading men, Amy Adams shines in the role of Lancaster Dodd's ever-pregnant wife, Peggy.  Her performance is unforgettable for its simplicity.  While Hoffman and Phoenix spend the film re-writing the rules of Method acting, Ms. Adams creates a character as rooted as the Earth Mother figure that she portrays.  We remember her intensity but also her clean, non-mannered approach to the role.  A lesser actor would be erased when put side by side with Hoffman and Phoenix.  Ms. Adams is very much in the driver's seat in her scenes, and the result is that her performance is on the par with her male leads.

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson's style is well-known.  As America's true auteur, he creates films that pose questions that may not have answers.  Time after time, his films hide more than they reveal.  In his world there is a sizable unknown component at the heart of his stories that keeps us from getting close to his characters -- and that's exactly where Anderson wants us.  His scripts are often challenging collages that we are allowed to contemplate but not totally comprehend.  His affinity for Magic Realism and Surrealism is always given free rein.  His predilection for the American West, whether geographical, as a state of mind, or as an archetypal component of American cinema is ever present in his films.  In The Master, shot in gorgeous 70mm by the brilliant Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., it serves as a metaphor for the unattainable, as in a key scene where both Hoffman and Phoenix take turns riding a motorcycle in the desert at full speed out to an infinitesimal abstract point in space.

It is that point in space that Paul Thomas Anderson's films often want to reach, and in his best work he succeeds in taking us along for the ride even though we may not always reach our destination.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jones and Koehler to replace Peña at the NY Film Festival

A year after it was announced that Richard Peña would be leaving his post as program director and head of the selection committee at the NY Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced that Kent Jones would become director of programming for the festival, and Robert Koehler would take on the job of director of programming year round.  To my knowledge, the first time that this job has been divided between two people.  Here is an excerpt from the press release that was sent today:

New York, NY (September 13, 2012) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center, America’s pre-eminent non-profit film organization, announced today the appointment of Kent Jones as Director of Programming, New York Film Festival and Robert Koehler as Director of Programming, Year Round. As announced previously, after 25 years, Program Director and New York Film Festival Selection Committee Head Richard Peña will step down from his post at the end of 2012 and Jones and Koehler will then move into their new programming roles with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Peña will continue his involvement with the Film Society of Lincoln Center in helping design and organize a new educational initiative.

The appointment of two directors to the programming team will allow the Film Society to better serve the needs of an organization that has recently expanded its operations with the opening of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film. In addition to continuing the Film Society’s trademark programs, Kent Jones and Robert Koehler will continue to develop new programming initiatives and film series including first runs, family films, new media, educational and artist development programs.

“The New York Film Festival has always been a beacon to me – when I was young and pouring over the yearly schedule in the Sunday Times, when I moved to New York in my 20s and started to actually attend the festival, and later when I served on the selection committee” said Kent Jones. “It means a lot to me to be entrusted with its stewardship after Richard Peña, to whom I owe a lot."

Kent Jones’ writing on film has been published throughout the world in numerous magazines, newspapers, catalogues, websites and journals. In 2007 a collection of his writings, Physical Evidence, was published by Wesleyan University Press, and he recently edited the first English-language volume of writings on Olivier Assayas, published by Filmmuseum Synema Publikationem. He is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. Jones has collaborated for many years on documentaries with Martin Scorsese, beginning with My Voyage to Italy (2001) on which he served as co-writer. He and Scorsese co-wrote and co-directed A Letter to Elia (2010), an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning film about the director Elia Kazan. Scorsese was the producer and narrator of Jones’ 2007 documentary about Val Lewton, The Man in the Shadows.

Jones began in programming with Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum, and served as the American representative for the Rotterdam International Film Festival from 1996 to 1998. From 1998 to 2009, he was Associate Director of Programming at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and from 2002 to 2009 he served on the New York Film Festival selection committee. He has also served on juries at film festivals around the world, including Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Venice and Cannes. In 2009, he was named Executive Director of The World Cinema Foundation.

Robert Koehler is a film critic and festival programmer and has served as an instructor and programmer for UCLA Extension’s Sneak Preview program from 2003-2007. In 2003, he developed the successful, innovative film program, “The Films That Got Away,” an ongoing series presenting significant recent work that has previously not screened in Los Angeles. Institutions with which the series has collaborated include UCLA Film Archive, the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles Film Festival. In 2009, he was appointed director of programming at AFI Fest Los Angeles, where he helped create a new and focused competition section titled “New Lights,” as part of AFI Fest’s programming concept as a festival-of-festivals.

A graduate of UCLA, Koehler was a theater critic for the LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times during the 1980s and 1990s. He has been a contributor to Variety since 1994. As a film critic, he has written for Variety, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Film Comment, IndieWire, The Christian Science Monitor and, as well as Cahiers du Cinema (France and Spain) and Die Tagezeitung. His blog column analyzing film festivals can be read at, the website of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics, and has served on festival juries in Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Indie Lisboa, Copenhagen, Montreal, Mexico City, Santiago, Palm Springs, Bermuda and Miami. Among his published work are chapters in the books “Cine Argentino 1999-2009,” “On Film Festivals,” from Wildflower Press, and “American Comedy,” published by the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bayreuth Parsifal on TV

The August 11 performance of Parsifal that I attended at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was filmed and shown in Europe on the Arte Network.  Above is a picture of an interview during one of the intervals.  Can't wait to get my hands on a recording of it.  I am sure that this production will eventually find its way to DVD and Blu-Ray.  Bayreuth's current production of Lohengrin by director Hans Neuenfels has recently been issued on both formats in Europe and in America.  The current Parsifal should be next on the list.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

No Man is an Island: Parsifal at Bayreuth

 Parsifal, a work that in 1882 Richard Wagner labeled a “Stage-consecrating Festival Drama,” was never to be heard outside of the “sacred precincts” of Bayreuth.  For the composer, the quasi-religious aspect of the work was the perfect liturgy for his cathedral of music on the Green Hill.  More importantly, the orchestration of the work was written with the Festspielhaus’s singular acoustics in mind.  Bayreuth was its home – a veritable Montsalvat on a hill guarding its own Holy Grail.  Wagner died the following year, and his widow Cosima was not able to stop the Metropolitan Opera from staging a rogue production of it in 1903.  Eventually, the dominoes began to fall, and once the copyright expired on the work in 1913, European theaters began staging the work as well.  Parsifal now belonged to the world.

In my lifetime I have attended perhaps twelve performances of this work.  I have not counted -- all of them have been at the Metropolitan Opera.  Over the years I heard Jon Vickers and Plácido Domingo triumph in the title role, and I have heard James Levine and the MET orchestra reach and maintain an outstanding level of musical maturity with this work.

I know the piece fairly well, and I have listened to it multiple times in recording following it with my Dover orchestra score.  My mind’s ear knows what the next musical phrase is going to be.  Now I have heard my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and it is like listening to it for the first time.  In this epic production director Stefan Herheim dramatizes the background story of the opera, setting it in Bayreuth itself with Wagner’s house, Wahnfried, as the background.  Likewise, this production allows us to see not just the growth of Parsifal (Burkhard Fritz) from guileless fool to compassionate enlightened being, as the composer intended, but we become witnesses to the story of the German nation through the madness of World War I, the rise of the Nazi Party, the destruction of World War II, and the reconstruction and unification of the German people. 

In Act two, the magic palace of the sorcerer Klingsor (Thomas Jesatko) is transformed into a military hospital ward filled with the walking wounded of World War I trench warfare.  Kundry (Susan MacLean) appears to Parsifal as the personification of Marlene Dietrich, complete with tuxedo and top hat, and, at the conclusion of the act, the one who hurls the sacred spear at Parsifal is a “Hitlerjunge”, in full brown shirt and armband regalia, on a stage draped with numerous Nazi flags.  By the way, these flags are red, and have a black swastika inside a white circle, of course.  The same symbol that Yevgeny Nikitin had tattooed on his chest and then covered up.

Act three begins in a Germany in ruins.  Gurnemanz (the amazing Kwangchul Youn) is in uniform, a deserter from the front, and Kundry as civilian casualty unable to say more than the only words that Wagner provided for her: “service, service.”  When Parsifal enters, however, his hair is shoulder-length, and he is the very essence of a knight errand crusader complete with helmet, shield and lance.  As Kundry washes his feet and dries them with her own hair, for a moment this production takes on a very conservative tone.  If for a moment, the settings brings to mind the kind of staging that Wagner would recognize for his work.  Save for Gurnemanz’s modern dress, it looks like the first production of this work that I saw at the MET when I was a young man and knew very little about the work.  Eventually the production recuperates its post-modern feel, and it concludes with the Brotherhood of the Grail as German politicians in the Reichstag.  A giant mirror over them, that all along had been reflecting a gigantic German eagle on the floor, eventually turns to reflect the audience, the musicians in the sunken pit, and then turns into a rotating globe that shines on all of us gathered at the Festspielhaus.  Those of us gathered at Wagner’s theater  represent a microcosm of the world, and the universality of Richard Wagner’s music is seen reflecting on us all.

Sad, Sad, Sad: Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

After the first act of Tannhäuser finished, I stepped outside and filmed the following video.

Be sure that that hopeful smile on my face disappeared very quickly after being subjected to the concluding acts of Sebastian Baumgarten's travesty on Richard Wagner's romantic opera  The production is not a mindless romp, nor is it what many would consider a desecration of holy writ: it's just plain bad!  We are in a unit set where the Venusberg and the Wartburg are one.  Possibly, the one interesting aspect of the production.  The realm of Venus with its caged subhumans, is right out of the film Planet of the Apes, Venus is pregnant, presumably with Tannhäuser's child, and The Wartburg is a biogas factory.  When we enter the theater we see a curtainless stage where actors are already at work.  The focal point of the set is a giant red tank, an "alcoholator" with the days of the week printed on it.  It seems that this is the worker's manna, and by the actions of the chorus they love their manna.  The workers are often seen embracing the contraption as if it's mother's milk.

Baumgarten has also added material to the performance that does not come from Wagner.  It is the custom at the Festspielhaus for audiences to exit the theater during intermission and to enjoy the grounds, the restaurant, and the refreshing air of the Grünen Hügel.  However, if you walk out you miss scenes that Baumgarten has added that shows the daily lives of the workers.  For example, after the conclusion of Act two a group of workers build a makeshift altar where a priest conducts a new-wave mass complete with a litany that exalts the goodness of an industrial age.  It is performance art as filler showing that the story goes on even after the curtain comes down, which is unnecessary.

This Brechtian approach to Wagner, with plenty of projection of German words, leaves me at a loss how it reflects back to Wagner's original story.  For instance, in Act three the pilgrims do not come back from Rome, but from a deprogramming room where their minds have been altered so they can be more productive.  The wonderful Festspielhaus chorus comes back singing Wagner's powerful music, but they are all cleaning each other, and everything in sight, not praising God and the Pope for having forgiven them.  It is a visually interesting moment, but it puts us very far from Wagner's original intention.

At the conclusion of the opera Venus gives birth, and holds up her child as the last chords of the score intones.  Mr. Baumgarten's job is to serve the composer, but it seems that for the most part he is serving himself and his misbegotten view of Wagner's work.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Verstummte Stimmen - Silenced Voices

Here is a short video I took of the Verstummte Stimmen exhibition that is currently just outside of the Bayreuth Festspilehaus, in the garden that surrounds the bust of Richard Wagner.  It is a moving tribute to the scores of artists that were forbidden to performed at the Festspielhaus because they were Jewish.  Many of them fell victims to the Nazis in the death camps during World War II.  It is an unforgettable, sad, moving experience.  A sobering reminder of times past, made even more so because the Festspilehaus itself is only steps away.

A memorable Lohengrin at Bayreuth

The first thing that you have to get over in order to strain some type of enjoyment from the current production of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival is that director Hans Neuenfels has dressed the chorus as rats.  On the surface, it is an absurd piece of regie-theatre, and those that never venture past the surface were the first ones booing when the production team took their vows opening night in 2010.  But if we dig deeper, by going to the source, i.e., if we study the story through Richard Wagner’s libretto we might be able to conclude that the citizens of Brabant are trapped in a society where they are abused by the powerful, and forced to serve.   Are they rats as denizens of the lower depths?  Rats as specimens in a laboratory?  Rats trapped in an Orwellian world?  A mixture of all three, I would say.  However, an inspired Winston Smith moment arose early in the first act when one of the rats tried to assassinate King Henry the Fowler after he commanded his subjects (the rats) to rise to arms against the invading Hungarians.  The creature managed to pull a knife on the monarch, but before he could harm the king the rat was dragged away by thought-police types into a laboratory where surely his brain will be re-programmed to believe that two plus two equals five.  Mr. Neuenfels’s metaphors are not stupid, just obvious most of the time.

Last night, the most beautiful singing came from Klaus Florian Vogt.  His shining tenor cutting through the orchestra fabric with the kind of sweet intonation that separates him from the usual hefty heldentenors who usually take on Wagnerian roles.  Annette Dasch sang and acted the role of Elsa with conviction.  She is able to convey a sense of victimization through her acting and her sweet, but at times frail voice.  Thomas J. Mayer and Susan MacLean were both very good as Telramund and Ortrud.  Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a memorable King Henry, and Samuel Youn once again proved that he might just be the busiest singer in Bayreuth these days.  After he has taken the role of the Holländer this year his baritone continues to be a focused, beautiful shining instrument.

The most impressive part of the evening was the Bayreuth chorus.  Time and time again this ensemble, led by Eberhard Friedrich proves that choral singing can achieve astonishing heights.  Last night he took a vow with his group.  It was well deserved.  The same can rightly be said of conductor Andris Nelsons, who lead an impressive reading of the score. 

There were multiple curtain calls at the end, and when Mr. Vogt appeared that ignited the house into my first Bayreuth standing ovation.  When the audience at the Green Hill likes a performance it is as if an explosion occurs.  It was very exciting to be there and experience this.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

This photo, taken with my iPhone, does not do justice to the interior of the Margravial Opera House, but at least it gives you an idea of the extravagance and opulence of the place.  Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia participated here as writer, player, composer, actor and director.

My first opera at Bayreuth: Tristan und Isolde

The Festspielhaus does a good job of welcoming newcomers.  At least that’s how I felt yesterday after stepping inside the auditorium for the first time in my life.  I slipped in to my seat rather comfortably, I must say.  For years I had heard that comfort was not something that Richard Wagner’s theater was known for.  Save for the wooden back (no wonder people bring cushions for lumbar support) it’s not a bad way to listen to a Wagnerian act.

I can’t describe properly, at least not yet, what it was like to step inside a place that you always wanted to go to all your life.  Aside from a great feeling of accomplishment, there is also the believability factor that stayed with me throughout the evening.  At times I had to forget the opera, look around, and say to myself: “Oh, my God, I’m at the Festspielhaus!  I’m actually here!  I made it!”  After an eight-year wait for tickets the sense of finally having arrived is very big.  And my first taste of the place was with Wagner’s mature work Tristan und Isolde.

For those in 1865 who were musically trained, the harmonic landscape of Tristan und Isolde must have been mystifying and exhilarating.  They were listening to Wagner hijacking Romantic music into an undiscovered musical territory that Western composers had not explored.  Its daring new musical language quickly influenced many, and it is safe to say that no work written after “Tristan” has failed to be influenced by this astonishing work.  For the ordinary listener, in the mid nineteenth century, however, this opera must have been musically incomprehensible and truly disorienting.  Even now, for modern un-initiated audiences, Tristan und Isolde can sound challenging, and its musical landscape obtuse and murky.  To fully understand the work one has to analyze its musical language.

It all happens within the first ten seconds of the opera.  The “Tristan Chord,” a diminished chord that fails to resolve the previous notes, and instead leads us to another unresolved harmony, serves as the perfect metaphor for the forbidden sexual longing between the two lovers.  It also arguably serves as the starting point in the history of music for the disintegration of tonality.  Wagner dares to carry this experiment for hours, right to the end of the work.  Resolution is only allowed to occur minutes before its conclusion.  The tonal landscape resolves itself with the death of the lovers, and on top of that it is not an easy resolution.  Wagner resolves his music in a way that opens the door to another harmonic development.  To us, the “Tristan Chord” no longer sounds puzzling.  Our modern ears are accustomed to this kind of unresolved dissonances.  We’ve heard it in contemporary classical music, jazz, and punk rock.  However, for mid nineteenth century audiences it was the unheard of music of the future.  Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson and director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1967 described the work as “the acknowledged summit and supreme crisis of Romantic music, and at the same time the gateway to the atonality of our century.”

Christoph Marthaler’s current production is odd. Set in either a has-been ocean liner or a run-down hotel in a totalitarian state (I can’t decide which), it focuses on rings of light in the sky and walls.  The characters are always looking up at the ceiling, or touching the walls, where oftentimes one finds a switch that turns those lights on and off.  It is a rather odd way to interpret Wagner’s libretto where the lovers constantly sing about wanting to be alone with one another in the darkness of night.

This cast has been singing this production, more or less, since its premiere.  Tenor Robert Dean Smith has sung every performance of this work.  Last night, he sounded a bit weak, and many times covered up by the amazing playing of the orchestra under the capable hands of Peter Schneider.  Iréne Theorin is one of the great Isoldes of our time.  Her singing was forceful, able to ride the orchestra, and even overpower it at times.  Likewise, Kwangchul Youn was a sonorous, dark King Mark.  Unfortunately, during the last part of his Act II monologue an old lady in the audience fainted, and this brought the kind of disturbance that takes your mind totally away from the stage.

There was some ugly sounding singing from Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal, and a beautiful interpretation of Brangäne by South African singer Michelle Breedt.

All in all, the truth of the matter is that I will never forget this “Tristan” because it was my first time in Bayreuth.  Perhaps, in future visits to the Festspielhaus during this trip I will be able to distance myself from the place and concentrate on the performance.  As a first timer, I think it's going to be hard.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bayreuth: The Margravial Opera House

The Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches OperHaus) is one of the last surviving European theatres dating back to the mid 1700s.  In the words of Stephen Fry in his documentary Wagner & Me it is a “Rococo extravaganza” the likes of which is hard to find anywhere else in Europe.  The ornamentation is truly breathtaking, beyond gaudy in its plethora of decoration.  It transports you back to a time when this late Baroque style was the supreme example of an age. On my first day in Bayreuth I saw the exterior of the theater where I took this picture with my iPhone.  Tomorrow I hope to visit and see the marvelous interior, this time armed with my Nikon D90.

The theatre was already one hundred years old by the time the young Richard Wagner conducted here.  For him this place represented what he hated most about theatre going in his day.  From among its statues of angels and crystal chandeliers, royalty and the very rich came to this jewel box to see and be seen.  The lights would remain lit during a performance, and audiences typically arrived late, talked during the show, and usually left early.  It was a place to admire social superiors in their gilded boxes and scoff at social inferiors.  Meanwhile, the performance would dribble on in the background, no more important than “musak” in a modern elevator.

Thanks to Wagner’s experiences in this theatre and in others like it, he began to formulate particular ideas about what makes a theatre piece, and how audiences should behave during one.  For starters, Wagner was the first to conduct turning away from the audience, a concept that reached its zenith in the hidden orchestra pit at the Festspielhaus, where neither the orchestra nor the conductor is seen at all.  It was also Wagner’s idea to turn off the lights in the theatre so that the audience could concentrate on the action on stage, and not on the social interactions in the boxes out in the audience.

These were radical concepts from one of the most radical minds of the nineteenth century.  Interesting that many of these ideas simmered in the mind of the young Wagner while conducting in one of the most beautifully ornate, but conservative minded theatres in the world.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A New Dutchman at Bayreuth

From the very first measures of its famous overture, in a great production of Der fliegende Holländer we are transported to the middle of a supernatural thunderous storm and to the depths of a very dark sea.  Richard Wagner's fourth opera is such a great leap forward in the musical development of the composer that it seems that his earlier three works were written by someone else. And perhaps they were.  Wagner was not the same man after he and his first wife Minna survived an arduous journey to Paris on the ship "Thetis."  Wagner never forgot the fury of the storms that caused Minna to have a miscarriage.  Surely it is the memory of that event that caused Wagner's genius to develop the great evocation of the sea that makes The Flying Dutchman such a powerful and unforgettable work.  The sea is in the music, and the music is married to the story.  Remove the story from Wagner's maritime world, and the musical spell is broken.  This is unfortunately what happened opening night of the Bayreuth Festival this year.  The fury of the sea was there thanks to Christian Thielemann's superb reading of the score, but for his debut at Bayreuth Jan Philipp Gloger delivered a dry dock version of the Dutchman.  Picture Moby Dick shanghaied to the desert or a jungle.

In Gloger's Dutchman, the leading character, beautifully sung by Samuel Youn (who replaced Yevgeny Nikitin) is some kind of itinerant salesman with a briefcase.  He arrives without a ship, dressed in a modern suit, but with a shiny black tattoo on the side of his head, which suggests an island archipelago.  He falls in love with Senta (Adrianne Pieczonka), a girl dressed in red who works in a factory packing electric fans into cardboard boxes.  What this has to do with Wagner's original intention for a story is beyond me.  It's just another example of Bayreuth being the place for wonderful musical performances of Wagner's works and way-out productions.  Needless to say, the singers as well as the orchestra, along with maestro Thielemann received an outstanding ovation from the audience.  Mr. Gloger and the rest of the production team were booed.

The irritating aspect of this production is that ultimately it does not have anything interesting to say about the work.  The lusty boos that the late Christoph Schlingensief and Katharina Wagner received for their Parsifal and Die Meistersinger respectively were well-earned.  They set out to provoke, and boy did they ever.  This production seems to earn the wrath of the audience not because it deviates from Wagner's original intentions, but perhaps because it does not deviate enough.