Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pastiche "Island"

Last Saturday, I heard on the radio the broadcast of The Enchanted Island from the MET. Having complained about the visual excess of its stage production, I anticipated a better musical integration. It was pleasanter, no doubt, to hear a program of Baroque music, but without the spectacle to distract, the musical pastiche showed seams, apparent even to my inexpert ear. I was hearing Handel and suddenly it was not Handel. True, Baroque composers, including Handel, practiced pastiche but as with Rossini later, he pieced together segments of his own compositions and if he used those of other composers he most likely made them his own. A pastiche by a third party is a different kettle of fish, more like a potluck supper, sumptuous but without a signature. Without a single commanding hand, seams may be smoothed out but they still show.

Bresson's Cinema

Those who are new to Robert Bresson will mostly find his films excruciatingly boring. Those who have known some of his best films, say, A Man Escaped, will find them intensely engaging, despite the seemingly uneventful progress, drawn by a certain obsessive anticipation, rather like waiting for Godot.

For two weeks the Film Forum screened his thirteen films, virtually his total output between 1943 and 1983, some of them for only one showing. I was able to see ten of them one after another, and the experience prompted me to note that the divided reception was a clue to the nature of Bresson’s cinematic art.

Briefly stated, one most conspicuous peculiarity of his films is that, whereas his screen images are uncompromisingly realistic, the film composed of them does not replicate reality credibly. The characters he constructs appear confused or even irrational, and he does not develop them narratively; very little happens in the film though what happens is described with stubborn persistence. So, it bores us, or else intrigues us and keeps us waiting. There is very little story in any of his films, the barest minimum of a plot only as inevitable.

Film for most people is narrative, and historically, with rare exceptions, film has always been narrative. Fiction or non-fiction, a film tells a story with images, dialogues, and narrated words, and actors impersonating characters or real personages acting themselves to develop an event of some interest. A documentary constructs a story as narrated by the documentarist or encapsulated in her or his point of view; a surrealist film, like those of Renais Clair and Buñuel, in its lack of coherence, did not fail to narrate the events in the subconscious world. A film without a story is a failure, and it bores the audience. Bresson fails to narrate and is not even abstract or surrealist.

From the middle of the 20th century, some filmmakers, as in Neorealism and the New Wave, moved away from the earlier theatrical artifice toward naturalism in pursuit of greater immediacy in the narrative. Fictional films began to adopt the documentary style, preferring to use the natural light and location, non-professional actors, loose plot construction, casual dialogues, and even a hand-held camera.

Bresson began to adopt some aspects of this style in his works starting with Le journal d’un curé de campagne (1951), the style ventured earlier by Vittorio De Sica in Ladri di biciclette (1945), in which the filmmaker creates a strong sense of the event as it might have happened in the real world familiar to the audience and makes the story more credible even though it is fictional. Bresson’s Le journal endows the images with a strong sense of reality -- of specific time and place; and yet the film feels removed from reality. In most of his films, there is only one protagonist on which the filmmaker’s interest rests. The narrative is thus biographical but only nominally because the scenes are arranged episodically rather than progressively. That is to say, though Le journal is nominally the story of the country priest’s life which starts with his arrival in the remote village and ends with his death, the events in his life, despite the voice-over reading of the diary, are given in haphazard episodes. The film minimizes the story and constructs something that is better described as a portrait.

The non-sequitur selection of episodic events is even more pronounced in Mouchette (1967), his last black-and-white film, in which the sequence of scenes contribute little to any recognizable passage of time; instead, they construct the living portrait of the girl lost in her world she barely comprehends. In both of these films the protagonist dies, as in most of his films, and the ending is not so much the culmination of her or his biographical life but more like a consummation of a life guided by some mysterious power above and beyond reality, comparable to the end of Joan of Arc on the stake after the trial in Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962), nominally an event occurring in real time of the trial but, austerely reduced in action and setting, is characteristically a portrait in contrast to even Dreyer’s rendition of the saint.

In all his films, we can say, that Bresson, endeavors to minimize whatever contributes to the narrative fulfillment in the film, despite his insistence on the realism of the images, which was developed to enhance the realism of the story in Neorealism and the New Wave. For the length of the film our narrative interest is thus suspended, and we wait and wait, bored or intrigued, and the end is death, which somehow gives the meaning, not quite comprehensible to us no less than to the portrayed personage but somehow physically felt as an unforgettable experience, a meaning mysterious, perhaps transcendental, like Joan’s death on the stake, a salvation, in a deeply Catholic way of thinking ingrained in Bresson’s life.

The beings that Bresson captures in his film-portraits engage themselves almost blindly in what they do, docilely or else obsessively, as though guided by some power beyond their comprehension, transcending their activities. A mystery is a mystery because it is not totally comprehensible in a rational way; it reaches above and beyond our everyday experience, beyond what language can express. Mystic writers don’t describe but evoke their experiences, well aware of the limits of the words, and expect the readers to capture the mystery beyond comprehension. Poetry is, in fact, like that when it succeeds brilliantly. So, Bresson tries through his filmed images beyond what the images naturally communicate. He eschews symbolism, however, because his aspiration is not abstract ideas but some concrete experience of the transcendental; for this reason, realism of the images is essential to him. He does not construct a story; he does not replicate our reality; he uses the images of our everyday world to search for a meaning that somehow elevates us. It is not surprising that Bresson’s films demand to be seen repeatedly to be experienced more deeply fully.

In one of the oft-quoted epigrams, Bresson wrote: “A movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, comes to life again like flowers in water.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Marylin Horne Master Class

Last night I attended Marilyn Horne’s Master Class in public performance at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. Four singers sang for her: mezzosoprano Tynan Davis (Bizet, Adieux de lhôtesse arabe), countertenor Tai Oney (Purcell, Sweeter than roses), soprano Laura Strickling (Mahler, Am Grabe Anselmos), and baritone Jonathan Estabrooks (Mahler, Die zwei blauen Augen). Horne was kind and witty but incisive and illuminating. The singers all had nice voice and sang beautifully enough but not very expressively; and Horne’s coaching consisted, for all of them, of understanding the words of the lyric, conjuring up images they evoked, and varying the rhythm and pacing but, especially, the color of the voice in order to create drama. The performance was very instructive for the audience, too; it made the songs memorable. The lesson also confirmed my long-standing notion that Lieder are miniature operas.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Facing the cold sky
amaryllis in pretty pink
sings brightly it’s spring.


Winter haiku

Days are longer but
ominous is the shadow
of the winter bush

A woman wrapped in fur
hurls a fir tree at curbside
a frosty morning

Wind chlll at zero
waiting is so much longer
standing for the bus.

December closes
art in the museums drowns in
the sea of shoulders

Furs on Madison
suddenly in December
the first freezing day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rome's Epiphany

It’s Epiphany today. In Roman dialect it is Befana, and since children in Italy traditionally receive presents on this day, the day when the Magi brought gift to Christ Child, toy markets fill up the Piazza Navona -- the Roman slur of Platea Agonis as the elongated course was originally built for a foot race, called agones, the source of the word agony referring to the rigor of the contest. Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain marks its center with the obelisk mounted with the papal coat-of-arms and the dove of the Pamphili family, whose church with Borromini’s facade is called Sant’ Agnese in Agone. The piazza also gets filled with the drones of the zampogna, a variety of bag pipe, played by the farmers who come down from Abruzzo for the festivities -- agonizing to the merchants who are there all day and late into night.

Barnet's Contour Lines

One thing among many that enthralls me in Will Barnet’s figurative paintings from the 60s on is the double-functioning contour lines that are especially well demonstrated in this work, The Blue Robe, 1962, which depicts his wife Elena and their daugher Una. The painting is consistently constituted of flat areas, so that his graphic lines model a form without shading. Each line, simplified to the utmost -- absolutely straight or otherwise curved with minimum undulation -- is therefore carefully deliberated not only to model a form, like the scoop on the right hem of her blue robe which brings out the swell of her breast, the slight dip in the line that defines the upper side of her arm down to the wrist, Una’s foreshortened thigh, and the subtle lift in the bottom line of the cushion on which she rests. But, most spectacularly, a single line often serves to define two forms simultaneously, like the underside of woman’s same arm which, resting on the shoulder of the sofa, also defines its upper ledge, the cat hanging on her knee, and the child’s right arm over her head. Barnet also likes to bring two lines, straight and curved, tangentially or nearly so, as in the woman’s left arm against her robe, the cat’s arched back against the sofa’s edge, and the girl’s buttock against her left arm. By this means the composition gains a tightly fit integration like that of clasped hands in which the two hands meet along a single continuous line, and the picture, seemingly simple, is infinitely intriguing. Will Barnet, now 101 years young (or, will be in May), just completed a selective retrospective at the National Academy Museum in New York, which illustrated the four phases of his pictorial career -- expressionist, para-cubist, figurative, and back to abstraction when he reached 80, curated with the same economy of means as the master’s art. Bless him.

Painting: Gottliebemich (Lippenstiftfleck), 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012


It requires me an enormous effort to drink water habitually and to drink enough to reach the daily recommended quota, even in the summertime. I never liked to swim because I didn’t particularly enjoy soaking in the water and being splashed and, in fact, I barely know how to swim. I do bathe and shower out of necessity, however. When it rains, I hesitate to go out; I even change the plan when that is possible. I thought these quirks of mine arise from the fact that I am an Aquarius and come with plenty of water on my own. I like aquaria, however. That is because I don’t get wet. For the same reason, I enjoy immensely watching the rain out of the window, a drizzle, a downpour, or a hurricane.

The Enchanted Island

The Enchanted Island, the new pastiche opera at the Met, was striking, gorgeous, magnificent, totally enchanting, indeed, over the top. . . as a pastiche. But a pastiche it was, though the pieces were well put together, musically and theatrically, by the masterful hands of Jeremy Sams, with no unsightly seams in sight. Moreover, the production featured a parade of topnotch singers -- awesome David Daniels, powerful and beautiful Joyce DiDonato and Danielle De Niese, venerable Placido Domingo, and other impressive talents, and peerless William Christie directing. The use of the video projection of the 59 Productions was truly magical; and the lavish set and costume design was dazzling. The music drawn from Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau, among others, was interminably a delight. Yet. . .and yet . . . it was a fragile contraption, a fairground festivity, a bouquet of tissue paper flowers, marvelous fireworks. It had little substance and got boring after the initial uplift; it was a marvel while it lasted but left very little after it was over.

Given all the splendor, it took me a while to determine the fundamental flaw, and I diagnosed it to be the excess of visual opulence. I’m no purist, and I understand pastiche as a legitimate creative style in the 18th century. and fantasy as a promising artistic form; and I know well that Baroque in art aspired for the splendiferous, even the stupendiferous. But the stage spectacle was overwrought to the point it was no longer an opera but a circus show at the expense of everything else -- the orchestra and, most of all, the contribution of beautiful singing talents. There was already an excess in wedding Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the effort undermined the depth of both plays and made us long for one or the other in its integrity. Ariel doubling as Puck is fun but no more than that. A show so rich and so cheap! A Baroque opera of more credible splendor was demonstrated by Lully’s Atys performed at BAM last September under the direction of the same William Christie -- a recreation of the 1987 production at Opéra Comique, Paris. No doubt The Enchanted Island was a great show, a masterpiece of its ringmaster, Peter Gelb. But if he thinks this project, surely costing a fortune, is going to create future opera fans, he might think twice because, most likely, any opera novice returning to the Met after this razzle-dazzle enchantment will only see any true opera pale as a spectacle and most likely disenchanting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Movies: Hugo, A Separation, The Artist

Braving the blistering cold down in the 20’s, I went out and saw two movies today. At AMC Loews Lincoln Square I viewed Martin Scorsese’s Hugo 3D. In view of this director’s earlier and even more recent films, Hugo is a gentle film without the intense emotional turmoil that was often his filmic hallmark. Essentially, it is his rumination on the origin of the cinema, the art to which he is deeply devoted, and, more specifically, a loving tribute to Georges Méliès (1861-1938), magician and the inventor of the narrative film, best remembered for A Trip to the Moon (1902), for which he exploited trick photography to magical effects. And, Scorsese shows himself a magician; he transports us into the world of fantasy imbedded in the eponymous child hero’s world of reality, and he uses the 3-D effectively toward this end. Hugo, an orphan, lives deep in the walls of the Montparnasse train station which shelter the huge mechanical contraptions that regulate the station’s clocks, and his single-minded pursuit of his father’s secret leads to the bitter old man tending a toy stall who turns out to be Méliès himself, played by Ben Kingsley looking deceptively like the filmmaker. Scorsese, in fact, sees the whole station as well as the city of Paris in 1920s and the life therein as a clockwork mechanism like that of the automaton, Hugo’s only inheritance from his father. The film takes liberty with chronology and geography. The runaway train that sped through the Gare Montparnasse and stopped hanging on its facade, of which a photograph exists, was a real event but of 1895; and Méliès was impoverished in 1920’s and it was not until after he was “rediscovered” late in the decade that he was provided with a comfortable retirement home, and that was in Orly. But this film is a fantasy, not history; still, it is infinitely fascinating, a special delight to the film buffs and historians among us.

P.S. Scorsese’s use of the 3D, to put it concisely, concerns space rather than motion. He eschews characters and objects that rush out toward the viewer explosively. Instead, he creates the effect of encompassing space (with the fluttering snow flakes that blow into the auditorium, for example, and Méliès’s sketches that fly off from the box that falls from the hands of Isabelle, the effect which accounts for our sense of being in the room) or, else, of clarifying the sense the narrowly confined space of the walled clock mechanism where Hugo lives. In the scenes of the station concourse he creates the credible impression that we are in the midst of the jostling crowd. I think his use of the 3D shows the understanding akin to that of the filmmakers known for the first creative adoption of the depth-of-field (or deep-focus) shots: William Wyler (with the cinematographer Gregg Toland) and Orson Welles. Scorsese creates an image of depth with both the near and the far in focus.

Image result for separation movie

A Separation is a new film from Iran written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a moving story of a wife who seeks separation from her husband for the sake of their daughter’s education, which is denied at the court because he refuses to move from Teheran for the sake of his father suffering from Alzheimers, but the well-intentioned effort, both hers and his, leads to an expanding series of conflicts and clashes in all directions. I have not seen any of his films before this one. The story is well written, seamless in continuity and suspense and engaging as well as touching; and the theme is universal in interest, if also a glimpse into the contemporary urban life in Teheran is refreshing. But the very special beauty of this film is the craftsmanlike weaving of mundane or otherwise predictable events; the way it edits together bits of shots into a coherent but continuous series of events is reminiscent, even if the analogy is trite, of the Persian tapestry, or, even more in the narrative and stylistic precision, the Persian miniature, like the Shahnameh, in which the minutiae are as weighty as the large organizing forms and force us to read in paced sequence of small parts to get the sense of the whole. This is in striking and refreshing contrast to the grossly generalized and often unrealistically histrionic narration in many of the films of recent decades. God is, indeed, in the details. But, curiously, so is the indeterminacy of moral truth. We learn, living vicariously the life of the characters in the film, that no statement purported to be true is free of smaller elements which are not quite true or untrue, as no pictorial or filmic detail is ever complete in what it shows.

Image result for the artist movie

The Artist is by Michel Hazanavicius from Belgium, who also wrote and directed the film. I saw it three weeks ago. The story which describes the end of Hollywood’s Silent Era, involving its star George Valentin, a composite of Valentino and John Gilbert, and his young flapper partner Peppy Miller who rides the wave of the talkies to a great success, is told ingeniously not only mimicking the typical silent melodrama in the narrative of the hero's descent into poverty and attempted suicide but also realizing it nostalgically as a black-and-white silent feature, deliciously mawkish meta-cinematically, in both respect. I say meta-cinematically because the film does not attempt to recreate the movie in the silent era but rather comments on it as perceived by those who remember it as a myth rather than as a real experience in its time. It is another film that delights us film buffs and historians alike.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Sexy Sex

I’m by no means a prude. But I dislike the word sexy. I don’t consider it dirty; I don’t consider it vulgar; I don’t even consider it crude or unseemly, when used in its proper context, as of a sexy behavior, meaning carnal, arousing, lustful. Sex is sexy, after all. I dislike it because in current overuse of the word it has become as pale as nice; it has become colorless applied practically to anything nice -- eyes, shoes, cars, clothing, design, prose, ideas, mountains, pebbles, you name it.

There are evocative words that the word sexy as an umbrella term came to subsume and take over, oh, so rudely. A body may be voluptuous, a posture erotic, a face alluring, words seductive; a picture may be sensual or, otherwise, only sensuous, a relationship amorous, a story titillating, a scent provocative, a touch enticing, a pursuit passionate. Sexy? Blah.

Wenders' Pina

I went to see Wim Wenders’ new film Pina 3D, a documentary on the choreographer Pina Bausch and her Wuppeltal Tanztheater. The film as film is undistinguished, and the 3D technology added little to the power of her dances for those familiar with them in live theater. Still, the filmmaker’s ingenuity in piecing together a work from a project frustrated by Bausch’s sudden death in 2009 is admirable, combining dance footages with the dancers’ testimonials most effectively shown rather than spoken [that is, only as voice-over statements as though we are listening to their inner thoughts].

I have seen the Wuppertal performances in four programs: Für Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen (2004), Nefés (2006), Bamboo Blues (2008), and Vollmond (2010). Bausch’s dances are intensely dramatic; and they are drawn from a wide range of global sources. She is quoted as saying that she is “not interested in how people move but in what moves them.” If I were to give a single-word characterization, Bausch’s choreography is fury in contradistinction to Balanchine’s elegance, Robbins’ everyday, Mark Morris’ joyfulness, and Cunningham’s cosmic geometry. [Yes, Merce gets an extra word.]