Thursday, December 9, 2010

THE KING'S SPEECH

How rare it is to see a movie that is stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining.  To watch one that pulls off the cinema hat trick of impeccable acting, writing (David Seidler) and directing (Tom Hooper).  That rarity is The King’s Speech.

Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the spine of the story. It’s 1936, the Great Depression is grinding away, and war clouds are forming over Europe. Britain’s King George V (Michael Gambon) dies, his vapid son Edward (Guy Pearce) succeeds him as king. Just eleven months later, Edward abdicates so he can run off and marry the American multiple-divorcée, Wallis Simpson. Younger brother Albert Frederick Arthur George, or “Bertie,” (Colin Firth) ascends to the throne as King George VI. As far as European royal families go, so far, so good

But – there’s always a “but” – Bertie has a problem.  And it’s a problem that I certainly wasn’t aware of before this movie. Bertie has been a life-long stammerer, and he’s deathly afraid of any form of public speaking. Yet he now has a nation to inspire as its titular leader, and he has to do this during a time of rising international turmoil. This requires ceremonial remarks, radio addresses, public appearances – all anathema to this insecure, embarrassed, stammering king.

So stammering and British history intersect. And this leads to the heart of the movie – the relationship between Bertie and his highly unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). Watching this rocky relationship develop, as portrayed by two masters of the acting art, Firth and Rush, is a treat to behold. And the lesser roles aren't too shabby -- Helen Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The critical reception has been almost unanimously gushing.  All 17 top critics as compiled by Rotten Tomatoes gave it the highest accolade -- a ripe tomato rating.


To me, one of the most interesting perspectives on the movie was that written by the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty. What makes his review a little more special is that McNulty is himself a stammerer. Some quotes from his piece:

Public speaking consistently ranks as one of life's most stressful events, up there with divorce, bereavement and home foreclosure.

As someone who has stuttered since childhood, I recognize [Bertie’s] symptoms only too well — the blood-drained complexion, the collapsing gait, the passive acceptance of death in the eyes.

Probably the darkest period of my life was around the time I was just finishing graduate school and feeling completely overwhelmed with doubts about how I would make my way in the world. How funny that a future king could share my anxiety.

By the way, I recently read Black Swan Green, a terrific 2006 novel by British writer David Mitchell in which the protagonist is a 13-year-old stammerer. His biggest challenges arise from the cruelty that many children impose upon a peer who has a disability. As McNulty pointed out in his movie essay,

The condition has been coded as a joke in popular culture, one of the few disabilities considered fair game for laughs.

We recently watched another highly enjoyable movie about 20th-century British royals, The Lost Prince. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, this BBC film tells the poignant tale of Prince John, the epileptic youngest brother of Bertie and Edward. Available on DVD at Netflix.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

PETER GREENAWAY TAKES ON DA VINCI, VERONESE

Last night, we attended the preview of a terrific show: Peter Greenaway’s multimedia interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. The show, an American premiere, opens Friday at the Park Avenue Armory, and it’s without doubt the best $15 entertainment you’ll find these days in New York.

Peter Greenaway
Greenaway is the Welsh-born multimedia artist and filmmaker perhaps best known for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, a 1989 movie that the New York Times called “elegant” and “stylized”, and the Washington Post labeled “accomplished” and “astounding.” These descriptions would aptly lend themselves to Greenaway’s show at the Armory. It is some artistic tour de force.

The original da Vinci painting is in the Refectory of the Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. Greenaway has shaped his interpretation of  The Last Supper by using the brilliant technology of Factum Arte, a Madrid-based company that produced a meticulously detailed, high-resolution facsimile of the original painting. Greenaway brings it to life through an ingenious manipulation of light, sound, and theatrical illusion. These, in turn, allow you to see the familiar image in completely new ways. There are projections, moving and still, on the walls and the ceiling.  There are voices. There is music. There are enlargements. Enlargements of the enlargements. Individual figures come to life. Wine and blood that flow over the table’s edge. And on. And on. It’s an immersive, thrilling, unique experience. The video below suggests, but does not capture, the real-life experience.
 
Veronese's The Wedding at Cana

The other highlight of the Armory show is Greenaway’s multimedia treatment of  The Wedding at Cana. This 16th century Veronese work was originally located in the Benedictine monastery of  San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Then Napoleon came along in 1797, sliced the huge painting (31 x 23 ft., 130 people) into sections, and carted it off to Paris where it ended up – and remains – in the Louvre.
 
The Greenaway/Factum Arte multimedia treatment of The Wedding at Cana is equal to that of The Last Supper. Together, they offer a unique way of looking at two of the great art works in history. Greenaway demonstrates how a contemporary artist can use technology and imagination to stimulate the appreciation the ages-old visual arts. More multimedia explorations are on the way. Of the ten in total that he has planned, Picasso’s Guernica may be next.

Finally, a word in praise of Factum Arte. British artist Adam Howe has created this international company that leads the world in applying technology to art conservation and to the making of exact facsimiles of works of art. Indeed, it has an astonishing capability for creating high-resolution, three-dimensional clones of major works of art.

Scanning The Wedding at Cana at the Louvre
Example: It made a precisely identical, visually indistinguishable, three-dimensional clone of The Wedding at Cana original that hangs in the Louvre. The clone now hangs back at its original home, San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. But as art historian Susan Tallman points out (Art in America, Feb. '09), “The original hangs low on a wall at the Louvre, between two doors, in the same crowded gallery as the Mona Lisa. The copy at San Giorgio Maggiore hangs at the height and in the space for which it was intended, with the lighting anticipated by Veronese. There is no doubt which is the more authentic object. But which version provides the more authentic experience is open to question.”


By the way, a few years ago I posted on this blog a suggestion to democratize art by creating exact reproductions of masterpieces held in museums around the world and then making them available to other museums around the world for art lovers and students to enjoy locally. The aesthetic experience offered by the clone would be identical to that of the original; this was shown to be the case with The Wedding at Cana reproduction in San Giorgio Maggiore. 


Alas, the art establishment -- museums, curators, artists, dealers, collectors -- is not exactly enamored of this idea. But I am. And now the Louvre has broken the ice with its permission for the Veronese clone to be made, and now that we have the technology to do it, who knows? You can read the proposal here.

If you want to see the Greenaway show  – and you should – hurry. It closes January 6th.



Tuesday, November 30, 2010

INSIDE JOB -- See It

Charles Ferguson’s film, Inside Job, is one terrific polemic. We all know what a polemic is, don’t we? A diatribe, invective, rant, tirade, broadside, attack, harangue, condemnation, criticism, stricture, admonition, rebuke. Derived from Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike, hostile.”  Well, Inside Job is all of those. But an enjoyable polemic, that is, to the extent that a film about an economic crisis can be enjoyable.

There’s probably little you don’t know that the film reveals. It’s appeal to me is just the completeness of it all, the connecting of the dots, the incriminating clips, the implicating documents, the squirming of the culprits, the delicious ambush interviews, the rounding up of all the usual suspects. This is what sustains your interest for almost two hours, and why 26 of the 27 top newspaper and magazine critics in Rotten Tomatoes gave it favorable reviews – an almost unprecedented near-unanimity. (The only critical rotten tomato was hurled by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, whose reviewer found it “incoherent.”)
Another service is that the film underscores the incompetence of all involved in this tragedy, as well as the venality of so many of the players. As to the ineptitude, it reminds me of my post a couple of years ago as the crisis was rising to its climax:

In 1983, screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Princess Bride, et al.) wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade, a brilliant and entertaining analysis of the movie industry. His unforgettable takeaway line that summarized the entire 436-page book, the phrase that captured the essence of Hollywood, and now the single best explanation of why we’re in such a economic mess: “Nobody knows anything.” 



Who are the nobodies? Well, there are the CEOs, the Treasury, the Fed, the Congress, the Administration, the SEC, the other regulators, the journalists, the investors and the voters. Did I leave anyone out?


Actually, I left out academia.  One of the film’s contributions is pointing out how many of  the leading academics were unaware at best and wrong at worst on the impending economic collapse.  And it disclosed how many of them had really shocking (and undisclosed) conflicts of interest. (Conflicts? Do I hear ratings agencies?)

But my favorite incompetent – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner – declined to be interviewed. (I’ll bet that a bunch of others who went on camera wish they hadn’t.) It would have been interesting to hear him defend the rosy scenario he was making as head of the New York Fed in speeches throughout 2007, just a year before all hell broke loose. Some excerpted phrases about the strength of the economy and the financial system:

reduced concern about future fundamental risk…

…improved our confidence in the ability of markets to absorb stress…

…the capital positions of banks have improved

…reinforced expectations of future stability

…increasing comfort with higher leverage…

…the larger global financial institutions are generally stronger in terms of capital relative to risk..

…financial innovation has improved the capacity to measure and manage risk…


By the way, Geithner is still Treasury Secretary.

His last comment, on the so-called benefits of financial innovation, reminds me of one of the perceptive lines in the movie, made, I believe, by the head of the International Monetary Fund, who was pretty critical of everyone:

“Why is it that we pay financial engineers 4 to 100 times as much as we do real engineers? Real engineers make things.”

By the way, it's different in China. Is there a lesson to be learned?

Despite the New York Post review, go see Inside Job.







Monday, November 29, 2010

ENCORES! -- A LOVE LETTER

This is a love letter to  one of  New York City’s great entertainment treats – Encores!

Presented by New York City Center, Encores! is a series that revives three Broadway musicals each November-March season. Some of the musicals are well known, others not. But in our ten years of attending Encores!, every show has been worth seeing, and almost all have offered great musical theater experiences.

Just imagine the excitement of being able to relive the great composers and lyricists in American musical theater history: Porter, Kander, Ebb, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein II, Sondheim, Styne, Fields, Harnick, Harburg, Comden, Green, Adler, Ross, Lerner, Lane, Berlin, Loesser, Gershwin, Bock, Strouse, Arlen, Weill, Bernstein, Kern… All these and more have had their shows revived at Encores!

The performances are semi-staged. The full scores are performed by a lush-sounding twenty-odd-piece orchestra that plays in full view on stage.  (Compare this with many Broadway musicals today where the “orchestra” is perhaps a five-piece group, larded with synthesizers, and hidden from view.) The choreography follows as closely as possible that of the original production, as does the book. The sets, however, are minimal -- a fair trade in my view. Another Encores! hallmark --  the performers, who only have eight days of rehearsal, carry their scripts with them (just in case).

But there is nothing else “semi” about the Encores! productions. Under artistic director Jack Viertel, the acting, singing, dancing, and directing are always first rate. Encores! is able to recruit first-class established talent, as well as emerging stars, and for meager recompense -- this is a not-for-profit theater. The attraction for some is the ability to learn and perform in a musical that they never had the chance to participate in. Others do it for fun. Some do it as a showcase. But none does it for the money – there isn’t any. Another measure of the quality and appeal of the Encores! revivals: several have gone on to Broadway runs, including the long-running Chicago, Pajama Game, and Gypsy.

Some of the performers during the last decade who’ve answered the call at Encores! are: Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton, Cheyenne Jackson, George Hearn, Raúl Esparza, Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole, Victoria Clark, Sandy Duncan, Philip Bosco, Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Victor Garber, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Eli Wallach, Brian D’Arcy James, Karen Ziemba, Maurice Hines, F. Murray Abraham, James Naughton, Len Cariou, Brent Barrett, Anne Hathaway, Idina Menzel.

Each show runs for only five performances over four days. So you don’t have a lot of opportunity to catch one unless you plan in advance. Indeed, this year’s subscriptions are sold out, though single tickets are available for the two remaining  productions, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley.

The initial performances of the 2010-11 season were staged a week ago. Bells are Ringing was first produced on Broadway in 1956, starring Judy Holliday. This wacky but delightful musical includes such hit songs as "The Party’s Over," "Just in Time," and "Long Before I Knew You." While Judy wasn’t available to return for the Encores! production, Kelli O’Hara proved to be a terrific replacement. Kelli (South Pacific, The Pajama Game, The Light in the Piazza) is now at the top of the Broadway firmament, yet she – like so many other stars -- is also part of the Encores! world.


And now for something completely different -- we’re talking night-and-day different from Bells are Ringing -- is the forthcoming production of  Lost in the Stars, which plays February 3-6, 2011. This show was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted on Broadway. The playwright Maxwell Anderson and composer  Kurt Weill created this 1949 musical based on the Alan Paton  novel about racial unrest in South Africa. (I can assure you that the Bells are Ringing song, "I'm Going Back to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company" will not be reprised in Lost in the Stars.)




The third and final production this season is a revival of the 1948 hit, Where’s Charley, playing March 17-20, 2011. This Frank Loesser musical was a platform for Ray Bolger, the incomparable comic dancer (better known to some as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz). But to me, Ray Bolger is “Once in Love with Amy,” the show-stopping song-and-dance number in Where’s Charley. And Frank Loesser, of course,  is at the pinnacle of composer-lyricists  -- Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.




What’s amazing to me is how few of our New York friends are regulars at Encores!, or even occasional attendees.  And few of our out-of-town friends have even heard of it. Well, consider yourself apprised. Go to the Encores! website and get with the program.

See you on West 55th Street.


All Encores! shows since 1994


Thursday, November 11, 2010

TWO BROADWAY SHOWS AND AN OPERA

It’s been a busy theater week for us. First came two shows on Broadway -- Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown last Friday, followed on Sunday by La Bête, and then last night Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan Opera.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown  We bravely went to see this show the evening following its opening, and the same day as disastrous reviews appeared in The New York Times  and The Wall Street Journal.  (In fairness, John Lahr in The New Yorker liked it. Go figure.) Undaunted, and hoping for the best, we ventured forth. And why not? Consider the talent involved.

This new musical is based on the film of the same name by Pedro Almodóvar, one of the great filmmakers of our time. The cast is A-list: Patty LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Laura Benanti.  They are stars, multiple-award winners, and among our favorites on Broadway.

And then there is Bartlett Sher, an amazing talent.  He directed one of the memorable musicals we've seen, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza (we saw it three times), the excellent revival of South Pacific, and two terrific opera productions at the Met – The Barber of Seville and The Tales of Hoffmann

How could he fail? How could this team fail? How this not be a megahit?

Well, you can start with the book writer, Jeffrey Lane.  He transformed the Almodóvar movie into what I can only call a mess of a musical. Then there’s the composer/lyricist, David Yazbek (not one of our favorites), who put together a pedestrian score. Flawed book, forgettable music, uninspired lyrics --there's a start.  

But there were other signs that a train wreck was in the making.  One example: the inexplicable decision by the creative team to stage a fire on a bed while Sherie Rene Scott was trying to sing right next to the fire. Aside from Scott's daunting challenge and the absurdity of the scene, the blaze sent a rancid chemical stench throughout the theater that lasted until intermission. The audience was not amused.

In the final analysis, I guess that talented people, whether in baseball or theater, don’t always pitch perfect games.  So Bart and Patti and Sherie and Brian and Laura – as we say down South, y’all come back again real soon, y’heah? We’ll be there.


La Bête  It’s not often that one sees a play performed that’s written entirely in verse (probably for good reason). But if the play stars Mark Rylance, then you should beat a path to its door. Because there are few actors on the stage today with the versatility and talent of Mark Rylance. We first got to see him in London, where for ten years he was artistic director and a frequent actor in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He’s appeared in 48 plays by Shakespeare and contemporaries, and won a Tony award for his role in the comedy, Boeing-Boeing.

The highlight of La Bête is watching Rylance deliver a riotously funny 25-minute monologue that includes, among other things, belching, farting, and defecation. Not your cup of tea? Let’s just say, it’s better than it sounds. And the monologue is a theatrical tour de force.

Don Pasquale   Donizetti’s opera buffa is also broad comedy, but it adds music and song. There are few funnier operas (maybe The Barber of Seville) and few sillier plots. But who cares? It’s opera. As Norina, the beautiful superstar Anna Netrebko sings and acts and mugs and somersaults, and nothing much else matters. Yet her co-stars, bass John Del Carlo as the aging bachelor and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as his conniving physician, are her matches (except for the somersaulting).


This opera is notable for at least one reason. As my friend, Joshua Ruch, reminded me last night, Don Pasquale is one of the few operas in the Met’s repertory -- three by our count -- that incorporates encores during the production. The baritone-bass duet in Act III, with its device of using rhythm and accelerating tempo to make a comic impression, brings the house down, and also brings the singers back for an encore. Similarly, in Verdi’s Nabucco, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves is always repeated. Finally, in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, after über-tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the aria with nine high C’s, he is invariably coaxed by the audience’s tumultuous applause into giving an encore.

Friday, November 5, 2010

CASUAL WATER

There are a lot of great golf stories. There are even some true golf stories.  (As contrasted with tennis – have you ever heard a great tennis story?) Thanks to my good friend, Lewis Lapham, I’m able to share this wonderful anecdote involving his grandfather, Cypress Point, and an incident involving the rules of golf.
Roger D. Lapham

Roger Lapham, onetime mayor of San Francisco, was a founder and president of the Cypress Point Club, one of the treasures in the golfing world. Golf and gambling were Roger’s passion. Grandson Lewis profiled him and the founding of Cypress Point in an entertaining piece in the June issue of Golf Digest. What wasn’t included in the Golf Digest article was the following, as told by Lewis:

“The incident in question dates from the early years of the Great Depression, my grandfather playing a four-ball match for what at the time was a very heavy stake -- $10,000 Nassau, no putts conceded. The game reached the eighteenth hole all even, the bet on the front nine added to the bet on the back nine. Grandfather’s partner played his drive into the trees to the right of the fairway, his next shot across the fairway into the trees on the left, where it was deemed irretrievably lost. Both opponents reached the green with their second shots, leaving themselves long putts but odds-on to get down in two.
18th hole, Cypress Point Golf Course

“Roger Lapham meanwhile had hit his approach into the deep bunker below and to the left of the green, the ball so deeply buried in the sand that it was barely visible. Mindful of the authority vested in him as the president of the club, he studied the lie for a duly diligent period of time before deciding to piss on it.

“He did so thoughtfully and deliberately, a resourceful executive solving a problem as well as expressing an opinion. The providential appearance of casual water he construed as a granting of relief from an extraneous hazard. Placing his ball elsewhere in the bunker, he played it within three feet of the pin.

“The stroke unnerved his two opponents, each of whom three-putted for a bogey five. Grandfather holed the par. His partner heartily congratulated him on having won the match, a result that he endorsed, as did both caddies and five of the six club members who had followed the play from the fifteenth tee.

“Not having been present at the time I can only guess at both the voicing and the nature of the protest. I’ve been told that although the ruling was subsequently upheld on appeal to the board of governors, the dispute, accompanied by strenuous argument and wild gesture, was carried first into the locker room, then to the clubhouse and bar. Strong drink was called for; so were dice and cards. Somehow a settlement was reached, the club rules regarding casual water amended to thereafter specify its source and point of origin.”







Monday, November 1, 2010

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF REVIEWING


In the good old days, reviews were to the point.  They told the reader what he or she wanted to know: Did the reviewer like the book (or play, or movie)? Should the reader read it (or see it)? There might be some extra stuff to fill out the review, but that’s why we read reviews.

My all-time favorite example of the perfect review – one that was succinct, humorous, and to the point  -- came from the critic (variously identified as Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Tynan, Walter Kerr, and others) who reviewed the 1951 John van Druten play based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, I am a Camera.  The review, in its entirety:  “Me No Leica.”

Today, critics frequently ignore that most important function – placing a value judgment on the work.  But even if they do, they so often do something that I find unforgivable. They feel compelled to disclose the plot, point by point by point. No secret goes unrevealed. No plot turn unexposed.

For that reason, I rarely read a review in advance of reading a novel or seeing a movie.  I might scan it to glean a general impression, but I stay away from any details that would spoil the subsequent experience of actually reading or seeing the work.  After reading the novel or seeing the movie, I then enjoy reading the reviews to compare my experience with those of the critics.


Here’s a case in point of what the world of literary criticism has come to.  I recently read (and enjoyed) Philip Roth’s new novel, Nemesis. Subsequently, I picked up The New York Review of Books and found a review of the book by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee.  Wow! A Nobel reviewer.

Had I read this review before reading the book, I would have been furious.  Coetzee essentially recites every important plot point in the book.  He writes:

“Generally, a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets. But I see no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule. The secret is that… [He gives away the key secret]... More specifically… [Additional plot points passed on]... Furthermore… [Still more]” 

He discloses all. 

So Philip Roth goes to all the trouble of constructing a novel with twists, and Coetzee methodically reveals them.  Why read Roth after reading Coetzee?

And then there are the movie trailers that in two minutes summarize the entire story line of a forthcoming movie.  But that’s another story.

My suggestion:  read reviews later, not sooner, especially if they’re written by Nobel Prize winners.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LETTER FROM LONDON: THE TURNER PRIZE

In addition to gorging on the performing arts in London last week, we also partook of the visual kind.  Here's how we spent one afternoon, at the Turner Prize exhibition:
Turner Prize 2010
Since 1984, the Turner Prize has been Britain's most prestigious arts competition.  The prize is awarded to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition in the year through April.  Beginning in October, the finalists, as picked by a jury, have their work exhibited at Tate Britain. (That's the Tate with neither the smokestack nor the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds.) Then, in December -- drumroll -- a winner will be picked.



It's a big deal in Britain. Like the Whitney Biennial, the reviewers usually have a field day with their criticism. But also like the Biennial, the Turner Prize gets press coverage and is fiercely argued about in art circles.  Even Ladbrokes and William Hill, the British betting shops, post odds on the Turner Prize contestants.


In earlier years, some of the prizewinners have gone on to fame, fortune, and, in some cases, notoriety, including Howard Hodgkin (1985), Gilbert & George (1986), Anish Kapoor  (1991), Rachel Whiteread (1993), Antony Gormley  (1994), and Damien Hirst (1995).


Four artists were short-listed this year and have their work on display now at Tate Britain.  That is, three rooms have art on display; one room is totally empty. There is absolutely nothing to see in this room, because it's exhibiting an aural piece of art.  Yes, you can actually look at this artwork with your eyes closed. Or you can stare at the bare walls and listen to recordings of the "artist," Susan Philipsz, singing folk songs over loudspeakers.  The program describes these songs as "aural interventions."  Well, as Samuel Goldwyn said, include me out. Susan is on my really really short list. Yet, weirdly enough, The Guardian lists Philipsz in second place in the betting. Go figure.

Dexter Dalwood: Burroughs in Tangiers
Dexter Dalwood: Death of David Kelly
Leading the betting is the painter Dexter Dalwood, former member of a punk rock band. Well, maybe not an oil-on-canvas painter, but a painter-collagist.  In any event, and this is radical among Turner Prize finalists, there are images in frames that can be hung on a wall. How radical!  Not only that, but I actually liked some of them.


More evocative of my perception of a leading-edge art contestant is The Otolith Group. Their entries are long, pretentious videos that are explained in the catalog, but both the videos and the explanations left me struggling.  It was here that I started to appreciate aural interventions. Otolith is in last place among the oddsmakers.
Angela de la Cruz: Clutter I


Finally, there is Angela de la Cruz.  What she is doing is worth discussing. Her point of departure, according to the program notes, is that she 


"breaks the stretchers of her canvases...she becomes occupied with liberating painting from the sacred boundaries of its support, allowing it to expand from the flat picture plane into a third dimension."


Angela de la Cruz: Deflated IV
As is so frequent in the arts today, what seems innovative has often been done before.  In literature, in its most blatant form, this is called plagiarism. (Tom Lehrer: Let no one else's work evade your eyes, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.)


In the visual arts, it's considered less as copying and more as flattering:  building, if you will, on the shoulders on giants. Appropriation, it's called.  And what Angela de la Cruz has done is to build on, to emulate, to pay tribute to, or to appropriate what American artist Sam Gilliam did more than a generation earlier. In the 1960s, Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of an unsupported canvas. From his WikiPedia entry:
Sam Gilliam: Double Fashion


He works on stretched, draped, and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars ...Around 1965 Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. He was inspired to do this by observing laundry hanging outside his Washington studio. This was the first of its kind and was of huge influence throughout the art world. His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings, arranged on walls or floors, and they represent a sculptural, third dimension in painting.
Sam Gilliam


The two italicized passages are remarkably similar. In both: removing the canvas from the stretcher and adding a third dimension.


Angela is doing something imaginative, and does it OK.  But Sam imagined it first, and does it brilliantly.


There you have it.  In December we'll know who wins -- the aural artist, the painter-collagist, the videographer, or the emulator.  Here's the betting from Oct. 7 poll in The Guardian:




And you thought the Super Bowl was big.



Letter from London -- A Little Art

In addition to gorging on the performing arts, we also partook of the visual kind.  Some impressions:


TURNER PRIZE   Since 1984, the Turner Prize has been awarded to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition in the year through April.  Beginning in October, the finalists, as picked by a jury, have their work exhibited at Tate Britain. (That's the Tate with neither the smokestack nor the 100 porcelain million sunflower seeds.) Then, in December -- drumroll -- a winner is picked.


It's a big deal in Britain. Like the Whitney Biennial, the reviewers usually have a field day with their criticism. But also like the Biennial, the Turner Prize gets covered and fiercely argued about in art circles.  Even the .

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LETTER FROM LONDON: A LITTLE THEATRE

We've just returned from London. Eight days of theater, art, dining, and enjoying some of the best eight days of London weather in memory–pleasant temperatures, not a drop of rain. Were we really in London? Is this what climate change is all about -- extreme pleasantness? The eight days included six theater performances, a dinner at the British Museum with trustees, dignitaries, and American friends of the Museum, and a 35th wedding anniversary party at Annabel's.  It was my first time back to Annabel's in a couple of decades, and little has changed. Well, one thing had changed. Men no longer need neckties.

Getting to London from New York wasn't half the fun, as the old Cunard ad used to promise, but it wasn't bad.  In fact, I'm about to do something unusual -- praise an airline other than one that flies to an emirate or to Singapore. We took a relatively new service of British Airways that has made flying to Europe about as painless as it gets nowadays. It was on a 32-passenger, all business-class, fully-flat-seat Airbus 318 that lands at London City Airport. Much closer to center of town, London City Airport is the un-Heathrow. No crowds, no waits, no unpleasantness – it's almost like flying into a private airport.


But the most unusual aspect of the round-trip was the return flight, which left from London City Airport. An hour after departure, the aircraft stops in Shannon, Ireland, for a 45-minute refueling (the departing runway is too short to allow the aircraft to take off with a full fuel load). Now that sounds like a downer, doesn't it --  landing just after you take off? However, there's a silver lining. During the interval on the ground, passengers go through US customs, thus permitting landing at JFK at the domestic terminal.  No unpleasant the JFK customs experience, and no long waits for baggage (with only 32 passengers).


Passion -- Donmar Warehouse -- 2010
PASSION  Though we went to the theater six times, we saw just five different shows. The theatrical highlight of the trip, and the show we had to see again, was Passion. First produced on Broadway in 1994, this musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James LaPine (book and direction) won Tony awards that year for best musical, score, book, and actress (Donna Murphy). It was based on an 1869 book, "Fosca," by the Italian writer Uginio Ugo Tarchetti, and a 1981 movie,"Passione d'Amore," by Ettore Scola.


Taking place in mid-19th-century Italy, Passion traces Giorgio as he gradually and improbably shifts his love from Clara, his gorgeous, voluptuous, married mistress, to the sepulchral, sick and obsessive Fosca.  Unlikely?  Absolutely.  But through the magic of the music, lyrics and book, the improbable becomes possible.  Giorgio realizes that the only true love is one that is unconditional. Thus he breaks off his romance with the beautiful Clara, who has put conditions on continuing their relationship. Georgio asks Clara





You think that this is love?
Love isn't so convenient.
Love isn't something scheduled in advance,
Not something guaranteed you need
For fear it may pass you by.
You have to take a chance,
You can't just try it out.
What's love unless it's unconditional?

And Fosca asks Georgio

Would Clara give her life for you?
...I would live,
And I would die for you.


And Giorgio, in realization of Fosca's love, tells her


No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now.



We and the rest of the audience watch for an uninterrupted hour forty-five minutes in rapt concentration. No one stirs.


In addition to the terrific cast (Elena Roger, David Thaxton and  Scarlett Strallen) and direction (Jamie Lloyd), the emotional impact of the evening is heightened by the fact that this small musical is being performed in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, in effect a chamber show in a chamber theater. A perfect match. Sitting a few feet away from the actors, who perform with no microphones and no amplification, the viewer gets a completely different experience from that in the typical large theater, sitting a distance from the stage, and listening to voices emanate from loudspeakers.


Seeing it once just wasn't enough. We changed our plans. Five days later we returned, enjoying it even more the second time.


DEATHTRAP  This comedy thriller was written by Ira Levin, a New Yorker whose previous works included the films Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. On Broadway, Deathtrap ran for 1,793 performances and starred Michael Caine in the leading role. It was also a successful movie.  Our main reason for seeing this otherwise modest show was to marvel in the performance of one of the consummate stage actors of our time, Simon Russell Beale. He is a force of nature.


HOUSE OF GAMES  Originally a movie by David Mamet, one of our favorite playwrights, screenwriters and directors, this stage version at the Almeida Theatre was only moderately entertaining. But I happen to like plays and movies that involve cons and stings, so I probably enjoyed this more than the work itself or the acting would merit.


LOWER NINTH  A short, three-person drama that is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Played in a tiny theater off-off-West End, the entire action takes place on the roof of a flooded house in the lower ninth ward just days after the storm. It had a short run in New York off-off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Fine acting, emotional, worth seeing.  


YES, PRIME MINISTER  Based on the very funny 1980s television series, this spoof on British governance was amusing. Yet an hour later, it was out of mind.  A pleasant trifle. Perhaps it works better as a half-hour British television series than as a two-hour-plus West End production.


What we didn't catch and wish we had:  We saw Hamlet on Broadway last year with Jude Law, and recently re-watched both the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh films.  As a result, we're Hamlet-satiated.  So we passed on seeing this new National Theatre modern-dress production of the melancholy Dane. But what we heard from a friend in the theater who saw it last week: "The first act was the finest theater I've seen in 50 years.” Next trip, perhaps.