Posts Tagged ‘frances mcdormand’

Culture Vulture: Jean Genet, Shirin Neshat, IT’S A SIN, and NOMADLAND

February 21, 2021

I have a theory that we will look back on this winter as the hardest time of the pandemic, second only to March and April of last year when it first came crashing down. Starting in November, when the weather started to turn cold, and lasting through whenever spring starts to thaw us out, we’ve been confined to quarters, enduring horrible news, ongoing dreadful death rates, excruciating isolation, mind-numbing boredom, and pretty universal depression. In New York City, Andy and I have been combating that somewhat with weekend art excursions.

We started our Saturday afternoon art adventure by watching the first explicitly erotic gay film – Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), a silent film about prisoners and the sadistic guard who spies on them masturbating (an astringent sound score by Simon Fisher Turner was added later) – and ended the evening watching the latest gay erotic show, It’s a Sin, the latest HBO series by Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies.

In between we trekked to the Chelsea art district to see Shirin Neshat’s show “Land of Dreams” at the Gladstone Gallery. I’ve been a huge fan of Neshat’s work since I first saw her images combining veiled Muslim women holding weapons and Persian calligraphy. Neshat’s Iranian parents sent her to Los Angeles to attend high school, and she was enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley when the Iranian revolution occurred. She has not been back to Iran since 1996 and currently lives in New York.

For her latest show, she travelled around New Mexico meeting people, taking their photographic portraits, and asking them to tell her their latest dream. At the gallery 111 of these portraits hang, each of them with calligraphic additions – their names, their birthdates, sometimes the text of their dreams, sometimes images from their dreams.

In an adjacent gallery, Neshat shows a two-channel video installation that is a fictionalized version of her travels through New Mexico, juxtaposed with scenes from a sinister sort of factory employing dozens of lab-coated “dream scientists.”

Shortly after we walked into the gallery, a woman asked Andy to snap a picture of her and a male friend of hers. It turned out to be Neshat, who showed up to rendezvous with her friend and collaborator Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian photographer (above). So we got to meet the artist and chat with her a little bit, which excited the fanboy in me. I can’t remember if she told us this or if we heard her say it in one of the several YouTube videos we watched later, but she doesn’t actually think of herself as a photographer. She said she doesn’t own a camera, and indeed in videos she’s seen directing a cameraman who actually takes the photos. She has made a number of films, most of them – like the one playing in the gallery – pristinely shot in black and white, juxtaposing weathered unusual faces with wide-open stark landscapes. The two-channel video can be viewed on the gallery’s website at certain hours of the week, along with a 25-minute documentary about the making of the show.

While we were in Chelsea, we poked our noses into a couple of other galleries. The Jack Shainman Gallery is hosting “Half and the Whole,” a show by photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks of images from 1942-1970 that document the civil rights movement, including some beautiful candid shots of Malcolm X. I was struck by this curious, anomalous image from 1962 called “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York.”

Some dazzling and trippy geometric prints caught our eye at the Dobrinka Salzman Gallery. They turned out to be early works by an Italian artist named Riccardo Vecchio.

Once you’re in the art trance, even trash on the street starts looking like readymades.

We had two more predetermined destinations. One was the new Daniel Moynihan Train Hall, with its gleaming interiors (currently sparsely populated of course, but envisioned to be teeming with commuters sometime), spectacular skylights, and all kinds of artwork including this colorful three-part stained-glass piece by Kehinde Wiley called “Go” on the ceiling of the 35th Street entrance.

After that spectacle, a walk up Ninth Avenue brought us into the armpit of Times Square, the stunningly ugly backside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the grimy underpass across the street, one of several vacant storefronts in the neighborhood featured artwork sponsored by Chashama, the public art project enterprising curator Anita Durst operates using disused corners of her family’s vast real estate empire.

Our final art destination was the storefront for Playwrights Horizons, one of NYC’s great Off-Broadway theaters. It’s been shuttered since last March, like all theaters in the city, but incoming artistic director Adam Greenfield enlisted our friend David Zinn, the Tony Award-winning set and costume designer, and Avram Finkelstein, one of the founders of the AIDS-era art collective Gran Fury, to curate a lively public art project keeping the block activated.

The first artist they commissioned was Jilly Ballistic, who created a gigantic mural in the form of a dollar bill regularly updated with a reference to the number of Americans who have died of covid-19.

Being on Theater Row at dinnertime led us to one of our favorite local restaurants, Mémé Mediterranean on 10th Avenue at 44th Street. They were being scrupulous about allowing indoor dining with a limited capacity; there were only two other tables dining when we sat down for a delicious tagine and a shawarma royale.

It was a very satisfying expedition. We spent the after-dinner hours with It’s a Sin (just the first episode) and Shirin Neshat interviews on YouTube. Sunday afternoon we watched Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland on Hulu, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving collaboration between the director (I recently saw and loved her Songs My Brother Taught Me) and actress/co-producer Frances McDormand, who gives yet another spectacular, vanity-free performance as a miner’s widow living in her van barely scraping by as a day laborer on a series of hard low-paying jobs. Long wordless scenes of her rolling through Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and South Dakota eerily echo the wide-open spaces we saw in Shirin Neshat’s film the day before.

And then, as we generally do, we repaired to our separate abodes to cook food for the week. Andy set about making a big pot of jambalaya, and I applied myself to following Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe from last week’s New York Times Magazine for Russian salad, which is refrigerating overnight and gave me a chance to sample a new taste treat I discovered at the farmer’s market yesterday – pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Culture Vulture: THE LAST SHIP, INDIAN INK, BIRDMAN, James Hillman biography, and more

November 5, 2014


10.5.14: SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE at New York Theater Workshop. My taste for Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptations of classic films and plays has not yet reached its capacity. His staging of Ingmar Bergman’s epic drama (which I hadn’t seen or really thought about since the made-for-Swedish-TV film came out in 1973) once more reinvented the insides of New York Theater Workshop, creating three separate playing spaces that the audience cycled through for the first three scenes; after a lengthy intermission, we returned to one big space for the final long collage sequence. Casting three very different couples in the roles originally played by the great Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson acknowledged the truth about long relationships – they go through so many phases and stages that who you are when you started doesn’t look much like who you are at the end. Among the mostly admirable performances, Arliss Howard and Tina Benko (below) were most consistent as the oldest of the three

scenes from a marriage

couples, though I also thought Alex Hurt (William Hurt’s handsome son) and especially Susannah Flood were awfully good as the youngest, and the great downtown actress Mia Katigbak practically blew them all off the stage with her two different cameo roles. I’m always intrigued by the music van Hove chooses to flood his productions, but the one clunky note here was having Arliss Howard flit about at the very end of the show to the tune of “The Windmills of Your Mind” sung by Noel Harrison – but I guess it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some unacceptable bit of eccentric perversity. Playwright and director Emily Mann supplied the very playable English adaptation.

10.8.14 : THE TEMPEST at La Mama ETC. The unusual constellation of director Karin Coonrod, composer Elizabeth Swados, and leading actor Reg E. Cathey as Prospero drew me to La Mama for the first of three variations on Shakespeare’s play, the whole series loosely inspired by Hurricane Sandy and its ongoing impact on the NYC area. Sadly, this was the driest, least magical Tempest of my theatergoing experience. Coonrod’s strict structuralist intellect drained all the juice from the play, leaving the actors stuck on the chalk outlines of a set making blahblahblah of their lines. Two redeeming graces: the witty idea of having the male nobility distinguished by wearing high-heeled white pumps (some of the actors more comfortable in them than others), and the singularly galvanic performance by Slate Holmgren as Caliban (below with Tony Torn’s Stephano), played by a white man, for a change.

tempest torn and holmgren

10.11.14: THE LAST SHIP at the Neil Simon Theatre. I don’t have a lot to add to the critical consensus on the show, which is that Sting did a lovely job at creating a theatrical score that both works dramatically AND sounds like his own musical voice, rather than generic Broadway tunesmithing. The book is the weakest part of the show – there are huge gaps where information and narrative logic are missing, possibly the result of Brian Yorkey starting the job and John Logan finishing it. But there are some lovely performances (Rachel Tucker as the female lead stood out for me), continuously captivating choreography (more like stylized movement) by Steven Hoggett, and a wonderfully monumental set by Mr. David Zinn.

10-11 last ship pre-set

I walked out of the theater with two songs stuck in my head – one that  had been there before (the beautiful “When We Dance,” repurposed for the show from a Sting album), and the shipbuilders’ stomp, “We Got Nowt Else.”


10.30.14: INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Theater Company. I don’t understand why it took so long for this rich, dense feast of a Tom Stoppard play to get a major production in New York, but I’m glad it finally came about. Written around the same time as The Invention of Love and Arcadia, two of Stoppard’s best works ever, Indian Ink shares with those plays a simultaneous existence in two time periods. In 1980s England, Eleanor Swan, an aged widow (played by the resplendent Rosemary Harris), sorts through correspondence with her sister Flora Crewe, a poet whose brief and adventure-filled life ended from tuberculosis in India in 1930 (she’s played by Romola Garai, new to me – not the only actress in the world who could play such an extravagant part but damned impressive). Entertained by romance and intrigue, we also learn a lot about British colonialism, Indian sectarianism, painting and poetry, biography and secrets. It’s well-staged by Carey Perloff on Neil Patel’s simple colorful sets with excellent costumes by Candice Donnelly and notable performances by Firdous Bamji as a modest yet ardent suitor for Flora’s affection and Nick Choksi as an effervescent tour guide. This show seems to have slipped in under the radar – there’s not a lot of chatter about it, in the shadow of the fall’s major Broadway openings – but I highly recommend not missing it.

10.31.14 THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at the Public Theater. The Public Theater’s recent track record and the score by prolific and fertile Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labours Lost) lured me in to Itamar Moses’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel about the friendship between a white kid and a black kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late ‘70s and early ’80s. It’s an ambitious and sprawling work, musically and narratively and scenically, but not very much of it landed with me, except at the very end, when I felt the pain and anguish of the gap between the boyhood friends – the white guy (Adam Chanler-Berat) whose education and privilege took him away and up, and the black guy (Kyle Beltran) unable to escape the confinement of his family’s collapsed legacy. Staged by Daniel Aukin, the show felt like the hetero male version of Fun Home, but without nearly as much fun.

fortress of solitude


Days and NightsStage actor Christian Camargo’s debut as film director came and went in a flash, but for theater buffs it’s definitely worth tracking down when it becomes available to rent or stream. It’s an inspired contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s often-performed, often-adapted, yet never-exhausted tragicomedy about theater people summering in the country. The movie got wretched reviews from film critics, maybe because to appreciate the movie at all you pretty much have to know Chekhov’s play chapter and verse. Since it’s my favorite play in the world, I guess I’m among the small but hardy ideal audience for the film, which features a magnificent array of New York stage actors: Alison Janney (in the Arkadina role), Camargo (in the Trigorin role), Ben Whishaw (as the Treplev character), Juliet Rylance (as Nina – she’s Camargo’s wife and not an actress I care for), her father Mark Rylance, Cherry Jones, William Hurt, Jean Reno, Katie Holmes, Michael Nyquist, and Jean Reno (star of The Artist). You can watch the trailer here.


Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of IgnoranceI remember walking by the St. James Theater on West 44th Street one night and seeing the marquee for Riggan Thompson’s stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and vaguely understanding it was a set for some movie. What fun to learn that the entire film pretty much takes place in and around that exact theater, where Michael Keaton’s character, a Hollywood actor burned out on the superhero movie sequels that made him famous, attempts to reinvent himself artistically. I haven’t been a huge fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films but this one was a gas, and of course it didn’t hurt for the cast to include not only the excellent Edward Norton,


Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts but wonderful New York theater actors like Bill Camp, Merritt Wever, Amy Ryan (I guess she belongs to the world now), and playwright Stephen Adly Giurgis. The one scene that seemed stupid and gratuitous was the Keaton character’s confrontation in a bar with the New York Times theater critic who snarls, “I’m going to destroy your play” – even played by the superb Lindsay Duncan, that character doesn’t fly. The scene comes off as a movie director’s tirade against Manohla Dargis that’s been stored up for years.


The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist by Dick Russell doesn’t automatically sound like perfect reading for a ten-day retreat in the Amazonian rainforest jungle, but it turned out to be ideal for me. Modeled perhaps on Richard Ellmann’s magnificent biography of James Joyce (a hero of Hillman’s), Russell’s doorstop of a book (678 pages including back matter and pages of footnotes after every chapter) runs on scrupulous research and encyclopedic detail parceled out in short titled subsections across 15 chapters, making for compulsive and highly entertaining reading, especially for me, having slightly known and massively revered Hillman in his later years. This first of two volumes only covers barely half of Hillman’s life, from his birth in Atlantic City in 1926 to 1969, when he was driven out of his post as Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich (the details of which I never knew – a suitable if sordid climax to the book). Lots of other stuff I didn’t know: what an aristocratic family he came from, anything about his first marriage to a wealthy Swedish woman who was the mother of his four children, even what a late bloomer he was, professionally. Russell carefully and beautifully unpacks the slow, unsteady making of a thoughtful writer and revolutionary thinker through many wanderjahren and entrepreneurial publishing dead ends. Needless to say, I’m chomping at the bit to read volume 2, even though I know it won’t see light of days for a few years still.

james hillman bio



Olive KittredgeI’ve long been a fan of lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko’s movies (High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright), and who doesn’t love Frances McDormand? The four-part HBO series, adapted by Jane Anderson from a novel by Elizabeth Stout, is the kind of tour de force we haven’t seen McDormand in since she first made an unforgettable splash in Fargo. She plays a crusty, unrelievedly unpleasant schoolteacher in small-town Maine, married to a mild-mannered pharmacist (the great Richard Jenkins) with whom she has a hyper-sensitive son (the grown-up version is played by John Gallagher, Jr.), both of whom she treats fairly brutally. She does also have a soft spot in her heart for wounded birds, especially the suicidally depressed, whom she considers kindred spirits. But her flashes of kindness are unpredictable and usually short-lived. Classic line: “I’m waiting for my dog to die so I can shoot myself.” At first I wasn’t sure I could tolerate four hours of Olive’s miserable personality but the performance is beautiful and uncompromising, and the production is high-quality all round. I especially loved the final episode, in which Olive forges a testy friendship with a widower played by Bill Murray. Looking at these two amazing actors with these amazing now-aged lumpy, wrinkled, characterful faces – in HIGH DEFINITION – was surprisingly exhilarating. I would love to see them do Happy Days. I would love to see Bill Murray do anything by Beckett.


Top theater of 2011

December 19, 2011

NEW YORK THEATER: Top Ten Productions of 2011

1. JERUSALEM – Jez Butterworth’s dense, lyrical, astonishingly original play superbly directed by Ian Rickson, centered on the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance (above) as half-man half-myth Rooster Byron, with help from a sturdy ensemble cast and production design by the artist known as Ultz.

2.  THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) – Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway lived up to the company’s high standard for wit, depth, theatrical liveliness, and tech savvy. Great ensemble performance directed by John Collins, with a special shout out to lead actors Mike Iveson and Lucy Taylor, supporting performers Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, and the amazing Kaneza Schaal, and production designer David Zinn.

3. THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRE — an unlikely match and another beautiful triumph for Elizabeth LeCompte and her brave actors, led this time by Ari Fliakos as the author’s stand-in with all subtext stripped away.

4. THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT – Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play kept me laughing really hard at the most heartbreaking scenes, where cruelty and romance kept morphing into one another. Top-notch cast, though for me the revelation was Yul Vazquez as the scene-stealing cousin.

5. OTHER DESERT CITIES – Jon Robin Baitz’s taut play, a showcase for five excellent actors beautifully directed by Joe Mantello (I preferred the Lincoln Center cast with Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin).

6. SLEEP NO MORE – British theater company Punchdrunk’s ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare and Hitchcock made for the year’s single most original theater experience, a dreamscape sprawling over 100 rooms in two adjacent former warehouses in Chelsea.

7. THE ILLUSION – Signature Theater’s Tony Kushner season ended with Michael Mayer’s gem-like staging of this lyrical bit of poetic philosophy featuring memorable performances by Lois Smith, Henry Stram, and Peter Bartlett.

8. BURNING – Thomas Bradshaw’s haunting, provocative play working the raw edges of sex, race, and politics staged with gleeful perversity by Scott Elliott.

9. THE PATSY & JONAS – the incomparable actor and playwright David Greenspan had another banner year with his own play Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons and this quirky double-bill of solo virtuosity.

10. SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK – I saw the final performance that could legitimately be said to reflect the work of director Julie Taymor (above), with its mind-boggling sets by George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and I thought it was terrific. Sue me.


•    James Macdonald’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, headed by the formidable trio of Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw (below);

•    David Leveaux’s smart revival of Tom Stoppard’s towering Arcadia

•    Taylor Mac’s collaboration with the Talking Band, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth at La Mama, a perfect tribute to the recently departed champion of idealistic experimental theater

•    The Book of Mormon, thanks to the fearless Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the clever Casey Nickolaw

•    Daniel Sullivan’s lucid Shakespeare in the Park staging of All’s Well That Ends Well

•    David Lindsay-Abaire’s troubling but sticky Good People – Frances McDormand justifiably got the reviews and the awards but let’s not forget Patrick Carroll’s exquisite supporting performance

•    Nina Arianda’s scintillating howdy-do in David Ives’ Venus in Fur (above right, with Hugh Dancy)

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