Posts Tagged ‘stockhausen’

Culture Vulture: CRYSTAL FAIRY, THE ACT OF KILLING, James Turrell, MONKEY, and more

July 24, 2013


Crystal Fairy – Sebastian Silva’s feature debut stars Michael Cera (the adorable male ingénue from Juno and Superbad, though TV fans probably know him from Arrested Development) as Jamie, an American in Chile who has read Aldous Huxley’s essay on psychedelics, The Doors of Perception, and is intent on acquiring some San Pedro cactus, the native source of mescaline. He enlists his friend Champa in organizing a road trip with his two brothers (these three guys are played by the director’s actual brothers – Juan Andrés, José Miguel, and Agustin), and at a party the night before, loaded on too much booze and blow, he impulsively invites a wacky American girl who calls herself, yes, Crystal Fairy to join them. She is played by Gaby Hoffman, daughter of Warhol superstar Viva (of whom I’ve always been a big fan).

crystal fairy
The synopsis makes it sound like a charming and funny journey toward enlightenment, but it’s not that at all. The Michael Cera character could not be more disagreeable – in his single-minded quest for the holy grail, he is rude, obnoxious, and abusive to everyone in his path. Fascinating as drama, and big props to Cera for making the paradoxical casting really work, but quite unpleasant to sit through. Hoffman is pretty great, too, while playing a character who vacillates wildly from clueless exhibitionism to new-age wackadoodleness to quiet maturity

The Look of Love – Michael Winterbottom’s latest also sounds like a fun romp, a flashy cinematic biopic about Paul Raymond, whose earnings from strip clubs, girlie shows and lad mags, wisely invested in real estate, made him the richest man in London. It is a lot more fun-fun than Crystal Fairy, but at heart it’s a serious, nearly tragic depiction of Raymond’s relationship with his daughter, Debbie, whom he grooms as his business partner and presumed successor (neglecting several other children to do so) only to watch her spiral into drug addiction and an early death.

Although I don’t see everything and he’s very prolific, I’m pretty crazy about Winterbottom as a filmmaker. I love how he picks canny off-the-beaten-path subject matter, how he cycles restlessly through genres, and that he casts terrific actors (often Brits I’ve never heard of) and coaxes wonderful performances out of them. Steve Coogan is his go-to leading man, and he does a great job as Raymond, but the movie is full of yummy turns. I was most dazzled by Tamsin Egerton (below, with Winterbottom) as one of Raymond’s wives.

tamsin egerton michael winterbottom
The Act of Killing
– Joshua Oppenheimer’s mind-frying documentary concerns a gruesome chapter in living history. After the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, a genocide took place in which more than a million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, union members, and intellectuals were exterminated in less than a year, killed by street gangs suddenly empowered to operate as death squads. Unlike Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia or Bosnia, Indonesia has never been called to confront or account for these events as war crimes, so the perpetrators remain in power. Oppenheimer somehow befriended a pocket of these killers in northern Sumatra and convinced them to take part in this film. The central figure, a reasonably well-spoken and seemingly dignified guy named Anwar Congo, repeatedly espouses the belief that “gangster” means “free man,” and he is perfectly happy to demonstrate the cheap and efficient manner he developed of strangling his victims with a length of wire attached to a post. You can’t believe the outrageous things Congo and his comrades allow the director to capture on film – and then the director plays the footage back to them and records their commentary. Sometimes the consequences of what they’ve done sink in and some flicker of remorse emerges, but not always. They not only reminisce boastfully about how ruthlessly and efficiently they slaughtered their victims, they also enthusiastically stage elaborate reenactments of key scenes, dramatizing them in the style of their favorite Hollywood movies – westerns, Bollywood musicals, and gangster films. (Congo’s hyper-aggressive sidekick, Herman Koto, seems to be a big John Waters fan – he never hesitates to appear in scary drag — see below.)

7-21 congo koto
Half the time you can’t believe the crazy things they’re saying and doing. It’s a harrowing and upsetting and extremely powerful film, really worth seeing and talking about. One of the most unnerving things about it is that when the credits roll, you notice that most of the production crew, for their own safety, are listed as “Anonymous,” including one of the co-producers. The website for the film provides some very interesting background information.

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Last Friday morning Andy and I and Keith Hennessy’s boyfriend Adam Kuby (visiting from Portland for the day) made a pilgrimage to one of the blockbuster art shows of the moment, the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. There was a long line to get in but it moved pretty quickly – we were in the door within 20 minutes, and shortly after that we were lying on our backs on the floor of the rotunda witnessing the main event of the show, a piece called Aten Reign. Turrell, a conceptual artist whose chief medium is light, has converted the Guggy’s famous spiral into a multi-tiered cone emanating concentric circles of gorgeous light continuously shifting color and intensity. Like everyone else, we had our smartphones out immediately to take pictures.

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It’s savvy marketing for the Guggenheim to encourage picture-taking AND it’s a cosmic joke for several reasons. Turrell’s beautifully chosen lighting discombobulates your camera’s color-recognition capabilities. What you’re seeing never matches what your camera can capture. And even though you can get some gorgeous photos this way (check out my photodiary shots), it’s almost impossible to tell what you’re looking at because Turrell’s work toys so masterfully with dimension and flatness. It is, in a certain way, his one trick – making light simply projected onto flat surfaces look three-dimensional, or lighting depths in such a way as to make them look flat. (Is that two tricks or one?) The single example of the latter phenomenon on view at the Guggenheim, a piece called “Illtar,” is very very subtle and takes time to really perceive – and unfortunately it’s installed in a less than optimal  manner. Although the room is small and the number of viewers limited, I could never get a purchase on it (after waiting on yet another line for half an hour to see it). Nevertheless, the Guggenheim show is a great opportunity to tap into an artist who’s sustained a deep original vision for a very long time. For a good overview, check out the New York Times Magazine’s recent profile of him.

turrell times mag cover


That evening, Adam and Andy and I had the pleasure of encountering another artist with a highly individualized vision cultivated over the course of several decades. When Karlheinz Stockhausen died in 2007, he had completed a magnum opus called Licht, a cycle in seven parts that takes 29 hours to perform in full. It is an elaborate, quirky mythopoeic “opera” with no singers in which each day of the week has its own color – just to mention a few of its eccentricities. The Lincoln Center Festival wisely bit off just a chunk of this giant work, a one-hour selection from Act II of Donnerstag aus Licht (“Thursday”) called Michaels Reise um die Erde (Michael’s Journey Around the Earth). It was originally staged at Vienna’s Taschenoper by Carlus Padrissa, a member of the wildly adventurous Catalonian performance company La Fura dels Baus, featuring the Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik. Stockhausen’s score is characteristically modern, which is to say not especially melodic. Heavy on horns, it reminded me at times of some of Frank Zappa’s whimsical/lyrical classic compositions, and it was exquisitely played by the ensemble.

Just by itself, it might have been a little dry to sit through, but Padrissa came up with an elaborate visual production with striking and witty projections, colorful costumes, and an amazing contraption for the trumpeter who plays the Archangel Michael – a kind of cage he’s strapped into that revolves him through space so at times he’s playing upside down. In the piece, Michael flies around the world making stops in Cologne, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa, and Jerusalem. The program notes mention the musical motifs that Stockhausen used to refer to these locations but they’re laughably glancing. There’s a lot to make fun of about Stockhausen – in his vision, Thursday is associated with the color blue, so the audience at Avery Fisher Hall was encouraged to wear bright blue clothing (they stopped short of issuing uniform smocks the way Park Avenue Armory did for the staging of Oktaphonie earlier this year) – but I admire his mind and his effort. Adam and I enjoyed the concert more than Andy, who chafed at the lack of melody to follow. Departing the theater the audience was serenaded by five musicians playing a farewell piece from the balconies of Avery Fisher Hall (below) – a final lovely, quirky treat. The program notes, generous and informative, can be read online here.

7-19 post show trumpets


Lincoln Center Festival pitched Monkey: Journey to the West as a big deal, scheduling a whole month of performances. An adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the show was directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, a youngish hotshot favorite of the festival, as a kind of rock and roll opera circus with music by Damon Albarn of the rock band Blur and visual design by Gorillaz (the virtual band Albarn co-created with Jamie Hewlett) and skills acts performed by the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company. The still photos make it look amazing, but the show was unbelievably bad. Truly, one of the worst things I’ve seen in years. A smidgen of cool animation buried by lame staging, shallow spectacle, pathetically anemic acrobatics, underwhelming music — ugh. Festival kitsch.


Culture Vulture: Stockhausen, two Marys, Andre Gregory, and more

April 30, 2013

Several weeks’ worth of cultural events backed up….


3.23.13 I love the new role that Park Avenue Armory has taken on as a venue for large-scale avant-garde performance art. On the heels of Ann Hamilton’s fun installation The anatomy of a thread, artistic director Alex Poots has planned an extraordinary diverse calendar of events between now and the end of the year. Oktophonie is typical of the programming. This Karlheinz Stockhausen piece is a bombastic, bracingly modern (i.e., unmelodic, unbeautiful) electronic composition that exists on tape, never played live. The score is as much sound design as notes for musicians to play.

oktophonie score oktophonie sound design

Concerts usually involve audiences sitting in a dark auditorium watching a projection of a full moon. For this event, the Armory invited Thailand-born visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to design a special environment, and he wittily put the moon on the floor in the form of a round platform.

OKTOPHONIE pic by stephanie berger
All white — the carpeting, the backjacks, and the audience members, who were encouraged to wear white clothing and were also handed a white smock upon arrival.

3-23 oktophonie finale
The show was a little bit of a light show, a little bit of sensuround sound demonstration, a little bit like being on a simulated spaceship at a planetarium show. Also, since we were sitting on the floor looking toward the center of the circle where a blissed-out-looking woman sat operating two consoles (Stockhausen’s longtime colleague Kathink Pasveer, below), there was an odd feeling of being at an ashram or a cult meeting.

3-23 oktaphonie after
Although ultimately not much about the concert stuck with me, it was a beautifully produced event — the Armory gives out a deluxe program booklet (including the score, which is as much sound design as notes for musicians) and maintains an active online presence, both of which provide great educational materials for kids, students, and adults alike.


3.27.13 The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ oratorio depicting the death of Christ from Mary Magdalene’s point of view, is a companion piece to El Nino, his composition about the birth of Christ as witnessed by women. Both feature texts, compiled by director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, taken partly from the Bible, partly from an array of interesting poets (Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos). Mary Magdalene seems to be a butch lesbian political activist whose girlfriend is a former drug addict she met in jail; when Mary M washes Jesus’s feet, it’s the girlfriend who dries them with her long hair. Jesus is played alternately by three countertenor Narrators (theirs is the most haunting music and presence in the semi-staged show) and the guy who also plays Lazarus. Not Adams’ most beautiful score ever but I’m glad to have witnessed the performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Respectful reception. Composer and director took bows. The conductor was the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who did a fine job.


4.6.13 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion got a beautiful intimate staging at Classic Stage Company by John Doyle. The intense intermissionless musical is the closest thing to a through-composed opera Sondheim’s ever done – no pause for applause anywhere, which I liked very much. I saw the opening night performance of the original 1994 Broadway production, with its fantastic performances by Donna Murphy as the melancholic un-beauty Fosca, Jere Shea (whatever happened to him?) as Giorgio, the handsome soldier she becomes fixated on, and Marin Mazzie as Clara, the beautiful young married woman he has been attached to. (That show is available on DVD – an excellent live broadcast for Great Performances, much of which you can find on YouTube.)

This smaller production was musically and theatrically very sound, although having both pair of lovers cavort on a hard cold marble floor sacrificed some sensuality (I’ll never forget the lushness of topless Mazzie in the show’s opening number, “Happiness.”) Judy Kuhn made a compelling Fosca, and Ryan Silverman was a fine Giorgio. Melissa Errico, the production’s Clara, was out – her understudy, Amy Justman, sang beautifully but her acting didn’t register much. Many people (including Andy, who came with me) have a hard time buying the plot, believing that Giorgio would ultimately choose to love the woman who’s been stalking him, but I’ve always been able to go along with it. Although Fosca’s obsession seems crazy, she doesn’t demand more of Giorgio than he offers, and it makes sense to me when the purity of her love breaks through to his heart, especially in contrast to the limited conditions of his affair with Clara, who is steadfastly married and not really available.

4.13.13 Bunty Berman Presents… – we took a gamble checking out an early preview of the musical at the New Group, a Bollywood spoof by Ayub Khan Din and Paul Bogaev, directed by Scott Elliott. We loved the New Group’s musical of Dan Savage’s The Kid, and I thought Elliott did a terrific job with Khan Din’s play East Is East years ago. But this was a pathetically lame show in every way, and we left at intermission. Since then, the lead actor, who was clearly floundering, has been replaced by the author, which can only be an improvement.

testament of mary handout
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary gives us the mother’s account of a martyr’s death, which is somewhat at odds with the narrative constructed by historians, advocates, and media types. There are, shall we say, discrepancies. (I guess we could say this phenomenon is timeless – cf. the press conference given by the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers.)

4-21 mary from the balcony

The best part of Deborah Warner’s theatrical adaptation of Toibin’s monologue is the pre-show interactive art installation. The audience is invited onstage to inspect props and artifacts from the life of Mary, played by Fiona Shaw, who sits inside a Plexiglas cubicle surrounded by votive candles, while a few feet away a live vulture is chained to a tree stump.

4-21 testament vulture
A window in the floor reveals a crypt underneath the stage, as you see in many Italian churches housing relics of saints. The audience is invited, nay encouraged to snap photos with their smartphones, locating the theater piece in our world of nonstop citizen documentation of everything. I enjoyed touring the exhibition, taking pictures, and then standing in the aisle making Mary jokes with Ben Cameron.

4-21 mary crypt
At showtime, audience members take their seats, some of the props get whisked away (the cubicle, the vulture), and Shaw goes into her act. She is a fine actress, I have respect for her, but this performance is so busy and fussy that it becomes bothersome and … I was doing to say distracting from the storytelling, but I have to assume that it’s a choice on the part of Shaw and her director (and longtime collaborator and former love partner) to tell the story this way, as if Mary is traumatized and manic, can’t sit still, has to move and create some active moment on Every Single Line. She’s always moving furniture around, picking up a ladder, putting it down, bringing out a raw fish and cleaning it then throwing it away, getting naked and disappearing into an onstage pool for a minute, for no ostensible reason except to be showy (“I’ll show you, Mark Rylance!”). We walked away pretty nonplussed. Some reviewers loved it; Ben Brantley’s review in the Times echoed my feelings pretty much, though I have to say I didn’t disagree with Michael Feingold’s unremittingly negative commentary in the Village Voice.


4.6.13  I didn’t get around to seeing the blockbuster Jean-Michel Basquiat show at Gagosian Gallery until the very last day. It was great.
basquiat in italian 1983
I so admire the freedom Basquiat took for himself and how he used absolutely everything in his environment, in his mind, in his heart, in his eyes, in his ears to make work.

basquiat la hara 1981
There were constructions I’d never seen before – a fence he’d painted, two six-panel paintings hinged together, collages.

basquiat frogmen 6-panel 1983
Although smaller than the retrospective at Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, this was an impressive representation of Basquiat’s work.

basquiat installation 2 basquiat installation 1
These images make me crazy with joy.

basquiat untitled two heads on gold 1982

I’m delighted that Uniqlo has suddenly embraced Basquiat and Keith Haring as stars of the season, selling some very cool T-shirts based on their work and turning some kids onto these fertile creators who died way too young.

4-29 basquiat label


Spirit Matters by Matt Pallamary is a riveting memoir. Pallamary grew up among criminals and bad boys in Dorchester, a rough white working-class suburb of Boston, and spent his adolescence and early adulthood crashing through all kinds of self-destructive behavior before finding a life for himself as a writer. The prose is clean, clear, spare, honest, and astonishingly free of bullshit. He writes with extraordinary articulateness about subjects that are difficult to address cogently. His digest of Terrence McKenna’s teachings on indigenous North and South American plant medicine is something I’ve been craving for years, and his description of his first ayahuasca retreat in Peru is just fantastic — moved me to tears, cracked me up, and at times had me squirming in my seat with intense identification.


Enlightened – favorable opinions from people I trust led to sample the first five episodes of this HBO series created by Mike White and Laura Dern but I didn’t care for it. Dern’s character is just too fucked-up to be believable – we watch it and can only feel superior to her, which I think is unfair and separates bad/lazy TV from good stuff (in which category I place Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham).


RenoirGilles Bourdos’ new film portrays the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the end of his life welcoming into his harem a beautiful young model who eventually falls in love with the painter’s son, a soldier who returns wounded from the front lines of World War I (and later goes on to become the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. So sensual and beautiful and colorful, and without any of the stale cliches from such biopics (in which artists are repeatedly told how great they are). Superb performances by Michel Bouquet as the old man (who’s so arthritic that his paintbrushes have to be tied to his hands every day), Vincent Rottiers as Renoir fils, and Christa Theret as the mesmerizing Andree.

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Preparing to watch the new documentary about Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner, made by Gregory’s wife Cindy Kleine – I went back and watched My Dinner with Andre with Andy, who’d never seen it before. I hadn’t seen it since it was made 30 (?!?) years ago, and there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t remembered. I loved the movie all over again. I find Andre Gregory to be a compelling figure, even with all his craziness and grandiosity, the shots of New York City in the early 1980s (especially the filthy subway cars) are fantastic, and the conversation that he and Wally Shawn have over dinner is an extraordinarily deep, fast-paced, far-ranging one. Of course the characters are constructions. I’ve gotten to know Wally over the years – I spent several months just after My Dinner with Andre interviewing him for a profile in Esquire magazine, and I’ve followed his work as a playwright closely with much admiration. In every way, he is an enigmatic figure himself, seemingly open and extremely available and yet quite mysterious.

my dinner with andre jpeg

It’s great to view the bonus disc of additional material that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD package. There are lengthy separate interviews with Wally and Andre conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that contain lots of little revelations. The restaurant in which the film takes place, ostensibly somewhere in Soho, turns out to be in Richmond, West Virginia. Andre and Wally each tell their own version of how they met, via Renata Adler. Andre: “Men tend to hide. In the movie, Wally is hiding behind silence, and I’m hiding behind words.” Wally: “I’ve always been a fearful person. I was afraid of practically everything. [In My Dinner with Andre] I wanted to destroy that guy in myself who is totally motivated by fear.” Wally also talks about how stubborn and intransigent he was with director Louis Malle when they were trying to whittle the script down to two hours from three hours. “I was very difficult, quite pedantic,” Wally says. “He never said to me, Look, you’re luck that a guy like me is even talking to you. Don’t you get it?

The new documentary about Andre is a mixed bag. I love that Cindy Kleine wanted to make a film highlighting the amazing and influential theater work her husband has done, so he’s not just seen as a kooky character actor. To my taste, though, she inserts herself into the movie too much. She barely mentions Gregory’s first wife and the mother of his two grown children. And judging from the film, she and Wally Shawn can’t stand one another. Nevertheless, she captures some beautiful passages of Andre and Wally’s theater company rehearsing their living-room production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and there are any number of fascinating stories that emerge about Andre’s family life and his career in film and theater.

Later this year, the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience will present “The Wallace Shawn-Andre Gregory Project,” full-scale productions of two of Wally’s plays directed by Andre: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.

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