Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of 2007

Looking back on the past year, here's the stuff that I would have really regretted missing: First & foremost would be the production of Intimate Exchanges at the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York. I read about this wacky multiple-paths play many years ago, but I never thought that I'd actually get an opportunity to see it. Gustavo Dudamel & The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela lived up to the hype & then some. I could have seen The Simpsons Movie any time & now on DVD, but seeing it with an opening night audience made it a true event. & exciting for me personally was going to Berkeley to see Alex Ross & have him sign my copy of his much-anticipated book.

I felt very fortunate that the SF MOMA had the comprehensive Joseph Cornell exhibit. I'm now at a new level of appreciation for this reticent artist. I was also very glad to see & hear 2 of my favorite performers, Radu Lupu & Emmanual Pahud, in top form. Then there was Susan Graham's powerful performance in Iphigénie. I got introduced to 2 performers new to me & whom I look forward to hearing again: András Schiff & Marino Formenti.

& since we're still sort of in the holiday mood, I have to say that I still grin when I think about Mark Morris's dancing snowflakes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hard Nut

Every year at this time, I read rave reviews about Mark Morris's version of The Nutcracker ballet. It's been a regular event at Cal Performances for several years now. So this year I finally broke down & decided to check it out this past Saturday night.

When you go the SF Ballet's Nutcracker, there are lots of parents with little girls all dressed up. I didn't see any children at this performance, but there must be have been some. There were plenty of restless adults, however. It took the audience quite a while to settle down. During the overture, there was lots of talking & lots of sushing. The woman next to me started yawning as soon as the lights went down, then snored intermittently during the entire 1st act. Surprisingly, she came back for the 2nd act. I guess she had rested up by then.

The production reminds me of the Matthew Bourne versions of classic ballets that I've seen. The music is intact, but the action has been replaced by a modern story that still references the original scenario. There is a strong sense of parody. The Christmas party of the 1st scene takes place in a comic strip version of the 1960s. The opening image is of kids watching cartoons on TV. There's an artificial tree, a hostess on tranquillizers & guests doing the limbo.

The party scene is more acting then dancing, & there is more going on than you can follow. The dancers are all great actors as well. One of the guests was a hilarious would-be lothario with curly hair & long sideburns. I discovered in a review I read later that this was Mark Morris himself.

The Dance of the Snow Flakes that ends the 1st act is the highlight of the show & worth the price of admission by itself. Instead of ballerinas doing wispy pirouettes while fake snow wafts down from the rafters, the corps de ballet provides its own snow storm by tossing handfuls of confetti in choreographed patterns while executing athletic leaps. The result is like a fireworks show. I actually let out a whoop at the climax. It's such a clever idea that you wonder why no one has ever done this before.

This number is choreographed for both male & female dancers, dressed identically & doing the same steps. This exemplified the gender-fluid casting of the show in general. It was only during the intermission that I finally convinced myself that Mrs. Stahlbaum was danced by a man. The female dancer playing the spoiled little brother was also completely convincing.

A truly nice touch was the children's choir that appeared at the side of the stage for the Dance of Snow Flakes to provide the vocal line. I believe that even the SF Ballet uses recorded voices for this.

This finale was so good that during the intermission I was pretty much expecting that the rest of the evening would be a let-down. Fortunately, the 2nd act has a counterpart in the Waltz of the Flowers that was equally fun & joyful, as well as a little bit obscene. Now I know what all the raves are about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Persepolis Preview at the Kabuki

Wednesday night I was privileged to attend a special San Francisco Film Society screening of Persepolis. A big part of the event was the chance to check out the remodeled Kabuki Theater. It's actually pretty much the same, except that there are now fancy bars on the 2nd & 3rd floors. On the 3rd floor, there is just barely a view of the city lights over the rooftops of the neighboring buildings. I guess the idea is that you can see a movie then adjourn to the bar with your friends to discuss it. It's not clear to me if you have to buy a movie ticket in order to get into the bars, though.

The event was sold out, so naturally the bar was completely overwhelmed. It took a really long time for me to get a glass of Spanish red wine, for which they charged me $6. Not unreasonable.

Before the screening, there was a brief on-stage interview with Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, the directors. The movie is based on Satrapi's Persepolis memoir. Satrapi's appearance was the highlight of the evening. She is a very smart & a very funny woman. There was a comic opposition between her outgoing, out-spoken personality & her co-director's reserved & silent demeanor. Among the concepts she threw out in her answers to questions:
  • She dislikes the label "graphic novel" to describe her books, "novel" being a far too bourgeois art form.
  • We usually stop drawing by the time we're 10, so we think of drawing as something that belongs to childhood. We can talk about how poetry or music has meaning, but we have no way of talking about how a drawing has meaning. Yet drawing is prior to writing.
  • When we think of animation, we tend to think of cartoon rabbits, but animation is not a genre, it's a medium.
  • Fanatics know how to push the buttons of people's emotions. They get people to start yelling or be fearful. Any artistic work (which is about asking questions, not providing answers) or intellectual work, therefore, is a work against fanaticism.
  • When asked how she had the courage to tell this story, she said that Italo Calinvo says, "I write to express myself without getting interrupted."
As for the movie itself, it is a very direct adaptation of the books, both in the visual style & in the storytelling. If you are familiar with the books, then the movie offers no new information. However, this is no negative criticism. It's a great story experience, showing the tight intertwining of the political, the personal & the familial.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Great Dictator at the PFA

I'm going to miss the Castro's screening of Chaplin's The Great Dictator this coming Wednesday, but I really wanted to see it, so I went to Berkeley this afternoon for the showing at the PFA. The 1st time I saw this movie many years ago, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, so I wanted to see if my reaction was still the same, & it pretty much was. Much of the movie is dated & a bit embarrassing now, primarily the scenes with Paulette Godard, & especially the final close-up of her which caps Chaplin's anti-climactic oration.

On the other hand, I think all the funny parts are still really funny. Of course there are the famous back-to-back set pieces of Chaplin dancing with the balloon earth, followed by Chaplin as the barber shaving his customer to Brahms's Hungarian Rhapsody. But right at the start, the opening battle scene is full of great gags: Chaplin's Little Fellow operating a giant cannon & an anti-aircraft gun, then losing an armed grenade down his shirt-sleeve, finally ending up flying upside-down in the cockpit of a crashing plane. Chaplin's first appearance as Hynkel, delivering his faux-German speech, is worth half the price of admission already.

There's plenty of classic slapstick humor at the expense of Hitler & Mussolini, which is funny it itself, though I sometimes have to remind myself that at the time the full horrors of the war were not yet widely known. It is interesting, though, that the movie is very explicit in stating that Hitler's anti-Jewish rhetoric was a way to distract the general population from economic problems.

The turnout at the FPA was not as large as I would have thought. The theater was perhaps a 3rd full. But we were a good audience & laughed at all the right places & were politely quiet through the worst bits.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Justin Hall at the Cartoon Art Museum

I dropped into the Cartoon Art Museum again to see the local phenomenon that is Justin Hall, who was "cartoonist-in-residence" today. I'm still a bit unclear on the concept, but I'm sure that Justin is just the man for the job. He loves to share his knowledge of comics, & he's a guy who can talk with anyone.

Manga Conquers America

Thursday night the Cartoon Art Museum sponsored a talk by Jason Thompson on the publishing history of manga in the U.S. It was a promotional event for his book Manga: The Complete Guide.

The talk got started a half-hour late, & the museum staff was unable to get the speaker's laptop to work with their projector, so Mr. Thompson resorted to flashing his slides at us from this laptop. This technical snafu made the event a bit lame.

Mr. Thompson had quite a long, fact-filled talk. It ran to almost an hour & a half. I'm not a manga reader myself, so this was really too much information for me. However, Mr. Thompson clearly has complete command of his subject area. If the book parallels this talk, then it has some interesting commentary on the manga publishing industry.

This is not to imply that the talk was boring. The history of manga publishing is apparently filled with characters at the margins of social trends. We heard about furries, new age hippies, & adult-movie stars who also draw. I learned that Barefoot Gen, which I've read & admired, was the 1st manga translated into English. It was put out by an anti-war group, not by a comic or manga publisher.

In Thompson's view, the practice of printing manga unflopped, in the right-to-left reading order of Japanese, is more a matter of reducing production costs than preserving artistic integrity.

There was a small group of about 20 who showed up for this event. Many of them seemed to be associates of the speaker. There were also a lot of touchy-feely couples, so maybe this was also your classic cheap date.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Berlioz Lélio
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Stanford Olsen, tenor 1
Shawn Mathey, tenor 2
Dwayne Croft, baritone
SFS Chorus

Went to this concert Wednesday night, solely for Lélio, which I had never heard before. Even though Berlioz billed this as a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, it was programmed first, probably because it is a lighter work overall. In fact, it felt more like a collection of 6 separate pieces rather than a large cohesive work. No matter. The individual pieces were each satisfying on their own.

It starts off charmingly with a tenor soloist accompanied only by the piano. We could be in a 19th century salon. Later, the strings come in with the idée fixe from the Symphonie fantastique, making the linkage explicit. It is a sweet-sounding but sinister song about a siren. Stanford Olsen sang this from within the orchestra, standing next to the piano. The tessitura is pretty high, but I think he hit every note.

Varied movements follow: An eerie chorus; a wild brigands' song; another tenor sings from within the orchestra, this time with harp accompaniment; an orchestral interlude; a choral fantasy, minus bass voices, addressing characters from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's definitely a mashup, but each piece kept my interest.

There was a sense of uncertainty to the proceedings, as if the performers weren't always sure what was going to happen next. At one point the chorus took several moments to reach a consensus as to whether they were going to sit or stand.

The confusion carried out into the intermission. When I emerged from the auditorium, I was sorely disappointed to discover that none of the reserved drink orders, mine included, had been prepared yet. The harried bartender apologized, explaining that he had been told we weren't going to be let out until 9:00. The short first half let out around 8:45.

The performance of the Symphonie fantastique occupying the 2nd half was recorded live as part of the Keeping Score series. Perhaps 10 cameras were stationed around the orchestra. A long boom camera extended from the terrace directly over the orchestra. Most notable were 2 robotic cameras, one on a vertical stand at the back of the orchestra & the other on a track running along the front of the stage. This one could go back & forth & also rise up to the eye level of the musicians.

During the performance there was plenty of distracting movement from all these devices, though it was also kind of cool to watch. It was clear that there were going to be a lot of motion shots in the finished broadcast. It must be especially difficult for the musicians to pretend to ignore the cameras. The robotic camera in front could maneuver itself to within a couple of feet of a musician's head.

Under this scrutiny, the orchestra sounded like a completely different band in the 2nd half. It was obviously well-rehearsed, & everyone knew exactly what was going to happen next. The sound was brilliant & concise. There was a lot of detail. The bassoon solo in the 4th movement really popped out. I was also impressed by the strong flute solos. They captured a clean performance with a lot of surface sheen.

Chaplin at the Castro

This past Tuesday night I saw 2 programs of Charlie Chaplin films at the Castro. To me, The Kid is Chaplin's first masterpiece. It's a marvel how much emotion he packs into this short film. There's an incredible cinematic moment where The Mother, on her charity rounds, sits on a stoop, cradling a baby. It's clear that she is thinking of the baby that she abandoned at the beginning of the story. Then the door opens behind her & Jackie Coogan appears & then sits down at the opposite side of the screen. At first neither character sees the other, yet each of them is the other's dream. It's a moment rooted in a physical reality, yet it also expresses each character's deep psychological desires. It's such a beautiful moment that it almost always chokes me up. One of the few movie scenes I prefer to watch alone!

I don't think I'd ever seen The Pilgram before. It was surprising that Chaplin does not appear in his Little Tramp guise through most of the movie. Lots of great stuff in this one. The church service must be a classic set piece, as well as the tea party with the incredibly obnoxious child. I recently saw the famous clip of W.C. Fields kicking a little kid, but I had no idea that Chaplin did this gag first! The ending was another terrific surprise, with Chaplin walking off into the distance while straddling the U.S./Mexico border. Politically, times haven't changed.

The final film of the evening was The Gold Rush. Again I was impressed but how many places this movie goes emotionally. It mixes the old-fashion histrionics of the Big Jim character with the realistic & somewhat cynical portrait of Georgia's flirtatious relationship with Jack. The treatment of the Little Tramp by the dance hall girls is just plain cruel. There's a fantastic cinematic moment when Chaplin first appears at the dance hall. He stands in the foreground, with his back to us, while the middle ground & the background are filled with light that shines on dancing, happy people. Visually the scene is beautiful, yet the Little Tramp's isolation is poignant by contrast. & this little scene is capped with the gag of the pretty girl walking warmly towards him, but only to get to her boyfriend behind him.

I'm a big Chaplin fan, so I was very excited to see this show & very disappointed at the sparse turn-out & the very low-key reaction of the audience. Perhaps Chaplin's brand of humanism isn't in sync with our times right now.

Jeff Wall, Olafur Eliasson at SF MOMA

This past Saturday I got to go back to the SF MOMA to see the 2 exhibits I missed on my last visit. Jeff Wall's huge light box photos fill several rooms. Simply by their huge size, they reference the tradition of history painting. Most of the photos are distinctly unsettling. His scene of the grave filled with tide pool creatures is both creepy & beautiful. One gets the sense that there is a lot going on behind each image. Part of the fascination is just trying out how they are done. Is the pictures of wind blowing away a woman's papers staged or constructed?

The Olafur Eliasson installations on the top floor were still fun on a second viewing. The Notion motion, which appears to be an interactive video projection, turn out to be pleasantly low-tech once you are allowed to peek behind the curtain. In the 360º room for all colors, people were tripping themselves out by standing inches from the wall so that their entire field of vision was filled by the glowing wall of color. How can I get a room like this for myself?