Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Judy Chicago Interview

The opportunity to hear and see one of the greatest living artists live and in person is a rare event. Judy Chicago was interviewed last night at Bing auditorium at Stanford University, and being there was just as thrilling as I had expected it to be.

Now 78 years old, Judy is fit and vital, giving us hope that she will go on making art for much longer. Her mind is like a vast, well-organized warehouse—like a gallery or a museum—filled with a succession of clearly thought-through ideas. She seems to be able to summon all her ideas, all her growth experiences, all her studies, at will. And her ego is transparent; her self-esteem is high, but she doesn't do any posing or bragging. She just explains everything neutrally. Judy is known for introducing feminism into the values of the art world, but there is no resentment in her manner for the way her work was scorned for several decades.

In fact, she has a generous spirit, in a sort of detached way. All of her work has expressed important ideas that she wanted to share; her purpose has been to empower women to come out about their lives and their concerns. She's not an impassioned warrior, she's a cool and determined educator, using art to educate while maintaining the highest aesthetic standards.

The most important thing I learned from the artist is the importance of the idea to creativity. After she has thought through her idea, she chooses a way to express it, whether it be a series of paintings, or a huge installation combining ceramic, embroidery, and tapestry, and requiring the participation of many crafts workers.

Secondly, I got the idea that confronting and analyzing issues that bother you, helps you break through your barriers and unclog your emotions. Judy doesn't say that explicitly, but you see it in the succession of subjects she has taken up. When she was upset by the neglect of women in the history of art, she studied history in general, and art history especially, and then created a huge installation called The Dinner Party which calls attention to 39 important women usually left out of history. The problem is that a woman could be important and influential in her own era, but historians tended to focus all their attention on the important men of that era, and to denigrate the importance of women's contribution to culture.

When she was angered by the men in the art world, and also at her husband because he was sleeping with his students, she analyzed men's role in society, their thirst for power, and their attitudes, and then produced a series of paintings that expressed all this.

When she felt rejected, she painted a design called Rejection, and added in pencil a poetic description of her psychology.

It seems to me that all this truth-telling empowered her to keep moving, to keep growing, and to liberate her art-making energies fully.

If Judy's work has escaped your attention, you can read a very nice article that I wrote about her: Judy Chicago  It's not easy work to like; some of it is beautiful, some it is shocking, all of it is new and innovative. Anything truly new and different requires open-mindedness, but your reward is the growth you experience.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a four-hundred year old play by the most celebrated playwright in the English language, William Shakespeare, about the relationship between Justice and Mercy.

Shakespeare is tough to play and tough to appreciate, mainly because English was a very different language in the 1600s than it is now. The big problem for the actors is to make Shakespeare's words sound natural, to make their roles look like real people, to make the strange sound familiar. No matter how good they are, it's still a big problem for the audience to distinguish the words and understand their meaning. The reason the audience is willing to work so hard is that Shakespeare considered ethical problems that are everlasting in life, and frequently he expressed ideas in a way that just knocks you flat, it is so spot on.

Shakespeare is generally played in a large, round theater, like the one Shakespeare wrote for. Sometimes it is played on a big stage, with big stars, and a lot of hoopla. In both cases, the play is in one place, and the viewer is in another; the experience is rather formal and detached. The special attraction of the production by the City Lights Theater Company in San Jose was that it was in a small venue, with no raised stage or proscenium—the actors and the audience shared the same space. We could see every nuance of expression, gesture, and body language. This intimacy really helped to make the poetry understandable.

The director of this production, Kit Wilder, further clarified the drama by using modern dress and by adding lots of stage business, not necessarily called for by the script. The minor characters were played with lots of kinks and quirks and funny business, as they no doubt were in Shakespeare's company.

So far we have the consideration of a serious theme, lightened by a lot of slapstick. Now weave in a corny, Hollywood-type love story that comes to an improbably happy ending. And throw in a little identity-confusion, deceit and trickery.

The conflict of Justice vs. Mercy is realized through the problem of the Jew, the problem of the outcast, the problem of prejudice. In a way, it was an easy problem for Shakespeare to consider because there weren't any Jews in England; they had been banned in 1290; that's why the play was set in Venice. On the other hand, there was plenty of prejudice against them, mainly because of their practice of money-lending, but also for religious reasons. Shylock, the money-lender in this play, is presented rather sympathetically early in the play. He gets to point out that he has been ill-used and insulted by Christians, even as they used his money. His eloquent speeches might resonate with any group in society that feels themselves to be maltreated. But it is impossible to like him because of his intense desire for revenge on a Christian merchant who has repeatedly insulted and offended him. It's like a crazy and unreasoning obsession. In the end, Shylock gets a severe come-uppance that would have given his prejudiced audience a lot of pleasure.

Shylock tries to use Justice and the letter of the law to exact revenge on the merchant he hates the most, Antonio. He tricks Antonio into offering a "pound of flesh" as security for a loan, because Antonio feels confident that his ship is about to come in—multiple ships, actually, which are at sea in various places fulfilling trading enterprises. When it is reported that all those ships have been lost in storms or other misadventures, the question of the "pound of flesh" becomes all too real.

Like a Hollywood movie, this courtroom drama has an improbable romance in the background. Portia is a well-heeled Venetian woman, with a deferential personal assistant always close at hand, whose dead father has set up a fairy-tale problem for any man who seeks to marry her: the winning suitor must choose from three chests the one that holds a picture of Portia. The chests are made of different materials: gold, silver, and lead; and each one has a cryptic saying on the lid. The idea is that this puzzle would select the most genuine and committed suitor. Shakespeare, and Wilder, the director, have a lot of fun caricaturing the first two suitors as greedy, arrogant, self-serving clowns.

The third suitor, Bassanio, very conveniently, happens to be in love with Portia already, and she with him, and even more conveniently, he figures out the riddle correctly.

It wouldn't be a Shakespeare comedy if there weren't at least one character who masquerades as another. In this case, unspecified shenanigans have enabled Portia to masquerade as a learned Judge, and her assistant to appear as a court clerk. In this way, Portia gets to represent the quality of Mercy, and she gives a moving speech about Mercy that is often quoted. However, when she cannot persuade Shylock to be merciful, and she cannot persuade him to accept monetary compensation instead of taking the merchant's life, she stoops to low legal chicanery herself and exacts a very punitive revenge on Shylock. The audience is left stunned and wondering.

But, again like a Hollywood script-writer, in the conclusion, the playwright soothes your feelings with a healthy dose of comedy and romance. After Portia tricks Shylock, she goes on to trick her new husband with some funny business about an exchange of rings, taking advantage of the fact that he hadn't recognized her in court. And, like a mirror or an echo, Portia's assistant, Nerissa, just happens to be in love with a companion of Bassanio's and plays the same trick on him. Thus, in the end when the two men are undeceived, two happy couples depart arm-in-arm. Very cute. As a counterpoint, there is a third romance: between Shylock's daughter, who becomes a Christian, and another of Bassanio's companions. They run off together and join Bassanio and Portia's party, thereby adding a third happy couple to the final parade.

All the actors were good in this production. Occasionally, one of the actors who played a minor character got their delivery muddied a bit; about 10% of the script was unintelligible to me, but I found that acceptable, because all the British-produced mystery shows on television have references or accents that I don't understand. The actress who played Portia, Maria Giere Marquis, had true command of her role and clear expression. Brian Herndon, who played Shylock, handled his difficult role with professional aplomb. One thing that's good about local theater productions is that the actors look more like real people than big-time actors; it's easier to relate to them.

Another good thing about small theaters is that they are forced to dispense with scenery and sets. Directors are forced to devise minimal staging; actors double as stage-hands to move limited props on  and off stage that indicate the setting in the barest way. This serves to focus attention on the script, on the action, and on the drama.

The approach to costuming for this production was interesting. Though the clothes were vaguely "modern," the clothes had strange styles—coats too long or too short, lapels too wide or too narrow—and vivid, intensely contrasting colors. Portia wore spring-like greens and pastels while her suitor wore wine red suit and tie; his companions wore purple or green and the unsuccessful suitors had gaudy clothes of gold lamé. These highly differentiated costumes helped to identify the characters and to give the story a fantasy quality.

We saw the last performance of this production, and stayed after to mingle on stage with the theater company, and to compliment them all around. All in all, this was an exciting, stimulating afternoon, and Shakespeare was redeemed once again.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Cult of the Machine

The Cult of the Machine is a special exhibit at the de Young Museum that features artists who were inspired by the aesthetics of mechanization, industrialization, and modernism. They were attracted by the geometry of buildings and the complexity of machines. They painted in a hard-edge style and smoothed their brush-strokes in order to create a machine-made look. The artists had different intents and different subjects—they didn't start out to create a school of art—but their worked is lumped together as Precisionism.

By and large, Precisionist works omit humans and any concern for how mechanization or industrialization my affect the lives of workers. Precisionists are formalists, concerned principally with aesthetic values. For depiction of human life in the age of modernization, art turns to social realism and regionalism.

Charles Sheeler, 1883-1965
The artist who had the most canvases in the show was Charles Sheeler, whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Church Street El, 1920
In this early canvas, Sheeler was interested in the geometry created by flattening an aerial perspective. The 'El' is an elevated railroad, here seen on the right, from on high.

Interior, 1926
This interior view also flattens the perspective in order to create a large geometric structure, containing four shapes with geometrical patterns. The painterly look of the table is in contrast with all this precisionism.

Upper Deck, 1929
This painting idealizes industrial forms to bring out their classical geometric shapes. Creamy white, delicate pastels, and perfect light-balance create a pearly heaven of pure forms.

Upper Deck, 1929
Sheeler based the painting above on this photo that he took.

American Landscape, 1930
The epitome of mechanization, industrialization, and modernization in Sheeler's day was the Ford Motor Company's huge complex outside Dearborn Michigan. Sheeler was one of several artists who toured and painted the plant. This scene over looks the River rouge toward the factory's massive cement plant. Some elements are hyper-realistic, but the piles of raw materials are soft and undefined. The romance of the scene is in the reflection in the canalized river, and the soft smoke blending into the gentle clouds.

Bucks County Barn, 1932
Precisionists appreciated barns for their straightforward shapes. The barns' efficient simplicity connected them with industrial structures.

City Interior, 1936
This painting is a hyper-realistic depiction of a claustrophobic urban industrial setting, with a convincing depiction of deep space in order to show the complexity of life in the city.

Kitchen, Williamsburg, 1937
Williamsburg is a restored American Colony. In this painting, Sheeler depicts pre-industrial technology. This is a small picture, reminiscent of a Dutch interior. The realism is photographic, with realistic perspective, but he brings out the geometry of the architecture and the furnishings.

The Upstairs, 1938
By contrast, this interior is cropped, flattened and stripped of details. Doorways into interior spaces had been a popular subject since the beginning of American art, and before that were popular in Dutch art of the Golden Age.

Suspended Power, 1939
Usually Sheeler presented his machines and structures abstractly, as pure structures, as though they were separate from real life. The tiny figures examining this huge rotor seem threatened by its heavy, downward thrusting shape and giant blades.

Rolling Power, 1939
This painting is another example of an idealized photograph, more real than reality. You can study just how each element is connected to the others.

Conversation—Sky and Earth, 1940
Clearly Sheeler was in awe of the power that could be harnessed electricity-generating dams. His composition suggests that electricity is a form of communication between the earth and the universe.

Golden Gate, 1955
Toward the end of his career, Sheeler used completely flattened shapes and severe cropping to make the image nearly abstract, yet still recognizable.

Charles Demuth, 1883-1935
Born the same year as Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth had similar aesthetic principles. His career spanned the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s; he died at the age of 52.

From the Garden of the Château, 1921
The forms in this painting are drastically cropped, as they were in the view from his studio, in order to remove context and emphasize the geometry in the scene; but Demuth couldn't resist a subtly tinted sky, full of longing. The title is meant as an ironic comment on the contrast between the urban scene and an imagined 18th century French painting from the window of a château.

Buildings, 1930-31
Demuth liked to used bold, dynamic lines in rays suggesting changing light and the passage of time. These geometrical buildings are treated like eternal forms.

Chimney and Water Tower, 1931
Demuth continued to work with this dramatic subject. 

Incense of a New Chruch, 1921
In this scene of smoke pouring out of a factory at night, Demuth makes his boldest statement that industry is the new religion. The innovation here is the introduction of swirling forms to contrast with vertical geometry. Unfortunately, the lighting created a glare on this painting.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986
Although the bulk of O'Keeffe's work depicts natural forms, some of her work was included in this group because her style is both hard-edge and smoothly blended.

City Night, 1926
This photo is marred by glare and reflections, but it shows extreme simplification of form and color to convey the looming monumentality of sky-scrapers of New York City, where she lived at the time.

Lake George Barns, 1926
In the same year as the cityscape above, O'Keeffe applied a similar approach to these humble barns. These barns were at the family home of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in Lake George, but O'Keeffe had a special attachment for barns as she spent her formative years on a dairy farm.

East River from the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel, 1928
Views of New York with shipping traffic were very popular with Precisionists. O'Keeffe had a gift for  extracting pure form without extraneous detail. Instead of flattening the composition, as with the two previous canvases, she conveyed great depth with strong diagonals, sizes decreasing with distance, and subtle gradation of shading from darks in the foreground to cotton-candy pastels in the distance.

Gerald Murphy, 1888-1964
Gerald Murphy would be considered a minor artist, but he did two canvases in the 1920s that are very interesting.

Razor, 1924
This is a modernist interpretation of the fool-the-eye still life, simplifying the color and flattening the objects into geometric forms. Three essentials for every man's life in the 1920's: a razor, a fountain pen, and wooden matches for lighting pipes. 

Watch, 1925
This remarkable painting is a sort of rhapsody on the mechanism that enabled the measure of time. This is not any particular watch, but an abstract composition inspired by the parts of different watches. 

George Ault, 1891-1948
After Sheeler, in number of canvases in the show, comes George Ault, whose career spanned the 1920s through 1940s.

The Mill Room, 1923
The Mill Room is dark and impersonal, except for red geometrical shapes, which suggest pain or danger. Seen through old-fashioned arched windows, the sky is azure and the light is warm.

Sullivan Street, Abstraction, 1924
This painting uses linear projection to indicate deep space, but it 'de-contextualizes' the scene by eliminating all detail and creating abstract geometries. The dark colors and bright spots make the scene mysterious and frightening. 

New Moon, New York, 1945
This painting from much later in his career also employs linear perspective, abstract geometries, and an ominous palette.

From Brooklyn Heights, c. 1928
Perspective is the major interest of this outdoor scene, but instead of a strong linear design, perspective is created by tonality, with the foreground being the darkest and the distance being the lightest. Forms are simplified and details are eliminated. 

January Full Moon, 1941
This is Ault's tribute to the humble barn, using moonlight to reduce its form to near-abstraction.

Daylight at Russell's Corners, 1944
The snow acted as a natural simplifier of the geometry of this humble scene. Many painters would have left out the wires, and maybe even the poles, to bring out the rustic quality of this scene, but Sheeler wanted to connect it with modern technology.

Bright Light at Russell's Corners, 1946
The electric light in the center gives the scene a mysterious look, but in reality, it made a once-dark and scary corner much safer.

Elsie Driggs, 1898-1992
The three works shown by Elsie Driggs were all from the 1920s. Like Charles Sheeler, and other artists, she made a study of Ford's River Rouge plant.

Blast Furnaces, 1927
In this piece, Driggs used dark, heavy, geometric forms to express the threatening aspects of industrialization. Toward the bottom, off-center, are two humble brick columns and the steps of an old building, showing that the old world is being consumed by the new.

Queensborough Bridge, 1927
By contrast, Driggs used light, linear, up-thrusting shapes, arbitrary rays of color, and overlapping views to express hopefulness and awe in this painting.

Aeroplane, 1928
Here Driggs makes unique use of lines to express streamlined modernity in the airplane, and a different set of lines to suggest the airplane's passage through space.

Clarence Holbrook Carter, 1904-2000
Clarence Carter was a little known painter of both scenes and abstractions whose career started in the 1930s and continued through the 1970s. He is included here because this painting is such a dramatic and memorable image.

War Bride, 1940
In this painting, the romance of mechanization becomes a catastrophe for human life and individuality.

Ralston Crawford, 1906-1978
Ralston Crawford continued the aesthetic approach of Charles Sheeler into the following generation.

Coal Elevators, 1938
There's no sign of coal in this picture; it's hidden in the pristine cylindrical forms. 

Public Grain Elevator in New Orleans, 1938
Crawford kept his colors in solid planes, but he created the illusion of deep space through the use of linear perspective. 

Overseas Highway, 1939
This painting is only a few steps from pure abstraction. A highway projects out over the ocean. The linear perspective, ending in a cloud, suggests infinite depth of space, though the colors remain unmodulated by the distance.

This was an extremely satisfying show because the paintings were orderly in their compositions, clear in their aesthetic values, and relevant to real life without really being challenging. It started March 24 and runs until August 12. There's a ton of material about the show at the de Young's website.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a terrific play, as shown by the fact that it has been adapted to two different American movies,  five foreign language films, an opera, a radio play, and three different stage versions, of which the version presented by the San Jose Stage in 2018 is the most recent. And it started in 1934 as a popular novel by James M. Cain, who specialized in crime novels.

Plot developments come so rapidly and unpredictably that my attention was riveted to the action by curiosity to see what would happen next. The reason the plot is so unpredictable is that the protagonists lack moral compass; they are lacking in both principles and intentions. Cora is the familiar waitress, frustrated in her dead-end job, and sick of her husband, Nick, the Greek, who owns the restaurant. Frank is a drifter, unwilling to make any sort of commitment, following his whims. Nick is the only one showing any humanity, but he is gullible and out of touch with reality.

The script is not poetic; the lines don't really have beauty, or pearls of wisdom, or insight into psychology; basically they just advance the complicated plot, but you keep listening in order to figure out who's conning who and how it all works out. Of course, Frank and Cora fall into lust; of course, they begin to think about bumping off poor Nick, the fat and greasy Greek. But their first attempt fails, and they come very close to being caught by the cop on the beat. The second attempt succeeds, and after a lot of puzzling machination, a lawyer manages to get them off. Not only that but he gets them a large payout from the insurance companies, of which he takes a major chunk.

And so the play might unexpectedly come to a happy ending for the bumbling murderers, except that Cora has sort of awakened and come to think like an adult. She feels guilty about their crime, and wants to make something of the rest of her life. Having a little money brings out the latent business person in her, and this makes her invulnerable to Frank's advances. Frank, on the other hand, shows no growth at all, and longs to resume his life of aimless wandering, with her company and at her expense.

Cora's dreams are foiled when Kennedy, an assistant to the clever lawyer who got them off, comes back later to blackmail them; in fact, to wipe them out. This time pure brutality saves them as Frank beats Kennedy up and forces him to give them the file with his evidence.

And so it appears our criminal couple once again comes out ahead, but then they have a driving accident in which Cora is killed. Frank is left untethered, the way he started, the victim of ironic fate.

Unusually for a play, there's is plenty of on-stage sex and violence. Frank and Cora simulate sex on stage a couple of times, and Frank gets into several punch-ups in addition to the murder. These are not the kind of people who express themselves in words; it's all about actions and consequences.

The acting in this performance by The Stage was spot on. Cora was played by a slender blond actress named Allison F. Rich, who looks good in her underwear and uses her body as expressively as a dancer. The actor who played Frank, Jonathan Rhys Williams, is a little too old to project the animal magnetism of Frank the drifter (in one of the movie versions, the part was played by the young Jack Nicholson), but he inhabits the role convincingly, and handles the action scenes with aplomb.

I was surprised to learn, after the play, that Robert Sicular played both Nick the Greek and Katz the wiley lawyer, and the coroner as well. His portrayal of Nick was so convincing that I was sure he could never pass as any other character. Likewise, Kennedy, one of the operatives in the investigation, was like a reincarnation of Jimmy Durante, yet the actor who portrayed him, Michael Bellino, also played a suspicious young beat cop.

The set design was limited by the small size of the theater, and perhaps the theater's budget as well. The set was basically a blank, dark space lined with a backdrop of strips that allowed hands to bring limited props on and off stage, such as chairs, a table, a hospital gurney, etc. This minimal approach worked very well because it kept your mind focused on the plot and because it conveyed the murky world of amorality that leads to crime.

Spoiler alert: the play has neither a postman nor a doorbell. Therefore, the title should be taken metaphorically, as in "what goes around, comes around" or "you can't escape destiny."

Local theater is like a hidden treasure. It's remarkable what talented actors perform in a small venues like San Jose Stage or City Lights; you would think they would be big stars. Plus, a small theater—100 seats more or less—gives you a very intimate look at the production. Sitting in the second row, we could see the actors at the distance you see people in real life. Another advantage of a small theater is that with innovative stage design, a theater company can afford to keep alive the classics. Even though the play is dark, the quality of this production brought me to tears.

Luisa Miller

Placido Domingo and Sonya Yoncheva as Miller and Luisa in Luisa Miller
The main attraction of Luisa Miller, an opera by Verdi that was presented Live in HD by the Metropolitan Orchestra in New York, was the presence of legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. Placido is legendary because he has performed 148 different operatic roles, in the most prestigious opera houses in the world. Now 80, this was his first appearance in this opera—the first time he had sung the role. It is unprecedented for an opera singer to learn a new role at 80, and to be able to pull it off. Admittedly his voice sounded slightly faded sometimes, but faded like an old denim work shirt that gets more comfortable with every wash. It was thrilling to see him hold his own in lengthy and challenging duets with the rising young soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the opera's final act. Moreover, Placido projected warmth and encouragement that brought out the best in the other singers.

Typically for an opera, the plot is implausible and melodramatic. Rudolfo, the son of the local big-shot Count Walter, has hidden his identity in order to conduct a romance with a lovely and popular village girl, Luisa Miller, the daughter of a retired soldier known simply as Miller. Any plot that starts off with a deception is bound to end badly. Miller senses that there is something off about Rudolfo, and suspects him of the intention of dishonoring Luisa. On the other side, Rudolfo's father wants him to marry a rich widow whom he had known since childhood.

The fathers are the problem here. Placido emphasized Miller's fatherly love, but when it comes down to it, he is worried about his pride and reputation; he will feel insulted if his daughter is betrayed. When it appears for awhile that she has been betrayed, he vows revenge because his honor demands it. Alexander Vinogradov, who sang the role of Count Walter, has a rich voice and dignified presence, and he too made eloquent protestations of his love for his son, but his dominating concerns are his own status and wealth. When the Count goes to Miller's home to demand that Rudolfo break off with Luisa, he and Miller get into it. When Miller threatens the Count, the Count has him arrested and thrown in prison.

To make the situation worse, we have a straightforwardly evil character named Wurm, which just happens to be an appropriate pun in English; the role was sung very convincingly by Dmitry Belosselskiy. Wurm works as a messenger for Count Walter, and he too is in love with Luisa. It is he who reveals to Miller that Rudolfo is the son of the Count, and it is he who reveals to the Count that his son is intending to marry a commoner. And in the story's crisis, he forces Luisa to write a false letter declaring her love for him. This false letter causes Rudolfo to have a great lapse of faith and to poison both Luisa and himself. Thus the proud and willful fathers are left alone in their old age, just the punishment they deserve.

The set design was embarrassingly ugly and clumsy. There were three different dingy sets, and every time the scene changed the action came to a tedious pause while the great scenery-bearing trolleys slid one set off-stage and another one in place.

But what about the music? Verdi had a way of composing music that puts emotion first. He used a clunky plot to explore core emotions in musical terms. Poor Luisa is torn between fatherly love and romantic devotion, and the music makes you experience both feelings. Although Rudolfo started the problem with a deception, he attempts to be honorable by telling the truth to the widow Federica. They have a very tender duet in which they recall things they shared when they were younger. In fact, it is because of his affection for Federica that he can't deceive her, another touching conflict of feelings. Also the music is very singable; the melodies are appealing and easy to follow; many of the arias could stand alone as songs.

The Met orchestra is always impeccable. The orchestra's role in this opera is so strong it is like the voice of an invisible character; a duet can feel like a trio. The Met's chorus is always referred to as incomparable, and that's because they achieve some amazing effects. In this opera, this large group which could deliver auditorium-shaking volume, has some remarkably gentle, fluttering melodies that sounded more like a light breeze rustling the trees.

Even though there is evil, pride and violence in this opera, so many of the songs are about love that it's that loving feeling—not fun and frivolous, but deep and engaging—that I took away with me. The libretto was based on a well-known novel by Schindler. Verdi is an amazing interpreter of literary works.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Final Portrait

The movie Final Portrait is basically a character study, and therefore its principal value is in the superb portrayal of the protagonist by Geoffrey Rush.

The subject is the significant and innovative Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti; he is usually known as a sculptor, but he also painted portraits. Instead of a plot, we have the process of painting a portrait, and not just a likeness, but a psychological study. For conflict, we have the conflict in Giacometti's soul between living and dying.

In this portrayal, Giacometti is a nihilist, doubtful of the value of life, doubtful of his talent, doubtful that the portrait can ever be completed. For an artist, nihilism is an untenable point of view. If you say that life is a drag, that you are without talent, and that you have taken on an impossible task, you will become paralyzed, and the artist is shown giving up time after time. And yet, as an artist, Giacometti had this up-welling of creativity that forced him to keep trying.

Bust of Annette, 1954

For art-lovers who are familiar with Giacometti's attenuated figures in lumpy plaster or his dark, scratchy portraits, Rush's interpretation is pretty convincing. It's easy to believe that the artist was tormented by doubt and negativity. And we accept that periodically he was forced to come up for air to seek fun, color, and wild sex, to express his aliveness.

It's lovely to see a thoughtful work about an artist, in contrast with the usual subjects for movies. But what really interested me was the team that worked on it, especially recognizing that some of them had worked together before. The film was written and directed by Stanley Tucci, who is usually known as a character actor. He has also directed a number of films, including Big Night, which is the one that I've seen. He also co-starred in that movie with Tony Shalhoub, who later became famous as the TV detective Monk. They played brothers in the movie, and Shalhoub reappears in Final Portrait as the brother of Giacometti. It interests me that these buddies took an interest in a story about an artist, enough interest to read the book written by the subject of the portrait, James Lord, and to marshal the resources to convey such a specialized subject to film.

Geoffrey Rush, who plays the lead role, has won an astounding number of acting awards in the U.S., Britain, and his native Australia, frequently for playing tortured geniuses. His craggy face makes him look remarkably like the real Giacometti. His ability to handle a paintbrush convincingly suggests that he looked long and hard at the artist's work. It's curious to note actors taking interest in art; actors working on a subject that is not likely to be a big box-office success. The movie showed in only one theater in our area, one that specializes in artsy movies, the Cinéarts Palo Alto.

Since the release of the movie, Rush has joined the long list of Hollywood types who have been accused of sexual misconduct. He denies the accusation, and his lawyer says he is distraught by the damage done to his reputation and his career. Whatever he may have done seems quite irrelevant to his massive acting talent.

The other actors in the movie all did a good job, but their roles were comparatively small. Sylvie Testud played Giacometti's skinny muse as a mirror of the artist's tortured soul. Clémence Poésy played the whore who tickled his fancy as silly and frivolous and utterly distracting. Arnie Hammer played James Lord, the writer who sat for his portrait; his was the least demanding role, since he was generally trying to sit rigidly and maintain the same neutral expression. On the other hand, sitting for a portrait is difficult work, especially a psychological study, and pretending to sit could be even more vexing. With very few lines to work with, Hammer conveyed the complex mix of fascination and boredom involved in complying with the artist's needs and obsessions.

A character study of an artist will have a limited audience, presumably. But for art-lovers, this is good stuff. It actually makes a positive contribution to understanding Giacometti's meaning and motivation, and it elucidates the compulsive nature of creativity.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Wonder Wheel

Photo cribbed from The New York Times
So far as I know, Woody Allen's latest film, The Wonder Wheel, is available only through Amazon, because Amazon is his distributor, and since Woody has been blackballed by the #metoo movement, they released it in only 5 theaters last year.

Visually the movie is so gorgeous, that viewing it is like being in a work of art. The set design, cinematography and lighting work together to bring out the meaning of the words being spoken. The color and intensity of lighting fluctuates with every nuance of feeling. Sometimes this is accounted for by the lights of Coney Island flickering through the many windows of the flat where most of the action takes place; sometimes there's no excuse. Lighting can change the face of the principal actress from old and haggard to vibrant and attractive within a single monologue. Passionate speeches have red light; a rejection scene is icy blue.

The weird part is that the characters are so low-class; it's an awkward term, but it seems unavoidable for Humpty and Ginny and Carolina. Humpty is the 50-year-old operator of a carousel on Coney Island who is a recovering alcoholic, has a huge belly, and bellows grossly, while dressed in a tattered white undershirt. His wife Ginny is a promiscuous waitress in an oyster house on the boardwalk who is haunted by her failures while falling into adultery yet again. Carolina is Humpty's 25-year-old daughter, a vulnerable flower who was so desperate for a different way of life that she married a gangster when she was 20. Her returning to live with Humpty and Ginny kicks off the action of the plot. Her presence crowds the flat; she is spoiled and doesn't help out enough; she gets a job at the oyster house, but she is a bad waitress; Humpty saves all his money to help her go to night school. On top of everything else, her husband has sent thugs looking for her, so her presence endangers the others. A minor character in the mix is Ginny's son by a previous marriage, Richie; he appears to play no part in the main plot so he barely gets a mention. He is a red-haired boy of nine who starts fires, an understandable commentary on the situation. Richie's role is largely symbolic, and he gets very few lines or close-ups.

These are not Woody's people—they're not educated, sophisticated and witty. The reason Woody created these characters is explained right at the beginning by the only character he can identify with, Mickey, a grad student and veteran, who says that this is his story and he loves melodrama and larger than life characters. These characters don't second-guess themselves; they don't analyze and make ironic jokes; they just blurt out their raw feelings in long monologues, melodramatic and tragic, in the mode of Eugene O'Neill, a playwright who is mentioned a couple of times in the movie.

The acting is perfect. Jim Belushi totally sinks into the part of the hapless Humpty, permanently wounded by addiction to drink. Kate Winslet is a marvel as Ginny, one in a series of mature women whose faces have fascinated Woody. Juno Temple is Woody's latest fresh-young-thing, and she makes you think there might be a real, learning person behind that teeny voice and vulnerable sexiness. Woody's choice for his alter-ego this time—a Lifeguard who has a summer job on a local beach—is both fitting and amusing: Justin Timberlake, the rock star who makes bland look charming. He doesn't have to do any great emoting, but he is increasingly fascinated and dumbfounded by the desperate world he strays into.

The plot is the usual love triangle, with both Ginny and Carolina being attracted to Mickey, the grad student working as a Lifeguard who also serves as narrator. Mickey explains how a man can be drawn to a desperate woman by compassion while not being able to love her in the way she wants, in the way she comes to demand. He also states a recurrent theme with Woody: the Heart wants what it wants, logic be damned. Mickey has blundered into this untenable situation and tries to be honest and caring with both women.

The resolution is neatly built into the opening; the gangsters who are looking for Carolina find her and grab her off the street. The great Sin is that Ginny fails to warn Carolina that the thugs know where she is. Ginny knows that Carolina is with Mickey at a local pizza joint and she calls to warn her, but at the critical moment she realizes that she would be better off without her young rival, and she has a lapse of virtue, a lapse of human caring; she hangs up. When Mickey figures out her betrayal, he learns the nature of tragedy.

Woody Allen is 82 now, and appears to be a happy family man, so one might assume he is past any sort of sexual impropriety, but I checked it out anyway. Both Kate Winslet and Juno Temple have been asked about working with Woody. Both indicated that it was a professional experience with no interpersonal interaction. They came to the set in character and in costume, and related to Woody only in terms of the movie. They just ignored the decades-old accusation by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow and concentrated on the role. They both thought Woody was an incredible director. No one can deny that he got a bravura performance out of Kate Winslet, and he brought the best out of the others as well.

This movie got some pretty nasty reviews—and is generally considered a failure—but I loved it, and I thought it broke new ground far beyond the reviewers understanding.