Sunday, March 25, 2018

Art Diary #2

Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird: Every ten years or so there seems to be a female-centric movie by a new female talent that is so out of the ordinary that we expect enormous things thereafter. Yet whether from sexism or simply the onerous difficulty that is creating a great movie, the talent never pans out the way we think it will. Before Lady Bird there was Diablo Cody with Juno, before Juno, there was Jane Campion with The Piano. Whatever the reason, no movie by them ever made the same splash. Let's hope it's different for Greta Gerwig, because this is frankly better than Juno or The Piano. It's almost a masterpiece. The ostensible subject is a girl coming of age, and perhaps her problems with her mother. But the real subject is nothing less than the flow of life itself, the subject of still greater movies like Ozu's Tokyo Story, Renoir's The River, S. Ray's Pather Panchali, and yes, Woody Allen's Radio Days. It is not without problems, the comic relief of the football coach directing Shakespeare feels like it was deposited from another movie set, and the priest who is the drama coach is a little too over the top to feel real. Furthermore, Lady Bird's father is just there, a milquetoast with no real specificity in the face of his dynamo wife and daughter. But in so many of these movies, the mother, not the father, is the generic character that perhaps Gerwig deserves a mulligan for it. So much in this movie is so right: so many characters drawn so specifically, so many scenes feeling like the muddling of unglamorous, unfulfilled lives as we all must live them. Like Woody Allen, whom until recently Gerwig practically idolized, this is obviously extremely, perhaps narcissistically, autobiographical, and makes one worry that Gerwig is not capable of telling stories of another kind, but whether Gerwig ever makes the same splash, this is the best movie I saw of 2017, and gives hope that a whole army of woman filmmakers will emerge to tell stories like these. Long may Lady Bird fly. More than The Shape of Water or The Post or even Get Out and Call Me By Your Name, it restores faith in the movies as a place where human stories are told.

Steven Spielberg - The Post: It's the ultimate injustice in movie history. After completely changing the way movies were made so that action movies with spectacular visuals ate up all the studio budgets, all the character centric directors got crowded out of Hollywood, unable to get the financing they needed for a decent cast or production. And once Spielberg crowded out the Coppolas and Bogdanoviches, he became them. Steven Spielberg is the only director who consistently makes the masterpieces of human interest that seemed to be churned out on an assembly line forty years ago. If Spielberg wants to make a character movie rather than a blockbuster, then gosh darnit that's what Steven Spielberg gets. Movies starring and featuring the very best actors in Hollywood, with scripts by Hollywood's very best screenwriters. Of course, he's such a gifted filmmaker that no matter how dry the subject, he finds ways to make it exciting. Unjustly, the result is the second best movie of 2017. Spielberg, who for 45 years has almost never paid any attention to women, now gets to make a movie about the marginalization of women that pretends he's been in their corner the whole time. But such is Spielberg's gift, and such is the seductive power of celluloid, that he can convince you. He reads the Zeitgeist with the ease of a children's book, and again and again, he makes precisely the movie for the right moment. In the wake of 9/11 was first Minority Report then War of the Worlds, in the wake of Iraq was Munich, in the wake of Obamacare was Lincoln. And in the wake of metoo is now The Post. The Post is an old man's movie. Like Catch Me If You Can, it's clearly based on his memories of a bygone era of which the majority of his audience now has no memory. We now see Katherine Graham, the most powerful woman of her time, getting marginalized by men who second guess her, who lose their tempers while she has to remain calm, who literally brush by her as though she's not there. Against this we see the full romance and excitement of working in a newspaper, of the genteel bipartisan Washington WASP society of yore, and how this ultra-traditional socialite became the least likely feminist icon of the 20th century. It is a fascinating story, one absolutely worth telling. Had Spielberg not set out a model of making movies that settled for less than art to make big money, it probably would have been told on the screen much sooner.

Jordan Peele - Get Out So no, it's not great enough to earn its million thinkpieces, but yes, it's damn good. It's hard not to read a little bit of white panic in the overboard acclaim - Richard Brody wrote that Jordan Peele is already the American Bunuel. Considering that Luis Bunuel didn't even become Bunuel until his seventies, hoisting a first-time filmmaker to the top of the pantheon does neither the pantheon or the filmmaker any favors. Perhaps the single greatest strength of Get Out is its indifference to 'our' opinions. We, white liberals, are the ones being attacked, so whether we love it or not, it's a major release intended fully for a black audience that plays to their fears, not ours, and by being so specific in the targets of both its ire and its sympathy, the movie has a far more universal sense of empathy than many films about African-American tragedies which earnestly try to educate white audiences. The central conceit, a brilliant one, is to reverse our sense of white panic at being the only white person around in a city. One can immediately understand why exurbia would provoke such panic in African-Americans, and it does more to make one understand their point of view than a movie like Selma. On the other hand, while the scenes of Rod Williams are admittedly hilarious, it belongs in another movie. Like so many Woody Allen movies, the comedy undercuts the movie's momentum, and by the time you return to the main plot, you're less disturbed by the events than you would have been. It's hard not to think that the original ending, which had Chris going to jail, would have made for a much more horrific movie. As it stands, Get Out is a great time, more a (oy...) black comedy than a horror movie that cuts deep because it speaks so directly to the justified fear that the social commitment of white liberals to people of color is more for narcissistic reasons than about affecting meaningful improvement.

Luca Guadagnino - Call Me By Your Name Another movie that, while pretty damn good, is not quite as great as its thinkpieces. The movie was written by James Ivory, now eighty-nine years old and still apparently still the purveyor of highbrow movies in which not much happens. It takes place in the early 80's, but it feels as though it should have taken place seventy years earlier. This is not a movie about a gay relationship, but about a relationship between two bisexual, or perhaps queer, young men who clearly also enjoy sleeping with women. Furthermore, I find it a little hard to understand how this movie has become a gay anthem when the maturity disparity between the two main characters is so enormous. Nothing Armie Hammer's character did is anywhere near as bad as Kevin Spacey, but there is something about the age difference that doesn't feel quite right - though to the movie's credit, it at least explores this question a bit. While the complexities of the queer male exist, in many ways, as the final closet, and many men who have some bisexual inclinations live completely straight lives, the language of this movie is nevertheless the language of the now defunct gay closet, with men trying to use a sixth sense to pick up on potential innuendos. In a society of privileged intellectuals, this closet was no doubt dead by the early 80s when this movie is set. The very idea of erotic self-discovery in the Italian countryside is a topic of literature from the turn of the last century. Even the extremely highbrow topics of discussion throughout the movie; ancient archeological pottery, classical music, reading literature in foreign languages, belong to a completely different era from which it's set. Michael Stuhlbarg's final speech to his son, while beautiful, belongs in a different movie. I can't tell if this movie should be set in 1910 or 2110, but there are many things about the movie I find difficult to believe.

Michael Haneke - Happy End Michael Haneke is a psychopath. I could leave it there. This is more a horror movie than Get Out, and I don't think Hanke makes any other type of movie. He takes the darkest reaches of the Ingmar Bergman universe and plumbs their depths to find families populated by secret murderers and sexual deviants, many of whom long for death themselves. It's all weirdly funny, and there's a bizzare kind of catharsis at work at being forced to watch people with such horrific inclinations, but Haneke movies are not movies to see twice. They are rides to the abyss you can only take once lest the abyss stare back, but if you only take them once, the ride can be oddly thrilling.

Fritz Lang - The Big Heat
As good as the movies were last year, it nonetheless told me everything I needed to know about the state of movies generally when I realized that this Charles Theater revival from 1953 was a better movie than any I saw during Oscar Season. Sometimes it's much more difficult to talk about movies you love, because to examine it is to demystify what you enjoy. This is a movie with double vision, both letting you appreciate the righteous fury of this incorruptible hero who gives a truly evil crime syndicate the comeuppance it so richly deserves, but also showing the very steep price of that vengeance, in which the fanatical hero becomes nearly as evil as the people he hunts, and sacrifices a long series of victims (almost all of which are women) along the way. Fritz Lang was one of the geniuses of cinema, forced to work for a long time in a Hollywood that never allowed him to stretch his imagination to the scale of Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, and Nibelungen. Film noir is already the best movie genre America ever came up with, the place where all the dark lessons of World Wars were deposited amid all the good cheer of victory. But this movie is darker still than film noir. It has no illusions about how the price of waging war on evil is to become evil oneself, to willingly sacrifice those you love, and to throw any innocent bystander who might be of help into a whirlwind of death. The Big Heat is a masterpiece it took me far too long to see, and unlike so many more overtly political movies of more recent vintage, it has no illusions about how securely evil traps us within its jaws of death.

Ava DuVernay - Selma I wish I didn't have to be the bearer of bad news, but there are only so many times you can watch St. Oprah enact the suffering on the screen of the black everywoman before you realize that this has to be one of the most risibly overpraised movies of the last few years. The British David Oyelowo plays MLK as an Actor-with-a-capital-A would, and like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, he clearly does not have American historical figures sufficiently seared into his consciousness to make his vision of MLK commensurate with the real thing. Selma does a reasonably good job of explaining complex political issues, and of course with such an endlessly disputed topic, there is disputation about how well they handled the historical record. The debate about the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson would be more important if Tom Wilkinson, usually the best thing about every movie he's in, did a better job of portraying LBJ; so even before one discusses the historical record, the LBJ scenes are unconvincing. The movie is more meant to be an educational tool than an aesthetic rendering, and doubtless will be shown in classrooms until the 2060s. Such a dreary posterity is precisely what this movie deserves.

Raphael-Bob Waksberg - Bojack Horseman I don't know precisely what to say about Bojack at the moment, it's so odd yet so earthshaking that I need time to think...

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no. 2
Schubert: Symphony no. 9
Baltimore Symphony
Lahav Shani is not yet thirty. It's not fair that a musician so young and so advanced in his career can be so gifted, but there it is. He hasn't even taken over the Rotterdam Philharmonic yet and he was already named director of the Israel Philharmonic, so this will likely be his only trip to this area for a long long time, and quite a trip it was.  I find it very difficult to assess the Prokofiev properly, as Prokofiev is one of my least favorite major composers. Luganski's obviously a very fine pianist, but the Meyerhoff is a very wet acoustic, and sitting as I was toward the back of the auditorium, there was an auditory echo - perfect for bass-heavy music like Bruckner, but deadly for treble-heavy Prokofiev. I persist with Prokofiev, but I've never been a huge enough fan to listen much out of passion. For me, Prokofiev is earnest precisely where he should be cynical, and cynical precisely where he should be earnest. There is so much about his musical personality that oozes insincerity and flash where substance should be. A virtuoso of composition, absolutely, but not a maestro. There would be at least a small bit of schadenfreude if I could say that Shani does not seem to possess the enormous gifts such appointments would herald, but the truth is that Shani's, very nearly, a fully mature musician, and neither of his predecessors in Rotterdam - neither Gergiev nor Nezet-Seguin, could ever have given so perceptive an interpretation of Schubert's Great C-Major Symphony. I would stake money that of the uncontested warhorses of the repertoire, the 'Great' is the hardest to bring off. Everyone even vaguely knowledgeable about classical music knows it from recording, but compared to anything by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Brahms (or even Mahler these days), you rarely hear it. The reason is that Schubert forgives nothing - both overpersonalization and underpersonalization draw attention to themselves. The dynamic contrasts need to be enormous, but the orchestral texture always needs to blend, because in Schubert, what matters is not just the notes, but hearing the overtones around the notes. The first two movements were of a perfection one does not hear in Baltimore. Shades of dynamics, tempo, and colors that bespeak one of nature's very few Schubertians. The last two movements were a little too fast and crisp, not grounded enough in the pesante of the Austrian dance rhythms, but exciting enough to herald a very rare musical talent.

Bach: St. John Passion

Baltimore Bach Marathon
Here in the sticks, a performance of one of the Bach Passions is truly rare. It's not rare in Washington DC, where 70 choruses compete with each other for 70 audience members, but here in Baltimore, we'll probably be lucky to get a single chorus singing a Bach Passion once every three years. Personally, I prefer John to Matthew - antisemitism notwithstanding, it's a more visceral experience and it's about two-thirds the length. A Bach Passion is always a mountain climb, even in the best performances, you cannot expect to be mesmerized for two full hours. The experience is like reading Moby Dick or The Magic Mountain. Its aim is higher than the human condition, and you have to acclimatize yourself to the thin air. To my astonishment, Doug Buchanan and the twelve-strong chorus of St. David's in Roland Park acquitted themselves magnificently. God only knows how much rehearsal went into it, and even if the singers weren't particularly distinguished as soloists, they made quite a whole. The modern instrument/baroque tuned orchestra did a thoroughly professional, and the tempos were perfectly middle of the road. I'm very glad to have gone, but the highlight was no doubt the performance of the Bach Chaconne for violin which separated the St. John's two halves. I already forget the name of the violinist, but she looked to be roughly the age of a Peabody graduate student. To be perfectly frank, it began a bit shakily and I resigned myself to an amateur performance, but once she got to the arpeggios, a real violinist presented herself, and there was no looking back. A really wonderful performance, which, for me at least, provided more catharsis than the St. John Passion does in two hours.

Verdi Requiem
National Symphony
The National Symphony is about to be the orchestra it should have been since the Roosevelt era. Noseda is just that good. He's perhaps too tightly coiled and in search of virtuoso moments to be my favorite kind of maestro; listening to his Brahms, I doubt he will yield the kind of music-making I long for when the music demands a lower temperature, but a maestro he absolutely is. While Stenz or Honeck, 'my' kind of maestro, characterize the music like a storyteller phrase by phrase, Noseda operates from the sound itself, endowing a vividness of texture like a master sculptor. Like his mentor, Valery Gergiev, he seems to prep every beat five seconds in advance, but unlike Gergiev, the result is often awe-inspiringly precise. So many conductors use such a fluid technique like Noseda's to get a spread-out sound that begins from the basses, Noseda uses it to create an attaca that is so well-prepared that the sound comes at you with percussive, Solti-like, physical force at the same time that it sings without end. He is so in control of his forces that every musical moment is fully characterized without his having to point out exactly what to do more than rarely. The dynamic range is enormous, and the balances within those dynamics are so awesomely calibrated that one knows precisely where one is within the architecture of such an enormous musical behemoth, and yet within this extreme level of musical organization is enormous amounts of musical character. I suspect that the way he does it is that he simply gives the orchestra their freedom - 'play like soloists', 'be as espressivo and cantabile and characterful as you can possibly be, and I'll tell you what I'd like differently.' When I listen to the BSO under Alsop, I always bare in mind to grade on a curve and forgive the fact that not every passage is sufficiently expressive or individuated. Even with Eschenbach, you grade on a bit of a curve, forgiving his technical weaknesses and even his overinterpretation to get to those magnificent passages of the most vulnerable, Bernstein or Celibidache-like, expression. But with Noseda, no curve is necessary. Not only a new insight every minute, but every gradation of dynamics along the way, and every gradation of rubato - which I wish he used still more often. The last few weeks have been my first time hearing Noseda since I was a college student abroad in London, and I didn't quite know what to expect. Now that I've heard him live, Noseda is clearly the real thing, a maestro who has found exactly the right orchestra at exactly the right time in his career, and hopefully he will be here to refine this initial fire for twenty years. I suspect that, unless I hear them do it again, this is the greatest Verdi Requiem I shall ever hear, no doubt a bit like what the young Muti or De Sabata must have sounded like. But this was more propulsive than Muti ever was in the Requiem (and virtually the opposite of De Sabata's recording...) if anything, it resembled Tulio Serafin's first recording from Mussolini's Rome. Like Serafin, there were moments when one wished Noseda would linger. When the piece is so enormous, one knows exactly why the conductor doesn't want to slow down, and yet it's absolutely impossible to do the Verdi Requiem without a few dry passages. It was a miracle that there were so few, and the structure of the 40-minute Dies Irae (probably 36 in Noseda's hands) never fell apart even for a moment. This piece, so overprogrammed by choruses around America, who inevitably interpret it with an undramatic Protestant earnestness more appropriate for Hubert Parry than Verdi. The Verdi Requiem is not an opera, but it must arise from a base of opera. Even when it's devotional, you have to feel the full terror of the metaphysical stakes. You must smell the sulphur in the apocalyptic passages - see Michelangelo and quote Dante in your head. The terrifying passages must be there so we can be lead to the more Raphael/Botticelli-like passages, but we must risk hell to deserve heaven. It says something for the quality of this ultra-dramatic rendering that the highlights of the whole thing were the Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna, in both of which the orchestra was often so well-balanced that one felt in direct communion with Verdi's thing-in-itself.

Baltimore Symphony
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Weber: Clarinet Concerto no. 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 2 "Little Russian"
I'm calling it right now. Peter Oundjian will be the next director of the Baltimore Symphony. His schedule is open, and while he may get snapped up by the Atlanta Symphony before we get to him, Marin Alsop's natural end point is when her contract is up in 2021. Sexist as their prejudice may be, she was always disliked by a large vocal segment of the players, and if she stays longer, she's going to invite a mutiny. She's had a hard enough time here that I can't imagine she wants to stay much longer. Alsop is a conductor of enormous unconventional strengths, and enormous conventional weaknesses. Oundjian has similar unconventional strengths - he certainly plays at least a smattering of genuinely new music, but he also has more conventional strengths. He's the former First Violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, and he's a real musician with real ideas, and unlike Alsop, he clearly has a genuine concept of the orchestral sound he wants to foster. Unfortunately, he's not as great a conductor as he is a musician - I'm not sure he even conducted before he was fifty. Like so many instrumentalists who became conductors - Eschenbach, Ashkenazy, Rostropovich, Strutzman, he just kind of flails clumsily up there, giving very basic two-handed gestures that don't give the orchestra much information to go on. In a concert where there's sufficient rehearsal time to explain what he wants, this isn't a problem; and the performance of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead - one of the few Rachmaninov works that truly deserves Rachmaninov's warhorse ubiquity, was magnificently shaped. But Tchaikovsky 2 has extremely tricky cross-rhythms. Clearly the bulk of rehearsal went into the Rachmaninov and the Weber. The Weber Clarinet Concerto is a piece of empty virtuosity, a smorgasbord of diatonic E-Flat Major on which clarinets can show off their technique. The new principal clarinet was a soloist, and he's clearly as good as it gets. It's just a shame that there aren't more great concertos for wind instruments, because the pickin's for solo wind players are slim indeed. The Tchaikovsky sounded much less rehearsed, and Oundjian's technique was clearly not up to the task of holding the orchestra together. In the midst of lots of engaging musical detail, with a hugely exciting and bass-heavy orchestral sound, the uncoordinated ensemble in the outer movements sometimes became a white-knuckle affair, and the Andantino began much faster than it ended. To sound like a broken record, I yearn to get Markus Stenz permanently in Baltimore - a musician of limitless ability and vision. But if Marin Alsop had this much trouble programming a steady diet of American composers, one can only imagine the headaches a conductor who steadily programs real modernist composers might have. Oundjian is still punching up - I would take his real musicianship over an empty head with good hair and a clear beat. Oundjian is not great, but he's clearly good, and better than we deserve.

...At some point more book reviews...

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