Friday, August 1, 2014

A Master Builder





You’ve seen lots of Master Builders if you were brought up on Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism or if you are an aspiring artist or married to one—or you’re just someone who ’s interested in the darker sides of either imagination or aspiration. There are straight Victorian translations of the Ibsen classic and adaptations by playwrights who put their words in Ibsen’s mouth (as Mamet has done with Chekhov’s The Three Sisters or David Ives with Moliere’s Misanthrope). Andre Gregory’s stage adaptation with Wally Shawn playing Ibsen’s Master Builder Solness has been fourteen years in the making and it’s not The Master Builder, but A Master Builder, underlining the fact that it’s a far cry from the straight translation mode. Now we have the movie, directed by Jonathan Demme (with a screenplay by Wally Shawn), currently playing at Film Forum. Louis Malle famously filmed Vanya on 42nd Street which was the result of a similar collaboration and the style might be called vernacularization, with the impetus being to make dialogue (even in its more arch incarnations) sound like the things that people might actually say to each other. Vanya on 42nd Street was a masterpiece, but in the case of A Master Builder using the same technique doesn't necessarily produce similar results. Perhaps the problem lies in the initial decision to introduce Solness in home hospice care with the sound of a heart monitor constantly beeping in the background. This initial set up gives the language the quality of a television soap with the melodrama revolving around Ragnar the son of Solness’s one time mentor, Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory) and Kaia (Emily Cass McDonell), Ragnar’s fiancé. Solness is afraid that Ragnar (Jeff Beihl) will surpass him just as he had once outdone Brovik. So he seduces Kaia in order to prevent Ragnar from leaving. The screenplay coops the style of Shawn’s brilliant meditation on civilization itself, The Designated Mourner with monologues masking as dialogue, but in this case to ill effect. After a while one craves what most contemporary theater directors eschew, an old-fashioned drama with characters literally walking in and out of rooms. There are some wonderful bits like Solness commenting about Kaia  “What made me imagine I’d said things to her I’d only imagined.”  And there’s the initial meeting between Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce) and Solness, which exudes the quality of a symposium in a psychoanalytic institute. Are we dealing with repressed memory syndrome or Freud’s repudiation of the seduction theory? But the lovingly worked over scenes with their occasional flashes of insight don’t cohere. They look like successions of outtakes from the long workshop that, in fact, took place. A Master Builder may be disconcerting for those who first met Shawn and Gregory in My Dinner With Andre. All the extemporization is there, but the chemistry is gone. They pull the rug out from underneath themselves by perseverating in the same approach. The urgent beeping of that heart monitor replacing Solness’ emblematic fall with flatlining doesn’t help matters either. This Solness is soulless.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Barcelona Journal V: Barceloneta



drawing by Hallie Cohen
When you ask the concierge in your run of the mill upscale Barcelona hotel where to go for fish, he or she will generally point you to Barceloneta. It’s down by the waterfront, overlooking the harbor and it is, they assure you, really excellent, despite the fact of being a magnet for tourists. The fact is that Barceloneta epitomizes all that is wrong with Barcelona, a proto-modernist mecca of architectural design which seems to have neatly circumvented the birth pangs of other European cities tittering precariously on the precipice between tradition and modernity before making their leap back to the future. Any rumor of innovation and invention you can wish for is to be found in Barcelona which is the epitome of spaceship earth. Design is everything in this city and a tourist in some redoubts might spend a day of his vacation trying to figure out how the advanced lighting system works in his or her room. But Barceloneta represents the dark side of progress. It has the efficiency of an emergency room where fish are brought in to triage. The kitchen is visible so you can see the chefs aka surgeons preparing to operate. Scientists working on a cure for a deadly virus in a sterile lab might be another appropriate comparison. Everything moves along seamlessly or rather spinelessly (along with the sole which is brought out on its gurney before being deboned). The waiters are just like interns and residents doing  rounds. They evince a generalized concern with the feeding process, but have about much personal contact with the diner as say the pilot of an Airbus flying from Kennedy to Barcelona has with his passengers. And when you dig into your wallet to pay the bill, you are tempted to whip out your insurance rather than credit card. There is nothing particularly wrong with the food. It’s perfectly cooked according to textbook standards, lacking only one thing: taste. Oh yes, there is that picture postcard view of the harbor which is admittedly nice. But the popularity of Barceloneta, which on a recent Friday night was filling up to predictable capacity like say a tire which is being pumped full of air, can unleash a kind of Orwellian self doubt (there is a square commemorating the author of Homage to Catalonia and l984 in Barcelona). What to do if everyone else is marching off like sheep to slaughter? What is the difference between good and bad? Who is right and who is wrong? And will the meek once again inherit the earth? Barceloneta is a metaphor for progress in cuisine as well as lots of other things and represents all that is awry with the exultation in newness that Barcelona represents. Simple indigenous cuisine at reasonable prices is what you begin to crave after paying the tab for your rubbery monkfish at Barceloneta. The servers at Barceloneta might also remind those who flew to Barcelona with Delta Rewards Points of their crew. Yes they got there and everything worked, but unfortunately all the romance had been taken out of flying. Yet Barceloneta and establishments like it raise an even more profound question. Why go anywhere? On the low end you find a world populated by Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and McDonalds in virtually ever hamlet inhabited by more than a couple of thousand souls; on the high end you have the ubiquitous what we might call “cuisine mechanique” which turns historical memory into a footnote. Big Brother has now become the Style which treats globetrotters with a few bucks in their pockets to an elevated version of institutional food. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Barceloneta, which sits adjacent to one of Barcelona’s institutions of higher learning, had a future incarnation as a clinic or even elite hospital. Goodbye Barcelona! "Hasta la vista, baby!"

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coata Brava Journal: Buridan’s Ass




The medieval scholastics argued over how many angels could stand on the head of a pin and then there were conundrum’s like Buridan’s Ass, where indecision about whether to eat or drink results in both starvation and dehydration. But speaking of asses and breasts and ephuistic forms of calculation, we come to the subject of the Costa Brava, where the number of naked breasts sighted on the beach running along the Passiego del Mar in the town of Sant Antoni de Calonge was calculated to be 12 on a recent July morning. By comparison can we conservatively say that the number of bare breasts visible on the beach in St. Tropez in a comparable period might be closer to 1200? Palomas is actually a charming, sleepy seaside village where locals use a vessel called the porro in Catalan or porron in Spanish to engage in drinking contests. If they have subsequent problems with their intestinal tract they might go into the bathroom of a bar and use the “papel hygienico” (aka toilet paper) which also is derogatively as "papel del culo" (culo meaning ass). “Espaghettis," “esparrago maone" might be some of the specialties ordered on the black board of one of these simple establishments overlooking the Mediterranean. The asses and breasts and foods are all for the taking on the Costa Brava, but in a more laid back form than on its sister resorts like Portofino on the Italian Riviera or St Tropez or Nice where outlandish numbers of expensive yachts line the slips of the harbors and the buzz of celebrity sets cash registers ringing at hotels with names like Byblos and Negresco.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Pyrenees Journal III: Capturing the Dalis



photograph by Hallie Cohen
Salvador Dali gave his beloved wife Gala the castle in Pubol,  which is now open to the public, on the condition that he was only allowed to visit her by appointment. Gala, who had initially been married to the poet Paul Eluard, was a fixture of a circle of surrealist poets, painters and filmmakers which included Louis Aragon, Luis Bunuel and Rene Magritte—all who been guests in Dali’s house in Cadaques the fateful summer of l929 when he and Gala first fell in love. This passage from Dali’s The Secret Life of Salvador Dali is quoted in an exhibition monograph: “She was to be my Gradiva who advances my victory, my wife.” Gradiva as the monograph explains was the heroine of a novel by W. Jensen “who carries out a psychologic cure on the main character.” Did Gala cure Dali? She was definitely a kind of perverse muse and her house with its curiosities looks a little like what Luis Bunuel might have provided for clients if he had decided to be a residential developer rather than a filmmaker. The back of a chair reveals a 3-D vista, a lion’s head sits above an armoire and the famous garden includes elephants with giraffe’s legs. No Dali house would be replete without a Cadillac and this one has a Cadillac Deville (Dali accentually created a Cadillac that rained inside which sits on the ground floor of the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres). And there’s a chess set in which all the pieces are fingers. The universe Dali inhabited was a perverse one and if you want Capturing the Friedmans surrealist style, the Gala house gives you a feeling for the existence in which the great artist was basically an absent figure in his own home, an eminence gris, who pulled the strings, while his wife cavorted with other men (as Dali pursued his own intimacies with the likes of Frederico Garcia Lorca and undoubtedly others). What is notably touching is the basement crypts designed with a hole through which the two corpses would be able to hold hands. But how did Gala attend to so many lovers in such a small bed?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pyrenees Journal II: Spellbound



photograph by Hallie Cohen
What was more brilliant Alfred Hitchcock choosing to use Salvador Dali to create the dream sequences in Spellbound or Dali’s creation of these iconic sequences himself? The sequences if you recall are exemplifications of surrealist technique which is not surprising since the very structure of surrealism with its interests in humor, aggression and sexuality derive from the most primal elements of all dream life. And yes the dream in the movie helped to solve the crime. If you visit the Dali Theater-Museum in Figueres you will see amongst other things a citation of Dali’s book about Millet’s  “The Angelus." The three figures in Millet’s painting a peasant, his wife and child receive shall we say an unconventional interpretation. They’re father and daughter praying for absolution from the sin of incest. Dali was a believer in extreme subjectivity and he could be deemed a proto-deconstructivist to the extent that he believed that everybody will have their own interpretations of art and reality. He called his theory the "paranoiac critical method." Derrida was a Dali clone it turns out. For example, a nude of his beloved wife Gala hangs, in the central atrium of the museum You see the real Gala in his museum, but it’s like a hologram. If you attempt to photograph it an image of Abraham Lincoln appears. In one sense it’s just recycled impressionism. But the effect is like that produced by double and triple entendres in literature. Dali, as many of the works in the Theatre-Museum reveal, was a master of illusion. He was both the patient and doctor in a life long self-analysis and in fact tried (unsuccessfully) to interest Freud in his work. His self-portrait (which faces a famous portrait he did of Picasso) shows a face with hanging skin interspersed with crutches. Underneath that is a piece of bacon and a fly. perhaps one of the flies who escaped from “The Persistence of Memory”--where time literally flies. Perhaps Dali was saying he was as fragile and easily consumed as a piece of bacon. But memory is the constant   Dali might have resisted contemporary neuroscientific investigations into the reconsolidation of memory.  From the outside the museum looks like Disney World and in fact Dali’s 7 minute animation created with Disney is on exhibit too (Dali also shared an interest in cryogenics with Walt Disney). There are huge eggs on the roof, reflecting Dali’s obsession with birth, funeral bread exemplifying his fear of death and female Oscar statues which attest to his fascination with transexuality. Is it a monument like the museum Picasso created for himself in Barcelona or a playground? But that is the point. He was a clown who famously sported Velasquez’s moustache. His Velasquez sculpture with Las Meninas emblazoned on the artist’s forehead appears in another gallery and it’s interesting to note when you visit the Picasso museum in Barcelona that there’s an youthful copy of Velasquez’s portrait of Phillip IV with the famed Dali moustache or is it the other way around? And wouldn’t that be Dali’s point?