Thursday, February 28, 2013

Side Effects

What was Steven Soderbergh thinking? Roman Polanski Repulsion was a classic about madness. Soderbergh’s movie has a similar fascination with objects (in this case a model boat)--and blood. But the subject is feigned madness, something Ophelia was once accused of, that is now presented in what is nothing less than a Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge tragedy about the pharmaceutical business. The plot is a failed cocktail of news headlines that goes as awry as all the failed combinations of SSRI’s that are supposed account for the erratic behavior of its central character Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara). Still the bald-faced contrivance is rather shocking in a filmmaker of Soderbergh’s stature, though some of the blame could fall on the shoulders of the screenplay writer, Scott Z. Burns.You have hedge fund trading and a new anti-depressant called Ablixa, which may have suicidal and homicidal effects on the wrong patient and also a doctor on the payroll of a big drug company. Sound familiar? Lines from William Styron’s memoir of depression, Visible Darkness are quoted in the service of a supposed suspense plot, in which Jonathan Banks, the well-intentioned British psychiatrist (Jude Law) is driven so crazy by the ludicrous criminality he’s caught up in that he picks ups a Thorazine loaded dagger. Soderbergh has announced his retirement from film, having made 26 films by the age of 50. Too bad a pharmaceutically oriented psychiatrist couldn’t have offered him some sort of a drug that makes once talented film directors stop before they go over the edge. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Conurbation, or what Merriam-Webster defines as “an aggregation or continuous network of urban communities," is a suggestive word and it’s one that Malise Ruthven quotes Robert D. Kaplan as using in her review/essay on his The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (“Will Geography Decide Our Destiny,” The New York Review of Books, 2/21/13) Kaplan could be called a political scientist, but anyone who has read him in The Atlantic knows that his métier is harder to designate. He’s a journalist, a political scientist and travel writer all in one. He is the confidante of those who possess power across a wide spectrum of ideologies and he's also a spokesman for realpolitik and a latter day Machiavellian. In summarizing Kaplan’s ideas,  Ruthven underlines the importance of cartography in the modern understanding of political power and identity. However, he emphasizes that Kaplan’s book suggests that “the world may be returning to where it was before the era of imperial mapping.” Ruthven quotes Kaplan thusly, “vast cities and megacities have formed as rural dwellers throughout Eurasia, Africa, and South America migrate toward urban centers from the underdeveloped countryside. As a consequence the mayors and governors of these conurbations can less and less govern them effectively.” Isn’t that a good description even of the banlieues of Paris, where the legacy of ruthless French colonization has left its mark on a population of disenfranchised immigrants? These areas of poverty in the City of Light periodically erupt into violence which the local authorities can barely suppress. Ruthven later quotes Kaplan to the effect that “Radical Islam is, in part, the story of urbanization over the past half-century across North Africa and the Greater Middle East…It is the very impersonal quality of urban life, which is lived amongst strangers, that accounts for intensified religious feeling.” There is a kind of poetic justice at work in Kaplan’s analysis. Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth return to destroy the creation of their oppressor, the modern nation state.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner

One of the many pleasures of Cindy Kleine’s documentary about her husband Andre Gregory, which recently previewed at Film Forum (it’s opening there on April 3rd), is watching the ongoing rehearsal of Wallace Shawn’s translation of The Master Builder. The rehearsal radiates retrospectively over the entire film, encapsulating Gregory with some degree of irony and a great deal of seriousness under the blanket of Ibsen’s masterpiece about the artistic personality. Gregory has always been Shawn’s master builder creating the parameters for Shawn’s quirky teleology. It’s apparent that Shawn’s famous tete a tete with Gregory dictates the style of both Vanya on 42nd Street and The Master Builder—which are conversational in the best sense of the word. Kleine’s direction lovingly captures her husband’s facial expressions and in particular his hands as they react to intimate directorial moments, but her film fundamentally embraces Gregory by paying homage to his esthetic. After all it's called Andrew Gregory: Before and After Dinner and it’s more my dinner with Andre than My Dinner with Andre could ever be (after she eats with him all the time). Besides the extent to which the film is about a host of Gregory’s interests that range from shamanism to the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, there is the drama of history. Gregory’s father was a Jew who left Russia before Stalin, escaped Germany while remaining curiously connected to influential Nazis, and brought his family to America from England on the last boat, departing on the eve of the bombing of Britain—something that may account for
Gregory's love of ocean liners, but does little to shed light on the question of his father’s enigmatic character. “You can’t go back,” is the filmmaker’s final word on he subject. “Access Denied. Where Andre found his father was in his work.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

Powder Her Face

The expression “Where’s the Beef” was made famous by Wendy’s. In the New York City Opera production of Thomas Ades and Phillip Henscher’s Powder Her Face, which recently played at BAM, the promiscuous Duchess of Argyll (mezzo-soprano Alison Cook) calls out “I want some beef…bring me meat…fill me up...anything you have.” The humor lies in the fact that her luxurious hotel suite is filled with naked men, though it’s the room service waiter who is the recipient of the blow job. If nothing else Powder Her Face makes up for an imbalanced and unfair condition where more female actresses take off their clothes on stage and film than men. In one scene the creators of the opera have created a parity. And while, the homoerotic scene is more reminiscent of Eakins’ famous painting “The Swimming Hole" than of a fast food joint, the subject of the opera derives from another piece of mass culture, tabloid journalism. Powder Her Face, on the one hand, seems to exist for the mise en scene. It’s an exercise in style and is the latest in a number of BAM productions (Cries and Whispers, Roman Tragedies, House/Divided) which employ video as part of its dramatic palette. Yet there’s something unsettling that’s hard to totally get one’s hands around. Call it Look Back in Anger in reverse. Old fashioned class warfare is the lingua franca of the opera. Lady Argyll’s maid, played both lubriciously and aerobically by Nili Riemer in an iconic red wig, dreams only of wealth while Margaret Campbell, the duchess, is the rich man’s Jimmy Porter; her lurid sexuality makes her an easy target for the middle class who end up dispossessing her of her title and her wealth. So despite all the irony Powder Her Face conforms to one of the tenets of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, the “fall from grace” of a person of “high status.”  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Über Kunstler or Übermensch?

Artists, writers, musicians are monsters. This is not to say that everyone isn’t a monster. Behind the veneer of civilized behavior, human beings are driven by self-interest. A whole branch of philosophy Utilitarianism—epitomized by the views of Hume, Bentham and Mill and its modern day off-shoot, Consequentialism, argued by Derek Parfit—grapples with this very question. So why signal out the artist, writer, actor or poet no matter how vain or self-serving he or she might be. The answer might lie in the question of consciousness. We admire the artist because he is a latter day seer. “Oh what fools we mortals” would be, if it were not for our modern Tiresias who help us to parse the shadows dancing along the wall of Plato’s cave. We defer to great creative minds the way we once did to priests, albeit substituting illumination for salvation. So it's difficult in reading the biographies of great writers-- whether it’s Norman Cherry on Graham Greene, Patrick French’s biography of the great but apparently disturbed V.S. Naipaul, John Richardson’s Picasso or Fred Kaplan on Dickens--not to marvel at what a dunderhead a great mind can be. How can artists who've had such great insight into the nature of the soul, have so little knowledge of themselves, particularly when it comes to understanding the path of destruction created by their particular brand of noblesse oblige. Perhaps the greatest essay on the nature of the duplicity of the artistic personality is Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, dealing as it does with a successful writer’s inability or deal with his disturbed daughter. If the film is any indicator, Bergman clearly understood this contrariety about himself, but did, at least from what we know about his life, little to challenge his own disposition. He didn’t sacrifice himself so much as his family for his art.