Saturday, May 31, 2014

Midnight Madness at the SF Silent Film Festival

One of the most significant film festivals in the world concentrates on movies close to 100 years old, and this year's edition opened with one of the silent film era's blockbusters, The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, in a remastered version of the 1921 original by British film historian Kevin Brownlow.

I couldn't make it for opening night, which felt criminal, but there were other priorities. I did make it to a Friday afternoon showing of the 1928 Midnight Madness which was introduced by Executive Director Stacey Wisnia above. She explained how the Festival was part of a global ecosystem of silent film enthusiasts who have been doing everything in their powers to archive an oddly fragile art form, namely the birth of film.

The show started with a few new restorations of early documentary attempts, including a couple of Italian travelogues and a truly bizarre series of funny clips of Josephine Baker (on the right) trying to charm small town folks in The Netherlands, with varying degrees of success.

Midnight Madness was a 1928 hour-long "programmer" by the Cecil B. DeMille production studio which soon went bankrupt because most of its product was mediocre. This film was no different, which is part of its fascination. Most of what survives in film history is the cream of the crop, but to really envision a different time, it's sometimes more instructive to look at popular crap, which reveals what the accepted attitudes of the day are better than more refined fare. This movie is about a secretary to a New York diamond merchant who lives with her alcoholic father behind a carnival shooting gallery who hopes to marry her boss. He confesses early on that he's "not the marrying kind," but encourages her to pimp herself out to a rich South African diamond miner who is unaccountably in love with her. She agrees to marry the miner in an impulsive moment, but he discovers her mercenary motives and decides to test her with a honeymoon of poverty in the bush surrounded by man-eating lions. After a number of complications, she betrays him and then redeems herself by saving his life as he's being attacked by one of those same lions. Riches and joy await her at the finale, but in truth the young Clive Brooks above as the miner is so damned sexy that you wonder what the heroine's problem might be, since he looked to be a great match, rich or poor.

The British silent film musician Stephen Horne above performed with his usual mastery on piano, accordion, and flute, in both the shorts and the main feature. He is an amazing artist who elevates whatever he is accompanying, even when the film is popular trash.

You have one more chance to catch the final day of the festival on Sunday, which starts off with a French comedian's attempt at being Chaplin, moves on to an early Ozu film (Dragnet Girl), continues with a Swedish comedy, a very early Sherlock Holmes film, a bleak German film about doomed lower-class characters, and ends with Buster Keaton's masterpiece, The Navigator. All of these have live musical accompaniment by a host of masters. Check it out.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Running Into a Motorcycle

Thursday morning there was a loud thump at the corner of Franklin and McAllister, which turned out to be a car running into a motorcycle.

The car driver above stuck around and tried to help the motorcyclist below, who had limped over to the curb.

It was good to be back in San Francisco after 10 days in New York, but not so good to be reminded how oblivious people here are to other users of roadways, sidewalks, and public spaces.

I hope everyone survived the morning's mayhem with a minimum of permanent damage.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

International Art Tourism

On a visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art over Memorial Day Weekend...

...I was reminded once again that that the world's population is trending exponentially upwards.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's world population clock, Earth hosts approximately 7,169,167,252 people...

...and a hefty percentage of them visit famous art museums in capital cities.

Half the fun of the MoMA trip was watching people take photos of each other in front of one famous painting after another, including Warhol soup cans...

...Jasper Johns' seminal U.S. Flag from 1950...

...and a room of Jackson Pollack drips.

One of the museum's six huge floors was devoted to a career retrospective of the recently deceased German artist Sigmar Polke which critic Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker magazine called "the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed."

My museum companion was bored and repulsed by the exhibit, while my impression fell somewhere in between. There was also a career retrospective of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988) who started as a very good abstract painter in the 1940s and 1950s with works that look a lot like Miro, before branching into interactive sensory art in the 1960s involving hoods and goggles, masks and ropes. She was also a pioneer in art therapy, creating small, malleable sculptures that are endlessly fun to play with.

On the top floor of the museum, there was a Gauguin exhibit of woodblocks interspersed with famous paintings of Tahitian women that left little doubt that Monsieur Gauguin was engaging in early international sex tourism.

Finally, we exited through the outdoor sculpture garden where a human gnome was amusingly seated in front of giant sculptural ones, either intentionally or as a happy accident.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Long Island Memorial Day Parade

Unlike California, Memorial Day Weekend is a major event in the Northeast.

In just about every small hamlet on Long Island, for instance, there were morning parades down Main Streets on Memorial Day...

...that featured veterans...

...high school marching bands...

...multitudes of overweight white people...

...volunteer fire departments...

...showing off their gleaming equipment...

...decorated animals...

...ethnic affinity groups...

...and patriotic signage carried by children's scouting troops.

It was an altogether odd experience.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

NY Philharmonic Conducted by Vladimir Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut last week in a wonderful program of Szymanowski's Violin Concerto #1 and Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet.

This was my first time in Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, whose acoustics since it opened in 1962 have been a source of endless controversy and tinkering. It doesn't have the warmth or architectural charisma of Carnegie Hall, which used to be the NY Philharmonic's home, but on Thursday evening the sound was very good.

Nicola Benedetti, the young violin soloist above, who I last saw freezing her way through a pops concert at the America's Cup in San Francisco last summer, was a late replacement for Janine Jensen in the Szymanowski and she and the orchestra did a marvelous job with the strange, complex, and rapturous concerto.

The concerto was based loosely on Noc Majowa, a poem by the Polish poet Tadeusz Miciński, which reads as follows:
"All the birds pay tribute to me for today I wed a goddess. And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, burning in amorous conflagration."

Jurowski may be the great Prokofiev conductor in the world right now, and his one-hour condensation of the full three-act Cinderella ballet grew steadily more interesting as it went along, climaxing in the wild Midnight Countdown that ends Act Two.

Compared to Prokofiev's earlier ballets, culminating in Romeo and Juliet, the music of Cinderella is blander and more acessible. The New York Times critic, Corinna de Fonseca-Wollheim, whose name sounds like a perfect Edward Gorey parody, thought that "the lack of visual interest ultimately began to tire," but I disagree. The performance was so good by Jurowski and the orchestra that it became obvious this was late, great Prokofiev, written as a private antidote to the madness of World War Two raging around him.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Met Roof and The Frocks of Charles James

The Met in New York City is one of the half dozen great art museums in the world, but I get the giggles every time I go to one of their contemporary rooftop installations. The current iteration gets points for creating a Green Space rather than the metaphorically blood-splattered floor of last summer's edition, but it still feels a bit silly.

I turned 60 on Thursday, a milestone which I never expected to experience for some reason, and tearing through the Met with seemingly half the rest of the world on a Thursday afternoon was a delightful way to spend it.

The most interesting special show was a fashion exhibit of rich ladies' ballgowns by Charles James from the 1940s through 1960s. David Byrne, who is a longtime blogger on top of everything else, wrote last week about the exhibit and its fascinations, and he was dead on. The designs of the gowns and the computer graphics in front of each of the structured frocks illustrating their engineering are totally fascinating.

Byrne also writes: "James was notoriously temperamental and fussy. One could say he was an artist who wanted his work seen in the best way possible, but after insulting too many rich lady clients and their friends (he called one woman a frump to her face and refused to dress her), well, the commissions began to dry up...James died penniless in squalor in the Chelsea Hotel in 1978. Changing times yes, but a lot of his problems he seemed to have brought on himself. The artist as a horrible, bad-tempered asshole—we all know them."

That is a perfect New York Cautionary Tale, if ever I have heard one.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

David Byrne's Imelda Musical

Five years ago the renaissance pop musician/writer David Byrne decided to create a concept album about Imelda Marcos with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita as one template and Imelda's adoration of disco music as another. He collaborated with British DJ Fatboy Slim and had additional help with the music from Tom Gandey and J Pardo. The piece has meandered its way from stand-up concert and theatrical workshops to a full-blown production at the Public Theater called Here Lies Love, under the direction of Broadway director of the moment Alex Timbers (above left lounging next to Byrne underneath the fabulous Ruthie Ann Miles who inhabits Imelda in the show).

The musical premiered last year as an interactive disco experience at the Public, and there were plans to move it uptown to Broadway but they couldn't find quite the right space so it's reappearing right now on one of the top floors at the Public, and is quite the intense spectacle. The difference between the original concept album, with female musician friends of Byrne filling in the various diva parts, and the current theatrical evolution is that Ninoy Aquino, Imelda's first boyfriend and eventual martyr, has become a major character commenting on the action. This is good because Conrad Ricamora is so electrifying in the role, but not so good as it prods the ambivalent oratorio towards a more simplistic moral, as in "Marcoses Bad, People Power Good."

In the hyperactive, interactive staging by Director Timbers, the standing and dancing audience is herded around as the central stage is moved throughout the evening by a small army of pink jumpsuited, dancing supernumeraries. The audience is also instructed in basic disco dance routines at certain moments, and often the performers are clutching at them while singing inches away. I found myself at one point "jumping to the sky" with Imelda on a stair step during the finale.

The show is highly recommended because it's never going to be this interesting again, unless you see it premiered in Metro Manila itself. Byrne's song cycle is characteristically brilliant, the performers are all superb, the stage director does everything but throw the kitchen sink at you, and the experience is strange, sweaty, intimate and loud (bring earplugs, particularly for the helicopter finale). My favorite moment, oddly enough, is when all the multimedia stops, the amplification goes away, and a trio sing a new song by Byrne called “God Draws Straight,” a ballad about the day the Marcos regime was toppled with lyrics taken from accounts by people who were there. And then we're back in the disco, singing Here Lies Love with Imelda, who by the way is still a congresswoman in The Philippines at age 83.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Chanting Monks and Slanty Eyed Mama

The Asian Heritage Street Celebration held its annual street fair on Larkin Street on Saturday. In the morning, while people were still setting up their booths, a quintet of Buddhist monks prayed and chanted into microphones on a small stage between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum.

It felt a bit disrespectful pointing a camera lens at them, so after a few shots, I put my hands together and prayed for a while.

Later in the afternoon, the stage was inhabited by the Brooklyn duo above who call themselves Slanty Eyed Mama. Kate Rigg on vocals/rap/comedy and Lyris Hung on electric violin are two Julliard alumnae "gone rock n’ roll wild," as their website puts it. The description continues, "Together they’ve created an original 'Nuyorasian' voice, blending classical training, a variety of musical styles and an edgy street infused perspective on pop culture, politics, race and representation." Rigg was very funny amd Hung's music sounded remarkable.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Prime of Christian Tetzlaff

The San Francisco Symphony concert this week was extraordinary, thanks to the German violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff above who gave a performance of the Bartok Second Violin Concerto that was instantly historic and legendary for anyone who had the good luck to hear him live. The piece is late Bartok, fiendishly difficult and fragmentary, with what seems like about 90 seconds of rest for the soloist in the entire 40-minute work. Tetzlaff played the long concerto from memory, with his eyes closed most of the time, and used just about every technique possible to bring out the expressive qualities of his instrument.

There was a stunned silence after the first movement on Friday evening that rippled into a smattering of applause by a few audience members, including myself, which Tetzlaff briefly and charmingly acknowledged before Michael Tilson Thomas turned around and gave a sidelong look at the audience clearly communicating, "Don't you dare interrupt this piece."

The concerto and the performance just kept building over the exquisite slow movement and the wild, glittery finale until you wondered what the hell Tetzlaff was going to do next. A woman writer friend said at intermission, "He's probably the best violinist in the world right now. And he's getting better looking every year as he gets older. How does that work?" We already knew Tetzlaff was a god after his performance of the Ligeti concerto in 2012, but this was total confirmation. We are not worthy.