Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paul Newman's Exodus

By chance I checked out a DVD last week of the 1960 movie version of "Exodus" starring Paul Newman as the Zionist hero Ari...

...here being injected with adrenaline in his heart a la "Pulp Fiction" by Eva Marie Saint.

The three-and-a-half hour widescreen Otto Preminger film had disappeared from repertory theatres over the last 40 years and I'd never seen it before. Surprisingly, most of it holds up rather well, possibly because it was filmed on location in Cyprus and Palestine. The authenticity is also helped by the thousands of extras who look like they had probably participated in the 1946-47 historical events surrounding the founding of modern Israel that were recreated for the film.

In some ways, the movie has the feeling of a proto "Battle of Algiers," including the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun terrorist group. However, being a Hollywood spectacular, there are plenty of absurdities, mostly in the casting. Peter Lawford as an anti-semitic British officer, Sal Mineo as an Irgun terrorist and John Derek (husband of Bo) as the "good" Arab are all ridiculous.

What this movie mostly reminded me of is how much fun it is to watch Paul Newman no matter how mediocre the movie might be, and the vast majority of the films he starred in are truthfully not that good.

He wasn't even a particularly great actor, in the Daniel Day-Lewis sense of that phrase, but he was always interesting, sexy and beautiful to watch, even when mouthing Dalton Trumbo's turgid speeches in "Exodus."

The finale is Paul's funeral oration for John Derek and the little blonde girl Holocaust survivor who has been kidnapped and killed by an Arab terrorist. He pleads for a time where "Arab and Jew will share in a peaceful life this land that they have always shared in death." My partner Tony remarked, "Apparently, not in your lifetime, Paul."

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Unbearable Perkiness of WaMu

This weekend we received a piece of junk mail introducing us to the "My WaMu Perks program for FREE."

The fact that the sixth-largest bank in the United States had just been seized last Thursday as insolvent by the United States government and handed over to JP Morgan Chase Etc. lent the missive a surreal, absurdist touch.

Arriving in the same day's mail was an offer from the criminally mismanaged insurance behemoth AIG offering me a FREE $10 Gas Card which is amusing since I don't drive and wouldn't go anywhere near that toxic corporation for any purpose whatsoever.

As the Bush administration demands even more money from the peasants to ensure the continued wealth of the plutocracy (see the invasion of Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran, reduced estate taxes, investment bank/home mortgage companies/insurance company bailouts), it's looking more likely with each passing day that most of us are going to be subsisting on cat food soon. See you on the soup lines.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Magic Carpet Ride

The special Ming Dynasty show recently packed up at the Asian Art Museum before traveling on to Maryland and Missouri, of all places.

On Thursday afternoon, the huge building was delightfully empty so you could stroll through the permanent collection in perfect peace.

In the ancient India section, one is greeted by carved elephants, Buddhas, and major phallic symbols (see above).

Newly displayed textiles are dotted throughout the museum including the extraordinary Pakistani headwrap above.

In the Korean section, my favorite monster screen has returned, a 19th century trompe l'oeil library created for a 19th century ruler who was nostalgiac for his days as a scholar.

Around the corner are modern fabric pieces...

...which seem to be a Korean specialty.

The second floor room for special exhibits is currently displaying a grab-bag of "Arts of the Islamic World"...

...with an exquisite Koran in the center.

Say what you want about Muslims, but any religion that has inspired rugs such as the one above will never truly die.


A bizarre new Muni bus line started up last Saturday complete with its own design, colors, logo and name, "CultureBus." It even has its own website which you can get to by clicking here.

There were only three passengers on the bus when it paused in front of the Asian Art Museum in Civic Center, which is the center stop of its yo-yo route. The bus travels at twenty minute intervals from about 9 to 5 daily between the Museum of Modern Art and the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, with stops in Union Square and Civic Center. It costs $7 for the whole day, $3 if you already have a Fast Pass.

If the powers-that-be were smart, they would come up with a day pass for ALL the museums that are serviced by this new route with different pricing for tourists and San Francisco residents who already have Fast Passes. However, nobody seems to have thought that far ahead. Tourists can buy a City Pass for $59 (click here) which includes some but not all of the museums, but it doesn't include the CultureBus ticket which seems silly.

Residents, who already pay taxes for the upkeep of all these institutions, should also be able to get some kind of a one-day Museum Marathon package. Playing tourist in one's own town, particularly San Francisco, can be a real pleasure, and if the bus drivers are even remotely as charming as Fred (above), it would be a great deal for everyone.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Pianist of Note

By some freakish chance, this blog has ended up as the "Blog of Note" on Google/Blogger's home page for the last couple of days, which has boosted the traffic considerably, so I thought I'd repost an article that I'm proud of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Enjoy. By the way, the men in nuns' outfits are in the post below this.

The pianist Sarah Cahill came to my apartment on Thursday to talk about "A Sweeter Music," her amazingly ambitious project of the last year where she has commissioned 18 composers to write piano music on the subject of peace. The composers are an interesting mixture of the obscure and the celebrated: Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen.

So far, Sarah has received 11 of the 18 scores and they range in style from angry and confrontational to the complete opposite, such as Terry Riley's "Be Kind to One Another" rag which the composer characterizes as "pro-peace" rather than "anti-war." Cahill has already fallen in love with the music.

One question is if a piece of music can even be thought of as political, especially without text.

A number of the composers are incorporating language into their pieces, as Frederic Rzewski did in his 2005 round, shown above...

...and even sign language within Larry Polansky's 17-part "Numbers for solo piano (and invited speakers)."

The brilliant young composer Preben Antonsen, a student of John Adams, has written a piece that starts off in exquisite beauty and ends in great violence, which Cahill has asked him to consider changing depending on who gets elected president this fall.

The four-figure commissions are being subsidized in a few cases by individual affluent patrons, but most of it is coming out of Cahill's own pocket "with the assistance of some stocks left to me at age 9 by my Nixon-supporting grandfather which seems like a good use for them."

It wasn't until we were at lunch that we both realized the date was 9/11. Sarah's husband, the video artist/director John Sanborn, had been offered a good job at the Comedy Central network, so they moved to Manhattan in 2001. Here's her account of that annus horribilis:
"We lived on 21st Street between Broadway and Park. My daughter was in preschool on 14th St (she was three). Right after September 11th, I would take her to school in her stroller, past Union Square, plastered with flyers of missing people, along 14th Street, which was the boundary: no one was allowed to cross that line unless they lived below 14th Street. So we would see the rescue workers coming off duty, and the fire engines and military vehicles, and the makeshift shrines, and I kept trying to protect her from the thick smoke and the news about body parts and terrorists and the endless footage of the planes going into the buildings. She and her preschool friends played games where they would rescue people from burning buildings. I got e-mails from some friends saying "Well, it's about time! The United States has been so brutal towards the Middle East, no wonder we've been attacked!" but mostly people were just shocked. I'll never forget looking down Broadway towards where the World Trade Center used to be, and the smoke pouring from the blankness.

Comedy Central was having a difficult time after that, and soon they closed the division that John was heading. We came back here to Berkeley, and he made a film called MMI, which is about our 2001: the death of his father, the deaths of our two dogs (both died in New York), the World Trade Center attacks, our move across the country first east and then west. It ends with the nine-foot Baldwin being hoisted out the window of our "loft."

"A Sweeter Music" takes its title from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war." Sarah wrote to me about her initial impetus:
"It was Rzewski's arrangement of "Down by the Riverside" which first gave me the idea of "A Sweeter Music." After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play his music as a kind of catharsis. And I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, which are composed in response to a particular war (in this case the Vietnam war, during which "Down by the Riverside" was often sung in protest marches), but can still provide solace and inspiration thirty years later and beyond. And I know a number of composers who, like me, feel so frustrated and helpless in the face of a senseless war, a completely insane and unprovoked and costly war, and need to express their response in some form. So I really left it to the composers whether their work would be "anti-war" or "pro-peace."

This historic musical omnibus is still gestating, but you can hear portions of it starting this fall for free at Mills College on November 24 (click here and go to the bottom of the link for more info). There will be another set of excerpts performed through Cal Performances at UC Berkeley on January 25th, and at Merkin Hall in New York City in March. It should be an extraordinary experience. (To get to Sarah's website with further links, click here.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sisters of Operatic Indulgence

Korngold's opera "Die Tote Stadt" opened at the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday evening...

...and according to my friend Patrick Vaz (click here for his blog), it's probably going to be the highlight of the season.

I make a brief cameo as a scary Dead City Bishop in the last act, along with about 40 other men and women...

...some of whom also appear in Act Two as White Nuns following a huge cross across the stage on which soprano Katherine Tier is mounted, singing about her desire to join a convent.

Though most of the audience can't see that half the nuns are actually men, backstage it feels a bit like one has wandered into the Castro Street Fair.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Figlia di "Simon Boccanegra"

It's too bad that mainstream critics have to review the opening night performances at the San Francisco Opera because usually operas get much better (and occasionally worse) during their month-long run.

A case in point is the current production of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," which I've seen in three different performances now, starting with the drunken, dreadful opening night crowd and returning last Wednesday the 17th when Ana Maria Martinez was singing the main role of Amelia instead of Barbara Frittoli, and she was good but not exciting enough to make me want to stay for the last act.

I didn't mean to go to the Sunday matinee on the 21st, but thought I'd take a quick peek during a backstage supernumerary bake sale, and was blown away by Hvorotovsky and Frittoli during their padre/figlia duet.

I ended up watching the entire opera all over again, because the production and the musicians had finally gelled in that alchemical way that is the reason we all go to live theater, and the old lady Sunday matinee audience was fully with it. It was a great performance.

There are two more left, on Wednesday the 24th at 7:30 pm and Saturday the 27th at 8:00 pm. I can't promise it will be as good as Sunday, but it might even be better.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Political Parties

The monthly art opening in Supervisor Mirkarimi's office in City Hall featured new parents...

...crawling babes...

...and not-very interesting B&W photos by a group of teenagers on the walls prompted by an historical tour of the Western Addition neighborhood.

They were part of a summer program of "deserving teens" called Spotlight on the Arts which is sponsored by California Lawyers for the Arts (click here for their website) and is partially funded by such benevolent citizens as Lennar Corporation, Wells Fargo, PG&E and Diane B. Wilsey.

I joined the amusing and informative h. Brown (above right) for another party a couple of blocks away which was raising funds for John Avalos, who is running for District 11 Supervisor this November.

The very jolly party was at The Rickshaw Stop, a young hipster music spot on Fell Street between Franklin and Van Ness which I'd never visited before.

The candidate spent much of the evening dancing quite well with his wife Karen Zapata...

...and then discussing politics with guests such as Supervisor Mirkarimi and Luke Thomas above.