High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, May 26, 2006

By the (Little Red) Book, pt. 1

I've just returned from my maiden voyage to the Chicago Opera Theatre where I first set foot in the Harris Theatre in millennium Park and lost my John Adams virginity a few months before I was born.

That's me-speak for "I went to see Nixon in China."

The Chicago Opera Theatre, according to its resident conductor, is the little sister company to the Lyric Opera. In general, they mount threeish (both this season and next, one production is actuallly two) production on a smaller scale than Lyric. They seem to draw talent that is about on par with Lyric (indeed, two of tonight's performers are people I've seen there, and they've got Samuel Ramey next season), and the productions they choose can be a bit more off the beaten path than the one finds at Lyric. All I know about the company, I learned from my friend M, from whom I bought the ticket for Nixon, and a brief perusal of their website today.

One strong positive for the COT I noted before I ever set foot in the actual theater is that they seem to be big on extracurricular activities for their productions. Their website recommends readings and recordings for each opera, and in the case of Nixon they sponsored and/or participated in a large number of related activities. There are still a few exhibits and such running that I'm now even more motivated to catch, but for the lazy, they offered a preshow lecture by the conductor, Alexander Platt.

I made it downtown in plenty of time to catch the lecture, but not quite in enough time to renew my driver's license, as I'd hoped to do. Woe is me, I was forced to wander around Marshall Field's for a bit. I had little idea what to expect of the theater building or of the crowd. The theater building itself doesn't exactly wow, particularly if one is used to the Lyric in all its deco glory. Of course, the building and the theater are multipurpose, rather than dedicated space, so the comparison isn't exactly fair. Still, the cement stairs and glossy industrial paint does bring to mind nightmares of high school gym classes.

The theater is modern and minimalist in the best way. There are large, exposed lighting grids from floor to ceiling on either side of the stage, as well as a rig above the proscenium. The screen for supertitles is small and unobtrusive. The walls and area above the proscenium (visible through the grids) are faced either with dull metal or concrete. (Metal, I suspect, given that the place does have some acoustic problems but not bad enough to be caused by concrete.)

The seats are new, understated, comfortable, and---thank you jeebus---adequately raked so you're not at eye level with the occipital bun of the guy in front of you for an entire season. However, you can have adequately raked seats, or you can have stairs that are easily and safely navigated. You can't have both. This bitter fact of life gave me my first taste of the nature of the crowd and I've gotta say, it caused a painful pinching behind my eyes as no fewer than 10 groups of people arriving together kept up nonstop whingeing conversations about the lack of railings and why did we have to sit in the center section when those aren't our seats and why aren't they using a mic for the lecture and what's a lecture and where will the lecturer be and why is the toaster laughing at me and biting me with my own teeth?

I understand their concerns, really. If the cumulative age of my group exceeded that of dynastic China, I would want to get all my bitching out as soon as possible. Ok, in fairness, they didn't seem prepared for the number of people who showed for the lecture and the staff were not particularly clear in communicating the game plan, but still. My concerns about the crowd and potential shadyness of the operation reached their peak when an unidentified woman who was wearing around her neck some kind of reptile knit from particularly assy acrylic yarn introduced the conductor, who appeared to be about 9 years old as he slouched against the row of seats behind him, looking sullen in his red polar fleece.

I'm delighted to say, though, that all concerns fell away when Platt began to talk. He was funny, charming, informed, interesting, and deeply passionate about American opera, Adams, and most especially about Nixon in China. This did not stop people from wasting the 2 minutes he had to answer questions on completely dumbass questions. (From memory: How long did it take the chorus to learn Tai Chi?; if you have to reload the synthesizer, does that mean that we're getting recorded music [this asked in withering tones worthy of the kind of people who show up to 20th-Century productions at Lyric for the express purpose of walking out in the first 2 minutes]?; does this have any similarities to "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" [one of Adams' tone poems]?)

Given the crowd-created drama before the lecture, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the woman working the concession was not fazed in the least by the fact that I took roughly an hour to dig five Sacajawea dollars out of the bottom of my Batz purse (the metra station was only taken 20s for some reason), and the usher seemed shocked that I had come to the right door on the right level to find my way to my seat. Both were further kind enough not to comment on the fact that I had managed to spill coffee all over my left boob. (I was wearing a new jacket for the first time, naturally.)

As I found my way into my very nice seat (orchestra level, left section, one seat off the aisle), I took in the space, the staff and the crowd. In general, the crowd was more dressed down than that at Lyric. There were also a more people my age and younger (most of them dressed extremely casually), but the bulk of the crowd comprised folks older and much more upscale than yours truly. All the same, the energy was quite different. People (at least those who weren't Grandpa Simpsonsing about not being able to get to their seats) were buzzing with excitement, the place was packed, and it seemed likely that most everyone was there for the long haul. I know it seems perverse, me being me, but I like to like things, so I was happy to feel that I was at home among my peeps in this regard.

Having been in the theater for the lecture, I was actually "spoiled" for some elements of the set as the causally dressed crew made their final preparations before and during the conductor's talk. I think that companies mounting Nixon probably sign a contract that the set will be overwhelmingly red. Having lived through a dreadful staged production of Apt Pupil in which they painted the entire lobby, floor and celing included, blood red and turned the ceiling fans into swastikas, the red upstage wall, proscenium, teasers, tormentors, (all of which were made up of square panels), and floor were making me a bit twitchy. Given that, it's probably all for the best that I had spoilery knowledge of the multiple cabinet televisions as the shiny thing to distract me.

The crew had also set out 20-odd figures in the style of the terra cotta warriors (they didn't have the distinctive coloring, and they were not identical to one another) used in burials during the early days of Imperial China. These were placed in several neat rows downstage, one of which wound up on the house side of the curtain when it was lowered. The curtain came up at about 7:15 and "A Chinese Woman" dressed in traditional peasant style took the stage and started doing tai chi just in front of the warriors. From then on, another member of the chorus would take the stage at irregular intervals and join her until there were 20ish people doing (more or less [sometimes painfully less]) synchronized tai chi. When the last member joined, someone already on stage picked up a warrior and moved it to the upstage wall until all the figures were in a single line facing upstage.

The choral tai chi continued until the houselights came down (at which time at least 20 people over the age of Methuselah were still trying to find their seats). The chorus were dressed in the iconic dull blue and red uniforms of the People's Liberation Army. (Actually, aren't those colors out of period for the 1970s, though?) Unfortunately, there was some degree of shabbiness and nonuniformity to the uniforms, although I'm not sure whether this was simply an unexpected side effect of my proximity to the stage, or if it reflects one of the economic realities of being the little sister opera company.

From the opening measures, I understood exactly why Alexander Platt had stressed the difficulty of conducting Adams in general and Nixon in particular, despite Adams' supposed "minimalism." Things start simply with repetitive aeolian modal scales on (I think) the strings, and he just keeps layering and layering, with each addition slightly offset from the rest. In the first choral number, "The three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention" (which reminds me of a Diana Wynne Jones story), the vocal line is inserted in short staccato bursts between layers as the members move (again, mostly) as one, facing three-quarters stage left, then turning three-quarters stage right, and finally assembling in two lines, one downstage of the other, against the upstage wall as Premier Chou En-lai enters along with Kissinger and the staircase bearing the Nixons rolls in from stage right.

As the first couple descends the stairs, the televisions (12 in all, suspended from two rows of lighting grid [painted red, of course], one upstage of the other) are flown in. The initial momen of contact between Nixon and Chou En-lai is done in slow motion, and again, I worried. (I'm sorry, the wounds from Oliver Stone's William Shakespeare's Julius Caeasar run deep.) But the slo-mo turned out to be brief, well done, and completely appropriate. Unsurprisingly, throughout the meet and greet, the televisions flicked through images of the historic arrival.

Throughout the arrival scene, the energy on stage builds and the music along with it. The players on stage, including the chorus, seem completely caught up in the moment, when suddenly the music changes dramatically, but not at all abruptly. It's back to rapidly ascending and descending scales, this time on the synthesizer (at least I assume there wasn't actually a piano in the pit). Even though this is technically a return to the opening measures, it almost sounds as though the orchestra is about to launch into a Jerry Lee Lewis song as filtered through the Velvet Underground. Musically, it was fantastic. Vocally, I'm afraid that Robert Orth (our Dick) was not exactly a showcase for Adams' much-vaunted love for amplification (which we don't DO at Lyric) as he launched into "News, news, news."

In reading the program, I thought it was odd that the original 1987 production basically tried to put a Nixon clone on stage. Although everyone involved stressed the more fantastical approach her, Orth talked about not really reaching Nixon as a character until his slicked back hair showed up. If they were worried about a Nixon clone, their fears were ill founded. Unfortunately, they failed to see the Ed Sullivan clone sneaking up behind them. (And this wasn't just me---at intermission, I heard more than one "really big shoooo for yooou tonight" gag going on.) The resemblance was bound to be shocking and a bit giggle worthy under the best of circumstances, and the fact that I could hardly hear Orth's singing didn't give me much else to focus on.

The initial meeting accomplished, the scene shifted to an interior and the introduction of The Chairman. This was another problematic attempt to visually recreate a historical figure that suffered from sadly partial commitment to the bit. There's no getting aroudn the fact that Mark Duffin is not Asian, not bald, and not rotund. Why they chose to only address the bald part of that equation, I'm not sure. He was a dead ringer for Mao's taller brother from behind (seriously, they got the heart-shaped 'do just right), but from the front he looked like he'd lost his pregnancy belly and/or the fat had bunched up under his bald cap. Duffin was also an unfortunately sore thumb in terms of his physical approach. He shuffled (sometimes), stooped (occasionally), and lowered and raised himself carefully (once in a while). But his voice was great and he seemed to bring out Orth's pipes, at least temporarily.

Also on the positive front, the staging and blocking for this meeting was complex and effective. Mao's three secretaries (females who came in small, medium, and large, with identical, stereotypical Asian bobs and glasses) wheeled on six red (of course) leather desk chairs with arms, setting them in a loose arc well downstage. Nixon, Mao, Chou En-lai, and Kissinger cycled through these, jockeying for position, angling them toward or away from the other players and/or the audience, and so on, at a dizzying pace. It reminded me of the odd (in a good way) musical-rocking-chairs staging of "Politics: The Art of the Possible" in the production of Evita that the ZK and I saw at the Chicago Theatre many moons ago.

At this point, I think I've seen five operas in English. Nixon is the first in which I've been forcibly struck by the poetry and intricate wordplay in the libretto. That was especially evident in Act I, scene ii, as the Chinese speak in riddles and metaphor, driving Nixon to frustration and, ultimately, brutally direct communication as Dick flips the Chairman the bird behind his back. I was exhausted by the end of this scene as I tried to follow not only extremely challenging lyrical content, but even more relentless musical lines. This was probably my least favorite scene, but it's also the scene I can see developing into a demanding favorite.

As if sensing the need for a breather, both Adams and Goodman (the librettist) take it easier on the performers and the audience in the third scene of the first Act. Here, Pat is reintroduced as she and the President attend a banquet. One row of televisions is unchained from the grid by the chorus and assembled into a set of steps leading up to the two tallest, which form a dais. Downstage of this, more chorus members have rolled on four curved tables. These were orginally arranged in a loose circle forming the boundary of the dance floor on which Pat and Dick share a sweetly intimate fox trot. This gives way to something more up-tempo as the main players and the chorus make dinner party conversation about the coming spring. The red, wheeled chairs reappear and there's some truly elegant choreography as Pat, Nixon, Chou En-lai, and the Chairman swivel in counterpoint to the tables, which are being rotated by the chorus, evoking the speed and dexterity with which they all manage to circulate around one another.

Eventually, Chou mounts the dais (the televisions each now show a static image of either the Chinese or American flag) and gives a toast to fraternity. The words are lovely and Adams notches down the musical complexity backing his speech, giving the libretto the spotlight. Probably related to the ear-dribbling of yesterday's trip to the Museum of Contemporary art, I had been feeling fairly Cletus-the-Slack-Jawed-Yokel up to this point, but some actual thoughts started to percolate through during this comparatively restful section. As Chou En-lai reflected on the ideas that gave birth to the Revolution and the China they would leave to their children, there was a strong sense that the middle had been taken out of all their lives. If one were looking for any one of these people in the moment---in their own present---there'd be no there there. In Chou's case, this was a beautiful prelude to his self-doubt in the third act, which makes up the closing lines of the opera.

I know that's only Act I, but I'm exhausted at the moment, and I need to bathe and hope to catch a nap before I get on a flight at the asscrack of dawn.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

William, Wolife, & Andy: They're Art Cops

So anyway, today was designated Art Day by the Motion Picture Association of America. Or by me. Or something.

In other words, I headed down to the Museum of Contemporary Art, putatively to see the Warhol exhibit "Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters." Because I am pathetic, I haven't been to MoCA in, I think, 5 years. I tried to go in February, only to find that it, like all knitting stores in the greater Chicago area, is not open on Mondays. I double checked to make sure that there wasn't some fine "Open on Wednesdays, unless you are Matilda" print or anything, and I glanced at the current exhibits. There was the Warhol (to which I said "Yay!"), the Chicago series from a photographer who's been working her way through various cities (to which I said, "Yay."), there was a Chris Ware exhibit with pre-press materials for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Building Stories (to which I said "yay."), and some photography exhibit by a guy named Wolfgang Tillmans (to which I said "huh.").

And then, as it happened, my preferred Lincoln Square coffee shop was hosting an art show by children. (If I had known about this, I would have said "AIYEEEEE! RUN! RUN FOR THE HILLS!")

Those of you who got the memo that this is Entropy Day will not be surprised at all by the rest of this entry, so you can probably go do something productive. Among those of you who are, like me, enjoying the new surprises that early onset senility brings, no one will remain seated as I reveal the proportionate pleasure I got out of and/or time I spent on each of these artistic offerings.

So assuming, as usual, that the pre-1PM traffic reporter on WBBM-AM is a dirty, lying whore, I stayed on the Ryan all the way up to the Fullerton exit. The traffic report claimed it would take me 40 minutes from 95th to downtown. I was parked in front of the Sulzer Regional Library (which is about 6 miles north and 3 miles west of downtown) in about 30 minutes.

I then immediately hopped on the brownline train back south. And I got so engrossed in my knitting and music that I neglected to switch to the red line at either of my two opportunities to do so. Ah well, this is the way we build aerobic walking into our day.

Once at the museum (and I'd like to note that this is the second week in a row that I've actually avoided smoting, despite quite smote-likely weather), I hauled my backpack up on the glass credenza to pay for my ticket and very nearly brought the damned thing down on top of the lovely person working the register. She said, quite calmly for someone who had just very nearly become under glass, "Oh, don't worry, they're coming to fix it." I then dropped off my backpack at the Coat Check, and made a last-minute decision not to wear my iPod while wandering around. This would prove to be a mistake.

Immediately across from the coat check is a 2-story sculpture of vaccum-sucked plastic. It's white on white. It's very 60s. I'm not a fan. Moving quickly past this, I thought that I'd wandered into a hallway with a handful of pieces by this German Tillmans fellow. On my left side there was a piece that was probably 7' x 8' that looked rather like a high-magnification microscopic photo that had been fucked up. It was deep jewel-tone greens with slightly darker, feathery, vaguely flagellar sections. For something apparently photographic without an obvious subject, it was nonetheless oddly pleasing. (I also applaud myself on learning just now that this piece was called "Freischwimmer" so my flagellar thoughts are not too off base.) On my right were three black and white (basically) photographic pieces.

The first two were both called "Empire," though the first piece was subtitled "Avalanche" and the second "Christ." Avalanche was, as advertised, a highly contrasted shot of loose stones at the base of a hill, taken at such an odd angle that a stark line on the diagonal gave the strongest indication of change in topography (it reminded me, for whatever reason of my students' modern-state-of-nasca-line-sites drawing). "Christ" felt more immediately familiar, because it appeared to be a shot where the left-hand side of the image was outside in bright sunlight, whereas the right-hand side was thrown into deep shadow (for me it brings to mind images shot through the doorways of churches). In the shadows, the profile of a man, his back flat against a thick column or wall, is barely visible. His stomach bulges out, a parody of Christ's palpable ribs and concave abdomen, and the mind (rather than the image) suggests that the man's arms are stretched out laterally.

The third piece was called "Smoker," and the image is so underexposed that it initally appears to be a uniformly blue-black oblong. After taking it in for a moment, though, the faint outline of the subject is visible. His body is turned 3/4 front to the viewer, but his head is turned sharply away. The most striking components are the triangle formed by the straining tendons of his neck and the V of the fingers holding the cigarette to his lips. Also, because the photographic paper's natural gloss was in no way artifically dimmed, I could see the large microscope piece beind me in its reflection. Tickled by this, I went back to the green piece and viewed the mirror images of the three pieces opposite in it. (This technique seemed to be employed more explicitly and on a larger scale in one of the galleries where two walls at a right angle to one another had nothing on them except 3 rows of about a dozen 11x17 pieces of pitch black, glossy photographic paper on each, but you could see the reflections of the pieces on the other walls behind you.)

These pieces in the atrium had a fair amount of text about Tillmans. I didn't read the atrium text until after I'd spend some quality time with these four pieces. When I realized that the two flanking galleries were filled with his work, as well, I simply decided to follow the right-hand rule in viewing the rest. There was not a lick of text in either the right- or left-hand gallery, which I thought was kind of odd, but given the stress laid on Tillmans's "installations" I thought it was simply part of his schtick. It is, but there was also a map available on the wall the left-hand gallery, which I didn't pick up until I was more than halfway through the exhibit and didn't look at until I was on the train back up north. It contains little information about the artists or exhibit, but it's got titles and a map. In other words, I basically peformed the world's most comprehensive colonscopy of the exhibit, proceeding through it bass ackwards. But I am all all postmoderny and the owner of my own experience of art, so it's all good.

I didn't do any kind of count of the pieces as I made my way through the galleries, but an informal, postmigraine count based on the informative (in hindsight) booklet suggests that there were in the neighborhood of 250 pieces all told. I would have estimated more, frankly.

They're not kidding when they say that the installation is just as much a piece as the individual items are. One thing that struck me early on was that maybe 3 pieces in the entire thing were framed in any way, and those were in plain white box frames that blended into the gallery walls. Most of the large pieces were suspended from nails by binder clips (yes, literally binder clips) at the corners. Moreover, many of these pieces were clearly assembled from multiple components that were put together with subtle, yet clearly visible, strips of tape. Smaller pieces generally were stuck immediately to the wall. The clustering of the pieces was clearly done with great care, but there was little regularity to it and no obvious attempt to use the space efficiently. Often, I would be across the gallery, working on digesting another wall and I'd realize that I'd missed one or more pieces (sometimes quite large ones) that were hung more than 12 feet above the floor).

Many of the photographs were aerial shots of urban and suburban landscapes. Some were straight shots. Others subtley included a portion of the aircraft from which the shot was taken. Still others involved some chemical "spoiling" of the shot, as thought it had been misdeveloped. Deeper in the exhibit, there were numerous photocopies of pieces on Western action in Bosnia/Herzogovina, and interspersed with these were aerial shots, only now of the military "night vision" kind that I associate with the first Gulf War.

I had been prepared for the inclusion of photocopies by the atrium text and I brought my white trash skepticism to the party. However, I have to admit that the croppings, enlargements, artful blurrings, etc., felt meanginful in the context in which they were assembled, and when I got to the second gallery, I was fully on board with the legitimacy of the technique.

In keeping with the photocopying techniques (and, I suppose, with the chemical mistakes), there were also a number of panoramic photo series that deliberately exposed the margins of each shot. The different parts of each panorama were set near one another, but with a very deliberate margin breaking the frames as though they themselves were photocopies that included the gap where the binding is.

By no means were all the associations among the pieces clustered together immediately obvious, particularly in the right-hand gallery (which, remember, was the first I saw, but apparently intended to be the last in the gallery). Tillmans was apparently first recognized for his photos of friends, and I could see why in the images of ordinary people scattered throughout. Clothing was another photographic subject that occurred seemingly at random (most of the time---there were certainly more purposeful shots as well). He could do quite the series at our house, particularly when I'm teaching and my faux grown-up clothes explode off me the minute I walk in the door.

Of the more obviously themed sections that I can remember (one thing I forgot to bring was my notebook, so this is all from my postmigraine head at this point), his twisted still life efforts caught my fancy. A number of these seemed to be taken on the same window ledge, featuring mason jars and mismatched glasses with cuttings of herbs, cast off cigarettes, empty bowls, etc. On the larger scale but a similar theme, many of the clusters seemed to deal with liminal living spaces---places into which people had just moved or were just leaving (e.g., in one a vase of dying mums is featured in the foreground of a nearly empty room in which late evening sun suffuses a polished hardwood floor, and a lonely cordless phone and answering machine cowers in the distant corner). I wish that I'd had the opportunity to get back to some of these. Some were hopeful, some were melancholy or wistful, but I didn't have a chance to work out what elements conveyed those things.

Commercialism/marketing was another preoccupation in the right-hand gallery. There were some spaces walled off to be quite small (and claustrophobic if one happened to be stuck with apparently grown women who were giggling like 2-year-olds over the PENIS in a completely different area---one of the many reasons I wish I'd had my iPod with me so I could have retreated to my happy place. My happy bunny shirt only takes me so far). There were shots of absurd/disgusting/amusing/ironic advertising from Tiajuana to Frankfurt, from the streets to photocopied labels from household products like "Promise" spread and "Homo' milk.

Uh, you realize that I'm not even out of the first gallery yet? So allow me to skip ahead to gallery #2, which was, apparently, the first gallery that the master-installation dude wanted me to see. However, I think if I had gone in this one first, I'd have never made it to the other. This is not a criticism of the artist, this is an admission that I am a dumbass. This is not something to be seen when you have 2.5 hours, total, to spend. I still feel like information and impressions are dribbling out my ears and on to the page. So allow me, briefly, to dribble about this gallery.

First of all, once again, I went through it the wrong way and saw the first of the subsections of the gallery consisting mostly of large photographs of people, including the striking "Moonrise in Puerto Rico" (If you go to, it's one that scrolls by---the one with two men [one seated, one standing] in the foreground, and the sun setting/moon rising over the water in the distance). If I had then turned left as the booklet suggests I ought to have, I would have gotten to the large portraits that necessitated that warning that adults attending with children should preview the exhibit first, lest their children be exposed to breasts, penii, labia, lactation, and other dangers peculiar to modern life. Oh, and people indiscriminately showing one another affection. The horror. The horror.

But I didn't go left, I went right and found myself wandering through a maze of tables (in the most minimal sense of the word---plywood tops nailed to saw horses) with dozens and dozens of photos and photocopies arranged into groups under glass. The first of these that I went through dealt with HIV and AIDS in Africa. Most of the photographs were of members of groups promoting education on the topic and how to manage the disease. Interspersed among the photos were clippings and photocopied materials (they kind of looked like wire summaries, maybe?) about former South African President Mbeki's denial that HIV causes AIDS. The content he chose starkly juxtaposed Mbeki's assertions that poverty, poor nutrition, etc., cause AIDS, his suspicions about western drug companies profiting from the sale of expensive, patented medicines, and his denial that there is any epidemic.

Several of the other tables dealt with religious extremism (of all stripes) and protests against it. Among the most interesting tables within this section contained a variety of pieces questioning whether or not moderate belief provides any traction against violence and hate in the name of religion. In fact, there was a particular text blow up that stuck in my mind (well not entirely, as I can't seem to recall the exact wording): "Moderate belief provides no bulwark against the violence of religious extremism." [I am an intellectual slug. It's been nearly 8 months and I've only just now tracked down the source of the quotation and the actual wording. It's from Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Here's the original: "While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence."

To it, I add this, which is the essence of what moved me in that barely glimpsed quote:
Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities. Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience.
] Tied in with these (loosely in some cases, more pointedly in others) were images and materials about the war on terror (I refuse to capitalize that) and the erosion of civil liberties in its name. My favorite placard was one replicated in numerous images: "The Axis of Evil Runs Right Through W's Juicy Manhole."

Another theme sandwiched in among these was the mythic compassion of the 90s compared with what is shaping up to be a decade-long fuck you to issues of social justice. Tillmans includes some of his own writings in here, claiming that our nostalgia for the 90s fails to recognize that any revival of activism is difficult to disentangle from marketing opportunities for MTV, Benneton, etc. One table set at a particularly awkward angle dealt with questions of capital punishment, particularly in Texas. It was positioned to connect the 90s/activism/compassion/capitalism materials to the ruminations on extremism and the war on terror.

The tables could easily have been an exhibit all on their own. I probably spent an hour trying to absorb just a small portion of the texts, and wound up feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I'm surprised that I can recall much of anything about the artistic and installation aspects of them. Again, this is mostly me being a dumbass, but I can't see really getting a handle on this entire exhibit in a single visit. It didn't help matters much that the last thing I did on this level was wander into a small, darkened room (black, partially sound-proofed walls). There was a screen at one end of the room and projected on to it was video of robotic concert lights synchronized to the wacky techno beat. I think that's when my migraine started. (Uh, no offense, Herr Tillmans, it's not you, it's me.)

I had genuine angst leaving the exhibit. I was exhausted and drained, but I still felt like I ought to revist a number of places. However, Andy, my putative reason for going to the damned museum in the first place, was calling. I made my way up to the second floor, and popped briefly into the small room housing most of the Ware exhibit. I have fond memories of following "Jimmy Corrigan" in New City and/or the Reader, and I like what I've seen of "Building Stories" (which is not a lot), but I was physically incapable of viewing the panels (soooo very dense with art and text as they were) in any way that would do them justice. With regret, I headed up yet another floor . . . and I seem to have experienced missing time. Tillmans on 1, Ware on two . . . what the frilly heck was on 3? Not a clue. Andy was on 4, though.

So the Warhol exhibit was called "ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters 1962-1964." As it turned out, there really wasn't a whole lot of call for me to have set aside a huge amount of time to go through it. Still, I probably needed more than the 25 minutes I spent jetting through it. I was not a huge fan of the layout of the exhibit. The first oddity was that the soup cans were down on the first level with a glut of text. I get that they're not part of the main projects they were showcasing in the exhibit, but separating them from the rest by three floors seems excessive. Furthermore, there was an entire room within the exhibit dedicated to a silent documentary about the Elvis paintings and their exhibit at the Ferus Gallery in LA that had optional accompaniment (via a couple of sets of headphones) by an interview with Irving Blum in which he talks extensively about the soup cans.

But I admit that the exhibit was about two classes of Warhol paintings during a very specific time period, and my soup doesn't make the cut. So I'm shutting up about it. For now. Probably. So the paintings under consideration were Andy's images copied (often literally, once he got into silk screening, and always multiply) from iconic photographs of folks like Troy Donahue, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. To the exhibit's credit, they borrowed liberally from Warhol's own writings to explain why he was moved to produce numerous copies and isolated elements from these images and what the hell was up with the garish eye and lip colors. I think that's a better option than engaging in a lot of academese, which is highly anti-Warhol to begin with. Nonetheless, they also did a good job highlighting the ground first and/or most spectacularly trod by Andy and hangers on at The Factory. Of particular relevance to the Tillmans exhibit, of course, is Warhol's love for mechanically produced art and his insistence that things like the Elvis images were, in fact, paintings. Also, having detailed information on the original sources of the images was a great addition.

Still, the staging of the exhibit took some wrong turns. In the very first room, the Troy Donahue "cameo" painting was at a right angle to a Liz, which seems off given that the Liz was what set him off down this particular path. At the opposite end of that room was the famous Marilyn with the less well known painting of the multiple copies of Marilyn's lips in isolation. That juxtaposition worked pretty well (the snarl of the lips out of context really brings out the sadness and desperation of her eyes in the whole face), and the multiple lips/multiple Troys go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but the Liz just belongs in the other room with the the Lizzes (Liz from National Velvet and Liz from Cleopatra), ya know?

Then right around the wall from Liz, there were two of the 10 Most Wanted series across from the Elvii and at a right angle to "Little Race Riots" (multiple, sometimes nonidentical copies of Charles Moore's photos from Life of a black teenager being attacked by a police dog). That entire room just didn't hang together at all for me, especially given the erratic text within it. For example, there are substantial quotes from Warhol on the 10 Most Wanted images, as is appropriate given the fact that this contsitutes a hilarious story about him doing several projects for exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair, each of which were rejected (including a mural that was actually completed, then painted out). But there's zero comment from Andy on the Elvii on the race paintings.

To add insult to injury, pompous, museum-generated text questions whether Warhol sees the protestors or police as the aggressors and whether he really understood what was going on. Given that, in the original photo, the dog is tearing at the seat of the guy's pants, I've always taken this as Warhol making an explicit, ironic (if not entirely in good taste) connection to the classic Coppertone Ad where the dog pulls down the little girl's bikini bottom, exposing her tan line. Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to Warhol going for the cheap laugh.

After the Elvii was the room with the Elvii documentary, which was quite closed off from the rest. I suppose that's needed, but it made the last room somewhat awkward. This was divided in half, one side devoted to the Jackie Kennedy images, the other to the rest of the "Disaster" paintings. I'm totally on board with putting the ladies who died of tunafish botulism cheek by jowl with Jackie's pillbox hat and grieving profile, but I don't get separating them from the race and "most wanted" paintings. I don't have a lot to say about the Jackie stuff except that the exhibit included one piece not familiar to me---the "round jackie," which was done in browns and framed in something like a needlepoint hoop. The end result was of a dowdy, forgotten throw pillow, and it was rather touching.

I haven't been as exposed to the disaster paintings they included as I have to most of the other things. The tunafish piece with its accompanying quote from Andy that he just thought it would be "nice" if the deaths of these people got noticed by people who normally wouldn't care about them was a gem and one thing I wish I had spent more time on. As it was, I gave it more attention than the car crash victims (three paintings devoted to this, all kind of appalling, but in the way he intended), although I do note that no adults were warned to preview the exhibit to be sure that their children weren't upset by them. After Andy, I barely had time to motor through the Chicago exhibit and smile at all my familiar places.

But my greatest artistic experience of the day came long after I'd left the MoCA. I hadn't really eaten much all day, so I popped into the grind for an iced tea and a bagel. They rotate art through there pretty regularly, and at the moment, they're featuring an exhibit by children (ranging in age from 18 months up to 7, from what I could see). Now this could be horrible, but for the most part it's cute. And then there was the beauty of "THE ALIEN COSTUME: Part 1 of 5)!" A comic book by William! With 3 new superheroes! Slime Man! The Sandman! And SuperWilliam! BATMAN WILL MEET SPIDERMAN! It was seriously awesome. The kid knows the value of a lurid cover and a snappy TUNE IN NEXT TIME, even if he did only sandwich in about three panels' worth of action constituting the whole of Part 1. But they went to the moon. And found a strange black rock. And brought it back. THEN IT ATTACKED!

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Indecenter Proposal

M and I just returned from the Music Box, one of three theaters in the nation (according to the informational postcard I cleverly remembered to take with me, then lost in my cargo pants for a good long while) currently showing Nick Cave's The Proposition. (Yes, it's that Nick Cave, if you happen to know who that Nick Cave is.) And if you don't, you might want to look him up, because he's offically on my to-be-killed list.

Actually, I don't think I really did know who Nick Cave was, although his name rings a "Oh, that musician guy who did . . . that stuff . . ." Because we strive for precision here at Telecommuniculturey, I went searching for something more specific than stuff. That's how I discovered that he's Nick Cave of The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave of the not inconsiderable solo career, and also Nick Cave fiction author, as well as Nick Cave who wrote the screenplay for this in three weeks. That also happens to be how he ended up on my "to-be-killed" list. Some bitches are just too talented for their own good.

It is appropriate, yet ironic, that Nick Cave should end on up that list. His appearance on it is appropriate because the name that he is nervously staring up at, the person whose continued safety and good health he is most sincerely wishing for (Uh, if he knew about my lists and was smart enough to fear me), is Kitano Takeshi (aka Beat Takeshi)---writer, painter, comedian, author, actor, director---well, you see where this is going. The irony comes in when I reveal that, more than any Sergio Leone flick, more than Unforgiven, more than an imitation Western or Western knockoff, The Proposition reminded me of Takeshi's 2003 version of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.

Ok, maybe that's not the most shocking news ever. After all, Leone's films are Occidental cousins to the samurai genre. But it's more that certain aspects of Cave's approach to the Western reminded me of Takeshi's, rather than any superficial superficiality of plot (what plot?), characterization (ahem), or theme that brought Zatoichi to mind. One of the most striking things (to me, anyway) about Takeshi's Zatoichi was the way the drama was, literally, set against the rhythm of everyday life.

Cave takes almost the opposite tack. Much of the music (which, of course, the marked-for-death Mr. Cave did) intrudes on the action, breaking the audience's attention from one scene and hurling them into the next. It's physically jarring (i.e., loud, sudden), but it's also thematically and instrumentally plaid with polka dots. That's not a criticism (remember, I've disclosed my lack of shame on this topic), it's obviously a deliberate choice, and for me at least it worked in keeping up the relentless sense of unease (not that the visuals needed much help there). But for all the times the music takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall, there were also times when I couldn't tell whether I was hearing foley work or the soundtrack (e.g., as Mikey is first brought into town, there's a man working with some kind of metal implement and the accompanying sound could be metal on metal, or it could be a constant rolling snare).

Despite my extended digression on all things aural in The Proposition, I have heard that film is a visual medium, and thus I have to turn some attention to the director, John Hillcoat. This appears to be his second feature film outing, the first being a prison film also written by Cave. As a film, The Proposition It isn't perfect. Hillcoat is a little too in love with the "silhouetted against the sunset" shot; his attachment to dusters fluttering in the breeze borders on the fetishistic (and this is ME talking here). But the rookie mistakes are minimal, and there's a lot of true beauty and nascent skill.

There's a moment when Charlie revisits what's left of the scene of the crime (in which he may or may not have actually taken part---more on that momentarily). The house is burned out and falling apart. As he steps over the threshold, the sun shines down, briefly casting the shadow of the roof slats on his back. It evokes Mikey's prison cell, of course, but it also places the physical burden of the place on his shoulders.

Hillcoat also has a knack for composing shots that capitalize on a number of disparate elements. They can be initially disorienting (fun fact: Australia seems to be rife with vegetation that has elements that can easily be mistaken for human body parts), but resolve quickly enough that the technique isn't tedious (in fact, the musical tendencies I've already droned on about are a nice complement to that aspect of Hillcoat's visual style). It also helps that he relies primarily on this approach when we're following Charlie or when we eventually meet up with the remnants of the notorius Burns Gang. In town, the shots are pointedly traditional, ordered, and flat.

To get back to the Zatoichi analogy (I know you've all missed it), another reason why The Proposition brought Beat to mind again goes back to the rhythm of everday life. Unfortunately, in Banyon there is no rhythm. There's hardly any kind of everyday life. The townspeople are more a mob than a community. In fact, the only times we see them assembled are when they're soaking up the brutality sanctioned by what passes for the law. The ugliness of their mentality seems to be indiscriminate, as we see when Martha Stanley, wife of the Captain of Police (I think), walks or drives through town. (Not that she's physically assaulted, but the rage directed at her is palpable.) As a result, the town ends up being just as chaotic and untamed as the actual outback, despite the two different visual approaches. There's little that's fluid about the film. In fact, it's more like a a gruesome, terrible slideshow than anything else. But I think that's the point. As we judder and hurtle through the story's timeline, there is never a moment when the course could have been changed or the tragedies averted.

Amid all the entropy, though, there are two locations that anchor the film. The first is the Stanleys' home in all its incongruous, transplanted-bit-of-England glory. It's literally a place a part, bounded as it is inside a picket fence supported by a perimeter of rudely cut and carved branches. The interior tends to the minimal end of the Victorian interior decorating spectrum, but there are delicate touches (e.g., what appears to be a hand-stenciled decoration running around the walls of the public rooms; a prettily fussy tea set, etc.) that carry it off. And the piece-de-resistance (don't bother me with diacritics) is the fact that the Stanleys take their meals on the veranda overlooking their rose garden. Inside and out, the house is not of the town. At the same time, though, there are unmistakable hints of colonialism that sneak in: The doors are open constantly (and the delicate French doors are fronted by crude full-length shutters secured with stout bars), and for all the multi-colored fountains of roses, the exterior of the house is more akin to a Japanese rock garden than the verdant English countryside.

On the flipside of the Stanleys' model of femininity, Arthur Burns's cave is relentlessly male, hewn from the living rock, etc., etc. Seriously, his bookshelves are by Davy Crockett, and they creak under the weight of manly leather-bound volumes dealing with damned manly topics, I'm sure. Within the friendly confines of their lair, the manly Arthur, his manly Aboriginal sidekick, and his not-so-manly New Kid on the Block pass the time by quoting things and singing tender Irish ballads. Ok, snarkier than I intended to be. I liked the idea of Arthur's base being a known quantity, and I like the earthyness of it in contrast to the "Nothing natural, please, we're British" homestead of the Stanleys, but some elements of the execution may have been a bit too too.

Performance-wise, The Proposition is pretty much gold, across the board. Emily Watson is dream casting if you want to sell England-on-the-Outback. Fortunately, she's given a bit more to do than simply lie back and be English (despite the complaint I saw on a blog review that there are no positive female characters in the entire Cave!Verse). She's tender and quirky. She's capable of terrific gallows humor and of being every bit as brutal as the rest of the crowd when she learns that the "boy" for whom she felt such instinctive sympathy was (probably) involved with the rape and murder of her friend (quite probably her only friend in her current, nightmarish world).

Danny Huston is a curious foil for Emily Watson, and Arthur Burns is a curious foil for Martha Stanley, but it works. He is, in large part, the grounding for Charlie's identity, just as Martha is for Captain Stanley, and the ebb and flow of their stories is nice, as Charlie peels himself away from Arthur and everything he stands for, even as Captain Stanley finds his way back to Martha and the man he means to be. And if Cave didn't quite pull off what it is to be an Irish man in Australia in the 1880s as he did the experience of the British colonial wife, none of the fault lies with Huston. He also has, excuse me, a damned fine head of wild Irish hair.

Richard Wilson, as Mikey, is a nice physical counterpoint to Arthur. He is slight and quite feminine and keeps up the frightened stare and skittering body language of a trapped, terrified animal throughout. It's somewhat unfortunate that there wasn't enough character building or relationship building (or plot points, for that matter) to get across why Charlie, in particular, feels so responsible for Mikey, in particular. As it is, it's a generic "he's my little brother" deal that feels a bit tired.

For one of the putative stars, Guy Pearce doesn't have all that much to do other than to be dirty as Charlie Burns, the perenially overlooked middle child who keeps things together. He is convincingly fierce in his inexplicable love for Mikey, and to my ugly American ears, his Irish accent was unwavering. Given the limited dialogue he has, he also deserves kudos for creating and maintaining a recognizable character pretty much through body language and facial expression.

But whoever was meant to be the star, the real title surely goes to Ray Winstone. As Captain Stanley, he needs to be brutish enough that no one mistakes him for the one true-hearted, color-blind, class-oblivious lawman on the outback. The assault that he and his men launch on Charlie and Mikey (and two comparatively innocent Asian women who happen to be with them) is vicious, but the physical violence is nothing to the choice he's forcing Charlie into, and he is merciless in laying down the ultimatum. All the same, when he persists in refusing to participate in Mikey's flogging on the grounds that the boy is a simpleton and a pawn of Arthur's, it is easy to believe that he is as principled as a man can be under the circumstances. He takes the audience to the brink of bug-fucking-craziness right along with him. I felt physical relief when he wrenches himself out of the downward spiral so he can be there to pull Martha back from a very-familiar-looking brink, and in turn allows her to be his salvation.

To get back to Cave and his position on my to-be-killed list, I think he's not in any danger so long as Takeshi lives and Cave's death doesn't suddenly become absurdly convenient for me to achieve. His safety lies in the fact that The Proposition is a gut-wrenching, effective story, but it's still a flawed one. Anthony Lane sums this up well in The New Yorker: "If anything, “The Proposition” feels too conscious of that responsibility [its identity as 'the last redoubt of the Wetern']. It is one of those movies—Antonioni’s “Red Desert” being the most flagrant example—that spend so much time brimming with moral and political suggestion that they almost forget to tell us what’s actually going on." I'm with you, Anthony, my brother. There were several times when I had no idea what was going on. Why have we gone all Farenheit 451 on our manly tomes? What, exactly, has happened to the fugitive from the set of Carmen who cured Guy Pearce of a collapsed lung? How does Faramir stay so clean?

I'm willing to meet Cave halfway and admit that my own ignorance of the politics of the period makes my viewing of the movie a pretty shallow one. He includes Aboriginal characters who are not simply sidekicks (although their roles are minimal), and I'm not ideally equipped to decode the added meaning of their roles. However, it's worth noting that the truly meaty politics here are decidedly white-on-white, or as John Hurt (And as an aside: You've just gotta love John Hurt. Even when he's phoning it in, he recycles his fool from Olivier's Lear and it's just soooo worth the price of admission), white on black-turned-inside-out (which is what the Irish are nothing but). Nonetheless I was interested in the wording of the disclaimer at the beginning, which apologized to Aborigines and the people of the Torres Straits and noted that photographs of people who have died, which violates their spiritual practices.

Anyway, flawed though it is, this is well worth seeing should it make its way to a theatre near you.

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