Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oscar Gunchers 2015

As long as there are Oscars, there will continue to be Oscar-gunchers.

If big-budget romances like Titanic take home the statues, pundits complain about commercialism. If unusual, high-quality films like Birdman and Boyhood win, they argue that the Academy has lost touch with the viewing public.

The New York Times recently ran an article declaiming a "gap" between movie-goers and the academy. Duh! There's supposed to be a gap. If the point were merely to celebrate the movies everyone likes, there would be no need for an Academy or a vote. The awards could be given out based on box-office receipts.

The point is to reward and celebrate artistry, not Saturday matinee entertainment or least-common-denominator pandering.

And no matter who wins, the results are always fodder for social analysis from several (not multiple) points of view.

This year's Oscar ceremony was one of the best. Perhaps I say that because I actually saw most of the films in contention. The MC, Neil Patrick Harris, while not in the same category as Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, or Billy Crystal, did a better-than-average job of keeping the event moving along. The worst thing about his shtick was the running joke about his own predictions, which were ensconced in an inviolable Plexiglas case on stage. It was harmless but really, who cares?

Before the show the red carpet was agog with beautiful women in odd and sometimes striking dresses saying they were just there to "enjoy the moment." It reached a high (or low) point when the star of Fifty Shades of Gray, Dakota Johnson, tried to convince her mom, Melanie Griffith, to see the film.

Melanie's own mom, Tippi Hedren, is from New Ulm, Minnesota. I remember Melanie herself as an eight-year-old girl in Arthur Penn's minor masterpiece, Night Moves. These are the thoughts that go through people's minds as they reconnect with the Oscars, year after year. It's part of what makes the movies fun.

We didn't have to look at Jack Nicholson's grinning maw this year: that's good news (though Jack was in a long string of great films back in the seventies, as everyone knows). And the tiresome Meryl Streep references were kept largely under control. I even liked most of the songs, though the tribute to The Sound of Music seemed arbitrary and lame, Lady Gaga or not.

I suppose in 2042 , if the planet still exists, they'll do a tribute to Wayne's World?

Bunching the best picture candidates into groups was weird but (once again) moved the show along. The clips were uniformly great. And awards recipients voiced a large number of social concerns with sincerity and true feeling--a tradition dating back to the Brando era at least.

Artists still seem to be thrilled to receive these awards, and chagrined when they don't, even if the 36 million who watched the show have "lost touch." Michael Keaton didn't win—too bad—but the clip they showed of him shouting at Emma Stone might have given us an indication why.

I'm not sure that Birdman was the best film I saw last year but it might have been. It was powerful and idiosyncratic—the kind of film that people used to complain never won. It belongs in the company of several very different but equally powerful films that were released last year: Mr. Turner, Selma, Ida, and Boyhood. Two Days, One Night falls into its own minimalist category. Meanwhile, Wild, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Interstellar are also "keepers" on grounds of craftsmanship and entertainment value alone. 

Grand Budapest Hotel? Rather a dud, I'm afraid.

Among the documentaries, Verunga and Looking for Vivian Meyers were good, and I heard good things about Timbuktu. Evidently CitizenFour was even better.
 In short, it's been an extraordinary year at the movies, and the Academy did a good job of celebrating it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Hapsburg Stuff

You can see the billboards along the freeways throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul: a beautiful young woman, head turned skyward, lips parted, against a rich green-gray background.

You don't really see the shadowy face of the god who's giving the woman such pleasure as you whiz by. Your attention is given over to the woman herself, and to the golden words to her left -The Hapsburgs, Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe's Greatest Dynasty.

The show arrived at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a few weeks ago. It's well worth seeing, though some viewers will be disappointed, after having spent $20 for the opportunity to tour the exhibit, to find that much of it is devoted to decorative arts.

The show's curators were undoubtedly well aware of the challenges they faced in presenting a selection of knickknacks that were accumulated over the course of six centuries by a royal house largely known for its overweening arrogance and imperialistic oppression of religious and ethnic groups lying within its dynastic borders, including the Aztecs, the Incas, the Pilippinoes, the Dutch, the Hungarians, the Italians, the Czechs, the Moslems, the Ashkenazi Jews, and various Protestant groups, among many others. 

The curators chose to minimize the reactionary political tendencies of the collectors involved, which is probably just as well. It's hard to say how far the Hapsburgs diverged from their Bourbon, Visconti, Hohenzollern, and Romanov peers, and in any case, this is a show about art.

Of course, there are timelines and maps, and a few notable rulers are highlighted in an effort to focus our attention and to give some sort of historical context to the artifacts themselves. But the emphasis is on the "stuff," which is as it should be.

For my money, the paintings make the show worthwhile. The Giorgione canvas "The Philosophers" is alone almost worth the price of admission. Giorgione died at 33, leaving behind hardly more than a handful of canvases, several of which have been described as enigmatic or mysterious. "The Philosophers" is one of them.

Who are these men, we might ask ourselves? Probably better not to know, but remain in a state of puzzlement mixed with awe. What's important to note above all is the distinctly Venetian luster of the painting, a quality Giorgione's work shares with his predecessors Giovanni and Gentile Bellini and the early Titian. It's a sort of vibrant matte that doesn't come across in photographs and posters.

The Velasquez across the way has a less enigmatic subject—the young Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain at the time (1648-51) but the quality of the painting itself is equally remarkable. In fact, looking closely at the young woman's coral necklace and the doodahs in her hair, I was amazed at how such loose and confident daubs could generate such a delicate and compelling effect.

One of the guards, a short elderly woman, asked me to step back from the canvas. "You probably don't realize how close that jacket you're holding is to the artwork. You should keep a foot back, at least."

"This is a good eighteen inches," I said, looking down at my coat. But I'd probably stepped back when she addressed me. "Don't worry, I'll keep back," I reassured her.

Next on the list of wonders would be the Correggio that appears on the posters. The skin alone is SO good it puts to shame Titian's "Diana" hanging next to it, if such a thing is possible.

Titian makes up for it in the next room, however, where early portraits of Isabella d'Este and a gentleman who's name I don't recall hang side by side.

And at the far side of the room hangs Caravaggio's rendering of Christ receiving the crown of thorns. It's characteristically dramatic and shadowy and smooth, and gleefully overwrought, like a Tarentino movie. I didn't much like it.

In the midst of these varied wonders, the Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour looks a little tame. Still, how often do we get to see a Holbein?

These paintings and quite a few others cover the walls, while the bulk of the floor space is given over to suits of armor, coral-handled daggers, astronomical devices, drinking goblets crafted out of ostrich eggs, ornate silver crucifixes, ceremonial gold-plated platters, and other generally useless and vaguely uninteresting objets d'art.

There are halberts, rifles, and ornate robes worn by members of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was established in 1430 back when Burgundy was the richest country in Europe and had not yet fallen to the Hapsburgs. A huge carriage fills half of one room, while two suits of armor mounted on model horses are frozen in jousting mode in the center of another one. This kind of thing looks better in the movies than in real life, I'm afraid. And the fact that the carriage I'm looking at is the actual vehicle that transported so-and-so back in 1742 doesn't have much purchase, at least not to me.   

A special difficulty presented by the exhibit is the fact that the Hapsburg domains were so scattered and enduring. A map in the first room moves us through the various accretions and losses of the dynasty during its 600-year history in about three minutes. It's fun to watch, but not very informative. (If you've got seven minutes to spare you can see a better one on YouTube here.)

It would have been less innovative and dynamic, but more useful, to have a series of maps printed on the wall next to the timeline, so we could see when and how the various Austrian, Burgundian, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, and Slavic pieces of the empire arrived, departed, or split apart. Indeed, it would have been useful to have such a display several times, because once we've moved into the main halls of the exhibit, we start asking ourselves questions that would never have occurred to us a few minutes earlier. "Now, which Ferdinand is that?" "And what exactly IS the Holy Roman Empire?"

The upshot of such quibbles is that you can draw as much stimulation from the current MIA exhibit as you've got a mind to. Home from the show, I pulled out an old anthology of essays edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper called The Golden Age of Europe: from Elizabeth to the Sun King. I also located an over-sized book about Velazquez but it's so old (c. 1943) that most of the images are in black and white, and the colored plates have been "tipped in," as they used to say.

Perhaps as stimulating as anything was this interview with the last living Hapsburg that appeared the other day in the New York Times

Once curious aspect of the show lies in how dramatically it stands in contrast with the lonely Vermeer hanging a hundred yards away in the lobby of the Institute. There are no Dutch paintings in the show, as far as I can remember, though I'm sure the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna owns some. The Dutch fought the Hapsburgs for nearly a century before achieving their independence once and for all in 1648. It was an ugly fight.

It has often been argued that the Dutch Republic was the first modern state--oligarchical, commercial, tolerant, middle-class. One might be tempted to consider whether the Hapsburg exhibit highlights all the things a modernizing Europe struggled to escape from--only to put Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler in their place. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, and Two Films about Work

You probably think I've been lazing around all weekend. That I drove up north with Hilary to Woman Lake, cooked some good meals, skied a few miles and then sat around a rented cabin reading about the Blaskett Islands or "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

Well, it was sort of like that.

We even ate some bacon--rare treat--with our wild-rice pancakes from the White Earth Reservation.

We arrived back home to find that the poet Phillip Levine had died. He was adept at drawing our attention to things we might otherwise never know about work. When I read the news, I immediately pulled out his book of poems, What Work Is, and read a good ways into it. I should have done it sooner. These are vivid and lyrical creations drawn from his experience at a number of industrial occupations that you and I would shy away from.

And this reminded me that two films I saw recently were both about that subject which Maynard G. Krebs used to refer to in a terrified squeal: work.

Virunga, is a documentary about a national park in the Congo that provides habitat for a healthy but dwindling population of rare mountain gorillas. The keeper obviously loves his animals, and the gorillas love him.

The park's director is cut from a different piece of cloth. His bearing is aristocrat, his language complex. Yet it's obvious he's as dedicated to the gorillas as anyone, and prepared to sacrifice his life for them if necessary.

And it may be necessary. Park rangers are killed by poaches regularly in those parts, and the park is also under siege by British oil interests that are drilling nearby. Meanwhile, a group of rebels who refer to themselves as M23 are operating on the northeast fringes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the park is located.

 What began as a documentary about animal protection is now bringing itself to bear on the disregard for both wildlife and human life in the vicinity. A French journalist involved in the project interviews oil workers and rebels while equipped with a hidden camera to record their disregard for law and their collusion with one another.

It's a nasty situation, and when the rebels advance, moving past the park headquarters while artillery booms in the distance, the uncertainty and fear are palpable.

Virunga remains a compelling story about the perils and rewards of wildlife preservation, but it also gives us a first-hand look at how unstable the underlying political terrain really is. Between the danger to the gorillas and the violence perpetrated against the villagers, we hardly have time to ask ourselves how much of the profit from the oil will ever reach those whose lifeways are being ruined to gain access to it.

The second film about "work" I saw was more personal. In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a emotionally fragile woman who's been on medical leave for depression. She returns to work only to find that she's been the focus of a bizarre campaign. The company has informed its employees that it cannot afford to pay the traditional year-end bonus unless Sandra is dismissed. Forced to chose, all but three of her colleagues vote for the bonus.

Due to irregularities in the way the vote was presented,  and with the urging of a friend, Sandra arranges to have a second vote taken the following Monday. That gives her the weekend to visit her workmates individually and try to convince them to forgo their bonuses.

The bulk of the film deals with how Sandra's friends and colleagues respond to that request. But it's no less seriously concerned with examining Sandra's own lack of confidence and self-worth. She suffers from anxiety attacks and pops Xanax with startling regularity. It's all she can manage not to start crying in front of her children.

Her husband drives her from house to house, lavishing his support in ways that Sandra finds almost patronizing. "Why would anyone want to give up their much-needed bonus for me?" she asks herself repeatedly. Yet she forges ahead.

We soon become mesmerized by Sandra's fluctuating emotions. And it's also fascinating to catch glimpses of how her co-workers and their families live. By the time Monday rolls around, Sandra has made contact with most of them. The argument she presents is not compelling. Yet in her unassuming way Sandra forces her workmates to recognize the very human dilemma they all face, whichever way they decide to turn.   

Then there's the vote. Happy ending? Perhaps, but not in the way any of us could have anticipated.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Loppet

The Loppet is a fabulous festival that takes place every winter at Theodore Wirth Park—depending on the weather. The events include several high-class cross-country ski races, a dogsled race, some ski joering, and a fat tire bike race across the frozen lakes.

This year the snow wasn't so good, which made it impossible to ski the traditional course that starts at the chalet and ends up at Lake Calhoun. But they'd been making snow in the park all winter, which made it possible to run several of the long races as multi-lap loops through the park.

The park is just down the hill from our house, and I walked down to see the Hoigaard's marathon on Saturday morning. It was quite a scene. Someone was grilling sausages on the terrace of the chalet, and the smell of grease and smoke in the winter air reminded me of Boy Scout camp. A pleasant reminder.
There were waxing stations for the contestants, REI was giving away metal drinking cups at a booth. 

And of course, there were skiers whizzing past out on the course, and also wandering here and there in their colorful, form-fitting outfits. It all reminded me of some paintings I saw once on the walls of a palace in Ferrara.

I stood by a fierce downhill corner for a while, and the two men standing next to me seemed to know quite a few of the skiers. I heard them talking about a guy named "Toren" and I was tempted to butt into the conversation. It might have been a long lost relation from Sweden! I later found out that one of the racers was four-time U.S. Olympian Torin Koos. He won the sprints but was aced out of the marathon championship by a local boy.  

Later in the day we went down with some friends to ski the Luminary Loppet, a non-competitive shuffle around Lake of the Isles that's made more interesting by the presence of hundreds of luminaria—candles protected by ice enclosures in various shapes and sizes.

The chief thrill of this event is being out after dark, wandering the lake past innumerable candles in the midst of hundreds of people all of whom are wearing plastic tubes that glow in several colors. The organizers have punctuated the trek with points of interest including the Ice Cropolis, Ice Henge, fire dancers, and Ice-ter Island.

There are blazing fires at most of these featured "stops." Some serve cocoa; at others you're given a free Kind Bar. (They're pretty good!)

No doubt for many of the adults, the Surly Beer Tent is a highlight. You get a free beer and a salted nut roll, though it seems to me the high-decibel hip-hop band was a little out of place.

Due to the miserable snow-cover, the event organizers dropped the idea of skiing and instructed everyone to walk. That might have been a good idea. I talked to one woman who did the entire loop with her kids, on skates.    

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Boyhood, Parenthood, and Beyond

At one point Richard Linklater was planning to call Boyhood, his decade-long film project, simply "Twelve Years," but the release of Twelve Years a Slave put the kibosh on that idea. He might just as well have called it "Parenthood" ... but Steve Martin had long since grabbed that title.

Boyhood isn't a bad title, but it somewhat obscures the fact that the film follows the lives of a mother, her two children, and assorted spouses, neighbors, teachers, and playmates over the course of twelve years. Linklater's daring approach was to use the same actors throughout—a plan the necessitated extending the shooting schedule over the same amount of time.

The result is an unusual film, neither a real-life documentary nor a full-blown cinematic achievement of the order of Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life, but something in between. 

Much of the material is day-to-day stuff—siblings fighting in the back seat of the car, not wanting to do their chores, or drinking beer at teen parties—and it can be painful to watch because it reminds us of ourselves, back when we were egotistical kids hungry for friendship but also some sort of personal ascendancy among our peers, and a little bit mad at, or at least indifferent to, our parents and the world for no reason in particular.

Much of the film's drama comes from the adults, who generally try to be good parents while also squeezing their own continuing development in somewhere. Patricia Arquette has been justifiably praised for her portrayal of Mason's mom. Ethan Hawke has a slightly easier job in the role of the divorced dad who cares about his kids but thinks what they really need is to become more flamboyant—like him. But no one could have handled the role better.

At the heart of Boyhood is the interface where the generations meet and interact. No event in the film is more important than this living membrane where values are exchanged implicitly over the course of many months and years. Parents feed and shape it. The kids often seek to escape its influence.

Watching squirrelly kids turn into young adults before our eyes is a thing of beauty, and likewise watching adults turn into happier, better adults. Perhaps the final grace of this unusual film is that it comes across as the story, not of scripted actors, but of real people sort of like us. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Rose Ensemble

I took a few hours off the other day (off from what?) to drive across town to the downtown Saint Paul Public Library, where the Rose Ensemble, perhaps our most distinguished local vocal group, was giving a free concert sponsored by the Friends of the Library.

One architectural historian describes that splendid building on Rice Park, recently renamed in honor of former mayor George Latimer, as the premier Beaux Arts building in the Twin Cities, superior to both the state capitol and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in design. I wouldn't know about that, but I might point out that it's smaller than those other buildings, and its various reading rooms can seem simultaneously classical and intimate.

The performance was held in the magazine room on the third floor. The program was Il Poverello: Medieval and Renaissance Music for St. Francis of Assisi. I arrived early, threw my jacket across a seat on the center aisle in the first row, then wandered over to the magazine rack to pick up a copy of The Atlantic Monthly that contained an article about the early career of Joseph Stalin, who graduated with honors from seminary but developed theories of politics and human nature quite different from the ones St. Francis espoused.

Counting the tiles on the floor, I determined that I was sitting eight feet from the performers. When they struck the first chord of their opening number, tears came to my eyes. The voices are rich, strong, confident, and pitch-perfect. The singers invariably start and stop at the same time. It all sounds so simple...

The program ranged from medieval plainchant to sixteenth-century motets, as I recall. That's quite a spread. Several were by a composer I'd never heard of, Johannes Ciconia. He was described by the woman who introduced the first of his numbers as Franco-Italian, and that reminded me of how impressed I was, visiting Assisi years ago, with the beautiful Romanesque (that is the say, French-inspired) churches in the upper town. We sometimes think of the Italian Renaissance as bursting out of nothing, but of course there are medieval French antecedents everywhere. 

For that matter, the name Francis basically means "Frenchy."       
Ciconia himself, I later learned, was born in Liege. His father, however, lived for many years in Avignon, where he was a clerk for Pope Clement VI's nephew's wife. Perhaps he knew Petrarch?

All of this doesn't matter much. What does matter is that musical forms at the time were very strange and interesting—far more interesting than the sonata form. The members of the ensemble sang one song in which two vocal lines move forward, not only out of synch with one another rhythmically but also with different lyrics. 

Jordan Sramek, the ensemble's founder and director, did a good job of introducing the numbers, explaining why they had been composed, and what the odd musical instruments involved were--the rebec, the vielle, and the hurdy-gurdy. His patter would have been suitable for children, but contained nuggets of interest for adults, too.

For example, I once told a woman on a plane that I preferred Machaut to Dufay. "Oh, then you must love the hocket," she replied. I have been wondering for the last quarter-century what a hocket is. I found out that afternoon.

But the music itself is the main thing, and it was rich and varied. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that even some of the monophonic chants bifurcated into harmonic passages from time to time. And at just the right moment, when the power of the clear, strong, male voices--incuding the astonishingly rich and yet warm and friendly bass of Mark Dietrich--almost seemed to encroach a little, soprano Kim Sueoka appeared to execute a fluttering solo soprano number accompanied by Ginna Watson on a miniature harp.

Radiant light, strong and vigorous in love,
Saint Francis, you always had a noble manner.
Such was your angelic manner in contemplation
That you were lifted bodily into the air by willing it.

As I listened, I looked up at the terracotta ceilings of the Magazine Room, colorfully glazed in imitation of Renaissance patterns that were based, no doubt, on antique models. An entire history of beauty and love and nobility and sacrifice had come alive—or little parts of it, at any rate—in the rich sounds coming from the performers standing just a few feet in front of me.

St. Francis was right. Stalin was wrong. Let's all relax and sing, or at the very least enjoy the music all around us ... 
I was eager to rush home and sustain the mood by taking another look at Dante or Petrarch, or the Little Flowers of St. Francis himself. And after a brief interlude pondering who deflated the footballs during the AFC title game, I did just that. 

When Hilary got home we slid a frozen pizza into the oven (very Italian!) cracked open a bottle of wine, and settled into Dante's Paradiso. We made it to Canto Four before losing our way in all the wonderment as Beatrice attempts to explain to Dante what he is seeing as he "flies" toward outer space:

She sighed with pity when she heard my question
and looked at me the way a mother might
hearing her child in his delirium:

"Among all things, however disparate,
there reigns an order, and this gives the form
that makes the universe resemble God...

You should, in all truth, be no more amazed
at your flight up than at the sight of water
that rushes down a mountain to its base." 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr. Turner - the film

In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh adds new shades of meaning to the phrase "warts-and-all" biography.

His portrait of the famous English painter during the final decades of his life (Turner died in 1851) is spectacularly robust—the streets, the wharves, the salon galleries, the artist's studio have all been vividly recreated, like a Dickens film without a plot. It's no wonder the film garnered Oscar nominations for both costume and production design.

And the acting is first-rate. Timothy Spall, in the title role, mumbles and grunts his way across the screen like a cretinous lout (good enough for Best Actor kudos at Cannes), and various relatives, servants, and artist-friends also fix themselves in our imagination immediately. Marion Bailey is worth singling out for her portrayal of a jolly boarding-house matron, twice-widowed, who possesses an unaffected intelligence and sensitivity that Turner finds appealing. If she likes Turner, then maybe he's OK.  

Director Mike Leigh presumes that the audience already knows a good deal about Turner's personal life—or else he feels that such details are unimportant. For example, it seemed evident to me that the shrewish woman who shows up from time to time with Turner's daughter in tow is his estranged wife. 

Not so.

Yet unlike most "period" English dramas, Mr. Turner is utterly devoid of romantic sentiment. For Turner the art is all-important, and the rest of his life (which is what the film is mostly about) is of only secondary concern. By the time the film gets underway Turner is already famous and wealthy, so there will be no undiscovered-genius plot-line for us to feed on. He adores his father (who now mixes paints for him) and harbors deep wounds as a result of his mother's incarceration due to insanity and his sister's death at an early age. On the other hand, he brutally manhandles his maid and insults people wherever it suits him.

Artists are traditionally granted such eccentricities. But here we run up against the film's most serious weakness. Turner is obviously dedicated to his art, but I, for one, had trouble believing that the individual whose career we were following was actually moved by the seascapes he was painting. He doesn't seem like the type. And the paintings themselves are seldom presented with any degree of detail or conviction. They lack emotional ballast.

All the same, this two-and-a-half hour film moves ahead with all due speed. There is a lot of thought behind it. Because there is no real dramatic point at issue, nothing is predictable. In one scene Turner sits in a music hall while actors on stage lampoon both his canvases and the way he paints them. A few scenes later, someone is offering him a hundred thousand pounds for them.  
Mike Leigh has always made odd films that stick in the mind, though I usually have a quarrel with them. I'm thinking of Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy, Another Year, Happy Go Lucky, and the strange and slightly abominable Life Is Sweet.   

Mr. Turner is one of his better ones.