Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Yesterday was a day of shocks. In the NY Times, Alastair Macaulay reviewed the current season at Jacob's Pillow, and he concluded with a long paean to Merce Cunningham's company which had just performed. Then the news broke: Merce Cunningham had died on Sunday night, July 26. Right after the performances at Jacob's Pillow; he died at home.

It wasn't unexpected (in a way) because he was 90, but in April, after his borthday, there was an article in the NY Times about how Cunningham was preparing for the continuation of his company. A number of the "senior" dancers had been let go, and the company was preparing for the revival of certain dances, and a performance schedule was being set up for the company. In the article, it stated that there was a timetable of about two years, and then Cunningham felt his legacy would be complete, and that was it.

As it happened, after reading the first of the many items about Cunningham's death, i picked up Carolyn Brown's "Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham"; i opened it at random, and came across: 'The beliefs: "Dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form" (Merce Cunningham)....'

So much for "chance" procedures. It's been so long, it's hard to remember how important "chance" was to the arts as an alternative to traditional methods of composition; this was particularly true in terms of music and dance. And at the forefront of "chance" procedures was John Cage.

It is difficult to sort out the type of "influence" that Cunningham had on the world of dance, because his singularity has persisted into the 21st Century. Others of his generation (Sybil Shearer, Anna Halprin, Paul Taylor, James Waring) did some startling, unusual things. But for some reason Cunningham continued to evolve in terms of his aesthetic. It's also hard for those of us who came to dance in the 1960s: by then, Cunningham was the old master, and a new generation of dancers (Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, et al) came to the fore, and were proving to be ever more radical.

Yet when i close my eyes, i can see Cunningham spinning, his arms and hands darting with sharp, sudden thrusts, his feet scampering swiftly. I see that lean body in a leotard, a body that seemed almost boneless and certainly weightless.

And now he's really gone.

On a more personal note, i was alerted by Stephen Kent Jusick of MIX NYC that Robert Hilferty had died. this was really a shock, because Robert was only in his 50s. He had been a critic for Bloomberg News, and also wrote for publications like The Advocate. But i'll remember Robert as an activist filmmaker, part of the ACT-UP faction, whose video "Stop the Church" was an impassioned documentation of the gay protests at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

So a day of sadness.

Woke up to a huge obit to Cunningham by Alastair Macaulay in the NY Times, but on TCM, "On With the Show", the 1929 Warners musical which i thought had been lost. But there it was, not in color, perhaps (it had originally been shot in two-tone Technicolor, but all Technicolor prints have been lost, though there is reputedly at least one segment that has been found in color), but it does have Ethel Waters singing "Am I Blue?" And who needs anything else?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It has been a while since i've blogged; a few weeks ago, there was an article about the fact that most blogs peter out after six months. I've been going at this for more than four years now. One thing i find is that there is a tendency to repeat: because there's no context, i find myself trying to create the same arguments from scratch.

A while ago, i was asked by Iain Stott (whose blog is The One Line Review: www.1linereview.blogspot.com) to participate in his poll of the "50 Greatest Films". Like most people undertaking these kinds of polls, he was hoping to find diversity: he was hoping his list wouldn't duplicate other lists (such as the Sight & Sound poll which happens every decade), and so he tried to ask people who would not be asked; as he noted, it was a cross-section of professional film writers and amateurs.

When the "new" editors of Sight & Sound prepared the 2002 poll, one of the things they did was to leave out a number of critics who had participated in decades past (certainly, since the 1960s) and reach out to critics from other countries (particularly from Asia). But the problem with this was: 1) there was an assumption that older critics wouldn't be aware of recent currents in cinema, which i don't think is the case; 2) there was an assumption that critics from Asia (for example) would list films which would not be immediately accessible to the West, thereby creating alternatives to the traditional lists. But this assumption is misguided, because in Asian cultures, the place of tradition remains very powerful, and so those people who have studied film history would have studied the same "classics" as everyone else ("Citizen Kane", "La Regle du jeu", et al). The point is: for most people, there must be an acknowledgement of some sort of standards; individual lists may vary (enormously) but the consensus has remained constant.

The consensus which has developed since the 1990s is one which has (already) upended values, and that is something that has not been explored. It's simply accepted.

But Iain Stott's blog should be checked out.

In the past few weeks, death has been omnipresent in the news. Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett (of course). The artist Dash Snow. Walter Cronkite. Frank McCourt. Gordon Waller (of Peter and Gordon). I'm sure there were many more notables, but those immediately came to mind. It was astounding to see the coverage of Michael Jackson's death (there remain hiccups on CNN and - of course - E!) which seemed to be endless.

This week brought the anniversary of the first walk on the moon, and there was a lot about this on the news. But one astounding fact: NASA seems to have lost the original video footage. The video footage that remains is from the transmission over broadcast television.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Today was all Michael Jackson, all the time. Nothing more to add, but it was annoying, since the news in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Asia, was minimized at a time when there was so much going on. And in terms of death: Robert McNamara's death was dealt with in a very cursory fashion. Yet in terms of actual world events, McNamara remains one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century, as his doctrine of the preemptive strike as a weapon of anti-Communism became the touchstone of the Vietnam War, one of the most wrenching episodes in American history. He and Henry Kissinger were the architects of the Vietnam War, but McNamara had the decency (as documented in Errol Morris's "The Fog of War") to admit the horrors that the country was plunged in because of the war, and to question whether the war was "right".

Of course, Kissinger remains, not so much unrepentant, but utterly convinced of his correctness in all matters. There was a documentary which opened the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, "The Reckoning", which detailed the working of the World Court in Amsterdam, and how the US has tried to block the court, and (in fact) have tried to undermine and destroy the court. And the reason is that, according to international law (which the US had signed during the 1990s), Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush are all war criminals. And so the US is trying to undermine international law because our leaders are war criminals.

And the Sarah Palin saga just gets more insane: turns out that she is trying to evade all the cases that have been filed against her for various ethical infractions during her term as governor of Alaska. Her understanding of the law is so hilariously limited that she thinks that if she stops being governor, that all the lawsuits will just have to go away.

(That's as hilarious as Peggy Noonan's declaration that Ronald Reagan was a great intellect; i wonder what would happen to Peggy Noonan if she had ever met Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Claude Levi-Strauss, or Simone de Beauvoir; i know in De Beauvoir's case, she'd sniff and declare De Beauvoir a Communist.)

There's been so many movies over the past few weeks (months, even), but it's hard to know what to think. The reason? The insistence on pop above all else. The way that Michael Jackson has dominated the news in the last week.

I'm reminded of Susan Sontag's essay "The Pornographic Imagination", in which she argues that some works which can be considered "pornographic" need to be acknowledged as works of literary merit. 'Not only do Pierre Louys' "Trois Filles de leur Mere," George Bataille's "Histoire de l'Oeil" and "Madame Edwarda," the pseudonymous "Story of O" and "The Image" belong to literature, but it can be made clear why these books, all five of them, occupy a much higher rank as literature than "Candy" or Oscar Wilde's "Teleny" or the Earl of Rochester's "Sodom" or Appolinaire's "The Debauched Hospodar" or Cleland's "Fanny Hill." The avalanche of pornographic potboilers marketed for two centuries under and, now, increasingly, over the counter no more impugns the status of literature of the first group of pornographic books than the proliferation of books of the caliber of "The Carpetbaggers" and "Valley of the Dolls" throws into question the credentials of "Anna Karenina" and "The Great Gatsby" and "The Man Who Loved Children."' But just as the last two decades have seen the change in values in terms of literary precepts, so critical debates have been superceded by an acceptance which has undermined all values. Sontag: "Only when English and American critics evolve a more sophisticated view of literature will an interesting debate get underway. (In the end, this debate would not only be about pornography but about the whole body of contemporary literature insistently focused on extreme situation and behavior.)" And (of course) this has happened, so that there is a whole school of thought which only seems to value abjection, degradation and extremism.

One Andy Warhol who upends all values is fine, but when the field is crowded with too many wannabe Andy Warhols (Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi, etc.), then the field is nullified.