Monday, April 12, 2010

The past few days have been probably the best (so far) of my sojourn in Berlin.

To start: on Thursday, went to the morning session of the Dahlem Humanities Center (another institute here at the Freie Universitat) for the opening of Think Tank: Identity and Identity Politics. Ok, a lot of it was a snooze, but there were amusing moments. The panelists for the opening session included Akeel Bilgrami (who is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University), Gulsen Celebi (who is a lawyer dealing with immigration issues in Germany), Luis Costa Lima (comp-lit professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro), Dan Diner (director of the Simon-Dubnow-Instituts in Leipzig), Ufuk Topkara (historian with The Jewish Museum Berlin), Eun-Jeung Lee (East Asian scholar, specializing in Korean studies), Homi Bhabha (now at Harvard), Esiaba Irobi (Ohio University) with Joachim Kupper of the Dahlem Humanities Center as the moderator. A lot of the rhetoric about identity was (shall we say) dated, but when Homi Bhabha came in and basically said that these kinds of forums have been going on for years and it's time to move on, you thought that a real spark was going to ignite. It didn't quite, but Homi Bhabha and Esiaba Irobi were really funny: it was like a high-brow (maybe not that high) version of Martin and Lewis. But they never really broke loose and went all out crazy (like Jerry Lewis at his most frenzied). But still, they gave an indication that there was a way to have fun with the topic.

Friday, went to the Kino Arsenal to see Marguerite Duras's "India Song". The print was in good shape, and it was (again) a mesmerizing and entrancing experience. But i liked the fact that, since i've been here in Berlin and so much of the discussion has been about the post-colonial experience of culture, this film was such a striking example of a colonial mindset, even as it interrogates that mindset.

Saturday was the "Long Night of Opera and Theater". The thing was: you bought a ticket (for 15 Euros) and that allowed you to go to as many performances at as many venues as you could cram in. There was a book that gave you a schedule: most places had performances every two hours, or every hour, and you could try to go from one place to another. Of course, it's all spread out, so you had to pick and choose... i went with Ramona Mosse, who is another Fellow here at the Center, and we tried to start at 7 (when most theaters began their evening). We started at the HAU, because the company performing was Forced Entertainment, a troupe from Sheffield, England. Ramona decided (rightly) since i'm not fluent in German, we should start with an English-language entertainment. From there, we went to the Maxim Gorki Theater, which was an imposing building; Ramona mentioned that the company has become one which seems to adapt classic movies into stage plays. For this evening, they were showing scenes from their version of John Cassavetes's "Opening Night", a film with which i am very familiar. Then we went to the Staatsoper, where we saw students doing excerpts from classic operas. One problem: the students seemed to be stuck in the 1930s, giving florid gestures and overemoting to their every utterance. Then we saw Vocalconsort Berlin, a baroque choral group. They performed at the Konzerthaus Berlin, which is kind of like Berlin's Carnegie Hall. The acoustics were spectacular; this was a very pleasing event. Then we decided to try the Admiralspalast, which is a concert venue. The attraction on this night was Mark Scheibes Berlin Revue; Scheibe is one of those performers who sits at a piano and makes jokes between songs. We caught the Comedy Block; there was a couple doing improv (part of their schtik was that they would start a story, and then ask the audience for the next word or line...; at one point, you could tell that the woman was getting fed up, as if to say, enough with the fart jokes!) and a comedian who billed himself as "the Jew". I'm not kidding. We ended the evening by going to Ballhaus Ost, which was a performance center where different choreographers were supposed to be doing "ritual performances". By the time we got there, one of the performances was just getting out, but the other one that was still going on seemed reminiscent of so much of the East Village dance scene of the 1970s.

But it was also fascinating to see the different crowds. Initially, things seemed sparse in terms of the audience, but by 9 o'clock, every venue we went to was packed, and the differences in the audiences proved to be very amusing. Places like the HAU and Ballhaus Ost had crowds that skewed younger: people in their 20s, the hip crowd, slightly grungy. At places like the Staatsoper and the Konzerthaus, a lot of families, but also a lot of older people, people coming for their high culture.

I'm still processing the whole evening, but it was wonderful, a real Berlin experience.

I got home after 1 AM and so i tried to sleep in on Sunday morning, but when i turned on the TV, one of the stations was showing "Grand Hotel". Ok, dubbed in German, but i think i know that movie. But it was wonderful to see John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and (of course) Garbo. In terms of the dubbing: i'm pretty sure that Garbo did her own dubbing, since she did her own German dialogue in the German version of "Anna Christie" which Jacques Feyder directed. I posted the fact that i watched this on Facebook, and Scott Marks (who has the website Emulsion Compulsion) made a comment that "Grand Hotel" may not have been such a great movie after all. As if it ever was? Nobody in their right mind would think "Grand Hotel" was even a good movie. But it's a deluxe piece of engineered entertainment, it's smoothly directed, and it has movie stars. That's it. Sometimes you don't want great art, sometimes you just want (almost) mindless entertainment, but you get to look at Greta Garbo (and Joan Crawford) in their prime, when they were two of the most glamorous women in the world.

Then i did go to a "work of art": Lisandro Alonso's first feature, "La Libertad". Stylistically, it was a rather rigid example of a minimalist aesthetic. But it proved to be a haunting movie. I'm still trying to think about the movie, but it did give me something to think about, and i do think that Alonso (on the strength of "Los Muertos", "Liverpool" and this movie) is one of the finest young directors now at work.


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