Sunday, January 30, 2011

This past week, there was a "mystery" in the art world: by last Sunday, there were "rumors" about Dennis Oppenheim's death, but there was no confirmation. And because of that, the New York Times refused to publish an obituary. Could this be an elaborate hoax, the ultimate in conceptual art? Or was this real? Finally, by Wednesday, the circumstances and the actuality of Dennis Oppenheim's death proved to be true, the funeral was held that day, and the obituary was promptly printed in Thursday's Times (which we never saw because there was another snow storm and that messed up delivery of the New York Times). But the obituary was online. The whole situation was very bizarre. In this era of instant communication, with e.mails and texting and the internet, there are still so many areas of miscommunication.

And right now, we're watching as Egypt explodes, as the young people in that country are demanding (among other things) the right to access to electronic communication options. And we are getting so many images from these new devices, like cellphones with built-in cameras. But the United States is in a curious position, since the protesters are pro-democracy, and the US interests are tied to the current dictatorship. Capitalism isn't democratic: it's always aligned with the most repressive regimes, which can provide a cheap labor mass and non-competitive rates.

Enough with the unpaid political announcements. Back to obits. A while back, i was asked why i kept posting about the deaths of various people (Blake Edwards, Ellen Stewart, Susannah York, et al) and it's because, after a certain age, the people one encountered and/or admired during that period when one was becoming interested in the arts are now at the point where they're dying off. Someone like Ellen Stewart, or Dennis Oppenheim, or Milton Babbitt (whose obit just appeared in today's NY Times), played such a crucial role in the development of off-off-Broadway theater, or post-Minimal art, or new music, and so many people were influenced by them. The interconnectedness of the American arts in the postwar expansion, from 1946 to 1990, made it impossible for anyone to be immune to these influences.

As i mentioned about Ellen Stewart, i was not someone who was part of the La Mama circuit, but since i toiled off-off-Broadway, i certainly was acquainted with her. Dennis Oppenheim was an artist who knew many of my friends: he was an artist who liked to surround himself with younger artists, and he'd often show up at openings, as if he were checking out the competition. Though Milton Babbitt came from the generation of American composers (see also Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, et al) whose seriousness often resulted in a kind of obscurity, his teaching at Princeton turned out to be incredibly influential; one of his students would be Stephen Sondheim.

But i remember going to concerts in the 1960s and 1970s of music by Babbitt, Stefan Volpe, Brown, or seeing Dennis Oppenheim at the various art openings and art parties, or (of course) seeing Ellen Stewart at La Mama.

But there's a lot of other things to write about, since the past few weeks have brought about a lot of events. This week brought the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. Unlike other years, when the choices ranged from the grossly popular ("Avatar") to the unfortunately obscure ("The Hurt Locker"), this year the nominees included movies which (surprise, surprise) actually connected with audiences, as witness their (relative) box office success. I use the term "relative" because a low-budget movie (such as "Black Swan" which was reportedly brought in for about $13 million) which is now on track to break $100 million at the box office, just as "The Kids Are All Right" (budgeted at about $6 million) went on to a box office of about $50 million. The fact that these movies are hits, that there proved to be ways of marketing these movies, of getting them into theaters across the country, and of getting audiences to show up for these movies, is amazing. And this year, there are any number of movies nominated which people have actually seen: not just blockbusters like "Inception" but movies like "The Social Network", "Black Swan", "True Grit", "The Fighter" and "The King's Speech".

Going into last week, the momentum seemed to be with "The Social Network" but all that has changed: last Sunday, the Producers Guild announced their awards, and their winner was "The King's Speech"; yesterday, the Directors Guild announced their awards, and the winner was Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech". That's two for two in two of the most important races before the Academy Awards. So it's going to be a real horse race.

If "The King's Speech" wins (which i have a feeling is a strong possibility), then it will represent the fact that, no matter how much "younger" the Academy gets, it will always skew towards sentiment. Which is fine; what i hate is people whining about it. In 1941, it seemed obvious that the vote would go to "How Green Was My Valley" over "Citizen Kane": "Valley" was a big hit box-office-wise, as well as a deeply emotional drama, while "Citizen Kane" was a box-office-flop and was "cerebral" besides, and movies that are in any way reflective are not exactly Hollywood's strong suit. What Hollywood? A majority of moviegoers aren't exactly reflective.

"The Social Network" is a movie of-the-moment, a movie that, with all its flaws (and many of the flaws are remarkably similar to "Citizen Kane", such as the cheap-jack melodramatics of the motivation, comic-book Freud as even Orson Welles once acknowledged), is a contemporary movie in the same way that movies like "Bonnie And Clyde" and "The Graduate" seemed to be contemporary in their time. And it's indicative of the fact that we're so unused to movies connecting in that way now, that people are hostile and suspicious of it, as if there's something wrong with a movie that's smart and a hit. Right now, i'm watching "The Lost Weekend", which was another movie that, in its time, seemed up-to-the-minute, with its serious-problem dramatics and its on-location shooting.

In terms of the Academy Award nominations, there are some obvious recommendations: if you're a micro-indie and you've got some critical momentum to your film, get your screeners to the Academy membership. Don't think that these people are going to seek out your little movie, which may not be playing anymore, or, if playing, may be in some obscure little art house which nobody goes to. Make sure these people see your movie. This is the way the "Winter's Bone" people are operating. The result? Nominations for Best Film, Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini). When Debra Granik came out with "Down to the Bone" a few years ago, she operated on the indie-filmmaker assumption that her little masterwork was so important that the Academy membership would seek it out. As if! Even with something like the Independent Spirit Awards, you can't assume that people will seek out your movie. In many cases, how can they? Make sure that your publicity budget includes the cost of making DV-Rs and mailing them out. This winter, for example, is brutal, and it's making traveling in New York City difficult, so attending the special Independent Spirit screenings isn't really easy or feasible. This is especially true for minority filmmakers. A movie like "Night Catches Us" needs that little push that can come when you send out your screeners. But since they're not bothering, "Night Catches Us" will be one of those movies that will get overlooked. That's all i'm saying.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The last few days have been perplexing. As with a lot of other "downtown" people, i was immensely saddened when i heard about the death of Ellen Stewart. She was a true pioneer, a cultural icon, and her death was another indicator of the inevitable passage of time. I was one of those people who really didn't have much to do with Ellen Stewart; when i was working off-off-Broadway, i was associated with Theater for the New City, but i always knew that the origins of off-off-Broadway were with The Judson Church, Theater Genesis at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, Caffe Cino (Joe Cino), and Cafe LaMama (Ellen Stewart), so you had two churches and two cafes. Joe Cino's death ended the Caffe Cino, but Cafe LaMama was transformed into LaMama E.T.C. (Experimental Theater Club); if i remember correctly, the first time you went, you had to pay a fee for membership, and by making the claim that this was a "club" Ellen Stewart was able to keep her place open without having to bring her space up to code as a theater. That fiction of the theater club lasted for only a few years in the late 1960s; certainly, by 1970, the reputation of LaMama had been established and the "membership" was no longer needed. Ellen Stewart was certainly resourceful, not only did she keep her theater open, but she made it thrive and she was able to create one of the essential theaters in New York City. But i knew her slightly, and i certainly appreciated what she did for American culture, i remember going to see many things at the various La Mama spaces. What was funny was that when La Mama was in full swing, with many different events, the openings were always staggered, so that Ellen Stewart could make sure that she would be there to ring that bell and give her little spiel ("Welcome to LaMama, dedicated to ze playwright and all aspects of ze theater").

On Sunday, i went to The Museum of Modern Art to see the film from Uruguay, "A Useful Life", and the dance concert by Trisha Brown. I'll try to get to "A Useful Life" later, but i wanted to say something about Trisha Brown.

This was the second "anniversary" concert that she gave at a New York City museum; the other was the concert at the Whitney in October 2010. As with that concert, she revived pieces from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the pieces which were more task-oriented rather than "theatrical". And (as with the Whitney concert) these pieces hold up surprisingly well. The concluding piece, "Roof Piece Re-Layed", was an exceedingly clever reworking of "Roof Piece", using the specifics of MoMA's atrium to simulate the expanses of the Soho rooftops. I was glad i'd made the effort to see this concert (and it wasn't easy, since the R trains weren't running in Brooklyn on the weekend).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A new year (already in its second week) and already there has been so much happening. The weather continues to wreck havoc, not just throughout the United States but in most of the world. Europe continues to be gripped by another horrendous winter, there is intense flooding in parts of Australia, every few days there are reports of flooding and mudslides in China or South America. And in the last two weeks, New York City has been hit with two massive snow storms. When i left for Berlin, the subway system at least worked well. Now, it's haphazard, with frequent disruptions. There's a notice that the R trains will not run on the weekends, which effectively kills any attempt to go anywhere. And this is going on for a month!

But there have been a lot of movies. It's hard to know where to begin.

The first thing i want to say is that there is a fatigue factor setting in with all the documentaries that are proliferating. It's too much. Also, i often feel very incompetent: i don't know what i'm supposed to judge. If a film is effective, it's effective, but what does that mean? I'm not an expert on education ("Waiting for Superman"), i'm not an expert on finance ("Inside Job"), i'm not an expert on politics ("Client 9"). Two quick examples from the recent Jewish Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater: "Stalin Thought of You" (directed by Kevin McNeer) and "As Lilith" (directed by Eytan Harris). In the first film, the whole context of censorship and repression during the Stalinist period was assumed, but the specifics were often obscured. In the second film, it's established that there are very strict religious laws in Israel regarding funerals and the deposition of bodies, and cremation seems to be outlawed. But the funerary laws are never adequately explained for the audience outside of Israel to get a real sense of the problems facing this particular family. This happens too often, and one finds oneself responding to a documentary according to one's own preconceptions.

Another problem with a lot of documentaries is that they are show business chronicles; many of them are simply documents of performances. "And Everything Is Going Fine" (Soderberg's pastiche of Spalding Gray), "Public Speaking" (Scorsese's portrait of Fran Liebowitz), "Wishful Drinking" (a World of Wonder distillation of Carrie Fisher), "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work", "Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On".

Both Luise Rainer and Manoel de Oliviera have reached their centennaries. Tonight, TCM had a tribute to Luise Rainer, with a half-hour interview she did with Robert Osborne last year, and "The Good Earth" and "The Great Ziegfeld". Luise Rainer is one of those actresses who always is pointed to as an example of the vagaries of awards: this woman was a two-time Academy Award winner (and one time New York Film Critics Award winner) over such actresses as Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas", Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey", Irene Dunne in "Theodora Goes Wild" and "The Awful Truth", and Greta Garbo in "Camille". Yet seeing these films again, there's no denying that, in some ineffable way, Luise Rainer was certainly a star. (And being a star has nothing to do with the amount of time on the screen, it has everything to do with the particular intensity of the performance. Luise Rainer is billed third in "The Great Ziegfeld", and she occupies about an hour of its nearly three hour running time, but once she comes on, she just about pelts you with her manic flutteriness. Myrna Loy is lovely, but almost pallid compared to Rainer.)

And who has ever gone into their 100s with their creativity intact? 2010 brought the release of two movies directed by Manoel de Oliviera: "Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl" and "The Strange Case of Angelica", remarkable films in any case, but especially so coming from a man now 102! It's amazing to me to remember when his "Doomed Love" was shown at New Directors/New Films: we assumed that, since he was in his 70s, "Doomed Love" would be one of his last movies. Who could have foreseen that it would be the first in a continuing series of films? Who would have imagined Manoel de Oliviera was only getting started? Dustin Hoffman was asked who he admired, and his answer was Manoel de Oliviera, because de Oliviera is still working and has lived to be 102. And if that's not something to admire, i don't know what is.