Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Children of Men" is the best film of the year

The future arrives with a bang in Children of Men.

Sorry, no clever headline this time - just the facts, ma'am. Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men is the must-see film of the season - an old-fashioned "dystopian" metaphor for the present that's so pointed in its political reference that its studio (Universal) dumped it on the Christmas market like an unpromoted lump of coal - apparently in the hope it would sink unnoticed. Instead, critics have given it rapturous reviews - yet it's not in Oscar contention, or even, it seems, on the short list of the New York Film Critics' Circle. Which leads to the inevitable question - are we so politically nervous today that we've completely lost our pop-cultural minds? Children of Men not only functions as an eloquent political metaphor, it's also the most gripping (if grim) pop movie made this year, and probably since The Lord of the Rings. It's the movie War of the Worlds wanted to be - or to be accurate, the movie War of the Worlds AND Munich wanted to be; so add to the film's laurels the fact that it's almost a primer on how to build a "wild ride" that can still connect with our hearts and minds.

What's striking, in fact, is how easily Cuarón balances these two aims; Children of Men is both thrilling in its action sequences and deeply disturbing in its political implications - in fact, I can think of few sequences that better shame our paranoid security apparatus than the horrific scene in which the only pregnant woman in the world finds herself in labor in a refugee camp. It is, in its extreme way, only a reminder of the common humanity that our society, in its current wildly polarized state, has forgotten - but then this is Mr. Cuarón's theme in a nutshell, which he never underlines but instead allows to seep into our consciousness.

He approaches his concerns in the time-honored way of many a Star Trek episode - by dressing up our current quandaries in a sci-fi disguise (freely adapted from a P.D. James novel). Children of Men opens in London in 2027, when the world is reeling from a fertility crisis: no woman has given birth in eighteen years (this isn't much of a fictional stretch; fertility rates have been falling for years). What's worse, as the resulting hopelessness sank in, the planet went mad; in a wild montage of riots and mushroom clouds, we learn that "the world has collapsed," and that "only Britain soldiers on." It soldiers on, all right - with gonzo commandos in riot gear, all viciously cleansing their blessed plot of the refugees pouring onto its shores.

Enter Theo (Clive Owen), a jaded yuppie functionary with a few radical friends who's approached by an old flame, Julian (Julianne Moore) to procure papers for someone seeking safe transit out of the country. The "friend," however, turns out to be the rather baldly-named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey),the first pregnant woman in a generation - what's more, Kee is a black refugee, who's desperately trying to flee Britain and reach the waiting arms of a benevolent organization called (balder still) "The Human Project." Needless to say, the plot immediately thickens, with Julian shot in a roadside ambush and Kee's shaggy, leftist protectors turning treacherous (they want her baby as an emblem of their uprising). Soon Theo finds himself cast by circumstance as Kee's lone protector - and this black Mary and her white Joseph set off alone on a perilous search for safe haven.

Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey find there's no room at the inn.

Clearly, Cuarón has crossed the Nativity story with an equally well-worn plotline (cynical loner turns protector of the innocent); what's striking is how he maintains his political balance while charging along it. And charge he does: often shot in long, continuous takes worthy of Kubrick, or even Sokurov, Children of Men keeps its low-tech chases stunningly immediate. As a matter of fact, the movie's cut-free, handheld style is like an object lesson in conjuring audience identification: other pop movies fracture their violence into kaleidoscopes which inherently distance the viewer (simply scanning the carnage becomes a proxy for control). Cuarón, by contrast, doesn't slice or dice his violence, and his brilliant cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, has devised ingenious ways to follow the action relentlessly - thus the violence is being done to us, with a moral weight we cannot ignore.

Given the intensity of its cinematography, the film's political subtlety is even more striking (and worthy of its allusive subtext - references to Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, and Gaspar Noé flash by). Both right and left are the object of excoriating critique: in Children of Men, the right offers a sterile market paradise fenced in by fascism, while the left counters with a funky, self-reliant community that easily fragments into sectarian violence. Cuarón's sympathies are clearly left-of-center; his movie's true hero, Jasper (Michael Caine) is an aging, stoned cartoonist who lives in a retreat seemingly torn from the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog; but he has the sense to perceive our current situation requires what people used to longingly call a Third Way.

Needless to say, Cuarón and his squad of screenwriters never articulate what that third way might be, or what, exactly, "The Human Project" is all about - but if he had, Children of Men would have turned hopelessly didactic. As it is, it's a thrillingly open-ended parable, and one that, in its most touching moments, makes what amounts to a case for religion in its pure sense: when Kee's infant is finally revealed, for a moment, the battle around her goes quiet - some of the combatants even fall to their knees. Somewhere, somehow, Children of Men suggests, the sacred can still be reborn.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

After The Onion Cellar, let's shed a tear for Robert Woodruff

The cast of The Onion Cellar - photo by Karen Snyder

Word reaches us that the ART has announced Robert Woodruff will be stepping down as Artistic Director. And he's doing it soon - at the end of his contract this season, in fact.

Rumors had been flying for months about efforts to oust Woodruff, and it was easy to think of reasons why Harvard might be eager to be rid of him. Certainly he had up-ended the basic concept of the ART as an avant-garde repertory house. Instead, Woodruff envisioned it as host for a kind of Soho Celebrity Series, with the acting company pared down to a nub, and the spotlight focused on visiting directors and productions.

As these plans bore fruit, it became clear that Woodruff's own direction was usually compelling (even when it was undermined by bohemian naivete, as in Olly's Prison and Orpheus X), and that many of the visiting productions he presented (including the far side of the moon, The Syringa Tree, and Pieter-Dirk Uys) were truly brilliant. The trouble was that the visiting shows outshone the local ones; even the best of the directors Woodruff brought in (such as Neil Bartlett) rarely pulled together the remnants of the company into a compelling vision (which essentially blew a hole in Woodruff's M.O). And the bombs (Amerika, Three Sisters, and now the notoriously troubled Onion Cellar) began piling up, the translations (by resident dramaturg Gideon Lester) grew less and less inspired, the drag queens got bitchier, and the rock music kept getting louder. What's more, it was clear that at some level Woodruff had turned his back on both the actor and the playwright - and really, how long could a theater expect to exist without either of those contributors?

Of course perhaps Woodruff, after five years in the confines of Cambridge, simply yearned to return to Greenwich Village (I think he never gave up his home there). Perhaps the rumors were just that - rumors. In my view, he'll leave a mixed legacy at the ART - and mixed in the worst way, in that his policies undercut the theater's long-term viability. Still, I'd have to admit that moment-to-moment, he kept the ART more interesting than founder Robert Brustein ever did (that is, after the brilliant season or two that saw The King Stag and Six Characters In Search of An Author).

The question of the hour, of course, is whither the ART? Should the theater rebuild its acting company? Should it hew to more "traditional" modes of presentation? Should it concentrate on new playwriting voices rather than new directorial talents? No doubt these and similar thoughts will be on the minds of many in the theater community this spring.

The Artist's Model

Matthew Ritchie 2003, by Joe Fig

I've been a very bad blogger. Here I promised you a review of "Studio Visit," Joe Fig's show at Bernard Toale gallery, and I never delivered, and now the exhibit has closed (as of December 22).

Which is too bad, because the show was, indeed, interesting. The Toale Gallery tends toward the conceptual, and Fig's installation was no exception to the rule: this is one artist who is fascinated by other artists, and whose ouevre consists of tiny models of their studios. The models themselves bristled with grungy detail, and were kinda cool in that way all models are (they wowed the Globe's rather literal-minded Cate McQuaid). Their shiny exactitude, however, belied the chaos they enshrined - their messiness felt shrink-wrapped, contained, like some neatnik's fever dream of anarchy. And the banal interviews contributed by the artists themselves (in which they sounded just as dull as you and me) were funny in conceptual terms, sure, but as experiences were a bore.

Oddly, however, the project came together in the photographs of the models (see above). It's hard to pinpoint why this should be so, but it certainly has something to do with transcending the very thing that Cate McQuaid so avidly praised: the oh-my-god-how'd-he-make-such-a-teeny-weeny-paintbrush factor. Fig may be "into" the mystery of technique, but in his miniatures, he's happy to let his own technique, rather than its mystery, take center stage. In the photographs, however, the verisimilitude of the models works to their conceptual advantage; we're struck not by their accuracy but by the fact that we can still perceive their falsehood, that they're made of cardboard and glue rather than flesh and blood. Thus these images resonate with a curious contradiction between "realism" and "reality."

The result is a funny, uncanny vibe, which makes us remember how odd it is that art should flow from flesh and blood, too. Where lies the ghost in the actual art machine, in Michael Ritchie's or Chuck Close's actual studio, in the muscles of their actual hands, or the glances of their actual eyes? It's this eternal question - a reformulation of the old mind/body problem, if anyone cares to tell Descartes - that haunts Joe Fig's photography.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dude, the Pope is totally gay

Secret Santa? Or Bad Santa?

Okay, this is supposed to be a cultural, not political blog. But isn't a culture of denial still a culture all the same? And doesn't it deserve critique? To gay people, Pope Benedict's lowering the boom on the many gays in the priesthood (who no, are not all pedophiles) set off a tiny alarm, as in haven't we met this type before (usually in the evangelical churches)? Since then, the evidence for Benedict's - ahem - internal conflict has been piling up, from the Natuzzi white leather popemobile to the shoe-shopping at Prada (yep, make that the Pope and the Devil, honey). Alas, as a critic, I have to say Benedict's gay taste is pretty low, and obviously dated (he's clearly a queen, not a "queer"). In his personal presentation there's little of the self-awareness you generally find in closet cases today. Not that being dated is any excuse - I mean even Liberace did better than this. Still, it's fun to see all the unconscious camp in one place. (Papal attire photos from L'Espresso.)

So enjoy -

The ruby slippers.

The boy toy - Msgr. Georg Gänswein ("Father GAY-org" - woof!).
(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty.)

The white-leather coach.

What can we say but ride 'em, cowboy?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A well-known critic.

Criticism, despite its analytical pretensions, will never be a "science" because it never (or at least, not so far) has been predictive. It's got the same problem as economics, I suppose, only on a scale at least several orders of magnitude greater.

Take what may be one of civilization's most intriguing puzzles - the rise and fall of the Christmas special. Why were critics so blind to the charms of this form in its heyday, and why were they so long unaware that said heyday had passed?

But wait, you say - surely the Christmas special is hardly an endangered species! Aren't there at least a few new ones every year? I suppose so; but few of these are worth watching, and none match the quality of the reigning triumvirate, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"(1964), "A Charlie Brown Christmas"(1965), and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966).

Note, despite the expected tilt toward children's literature, the wild diversity of these titles: a cartoon based on a children's book, directed by Chuck Jones and starring Boris Karloff; a stop-motion musical featuring Burl Ives, extrapolated from a song devised as a store promotion; and another cartoon inspired by a comic strip, with perhaps the catchiest piano bass line in existence. How did such divergent points of the culture converge on Christmas, over such a short period (three years), to such brilliant effect? And why, only a year or two later, was Christmas essentially a dead cultural letter?

Hmmm . . .

Well, I've puzzled and I've puzzled, till my puzzler is sore; but I haven't thought of something I hadn't before. So I guess it's time to wrap the presents.

Sic transit gloria mundi

Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006)

I only knew the composer Daniel Pinkham in passing (I met him at a few parties where he sometimes had new music on offer), but of course I knew his work, and appreciated what John Gibbons, chairman of the historical performance department at New England Conservatory, called his "elegant simplicity" (as quoted in the excellent Globe obituary by Jeremy Eichler). Pinkham was a pioneer of the early music movement, an accomplished composer, an institution at New England Conservatory, and a local light who worked till the very end of his days in the same tradition of gay American composition that included Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. In fact, the night before he died, the Harvard University choir premiered his latest work, "A Cradle Hymn" - a reminder that Pinkham was a leading exponent of the genre that still dares not speak its name: gay sacred music.

From his website,

A memorial service will be at 2 pm on Saturday, the 20th of January at King's Chapel, 58 Tremont Street in Boston. There will be a reception following the service.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to:

Pinkham Endowment for Music
King's Chapel House
64 Beacon Street
Boston MA 02108

Daniel Pinkham Scholarship Fund
New England Conservatory of Music
290 Huntington Avenue
Boston MA 02115

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You'll fall for Avner

Ah, Father Time – as Avner the Eccentric might admit (if he broke his vow of mime omerta), he’s something of a comedian. What looked edgy twenty years ago now seems as comfy as an old (or soft) shoe – much like Avner’s act, which was part of the intellectually prickly “new vaudeville” of the 80’s, but over the years has self-distilled to an essence of classic clowning, performed with low-key precision and an utter lack of pretension. “Exceptions to Gravity,” Avner’s latest (although it amounts to a revival of his greatest) takes its title from everyman’s - and everyclown’s - battle with that ultimate unstoppable force, against which only the forces of prestidigitation (and laughter) can triumph. Avner of course offers both in copious amounts. His sudden tricks (which punctuate oops-I-dropped-it routines) yoke the most banal of props – newspapers, napkins, and paper cups – to a seemingly superhuman sense of balance (to Avner, enticing a sheet of paper to float in space, en pointe, on the tip of his nose, is just a warm-up for later miracles). There's some existential folderol in the program about Waiting for Godot, et. al., but mercifully none of this surfaces on stage (and at any rate, if Didi and Gogo had met Avner, they'd have forgotten all about Godot). Avner keeps things simple and sweet, to a klezmer beat (the perfect Christmas music). You can still catch him, baggy pants and all, at the Lyric Stage, through Dec. 23, and be sure to bring the kids; the children at the show I attended were screaming with laughter, their Playstations and i-pods long forgotten - which somehow gives one hope for humanity.

That's one small step for (gay) man . . .

Borat parties with the Boston Globe arts staff

Well, God bless Charles Isherwood of the New York Times. There’s a tiny line in his current article (on the ubiquity of gay “slurs” in gay-friendly comedy) that includes this parenthesis:

(Let’s just say that, as a gay man, I don’t look back on my suburban junior high school years with unalloyed fondness.)

And with that, another tiny door opens. But will local gay critics and editors step through it, too? (And maybe even the local bigwigs they cover?) Somehow I doubt it.

In fact, I have a funny little story I like to tell in this vein about my days back at the Globe, which was always sending me to cover gay theater events, with the implicit requirement that I never mention I was gay. The trouble was, I tended to be rather ornery and independent, and wanted to talk explicitly about gay stuff - hence the censor’s (oops, sorry, the editor’s) hand often fell heavily on my material.

Things came to a head over a letter sent by an apparently gay psychotherapist regarding a negative review I’d given to a Dusty Springfield musical. I’d sniffed at the bio’s book as “therapy-speak,” which quite offended this particular reader, who snapped back that I really shouldn’t be writing about the coming-out process, and that I should be relegated to writing for the sports pages (yeah, like I even know what sport the Red Sox play).

I listened politely to the letter, but told the editor that if it was printed, I really had to be given a little space of my own to rebut his claim that I was straight. I wasn’t about to tolerate that kind of slur!

There was a stunned silence on the other end of the line, followed by a stuttered, “No, no – we can’t allow that.”

But why not? After all, the Globe wouldn’t knowingly allow any false statements in its pages, would it?

Needless to say, the conversation abruptly came to an end. And the letter was printed, but pruned back to only a stub. The writer never got to make his anti-straight smear, and I never got to do what Charles Isherwood has just done.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Back to the Future

It's ironic that Alex Beam should be gleefully looking forward to the (possible) de-construction of City Hall when his own rag (as well as its parent) has just been showering accolades on a building that harkens back to that abhorred behemoth. The new Institute for Contemporary Arts, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has been wildly praised, but few of its critics have offered much in the way of critique – as was no doubt the case with City Hall when it opened in 1968. Ah, the more things change, the more they. . . (well, you know the rest).

Boston City Hall

This isn’t to say that the new ICA is as grim (or as bad) as City Hall; it will never, trust me, be hated. But it’s also hardly the triumph its promoters would like to pretend. And it’s so indebted to utopian modernism that its echoes of that period demand further exploration – and explanation.

The new ICA

Like City Hall, the new ICA is a cold thing of concrete, steel and glass – far more glass than concrete or steel this time around, of course; still, the structural echo is apparent, even at first glance: both buildings lift their main functions onto platforms, and thus while projecting an image of openness, actually feel sealed and impregnable; both are more or less indifferent to the street (the ICA even turns its back on its main approach); both showcase cantilevers (the ICA takes this to an extreme); and both are skirted by barren plazas. All that concrete, of course, tips City Hall from a bon sauvage dream into a big fat Teutonic nightmare – yet it still has a certain cruel, romantic aura that the ICA utterly lacks; you can tell the people who designed City Hall (Gerhard Kallmann and Noel McKinnell) were, at least, designers (a contention borne out by their later work).

With Diller Scofidio + Renfro, however, I’m not so sure. Are they really architects? Or are they still what they started out as, that is, conceptual artists? Or are they something more like curators?

I lean toward that last option, largely because the new ICA feels more curated than designed; it’s modernism reconsidered and reconfigured, but without the kind of original stroke that marks the true architect. You feel such signatures most clearly in the details (as Mies might agree): the eccentric handrails on a Stirling building, the geometry of the stained glass in a Wright – these details jump and cohere with their structures' overall form, and indicate the penetrative power of an individual talent.

The new ICA, however, feels almost denuded of such touches. (Diller Scofidio's one design signature, a "ribbon" of path leading up the structure, doesn't resonate much.) The building does have its striking gambits, enough to tip the balance to success; but these all feel more like the result of intellectual due diligence than the free play of inspiration. The museum’s great advantage is its site at the water’s edge, which the architects cling to with something like desperation. And they’re right to; their building may be a bit subdued, a little bland in its zen chic, but it commands some stunning views that turn its “less” into considerably “more.” A vista of downtown towers all but transforms the new theater, and the odd “crosswalk” at the front of the building affords a strange, peaceful communion with the rippling water below. Most striking (and vertiginous) is the wonderful “water view” of the “Mediatheque” (no doubt what Henri Langlois would have called it) - a staircase of computer screens cascading down to another shimmering "screen" (actually a window on the waves below).

The "Mediatheque" - both ICA photos by Joel Brown

On to the main event: the galleries (once you get to them) are fine: flooded with natural light from on high, and obviously designed for flexibility, they give the ICA three times the space they had in Back Bay. Elsewhere, however, things are a little less fine: the entry is kinda awkward, the stairs a bit cramped, and while the big glass elevator is fun, the “atrium” next door doesn’t really work. And it’s hard to tell exactly where you are in this building, or where you’re going, which is odd in a fairly modestly-scaled structure.

It does look great from Anthony's Pier 4; the ICA's publicity shot

And then there’s the persistent hum of futurist nostalgia, seemingly seeping right out of the walls. This isn't simply because almost every gesture in the building is appropriated, it’s also because the structure is in such exquisite accord with the received attitudes of its audience. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the press corps went ape for the ICA – it all but nails its upper middlebrow, counter-cultural sweet spot. This is the sixties revisited, with all the concrete transliterated into glittering glass, and wired for the Internet (Diller Scofidio + Renfro can count on technology to bless their aesthetic with the illusion of progress). The building’s not really a piece of architecture – it’s the extension of a brand, a “Museum of the Future,” an Epcot for Cambridge and Brookline. As such, it could be worse (a lot worse), so perhaps we should just count our blessings. Still, the new ICA reinforces troubling issues about the contemporary art world itself – more on that in my future essays on the the museum's current shows and permanent collection.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ball-busters at the Nutcracker?

It seems hard to believe anyone could work up a critical lather over The Nutcracker, but both the Phoenix and the Metro got down and dirty with Boston Ballet’s current version, now playing at the Opera House (where it landed, following a short sojourn at the Colonial, after the Wang/Citiwhatever booted it for the Rockettes). The Metro’s Nick Dussault sniffed that “The Grinch has . . . stolen every last ounce of holiday magic from Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker.” Over at the Phoenix, the ever-unreliable Jeffrey Gantz had much the same complaint: “Boston Ballet . . . is still trying to recapture the magic of its Nutcrackers from 10 and 20 years ago.”

Well, I see The Nutcracker every few years, and I don’t know what the hell Gantz is talking about. In general, the show has improved since the arrival of Mikko Nissinen (along with most things about the Ballet), and the loss of the Wang Center (which Gantz bemoans) isn’t much of a loss at all. The stage is slightly smaller, it’s true, and the music is amplified. But something tells me the music was amplified at the Wang (it even was at the Colonial); the orchestra certainly sounds no worse at the Opera House. And elsewhere Gantz's carping comes off as silly; he disses Tai Jimenez and Sabi Varga as "Photoshopped,” whatever that means, and sniffs that “Lia Cirio’s stiff Dewdrop was all photo-op and no flow.” Hmmm – "Photoshop" and "photo-op" in the same paragraph? It's obvious Gantz is his own editor.

But rest assured, The Nutcracker is, well, much as it ever was (though not perhaps as it was in St. Petersburg in 1892, right), with one slight difference – the dancing in the second half is now far stronger. Mikko Nissinen has streamlined the opening Christmas party (which Gantz also bemoans, but most adults would applaud), and there are a few new decisions about Clara and Drosselmeier that I guess you could call “interpretive.” Drosselmeier is now explicitly a magician, flies around on tatty batwings, and serves as Clara’s escort in the Land of Sweets (the Cavalier is now clearly the Sugar Plum Fairy’s beau). There are the usual cutesy schticks – particularly in the Mouse King battle – but one expects this (and they never get as crass as they were some twenty years ago), and at any rate, sometimes the schticks aren’t just cutesy but genuinely cute (the cheese catapult, the little black sheep).

Meanwhile, according to Gantz, “the bravura has gone” from the company’s dancing – only funny, I saw a helluva lotta bravura the night I attended. Tai Jimenez and Sabi Varga had delicious chemistry in the Arabian “Coffee," while Carlos Molina danced with more passion than I’ve ever seen him manage in his turn as Snow King to Lia Cirio’s Queen. Nelson Madrigal made a dashing Cavalier (though as usual, he tired out before the evening was quite over), Jared Redick matched Joel Prouty’s irrepressible leaps in the Russian dance, and Larissa Pomonarenko was at the top of her exquisite form as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Nutcracker's Dewdrops do drop in - photo by Angela Sterling

One thing I did miss was the intriguing finale Nissinen devised for the show’s one year at the Colonial, where Clara awoke from her dream to clutch her nutcracker with a kind of wondering melancholy. I found this ending far more compelling than her current exit via balloon. If I were to go a bit further, I’d suggest a few more changes. The Nutcracker loses its narrative and thematic thread in most productions, because the subtext of Clara’s burgeoning sense of – ahem – romance can never be resolved. She can’t get the boy at the finish, as it were (as she's a little girl, and he's a toy) – and I think that Nissinen is fundamentally right to align the Cavalier with the Sugar Plum Fairy. But is there no way Ms. Plum, the Cavalier, and Clara could all interact at the finish? In a famous ABT production, Clara (Gelsey Kirkland) got the Sugar Plum solo all to herself – but I imagine something of a duo (or trio!) with the Sugar Plum guiding Clara through a few steps, before claiming the Cavalier again with the great pas de deux which precedes her solo here. Well, it’s a thought, anyway - and maybe someday somebody will take up the challenge of resolving the mother/daughter, girlfriend/boyfriend tensions that currently dissipate among the sweets. Till then, I guess poor Clara will have to make do with Drosselmeier in the bat cave!

An uncharitable take on Bank of America

From the St. Louis Federal Reserve

Word comes today that Bank of America is backing out of its support of the Celebrity Series – which will now have to find replacement donors for (or do without) $600,000 of its $7 million operating budget. In effect, Geoff Edgers of The Boston Globe reports, without replacement funds, this means the Celebrity Series will be unable to host a major international dance company next year.

The news, of course, is wrenching enough, but the essentially corporate attitude of Edgers (and, by extension, the Globe) is positively galling. We get prose like this from Edgers:

"It is a blow, and we have to tighten our belts," said Martha H. Jones , president and executive director of the Celebrity Series . . . “We talked to them all along about when we would be able to stand on our own two feet.”

[Robert E. Gallery , Massachusetts president for Bank of America] said it makes sense for the 68-year-old Celebrity Series to become more self-sufficient, and that he believes Jones is moving toward that goal . . .

So the Celebrity Series is apparently some kind of dysfunctional panhandler, unable to stand on its own two feet, to which the too-generous-for-its-own-good Bank of America has finally had to administer some tough love. Really, this reads like Mr. and Mrs. Bumble discussing orphans in Oliver Twist.

What’s funny is that while dwelling on the predicament of the Celebrity Series, Edgers omits entirely the financial context of Bank of America, which has grown so large that it’s bumping against the very limits of continued domestic growth, and will soon have to re-name itself Bank of the Earth. Bank of America’s profits last year brushed $16.5 billion (a level it came close to breaking at the end of last quarter, and will surely smash through by end of year); of this, it distributed about $130 million to charity (about 13% of which went to the arts). If you’re counting, that’s less than 1% of its profit (and for the arts, a little more than one tenth of one percent). The company has announced a “goal” of $200 million of charitable giving in 2006 – but with anticipated profits of over $20 billion, they’ll still be holding within that 1% limit.

Now, I suppose we shouldn’t expect Bank of America to part with more than 1% of its profit – or should we? Why is that option never even discussed? We know that corporate profits are growing faster than any other part of the American economy (see chart above), even as the corporate tax burden is falling – why shouldn’t we expect more from the corporate sector than steady-state giving, much less reduced giving? Isn't this just the age-old bigotry against the public and charitable sectors, dressed up in "soft neocon" corporate attitude?

Sigh. Just another example of why “arts reporting” seems to be an oxymoron in this town.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Operation Overkill

Photo by Joel Brown

The New York Times: “…looms heroically . . . a sculptural object in stunning isolation . . . Viewed through new buildings, the structure could wield the force of a wonderful surprise.”

The Boston Globe: “. . . the most interesting, most inventive building . . . since the Hancock Tower . . . at night, the glass will glow, becoming a lantern floating in the air above the harbor . . .”

Architecture Review: “the building reflects the architects' interest in exploring seemingly every intersection new museums have to steer through these days. That means not only combining public with private and active with contemplative space but also bringing together . . . the sacred and the profane.”

That’s what they’re all talking about. That building up there. More to come.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The fungus was among us

Pilobolus was back in Boston last weekend, with a crowd-pleasing show that gave little indication of the strife the group has recently endured (last year choreographer Alison Chase – in whose Dartmouth dance class the group was born – either left the company or was “forced out,” depending on whom you believe).

It's somehow comforting to know that, whatever its current travails, this troupe will prevail. I’ve always loved Pilobolus for its athleticism and frisky sense of fun – this is dance that, unlike ballet, doesn’t punish the body in order to transcend it, but instead accepts the body, even revels in our haunches, crevices and funny holes - as well as the nuts and bolts of how muscle and tendon connect to bone. The troupe’s five men and two women generally tread a fine line between choreography and gymnastics – although sometimes they just clown around, as was the case with Memento Mori, one of the newer pieces on the program, a shaggy-dog story about growing old which only included a few short bursts of pure dance. Those moments – basically a coltish Andrew Herro scampering around in his underwear – weren’t particularly inventive, but were still somehow magical, as was most of the rest of the program (which was bursting with Boston premieres). The opening Aquatica (2005) may have been a little obvious, but was nevertheless enchanting as it followed a young girl tempted by a sprite into the open ocean, where she cavorted among grottoes of coral with various mermen (and the odd crustacean). By way of contrast, the early solo Pseudopodia (1974) - performed with nearly glistening skill by Jun Kuribayashi - gave a glimpse of Pilobolus at its beginnings: all wriggling, excited exploration (no wonder the group’s named for the fungus seen at right).

Sometimes, of course, a Pilobolus performance can begin to feel like an unexpectedly sexy episode of Sesame Street, but the duet Symbiosis (2001) belied that image: its melancholy couple (Jenny Mendez and Manelich Minniefee) never left each other’s arms (or legs) – and captured perfectly the comforting despair of codependence. The one real disappointment in the program was its finale, the explosive Megawatt, which opens with bouncing promise but never takes its lively parody to the next level. Still, as the curtain fell, I felt a tug of real affection: will they be back soon?

What to want for Christmas

"Neruda Songs" by Peter Lieberson.
Sung by the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine, in Boston's Symphony Hall. Available December 19 from Nonesuch Records at amazon.

Monday, December 11, 2006

How far things have gone

Photo: Justin Cook, University of North Carolina

Bosnia? Iraq? Think again. In fact, think Durham, North Carolina. This photograph recently placed in the 61st College Photographer of the Year awards. The picture's description reads:

"A member of the Durham Police Department Selective Enforcement Team escorts a child to use the bathroom after serving a search warrant at a suspected drug house. Working closely with the police department's Gang Units, SET is responsible for making high-risk entries into dwellings to serve search warrants. Gang Unit Two made two controlled buys, or drug purchases, from the home with the help of an informant, giving them probable cause for a search warrant. Even if a raid doesn't turn up anything, presence and show of force sends a hard message to the neighborhood that gang and drug activity will not be tolerated."

Hmmm. "A hard message." Still think you live in a free country?

Why? (Or do I really have to ask?)

Matt Damon seems to be responding to the news from Wesley Morris

"Here's a shock," Wesley Morris, the Globe's witty-but-superficial movie second-stringer informs us in today's paper: "The Departed, Martin Scorsese's hit about Boston mobsters and the cops they corrupt, was a hit with the Boston Society of Film Critics, too. The thriller was voted best picture, and the society named Scorsese best director and William Monahan's adaptation of a Hong Kong cat-and-mouse tale best screenplay."

Morris doesn't tell us who's actually IN the Boston Society of Film Critics, but I suppose it's the usual list of suspects from the Globe, Phoenix and Herald. And looking over the history of their award, it's clear they haven't done so badly in the past (Brokeback Mountain, Sideways, The Pianist . . .) But really - was the hometown buzz of The Departed enough to banish ALL thought of its many flaws? Was it really a better movie than Little Children, Shortbus, or even Little Miss Sunshine? I suppose the Scorsese award is just one more attempt to give the guy the recognition he was due in the seventies (but no longer merits) - but how, exactly can you justify giving Best Supporting Actor to Mark Wahlberg? Or best screenplay to William Monahan? The mind continues to boggle.

A quick addendum: And why, exactly, does the Boston Society of Film Critics have a "foreign film" category (the award this year apparently went to Pan's Labyrinth, which I haven't seen). I understand why the Oscars hold on to that anachronism - they are, in the end, a marketing tool for Hollywood. But why would a film critics' society maintain the fiction that Hollywood cinema should be held to a different (i.e., lower) standard than world cinema (except, perhaps, to participate vicariously in "Oscar buzz")?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On not being able to watch "The Battle of Algiers"

The Battle of Algiers showed up on my Netflix rotation some six months ago. I'd seen it before, years ago, in college, but only minutes after popping it into my DVD player I had to turn the damn thing off. I knew what was coming - the brutality and the torture - and I just couldn't handle it, now that my country was on the wrong side of the torture question. It was almost funny how what was once "bracing and raw" but still basically a distanced, aesthetic experience was now an intolerably "real" one. Clearly, our culture has been talking itself into its embrace of torture for quite some time - it began with Quentin Tarantino, I suppose, but "the conversation" is now in high gear with the success of 24 and torture-porn flix like Saw and Hostel (indeed, Tarantino - a bit late to return to his own party - will soon grace us with Grindhouse). These are all repellent, of course - but somehow their exploitive nature makes them more tolerable than Battle of Algiers. I read yesterday that Human Rights First has determined at least eight detainees in US custody have been tortured to death. Eleven more have died due in part to their torture. Other accountants have pegged the number of people tortured to death by you and me somewhat higher, and of course no one knows how many have been killed by our agents in the secret gulag of prisons to which terrorist suspects have been extradited.

"The Battle of Algiers" is still sitting on the DVD player; I never returned it to Netflix. Why? Do I still hope someday to watch it again?

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Nicholas Martin will step down in 2008

(Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe)

The Huntington has announced that 2007-2008 will be Nicholas Martin's last season as Artistic Director; he will continue in an advisory role for two more years. The news should send a shock through the theatre community, as Martin has been so devoted to the local scene; he has cast local actors (who rubbed shoulders with several famous names), developed local playwrights, pushed the Huntington's repertory toward the contemporary, and even opened a spanking new space, the Calderwood. I always found his directing work intelligent, engaging, and very funny (if a tad too commercial); alas, the direction by others at the Huntington could be decidedly uneven, leading to some long dry spells in a few seasons, but there have also been plenty of productions to remember fondly, including Rabbit Hole, Love's Labour's Lost, Falsettos, The Rivals, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, What the Butler Saw, and The Rose Tattoo. But whatever the ups and downs of individual seasons, Martin will be remembered for his legacy - the grand new theatre, the new play development program, and his general engagement with his theatre's home city. He is inarguably the most important figure in the Boston theatre scene, and he'll leave some pretty big shoes to fill.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Eeek! The Times is being dumbed down too . . .

Charles Isherwood may have come through in his review of Wings of Desire, but there was also THIS little gem in Monday's Times, from a news story by Holli Chmela on the recent Kennedy Center Honors:

"Mr. Lloyd Webber is often referred to as the Shakespeare of his time with musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera."

Wow. "The Shakespeare of his time"?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sweet española

El Jaleo (detail), John Singer Sargent

It's hard to believe that Pepe Romero, one of the greatest living classical guitarists (if not the greatest) only made his debut at Symphony Hall this past weekend. (I guess the BSO just had too many piano and violin soloists to work through before they could get to him!) Romero made up for lost time, however, with a moving, meditative take on Rodrigo's famous Concierto de Aranjuez and an intriguing rendition of selections from Lorenzo Palomo's Andalusian Nocturnes (Palomo himself was on hand for the performance, and, clearly moved, came out to kiss Romero at its finish). The selections from the Nocturnes seemed a little slight until the gorgeous Cordoba, which was built around a haunting exchange between Romero and the string section. As remarkable as this was, however, it was nothing compared to the second movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez,which rivals Rhapsody in Blue as pop concerto of the twentieth century due to its aching call-and-response between guitar and woodwinds (a sequence so poignant it could make the angels weep). The rest of the concert was less compelling, though led with bright authority by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the brilliant Spanish conductor (see my earlier post) whose own ripe arrangement of the Suite española by Albéniz led the program. Here, again, the swooning Granada movement - borrowed from Cantos de España - proved most gripping; night music seems to be Spain's specialty. The suite from Falla's Three-cornered Hat proved a glittering closer, but seemed shallow (as dance music often does) compared to the yearning depths of what had come before. Let's hope we get to hear Romero again - and let's hope James Levine picks up a trick or two from Frühbeck de Burgos; it's wonderful to see a conductor lean in toward individual players, guiding them with gentle intensity, rather than watching the players lean in toward the conductor in an effort to follow his tiny beat. Adiós, Rafael - we'll miss you till next year.

Compare and contrast

I always thought Ed Siegel was soft on the A.R.T. - and then I read Louise Kennedy! Strangely enough, however, the Globe's parent, the New York Times, didn't seem to get the memo from Ed. Here are passages from the two papers' reviews of the A.R.T.'s latest, Wings of Desire:

Louise Kennedy, Boston Globe: " Such light, such beauty, such air and life and time and timelessness as theater can , but too rarely does , bestow . . ."

Charles Isherwood, New York Times: "Wings of Desire onstage adds up to a lot less than the sum of its many parts."

Louise Kennedy: ". . . rich, subtle, and deeply moving . . ."

Charles Isherwood: " . . . forced and confusing . . ."

Louise: ". . .that's just one of many indelible images from 100 deeply layered minutes. . ."

Charles: ". . . a few stark, evocative images. . ."

Lo: ". . .we feel his humanity in all its mortal glory. And so, blessedly, we feel ours, too . . ."

Chuck: "But onstage the elements never cohere into a moving whole."

Monday, December 4, 2006

Go on, you know you want him

Ironing Man, by David Hilliard

Last Friday was “First Friday,” so all the art is fresh in the SoWa galleries off Harrison, and I thought I’d check out that rather than the overrated new ICA (but don’t worry, I’ll get to it). The hunk above is currently on view at the Bernard Toale Gallery, which is split between (yet another) David Hilliard show, The Favorite, and an interesting installation by Joe Fig (more on that in a future post). The Favorite is what grabs you first, even if these sparkling prints represent something like the same-old, same-old from Hilliard. Ironing Man is typical of his familiar dip- and triptychs: the limpid color is sumptuous, the everyday situation lit with a faint grace, and the subtext cluttered with sexual hints. In much of The Favorite, alas, the hints probably qualify as nudges: the shirtless lads look like they just stepped out of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, and only the eponymous work reaches the level of complexity we expect from Hilliard at his best. In Ironing Man, of course, the artist does play with time as well as space (note the jumble of shirts to the left vs. the ironed row to the right). And the work offers a wry wink at the dual identity of many gay men: with his clothes off, this strapping fellow’s habitat might be the Ramrod, but here he’s diligently prepping his corporate drag – a row of crisp buttoned-downs from Pink. If he wore a cock ring, rest assured it would stay under his suit at Deloitte & Touche. But are a wink and a nudge enough to sustain a gallery show? It may be time for a new direction for this highly skilled photographer.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Da Notorious F.B.

In his recent program at Symphony Hall, conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos did not disappoint - and this coming weekend’s concert promises to be even better. The previous program was an odd amalgam of two warhorses and one wannabe – Schumann’s Rhenish symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version). Frühbeck de Burgos (from now on F.B., as in “Da Notorious F.B.”) brought a hearty vigor to the Rhenish, and a lush exoticism to the Firebird, but he couldn’t really do much for the Fourth, despite the best efforts of the brilliant Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard. Basically, the Fourth is an unfocused affair, with, as Yeats once put it, “the will doing the work of the imagination.” The themes Rachmaninoff proposes aren’t interesting enough to sustain his lengthy development, and the poor composer (who revised the work repeatedly over a period of years) eventually resorts to percussive attacks to hold our attention. F.B. must love this piece (he once recorded it), but it’s a mystery as to why, as it relentlessly resisted his best efforts to put it over. In fact I wonder at its programming; the Fourth isn’t really strong enough to stay in the repertory, and pairing it with the Firebird (in what felt like an implied nineteenth/twentieth century stand-off) felt slightly unfair – this is Rachmaninoff at low ebb vs. Stravinsky on the launch pad.

No such problems beset the Rhenish; the orchestra seemed to slip at first on the rolling deck of the first movement (Schumann’s sunny evocation of the Rhine), but quickly found its sea legs, and F.B. delivered a gorgeously hushed fourth movement (which legend has it was inspired by Cologne Cathedral). The Firebird was equally riveting. The languid magic of the introduction was hypnotic, the love theme unexpectedly tender –but it was in the slowly descending opening of the finale (in which the enchanted stone figures in the sorcerer’s garden gradually come to life) that the suite was spine-tingling.

The conductor’s next offering should be even more exciting. The BSO rarely focuses on the guitar, but Da Notorious F.B. (who’s Spanish) will be showcasing the instrument with a performance by Pepe Romero (perhaps the greatest living guitarist, shown at right) and his own arrangement of the Suite Española by Albéniz, as well as selections from Falla’s The Three-cornered Hat. Be there or be four-cornered.