Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cobalt Reveries: Reflections on the Paintings of Michael Davidson

Magistrati show, 2016, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Calgary, Alberta.

All the photographs in this piece are courtesy of Michael Davidson.

 

"In the pandemonium of image, I present you with the universal blue. Blue is an open door to soul. An infinite possibility becoming tangible."
– Derek Jarman, 1993.

Loneliness is the cloak you wear
A deep shade of blue is always there
– Scott Walker, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, 1966.

Michael Davidson is a painter of atmospheres, of emotional weather, of liminal portals and of frozen music. Sometimes the interface of images, words and music becomes a very active one, a sort of chemical reaction which seems to occur in vivid immediacy, and also one which engages the eye and the brain in a new and novel mode of elevated or enhanced expression. The responses can be new but this intermedia mode is not; it is, in fact, quite ancient in origin and sends its shimmering shadow to us all the way from the long-lost classical world. The almost-forgotten tempus fugit before our civilization entered a state of collective amnesia known as the Medieval period, and prior to the rebirth of knowledge salvaged from the earlier thousand-year darkness. The word for this kind of interactive relationship between images and words is ekphrasis.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Nomadland and Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Small Potatoes

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020).

Fern (played by Frances McDormand), the protagonist of Nomadland, loses her job and her home in a Nevada company town after the 2008 financial downturn and takes to the road in an RV, traveling through the west to wherever she can find work. The writer-director Chloé Zhao, dramatizing a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder (its subtitle is Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), initially presents the character’s itinerant lifestyle as an economic necessity that she makes the best of. But in the second half of the film, when we see her pass up two offers (of different kinds) to settle down, we learn that she’s always been resistant to staying in one place – that she only lived for years in tiny Empire, Nevada (which ceased to exist after the company shuttered), because her husband, now dead of cancer, loved it so much. The movie seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time – to be commenting on the way the downturn uprooted the lives of many working-class people and to be promoting the nomadic lifestyle as a viable choice. Dramatically it’s confused.

Monday, February 15, 2021

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you”: Our Town and Another Day’s Begun

Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller in Gregory Mosher's production of Our Town, 1989.

I’ve been living with Our Town for more than half a century, so I was startled to discover, in the interviews Howard Sherman conducted with (mostly) actors and directors for his new book Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century, that so many theatre people were unfamiliar with the play when they signed on to participate in contemporary productions of it. I encountered Our Town in a literature class during my senior year of high school, and I recall vividly sitting in the front row, rapt, as my teacher read the third act out loud – and struggling, probably pathetically, to hide my tears as Emily, who has just died in childbirth, returns to relive her twelfth birthday but, overcome with the anguish of seeing her precious past from the perspective of one who knows the future, begs the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave on the hill. I fell completely in love with the play – and with Thornton Wilder, who had recently published his penultimate novel, The Eighth Day, which I subsequently devoured. (I reread The Eighth Day a couple of years ago; it really is the masterpiece I took it for at seventeen.) Wilder won the National Book Award for that book, four decades after he’d taken the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He also won Pulitzers for Our Town and for The Skin of Our Teeth, and he had considerable success with The Matchmaker, which most people know in its musical-comedy adaptation, Hello, Dolly!. Plus he penned the screenplay for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies, Shadow of a Doubt.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Strictly Conventional: Alex Winter's Disappointing New Zappa Documentary

Frank Zappa. (Photo: Roelof Kiers/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

I have been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa's music of late, everything from The MOFO Project/Object: The Making of Freakout! (2006), a double-CD documentary look at his first (1966) album (with The Mothers of Invention) to Make a Jazz Noise Here (1993), highlighting his 1988 band – one of the final discs to come out during his lifetime – the last group he toured with before he was diagnosed with cancer. (He passed away in 1993 at age 52). Most recently, I purchased and thoroughly enjoyed the posthumously released Halloween 81 highlights CD (2020), featuring Zappa at, perhaps, his live best. (The 6-CD box set of three 1981 New York concerts is too pricey, however.) So, being immersed in this genius's oeuvre, I was quite psyched to see Zappa (2020) the latest documentary on the man.

Alex Winter's is actually the second documentary about Frank Zappa to reach our screens in the last five years. But whereas German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) was an effective, compelling look inside the world of Zappa, filtered solely through interviews given by Zappa himself, news accounts on him, and various of his musical performances around the world, Winter's Zappa is a more conventional affair that, at best, offers a glancing and superficial view of why Zappa mattered.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Divergent Genius Who Finds Without Seeking: Simon Baron-Cohen's The Pattern Seekers

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Pattern Seekers.

"Philosophers have long posited self-knowledge as a foundational necessity for a moral life. But what if that goal is not merely illusive but impossible? The very notion of a self may be a comforting fiction, a tale we tell to mitigate our fear of mutation, even dissolution. 'We are merely ashes,' Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, 'endowed with a soul, lacking any shape, not even that of water, which takes the shape of the glass containing it.'” – Nolan Kelly, Hyperallergic

Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent new book, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, is based on a shockingly simple premise. The reason we humans are unique among sentient beings and distinct from other creatures which lack (supposedly) language or intellect, is the prevalence in our consciousness of a single special trait: our ability to look for and discern, identify and widely co-distribute patterns. The most important pattern formation, for Baron-Cohen, is also the simplest one, what he calls the “if-and-then” pattern. This he considers the ability to surmise that if so and so might be true or possible, then such and such is the predictable result. This notion is so basic and elemental that it has the charm and beauty of being a revealed truth all on its own, especially since many such results are in fact inherently unpredictable.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Simply Sondheim: Breaking Through

Emily Skinner and Solea Pfeiffer performing "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" in Simply Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre has generated more musical revues than that of any other composer or lyricist in the history of the American theatre; I’ve seen at least eight of them. Simply Sondheim, which the Signature Theatre is streaming through the end of March, is the freshest, the most spirited and perhaps the best performed. Under the direction of Matthew Gardiner (who also choreographed), it’s presumably a necessarily pared-down version of a Signature production that Arlington, Virginia audiences saw in 2015, but it’s not on Zoom – it’s enacted on the Signature’s Manhattan stage, with musical director Jon Kalbfleisch conducting a small band behind a dozen singers. Its unadorned quality, in tandem with the presence of the camera, works to showcase the singers, not one of whom is less than admirable. Sondheim is famously demanding on vocalists, and a revue setting, where the numbers have been removed from their dramatic context, places an even tougher burden on them because of the complexity of the material and the intricacy of its link to its source. You don’t need to see South Pacific to understand the meaning of “This Nearly Was Mine”; it’s self-explanatory. But “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George or “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd doesn’t stand alone, so anyone who performs it in an evening of Sondheim selections needs considerable acting skill to make sense of either of these songs for theatregoers. The knowledge of the legion of loyal Sondheim fans can only extend so far – and of course everyone in the audience isn’t likely to be an aficionado.

Monday, February 1, 2021

One Night in Miami: Show, Don’t Tell

Leslie Odom Jr.as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami (2020).

Kemp Powers adapted the screenplay of One Night in Miami from his stage play, and though he and the director, Regina King, have tried to open it up – especially in the first half hour – it still feels like a play, essentially locked into its motel-room setting even when the camera ventures away from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem: the enforced insularity of the Sidney Lumet movie of Long Day’s Journey into Night enhances the intimacy, and the fact that we don’t leave the house where Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles takes place helps to escalate the dramatic power of the text (and of the performances). The problem is that One Night in Miami is a bad play.