Monday, July 12, 2021

Random Notes on Recent Performances

Nina Hoss in The Audition (2019)

The focus of the German actress Nina Hoss is so precise and intense it’s almost freaky: when she levels her gaze at someone she’s a little like Sissy Spacek as Carrie choosing a victim for her revenge. That isn’t to say that Hoss brings a sinister quality to her performances, just that her concentration is so unencumbered that it can be unsettling. She burns holes in the screen. Hoss has mostly been associated with the director Christian Petzold, who directed her in Barbara (where she plays an East German doctor in the days before the Berlin Wall fell, sent to a remote rural village as punishment for her attempts to escape to the West) and Phoenix (where she’s a Jewish nightclub singer, a Holocaust survivor still in love with the non-Jewish husband who probably turned her in). North American viewers would recognize her from Homeland. In the recent German picture The Audition she’s a violin teacher at a conservatory whose determination to see a student she fought to get admitted shine in his probationary audition triggers all the troubled corners of her life – her own paralyzing perfectionism as a performer, her inability to make simple decisions, her relationships with her husband and her teenage son (who’s also a student at the conservatory). The movie, directed by Ina Weisse, is very good, despite an ending that seems to shift it into some other movie altogether. But Hoss is its undeniable raison d’être. She is a master of ambivalence: one of those laser looks can uncover two or three layers of meaning. Her scenes with Simon Abkarian as her husband, an instrument maker who either suspects or has worked out that she’s sleeping with a colleague (who’s also one of his customers), carry contradictions of meaning and intention like invisible splinters.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Drawings In Space: The Stitched Images of Gisoo Kim

Diary / Gisoo Kim, stitched yarn on photo-collage, 2020. (Gisoo Kim)
“Avant-garde art is yoga for the mind.” – Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Human consciousness is such a fragile and changeable thing. Being in the presence of provocative art can alter the entire field of our experience to a sometimes surprising degree. It’s almost as if the room temperature suddenly changes and our skin feels different, while our minds start racing in all kind of intriguing directions. This is also totally relative, since one person will react to one kind of work while another will respond to something utterly different, often even without either of them being able to quite grasp what the other is experiencing, unless they use their own experience of being transported as a kind of barometer. Then: ohhhh, you mean that when you listen to a Johannes Brahms symphony you feel the same kind of frisson as I do when I listen to a Miles Davis jazz solo? Now I get it. And the same is true of visual art, or design, or sculpture, or anything else. A Vermeer painted interior might have the identical impact as a Mark Rothko abstract, once two different viewers realize they’re both observing representations of the ineffable essence of perceptual majesty. The imagery only appears different on the surface, while the mechanics of reverie remain the same at the deeper internal level, where it matters. 

Monday, July 5, 2021

Clare Peploe: All for Love

Mira Sorvino and Jay Rodan in The Triumph of Love (2001).

One can do almost anything for love,” the aging art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) tells his dearest friend, the émigré English photographer Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), near the end of Clare Peploe’s 1987 film High Season. Katherine is living on a Greek island with her thirteen-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), but she’s broke and in danger of losing her house. Her one chance of achieving solvency is to sell a vase Sharpie gave her some years ago to a Greco-English art dealer, Konstantinis (Robert Stephens), who knows he can sell it at an exorbitant price; the trick is to get it out of Greece, which has famously declared a moratorium on the removal of national treasures. So Katherine begs Sharpie to betray his professional ethics and certify the vase a fake. The line I’ve quoted above is his justification for agreeing to do so – though, as with everything else in this vibrant, hilarious farce (which Peploe wrote with her brother Mark), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Roy Halston & Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor and Krysta Rodriguez in Halston, now streaming on Netflix.

Ewan McGregor does the finest work in his career in the title role of Halston, the absorbing five-episode Netflix series, created and directed by Daniel Minahan, about the multi-talented fashion designer who turned himself into a commodity, lost control of his brand and died of AIDS-related cancer, at 57, in 1990. McGregor became a star very early in his career, as a junkie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where he combined an essential sweetness and earnestness with a punk bravado. You looked at those soft, pampered, boyish looks and that level gaze at the camera and you couldn’t figure out where the element of danger was coming from. But he’s been a reliable leading man for so many years now (Trainspotting is a quarter of a century old) that I’m not sure either audiences or critics still notice just how good he still is – in films like The Ghost Writer and Our Kind of Traitor and Christopher Robin. He’s always had impressive, sometimes startling, range, but what he pulls off in Halston is so dramatically different from anything he’s tried before that this time I think it’s impossible to miss the caliber of his acting. Roy Halston – he dropped the first name after he moved on from making hats (most famously the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration) to designing dresses – is a kid from Iowa and Indiana who moved to New York City and built a persona for himself from the ground up, like Cary Grant or Truman Capote. He stopped sounding like a Midwesterner; he didn’t sound quite like anybody else. McGregor digs into Halston’s showmanship, his charisma and his imperiousness, but though he’s witty and sometimes hilarious, it’s not a campy performance.  You’re always aware of his reflectiveness – of the man who’s looking at himself in an invisible mirror – and of an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is acting of genuine depth.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Fabula: Painting is a Permanent Language

New and recent works by Fabiana Salomao, featured in her studio solo exhibition at 468 Queen Street East in Toronto, June 10-30 2021.  (All images: Courtesy of Noah Lalonde)

“A pictorial element has no other meaning than itself, and thus the picture has no other meaning than itself.” – Theo Van Doesberg, 1930.

Freedom from the inherent limits of realistic representation: that’s what concrete art, or concretism, was and still is all about. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style), founded in 1917 and lasting for about a decade, before morphing into what we now know as the international neo-plasticist style of the Concrete (Konkret). The most famous of these abstract purists was Piet Mondrian, but I’ve always leaned to the slightly more organic images of his compatriot Theo Van Doesberg, especially when one notes the amazing historical trajectory from his own early works all the way forward to some American 1960’s exponents of sheer rigor, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. One thing is held in common by all the aesthetically linked artists who explored the edges of pure abstraction, whether it be geometric or biomorphic in nature and tone: a love of the formal elements of balance, harmony, rhythm, and an affection for those chance constructions which seem to convey the spiritual aspects of our embodied condition, those encouraging transcendence.

Monday, June 21, 2021

In the Heights: Soft Soap

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights.

You know you’re in trouble at the opening of In the Heights, the new movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, which premiered in 2007 and moved to Broadway the following year. On an unidentified beach, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is entertaining four beautiful brown children with the story of his young adulthood in Washington Heights, where he ran a neighborhood bodega.  The kids have obviously been chosen for their adorableness quotient: they never stop smiling and their eyes twinkle. And the director, John M. Chu, lingers on every twinkle, as if he were shooting a video ad for a summer camp.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Off the Shelf: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kinuyo Tanaka in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

“A slave becoming a governor, that’s a true fairy tale!” – Sansho to Zushio in Sansho the Bailiff

Of the three filmmakers I think of as the supreme masters of Japanese cinema – Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa – Mizoguchi arrived and departed earliest. But even though he died of leukemia in 1956, at the age of 58, he had an amazing career that began in the silent era and produced 86 movies. (Nearly two-thirds of them have been lost.) Among his late pictures are several that may have been Japan’s first feminist movies: The Life of O-haru, Street of Shame and A Geisha, which deal candidly with traditional options for women at different points in Japanese society. But his signal qualities are his painterly style – no Japanese director has approached more closely, or more poignantly, the enchanted delicacy of Japanese prints – and his narrative sweep. The Mizoguchi movies I love best are like tales from The Arabian Nights: the erotic ghost story Ugetsu (1953), the dark Cinderella story The Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955) and especially Sansho the Bailiff (1954), which is his masterpiece.