Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neglected Gem #23: The Browning Version (1994)

Albert Finney in The Browning Version

The moment you see Albert Finney in the 1994 film of The Browning Version, you know you’re watching an actor in the grip of a great performance.  If you care about acting, you scarcely dare to miss anything Finney does, because you never know when he’s going to dazzle you:  in the British TV version of the Kingsley Amis ghost story The Green Man, for instance, or in The Playboys, as the alcoholic cop who’s strung up by his love for the independent woman he’s impregnated.  He’s even more amazing in The Browning Version – it surpasses anything I’ve seen him do, with the single exception of the 1982 Shoot the Moon. This was the performance of its year, but it was a trick to catch it on the big screen. Paramount – exactly the wrong studio to handle a British “prestige” picture – tried the movie out in Cannes, and when there wasn’t much response, they nearly dumped it. They didn’t bother screening it in New York or L.A. in time to make the long lead times of the monthlies, and when they opened it in the fall, they gave it a small ad campaign and a very limited release.  It was befuddling that no one at the studio figured out the audience for the Merchant Ivory pictures would happily troop out to see a film like The Browning Version if they knew about it, and even odder than no one could see Finney was a shoe-in for major award nominations if only his work was promoted.  (The Boston Film Critics gave him the Best Actor award despite the fact that the movie opened in the last-resort downtown art house – aborted by Paramount, it was ignored by Sony, the conglomerate that owned almost every theatre in the city at the time.) Ironically, Finney’s own (failed) performance in A Man of No Importance, a lousy movie about a gay bus conductor in fifties Dublin with an Oscar Wilde fixation, got far more notice.

Mike Figgis’s movie is the second film version of what is probably the best known of Terence Rattigan’s plays.  The script is built around the valedictory of an aging English schoolmaster named Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classics instructor at a ritzy boys’ school whose wife has come to despise him and whose students resent his old-fashioned doggedness and rigorousness, unleavened as it is by anything they can translate into humaneness.  In the course of the drama, Crocker-Harris suffers one indignity upon another.  When he finally gets a little pleasure – the one pupil with genuine affection for him gives him, as a retirement offering, Robert Browning’s edition of the Agamemnon – his wife ruins it for him by insisting that the boy was merely being shrewdly manipulative.  Rattigan’s play is small-scale and a little tight-lipped, but it’s poignant, and when Anthony Asquith filmed it in 1951 he had Michael Redgrave to march it through to greatness.  Redgrave laid a gently sibilant, slightly quavering voice like a skin over Crocker-Harris’s slivered bitterness.  As the performance proceeded, the teacher’s masterful control began to flake, and you saw what motivated the sarcasm and the misanthropy and the near-sadistic humiliation he leveled at his boys.  Probably no one in movie history besides Laurence Olivier has ever managed anything like the wit and elegant, intricate layering of Redgrave’s line readings, especially here and in Uncle Vanya and Dead of Night This first Browning Version isn’t the world’s greatest movie (it doesn’t contain a single memorable portrayal outside of Redgrave’s), but it is a great experience.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Klimt Revealed: 150 Anniversary Exhibition in New York City

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas.

It quite literally was a dark and stormy afternoon when I slipped recently into New York’s Neue Galerie, seeking shelter from a sudden summer downpour. I had never before ventured through the ornate doors of this tiny museum devoted to German and Austrian art, even though I had walked past the former 19th century mansion where the Neue Galerie is housed – close by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – countless times. I was again heading to the Met this past July when the clouds burst open, making me change my plans. I am glad that I did.

On show was the Gustav Klimt 150th Anniversary exhibition (until Monday, Aug. 27), the only large-scale tribute to the Viennese painter, born July 14, 1862, in North America. In Austria, tributes to the Symbolist painter known as one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement, a uniquely Austrian interpretation of art nouveau, are more pronounced. There, several internationally acclaimed museums, among them the Albertina, the Belvedere, the Kunsthistorisches, the Leopold and the Wien Museum, continue to honour the painter with various exhibitions highlighting different aspects of Klimt’s artistic legacy. The Neue Galerie show is smaller, if not more intimate than these others, showcasing just 12 items in a multi-media show that includes the cufflinks made for the artist by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffman in 1906. 

I am not a Klimt expert, just a fan. Without intending to trivialize my interest in his work, for my wedding invitation – 17 years ago – I had used Klimt’s famous painting, entitled The Kiss, as the cover art. As a result, for years afterwards, well-intentioned friends sent me all sorts of Klimt memorabilia, thinking me Klimt-obsessed. (I had really just liked the image of lovers entwined in a sinewy embrace.) I now have in my possession a barely-used mug as well as stationary embossed with a reproduction of The Kiss. Like many artistic geniuses whose work has captured the popular imagination, Klimt has permeated the culture but with some of his work having the undesired effect of appearing as kitsch. With this exhibition before me, I all at once had an opportunity to judge for myself what all the fuss was about. What was Klimt’s enduring allure? 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Catastrophic Success: Bomber Boys - Featuring Ewan and Colin McGregor

The Avro Lancaster Bomber

Ten months ago, I wrote about a documentary made by actor Ewan McGregor and his RAF-pilot brother Colin about World War II fliers called The Battle of Britain. At the time, I praised the good, if slight documentary that examined how the men who flew the Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes saved the Allies' collective asses by preventing the Axis from winning the air war over England in 1940. Now comes the sequel, Bomber Boys (BBC/BFS Entertainment – 2012). Ewan and his brother are back, this time examining the successes and failures of RAF Bomber Command of what came after The Battle of Britain. It is also a love letter to what many consider the Allies best bomber aircraft, the Lancaster.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Glimpse of the High and Mighty. And Greedy. And Gaudy.

Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles

She is emblematic of everything that’s wrong and right with America. Jackie Siegel comes across as the antithesis of a feminist. At 43, married to an affluent dirty old man of 74 named David Siegel, the zaftig blonde has an obsession with cosmetic enhancements, is a compulsive consumer, and remains oblivious to the world’s realities. On the other hand, the ditzy woman is sweet and kind, quietly giving money to a high school friend in crisis. Those contradictions make her the ideal subject for a fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles. In the non-fiction film genre of human train wrecks – think 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans – this project directed by Lauren Greenfield zeroes in on a billionaire family’s fall from grace. And it once again proves that grace often can be a spectacular facade built on quicksand.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ghost in the Machine: Jasper Johns at the Harvard Art Museums

Cicada (1979)

Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum this summer is a testament to the kind of close looking that small exhibitions make possible. With only twenty-one objects spread out in two galleries, the exhibition focuses in on the way Jasper Johns turns a technique from the printmaker’s arsenal – crosshatching – into a motif in his prints, and the resonant meanings that motif opens up. It’s a view of Johns’ oeuvre that you can drink in endlessly. The exhibition came out of an undergraduate seminar at Harvard in the History of Art and Architecture department, and it’s no surprise – the galleries crackle with the excitement of fresh discoveries.

Jasper Johns fills his paintings and prints with familiar symbols like numbers, letters and flags to strip them of their familiar significance and discover within them both a new range of meanings and a new way of making meaning, not by denotation but through allusions that take you into a rich and imaginative landscape. The crosshatch prints, from the 1960s and 1970s, work no differently. The crosshatch is a set of intersecting parallel lines used in engravings as early as the Renaissance to create the illusion of three dimensions through the modeling of shadow and light. By extracting and enlarging the crosshatch and turning it into a figure, rather than one of the miniscule forms out of which a figure is composed, Johns explores the culture of reproduction and mass production. The exhibition also includes works by Johns that relate to the crosshatch prints by engaging “the logic of print” in other ways, such as text, newsprint collage and letterpress.

an example of the crosshatch technique in engraving
Johns’ crosshatch works are love letters to printmaking: the riddle of process, with its precise calculations, and the sensuous variations and synthetic possibilities you can get out of different media. Scent (1976) uses a crosshatch scheme in purple, green and orange, but the sheet is divided into three sections, and in each Johns uses a different media – lithograph, linocut and woodcut – each with its distinct process and effects, modulating the continuous pattern. Cicada (1979), a screenprint, includes strips of newspaper in its crosshatch pattern, and the design is worked out to look as though it were applied by a cylindrical seal, rolled on so that the pattern could continue beyond the frame of the print. Here, Johns’ screenprint, a contemporary technique, evokes a long history of printmaking, from Mesopotamian seals (the pattern) to engraving (the crosshatch motif) to printing presses (the newsprint collage).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ragtime at the Shaw Festival: History Lessons for the Already Enlightened

In his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow uses the ragtime era – roughly the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War – to investigate the confluence of contradictory impulses as America begins to hog the world spotlight. Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan embody the American dream in its quintessential (Horatio Alger) form, but their domination implies the oppression of wage slaves and the muting of voices that aren’t white and Christian. In Doctorow’s narrative scheme, the white-bread, well-off New Rochelle family, which has no reason to expect to meet anyone who isn’t exactly like them, crosses paths with African Americans (Mother finds a black baby buried but still breathing in her garden and takes in both mother and child), Jewish immigrants (in Atlantic City, Mother makes the acquaintance of Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant who brings his little girl to America and winds up becoming a filmmaker) and the forces of radicalism (Younger Brother, Mother’s sibling, hears Emma Goldman orate in Union Square and later volunteers himself as a bomb maker for the mightily abused black man Coalhouse Walker, a one-time ragtime pianist and the baby’s father).

Ragtime is a relatively compact book with an epic feel. Doctorow is fascinated by all of the strands of this chapter in American history; his modernist contribution is a rich sense of irony.  He juxtaposes opposites: Ford and Morgan with Goldman and Booker T. Washington (Coalhouse's hero); the industrial dream that Ford represents with Tateh's immigrant dream to pull his daughter out of poverty; Ford's automobile with Tateh's moving pictures -- both produced by a mixture of art and technology. He also juxtaposes Coalhouse's rags with the vaudeville show in which Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrity but not an artist, draws curious crowds. Nesbit's husband, Harry Thaw, has killed her lover, the architect Stanford White; this so-called "crime of the century" makes her a star -- at least, for a few moments. In the first phase of his coming of age, Younger Brother falls in love with her. When she rejects him, he turns to other obsessions. Goldman's oratory and Walker's ordeal politicize him, turning him from a callow would-be lover into a warrior for the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. And Harry Houdini’s escape trick becomes a metaphor for the escape trick every successful immigrant masters – yet, like Houdini, never masters completely.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Pleasures of Pop & The Expedience of Politics: Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album (1995)

Within our commodity-driven culture lies a substantially creative battleground between art and product, substance and trivia, liberation and oppression. In Hanif Kureishi's marvellous 1995 novel The Black Album, that ambiguous struggle between the pleasures of pop and the expedience of politics gets played out with a sly devil-may-care humour. The backdrop of the story (aptly named after Prince's famous and controversial bootlegged album which he recorded in 1987 and eventually released in 1994) takes place in London during the tense and horrendous period of the fatwah issued by the Ayatollah in Iran against Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses

Shahid Hasan is a young Pakastani student at a community college and an aspiring writer who falls in with a faction of conservative Muslims, led by a zealous poet, Riaz, who is given to delivering sermons with titles like "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve." His true attraction, though, is for Deedee Osgood, a free-spirited and hedonistic ex-Marxist college lecturer, who appeals to his passion for the artistic, spiritual, and sexual freedom that pop culture offers him. (They both dig Prince.) The dramatic conflict at the heart of The Black Album is how Shahid becomes torn between the "appetite for the compelling exhilaration" that he feels with Deedee, and the more ordered and tidy existence put forth by Riaz which he sees as an alternative to the racist abuse continually suffered by Pakistanis under the British ruling class.