Saturday, October 27, 2018

Being and Nothingness: Miranda July's The Future (2011)

Hamish Linklater and Miranda July in The Future (2011).

Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of nothingness. Oukontic nothingness is the kind you’d normally think of when you read the word “nothing,” defined as pure lack, the kind for which, as Gertrude Stein once said, “there is no there there.” The other kind is meontic nothingness, and it’s a nothingness you can do things with, like (to use a simile) the compressed air in a submerged submarine relative to the surrounding water. In terms of the extremes of cinema, oukontic nothingness could be used to characterize films that have no value, or films that are utterly inept at conveying whatever they’re supposed to: Gotti (2018), for instance. Meontic nothingness, on the other hand, could be another way to describe pure cinema, the je ne sais quoi that tells you, “This is a work of cinematic art.” The Future (2011), written and directed by and starring Miranda July, is an ingenious work of meontic nothingness.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Radio Daze: Fond Memories of an Aggravating Angel

Photo by John Marsonet.

“To deal with the history of cultures means to abandon oneself to potential chaos and yet to retain a deep belief in the basic ordination and meaning of things. It is a very serious task. One requiring a great lightness of spirit.” Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi

I definitely miss being on a weekly radio program. From about 1988 until the end of the 20th century, I was the visual art critic for CJRT-FM in Toronto, a wonderful community-based station with an eclectic mix of programming and hosts covering every aspect of popular culture, from classical music, folk and jazz, to BBC-imported Goon Shows and compelling ideas-based documentaries. The program on which I appeared every Wednesday to review an exhibition, interview an artist, curator or museum official, discuss an architectural design site and occasionally assess art books of mainstream interest, was appropriately called On the Arts, and that’s exactly what it was, with a day each week exclusively devoted to music, films, theatre, art, design, books and art politics.  It just now seems so perfectly 20th-century, in fact, that kind of diversity of interests, since independent public radio (and television for that matter) has become such a rare thing to behold or behear. (Critics At Large has been sharing excerpts of the program as podcasts.)

One of the other joys of my radio days was the fact that it was through this medium that I was able to cross paths with a delightful friend of over thirty years, the late, great Kevin Courrier, who passed away (or went to spirit, as he would have called it) in mid-October of this year. The path to Kevin, however, first led me to encounter the irascible, sardonic, sarcastic, infuriating and brilliant Tom Fulton, Kevin’s co-host at CJRT-FM and his mentor of many years: the man who Kevin said helped him “find his voice.” Kevin in turn helped me find my own voice, guiding me through the odd vagaries and quirks of the radio broadcast medium of expression.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ghosts of October (3): The Hour After Westerly

Author Robert M. Coates.

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

To read, see, or otherwise experience a great ghost story is to feel the slow descent of a benign curse. But we who are addicted to the art of the ghostly know, for we are always being reminded, that most ghost stories fail. They simply don’t scare. Worse, they don’t haunt. They give us plenty of whimsy and cliché. What they don’t give us is the vibration, both fearsome and pleasurable, of imaginative contact with the otherworldly. We search for works of poetic imagination which skillfully convey the feel of quiet and disquiet, of distant forms and impalpable presences, and which will leave something inside of us: their ghosts, in a word. And seldom, so seldom, do we find it.

But eventually we may discover that our operative addiction is being fed sub rosa by works which, though they have little or no supernatural element, are nonetheless haunted. It’s inspiriting (no pun intended) to find that, if our antennae are so attuned, “ghostly” needn’t be a matter of content. It can also be one of style, approach, apperception; or it may be embedded thematically, in narratives of characters who realize they are becoming, or have become, ghosts of a kind. While some variant on “the fantastic” – the term used by structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov in his 1970 study of that title – might do for taxonomic purposes, I’ve always preferred to call this undeclared subgenre simply “the ghost story without ghosts.”

Monday, October 22, 2018

Trying to Make the Old New Again in Oklahoma! and A Star Is Born

Jordan Barbour and Jonathan Luke Stevens in Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival  (Photo: Jenny Graham)

Every few years or so someone mounts a major revival of Oklahoma! (1943) or Carousel (1945) on Broadway or in the West End – or in the West End and then on Broadway – and critics fall over themselves proclaiming that this rendition of a Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster is fresh and relevant and reaffirms their rock-bound standing in the musical-theatre canon. But no production in my experience has managed to transcend the tinny, pedantic banalities of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics or the embarrassing pseudo-populist vernacular, which makes the fake poetry in The Grapes of Wrath sound like Walt Whitman by comparison. God knows I should have known better, but I checked in on the latest Broadway Carousel, directed by Jack O’Brien. But though the choreographer, Joshua Peck, came up with one thrilling number (“Blow High, Blow Low,” showcasing the dazzling high stepping of Amar Ramasar as Jigger Craigin), the dialogue, with its hopeless attempt at mimicking the sound of turn-of-the-century Mainers, sank the performances of the talented cast, Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Lindsay Mendez and Renee Fleming among them. (Plus there was no fucking carousel.)

There are two new versions of Oklahoma! these days, one on each coast. I skipped Daniel Fish’s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (which prompted The New York Times’s Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, in “conversation” on the front page of the arts section, to outdo each other with kudos) but sat through Bill Rauch’s, which is selling out the big house at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Rauch is artistic director. Rauch and Fish seem to be in competition for the most up-to-date twenty-first-century revival of a classic musical. At St. Ann’s Ado Annie is in a wheelchair, but Rauch has cast a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens, as Ado Andy, and a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, as Curly. Two same-sex couples versus one disabled actor: Rauch wins the virtue sweepstakes hands down.