Feel the Barn!

sanders art vermontRural art with an eye on politics, taken in Kirby, Vermont 3/15/16.

Photo: Herb Swanson/ EPA

Max Richter: ‘Sleep Remixes’

max richter sleepMy first thought when I heard about British composer Max Richter’s eight-hour opus, Sleep, was of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film of the same name, made in 1963, and depicting a man in various phases of slumber over a six-hour period. It was met with boos back then, but its conceptual quirkiness is now seen as yet another aspect of the Warhol genius.

Richter is considered a bit of a genius himself in contemporary classical music circles. I first became familiar with him via his masterful reworking of Vivaldi’s baroque chestnut, The Four Seasons, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 2012. In a piece for Blogcritics which appeared that year, this reviewer wrote that “His [Richter’s] magnificent melding of past and present shows again that great works of art are organic things, which, in respectful hands, can be reshaped into something fresh and wondrous and altogether new.”

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Picture Perfect

tugo chen photoIs it a photo, a pencil sketch, a painting? A photo, actually, and it most definitely can be considered its own kind of art in my book. It’s one of the pictures that’s been shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards to be presented next month, a competition that’s fielded more than a quarter of a million entries and is now down to 115 potential winners. As for the lingering image I’m so taken by, it depicts a fisherman farming the sea amidst bamboo rods erected for aquaculture off the coast of southern China. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that; as always, the creative eye surprises.

Photo: Tugo Cheng

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 2/25/16

Oscars 2016Girl Power: You know it’s an outstanding year for women in film when one of our greatest living actresses is considered an also-ran in the run-up to the Oscars. I’m referring, of course, to Cate Blanchett, who at one point seemed a lock for the Best Actress prize for her performance in the moody and evocative Carol, which proved the critics’ darling — but not so much of the Academy, it seems. How the film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, with a couple of slots left open in the category, is beyond me. Adding insult to injury was denying a nod to Todd Haynes’ brilliant direction.

I felt for sure that Blanchett would be difficult to beat…until. Three other nominated performances—Brie Larson for Room, Saoirse Rohan in Brooklyn, and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years — all unexpectedly moved me in distinctly different ways, and all of a sudden Blanchett wasn’t such a sure bet. (Jennifer Lawrence, the fifth nominee, was perfectly serviceable in Joy, but a bit out of her league in this assembly.)

Opinion has coalesced around Brie Larson, as a mother whose ferocious love under unthinkable circumstances saves her son but brings her to the throes of madness in Room. She’s the definite front-runner, and her wins at the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards only solidified that perception. As good as Larson was, and as extremely difficult it was a role to play, I still have to say that Saoirse Rohan in Brooklyn was also a real discovery. A quiet, beautifully shot film filled with nuance and emotion, Brooklyn captures the heart largely through Rohan’s luminescent, inward melancholy, and stamps her as one to watch going forward.

It’s likely that many won’t see 45 Years, which is a shame, as Charlotte Rampling — star of a number of art-house films in the ‘60s and ‘70s — carves a breathtakingly intelligent performance as a woman whose world is rocked after decades of marriage to a man she only thought she knew. Rampling’s fortunes in the Best Actress category fell precipitously after some inartful comments regarding the “Oscars-so-white” controversy, but her performance is nevertheless a revelation: the damage of a belated emotional betrayal conveyed in all its confounding complexity.

An interesting conundrum takes place for Best Supporting Actress, with the awards season’s “It” girl, Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl. The performance is no more “supporting” than Lawrence’s was in Joy, but, alas, the Academy moved her out of the main group into this competition, which also includes another Jennifer (Jason Leigh), as well as Rooney Mara, Rachel McAdams, and Kate Winslet.

The truth is Vikander’s haunting role as an AI creation in the magnificent Ex Machina is the one that deserved the supporting nod, and she should have gotten a double nomination for leading actress in Danish Girl. (Guess the voters were afraid of showing too much love.) Eddie Redmayne, playing a pioneer in the annals of the LGBT movement, may have received more of the attention, but Vikander’s turn in Girl largely made his wonderful performance possible.

As for the others, Rooney Mara’s chances have sort of faded in the same way as Blanchett’s for Carol, leaving Kate Winslet as Vikander’s main competition in the category. An actress I usually rave about, Winslet fell off my Oscar radar with a major technical glitch – not of the computer kind – in the biopic, Steve Jobs. A third of the way into the movie she whips out an Eastern European accent that comes from seemingly out of nowhere, totally disrupting the continuity of her character. A rare faux-pas for an artist at her level. (Throw some shade director Danny Boyle’s way, also, for letting it pass.)

But no matter a boo-boo here or there, it’s one of the strongest years in recent memory for female performances. Let’s not forget it wasn’t that long ago that Sandra Bullock actually won an Oscar for the forgettable The Blind Side.

Whoever wins this Sunday, I doubt I’ll come way disappointed.

Vigée’s Vision

Le Brun Self-PortraitThe painting flashed across my Twitter timeline like a breath of fresh air, startling in its realism and immediacy and lightness of being.

I wasn’t familiar with the artist, Vigée Le Brun (the piece is a self-portrait), who’s now featured in a new exhibition that opened this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subtitled Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, it’s the first retrospective of Le Brun’s work in modern times, and she’ll also be celebrated as one of the lesser known trailblazers in the annals of art as part of Women’s History Month in March. Portraitist at the court of Marie Antoinette, Le Brun’s “success as a young female painter in a male-dominated profession made her an object of envy and the target of vitriolic, often misogynistic libels in the anti-establishment press during the years leading up to the French Revolution,” wrote the New York Times last year… “and her association with the anciens régimes of Europe was a source of lingering prejudice against a remarkable artist and independent woman.”

The technical mastery of the painting can’t be overstated. The portrait, evocative of Rubens (a lifelong influence), nearly jumps from the canvas in soft lucidity, its facial expression harboring the tiniest hint of discovery: you somehow sense that she’s recognized you across the span of the centuries (it was painted in 1790).

It’s a feeling that only great art has the capacity to impart.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France runs through May 15 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hearing Brando

Marlon BrandoSurprisingly overlooked in the feature documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards is an unforgettable depiction of the man considered the greatest American actor of the 20th Century — as told in his own words, and culled from private audiotape recordings that served as a therapeutic escape for one of the most complex and fascinating personalities to ever appear on a movie screen.

Listen to Me Marlon (which David Edelstein of New York magazine has called “the greatest, most searching documentary of an actor ever put on film”), is directed and edited by Stevan Riley in mesmeric fashion, complementing the jarringly personal narrative of Brando’s often stream-of-consciousness thoughts with rarely-seen video footage perfectly in sync with each moment.

The film begins amid scattered scenes of the lonely refuge that was the actor’s Los Angeles home, and Brando’s voice describing himself as a “troubled man, alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder…” Brando, who died in 2004, was speaking in the years after his son, Christian, was convicted and sent to prison for manslaughter in the death of his half-sister’s lover. (Cheyenne, Brando’s second child, herself committed suicide just a few years later.) Facing the press after the Christian incident, a shaken Brando sadly commented, “Misery has come to this house…”

The emotional turmoil that tore him apart in his later years was epilogue to the psychological trauma suffered throughout his youth at the hands of a physically abusive father and an alcoholic mother. In tapes that he labeled “self-hypnosis,” he drifts back to his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, attempting to recapture “the state of peace of the boy you remember, watching the elm leaves coming down…” The reality was far harsher. “When what you are as a child is unwanted…you look for an identity that will be acceptable.”

Marlon ShowtimeThat identity found its form in acting, and was largely shaped by the legendary teacher Stella Adler, whom Brando hooked up with at the Actors Studio after arriving in New York in the ‘40s (“with holes in my pocket, holes in my mind”). Adler’s espousal of what was known as “method” acting, based on the theories of Constantin Stanislavski, was a perfect fit for the young thespian’s talents. After beginning work with Brando, Adler presciently told him, “The world is going to hear from you.”

Which of course it did, and quite loudly, but even worldwide fame and acclaim don’t always win you accolades from those whom you want them most.

In one of the most striking scenes in the documentary, the newly lauded actor (at the time, he was the youngest to ever have won the Oscar for Best Actor, for On the Waterfront in 1954, a record he held until 1978) is shown in a television interview with his father, who’s asked, “I can imagine you’re just a bit proud of your son right now, aren’t you?” “Well,” answers the elder Brando, “as an actor not too proud, but as a man, why, quite proud.” The son’s reaction is priceless, a subtle mixture of ‘huh?’ and WTH that justifies a description of his old man as someone with “not much love in him.” (When Christian was born, Brando swore he would never let him near his child.)

It’s not all about unhappiness. Listen to Me Marlon (which can be seen on Showtime) features remarkable footage of a joyous and unfettered Brando at his most liberated, in the place that he loved best: Tahiti. On the 12-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he bought in the ‘60s, he was free to be himself and revel in the people whom he said “just took love for granted.” “It was everything I longed for,” he recalled. If he ever felt “closer to a sense of peace, it would be there.”

In the end, after the countless words and analyses that have pondered what lay at the heart of Brando’s genius, it’s also refreshing to learn that the artist himself did not see it as all that complicated. “Acting is just making stuff up. But that’s OK.”

We hear you, Marlon.

Rebel Rebel

[A repost of a piece I wrote about David Bowie in 2014. A visionary musical hero and artist who never ceased evolving, a singular and revolutionary influence whose talent impacted so many aspects of the creative arts — what a void he leaves. Good night, Sweet Duke.]

david bowieI don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]