Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 2/23/17

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“Moonlight”

Faces of Oscar: In 2011, a slight, gimmicky, and not particularly transcendent film swept the awards season, culminating with five Academy Awards after garnering a whopping ten nominations. Shot entirely in black and white and with the added novelty of being a silent picture, The Artist was the toast of Hollywood – yet now, just six years later, is not much remembered.

I feel pretty much the same way about this year’s cinema célèbre – the slight, gimmicky, and also not particularly transcendent La La Land. It’s sweet, it’s cute, and one can appreciate its escapist musical charms at a time when they’re more necessary than ever. But 14 Oscar nominations? My feeling is it’ll be joining The Artist in barely remembered territory a few years down the road.

Count me in the Moonlight camp for this year’s Best Picture. It’s really the one true work of art amongst this year’s nominees, carving a little piece of real estate in that cultural and artistic landscape of the soul. (Yes, this one IS transcendent.) In colors and music and use of silence it paints a coming of age story that sings of hope amongst despair, and those connections that mark us for life, no matter our backgrounds. Though I’ll be more than delighted when Viola Davis wins the Supporting Actress award for Fences, Naomie Harris as the crack-addicted mother in Moonlight runs a close second, and Mahershala Ali, as mentor to the child version of the protagonist, Chiron, is similarly moving.

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Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”

In spite of what looks to be a La La Land juggernaut which will likely include its female star Emma Stone as Best Actress, I’ll go on the record that it’s long past due that Isabelle Huppert, known in film circles as the French Meryl Streep, wins her first Oscar. In Elle, a psychological thriller (inexplicably left out of the Foreign Language Film nominations), directed by Paul Verhoeven, she owns a role which I’d venture to say even Streep would find a challenge. It’s a quirkily dark depiction of a woman who suffers from unspeakable emotional damage, yet finds some weird empowering strength in those very elements that would have put anyone else over the deep end. Well, most would actually say she is off the deep end, but Huppert’s steely-eyed performance, devoid of any pathos whatsoever, is a master class in deliberative acting. Not much chance she’ll steal the award from Ms. Stone, but one can hope.

Speaking of theft, the biggest case of robbery in the acting nominations concerns Annette Bening. Though much has been made of the passing over of Amy Adams (for both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals) for a Best Actress nod, the exclusion of Bening for her extraordinary performance in 20th-Century Women is nothing short of grand larceny.  As much as I adore Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins was really no more than a curio piece elevated only by her usual magnificent presence; another nominee, Ruth Negga in Loving, though luminous in a quiet and stoic performance, could also have been painlessly sacrificed for the inclusion of Bening. Arguably the greatest living American actress whose initials are not MS, one wonders how long she has to wait to claim the prize that’s been rightfully hers — going on the fifth time.

Regarding the men, I had a late change of heart about Casey Affleck, so lauded for his introspective characterization of a janitor carrying the weight of the world on lonely shoulders in the melancholy Manchester by the Sea. Not a change of heart about the performance itself, mind you, which is haunting, fragile yet tenacious, remarkably inward without bordering on indulgent. Nope, Affleck was indeed quite wonderful. But there was something about Denzel Washington in his adaptation of the August Wilson play, Fences, that unexpectedly won me over in its solidity and strength. What a treasure he is. Should he win, it would mark Washington’s third Oscar, a testament to his reassuring survivability.

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Sunny Penwar in “Lion”

As for feel-good movie of the year? Let the Lion roar. As engrossing a first half of a film I’ve seen in a while, Lion’s real-life message of hope that cannot be quenched (buoyed by a touchingly absorbing performance by the child actor Sunny Pawar) is one that’s long lingers. Its place in the wildly creative and diverse jumbo of the Oscar mix this year is more than welcome. And one more reason to tune in and see what happens on Sunday.

Picabia in Three

From the exhibit, wonderfully entitled Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, a trio of pieces by one of the most multifaceted of 20th-Century artists you’ve probably never heard of, Francis Picabia (1879-1953). On view at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York through mid-March, the three paintings shown below capture just a taste of the scope and breadth of the work of the French-born trailblazer who’s perhaps most associated with the Dada movement, but whose career is difficult to sum up in any sort of categorical way. In these examples alone, Picabia swerves from the cubist abstraction of La Source, at top, to experiments in what were called “mechanomorphs” based on mechanical imagery, middle, to later works fashioned on photos, some with Hollywood-themed undertones, from the popular “girlie” magazines of the day (bottom). Picabia once claimed, “Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless and impossible to justify.” No doubt his brand of radical iconoclasm influenced many to follow.

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“La Source” (The Spring) (1912)
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“Reverence”(1915)
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“Portrait d’un couple” (1942-1943)

Shock and Pa

[A reblog of a review I wrote in 2011 about Carrie Fisher’s memoir, Shockaholic. Like so many others, I am in disbelief at her passing, and as noted in the piece, was always struck by her laconic, laser-like perspectives on her life and the circumstances surrounding it, her unparalleled sense of biting humor, and indefatigable perseverance regardless of whatever hit her way. She’ll be so very missed.]

CARRIE FISHER’S LATEST OFFERING, the cleverly titled Shockaholic, is a markedly similar follow-up to her Wishful Drinking, which was released in 2008 and eventually parlayed into a successful one-woman show on Broadway. For those who are partial to Fisher’s sharp and acerbic take on things, her sense of the absurd clearly derived from first-hand experience, Shockaholic (if not exactly shocking) doesn’t disappoint.

In this slim and admittedly self-indulgent collection, the novelist/actress (Princess Leia in a long-ago and far-away Star Wars incarnation), reprises her riff on an often surreal life as child of Hollywood stars, ‘50s sweethearts Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, in an anecdotal memoir that could have been titled “Before I Forget.” (For the majority of those too young to remember, her parents’ marriage ended when her father ran off with screen siren Elizabeth Taylor, quite the scandal in those days.)

The name of the book is a play on her recent experiences with electroshock therapy, a treatment that has proven successful in her ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder (a subject covered in her novel, The Best Awful).  It comprises the opening chapter, where Fisher goes on the record about the amnesiacal after-effects of ECT, as it’s called, which results in loss of short-term memory. (She admits to “blanks” at various stages throughout the volume.)

In typical Fisher fashion, she finds humor in the madness: ”One could argue that by having regular ECT treatments, I’m paying two – that’s right, two – electric bills. One for the house and one for my head.” But on a more serious note, she adds that it “punched the dark lights” out of her depression.

“Wishful Shrinking” is about her battle with the weight issues that led to a high-profile rescue by the “S.S. Jenny Craig.” (“Being the poster girl for enormousness is not anything any kid grows up aspiring to.”) To her credit, she admits to the commercialism of her gig as a JC spokesperson, with the apologia that, “I mean, there’s a lot of other things I could do for money. I could sell autographed ECT machines or rhinestoned mood stabilizers or even Star Wars scented laxatives.”

The best piece is tagged “The Senator,” about a decades-old dinner engagement that Fisher shared with her date (and later lover), Connecticut lawmaker Chris Dodd, and that icon of American politics, Ted Kennedy. Colorful and well-written (she alludes to Kennedy’s “alert and aristocratic eyes”), she describes a memorable evening that turned into a bit of a showdown, triggered by the senator’s more than subtly salacious and unexpectedly inappropriate questions after having a bit too much to drink.

With “Pa-Pa” Eddie, circa 1990s

If a lot of the previous Wishful Drinking was about Fisher’s mother, the chipper kewpie-doll actress Debbie Reynolds, who’s mostly absent here, Shockaholic is at the end a wistful tribute to father Eddie, who passed away in the fall of 2010. “Puff Daddy,” as she nicknamed him (Fisher had an affinity for marijuana, and a photo of him lighting up is classic), reentered his daughter’s life late in the game, and she paints a picaresque portrait of the man she never got to know as a child, but with whom she developed a close relationship in his declining years:

“Near the end, he was doing all he could to get to know me, everything from hugging me tighter than any man had hugged me in my life to calling me fifteen times a week. I mean, if when I was young, I had gotten even one of those calls a month, I would have been over the moon.”

When he told her in his last months that he “wished he had her life,” the daughter replied, “You did, Daddy. That’s why you’re in bed.”

Another great Fisher line, one amongst many in this short but lively compilation that displays much of her characteristically biting wit.

[First published as Book Review: Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher, on Blogcritics.org.]

Havana Hopes

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Street scene in eastern Cuba, early ’90s.

A man who believed himself bigger than life was buried in a tiny casket today.

At first, I found it unseemly, the street celebrations by the Cuban enclave in Miami, upon the news of the death, at long last, of Fidel Castro. As a Cuban-American — and resident of Miami since infancy, as my parents were exiled concurrent with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 – I felt a curious detachment from the revelry, perhaps having already experienced it in my mind on the several occasions when rumors of the bearded one’s demise erroneously spread like wildfire in the community. It all seemed like a predestined ritual, a pent-up paroxysm of emotion amongst those genuinely aggrieved (and some just along for the ride), a moment awaited for what seemed like centuries.

Since I’ve had use of reason, Castro loomed large over existence; rare was the family dinner where his name didn’t somehow manage to infiltrate the conversation. And the stories. And the memories. And always, the sadness. So I don’t begrudge the celebrants their moment. It was a long time coming.

He was buried, ironically, near the resting place of the great Cuban poet and patriot José Martí. Would that Castro had heeded Martí’s timeless words, “The general happiness of a people rests on the individual independence of its inhabitants.”  One can continue to hope.

Photo: Marc PoKempner

The Twilight Time

twilight

This night has been so strange that it seemed
As if the hair stood up on my head.

— William Butler Yeats, “Presences” (1919)

Sounds of the City

lang langWhen describing his jazz-fused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, created in 1924, composer George Gershwin once said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Almost 100 years later, the wildly popular pianist Lang Lang, whose latest offering, New York Rhapsody, was released on Sony Classical last month, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

And so one rhapsody begets another. Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a crossover album that offers homage to the city that never sleeps, with appearances by an array of artists from the fields of pop, jazz, and classical. Whatever one can say of the choice of selections, from an eclectic group of composers ranging from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Danny Elfman, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z, they are not the expectedly clichéd (no “New York, New York” here, thankfully).

Lang had lofty goals as he went about preparing the album. “One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city – and I wanted to tell it,” he says in the liner notes. That story, an eventful sonic progression from jazz and Broadway all the way to punk and hip-hop, is an ambitious one, though the results here are a bit hit or miss.

On the hit side is a creative mashup of “Somewhere” (from Bernstein’s West Side Story) alongside Reed’s “Dirty Blvd,” featuring Lisa Fischer and Jeffrey Wright. Fischer’s vocal is probably the finest of the album, which also serves up a rare miss from Andra Day, who’s no competition for Alicia Keys on what’s become another signature Big Apple anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Sean Jones struts a terrific trumpet on “Tonight” (also from West Side Story), but Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Moon River” leaves some wistfulness to be desired.

The use of two little-known pieces by Copland – “Story of Our Town” and “In Evening Air”new york rhapsody – to open and close the album was the idea of Larry Klein, the Grammy-winning producer and brainchild behind the New York Rhapsody project. Both are less soaring than contemplative and capture the “pockets of peace and quiet beauty” that exist within the “vortex of New York City,” in Klein’s words.

Rhapsody in Blue is, of course, where Lang gets to show off his chops, along with the 76-year-old Herbie Hancock – still in fine mettle – and a spirited London Symphony Orchestra. A reprise of an abbreviated performance by the two at the 2008 Grammys, it features both a playfulness and grandeur that highlights two consummate pianists doing what they do best.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, the Chinese-born Lang, now 34, was recently chosen to be New York City’s first-ever “Cultural Tourism Ambassador,” the latest in a long list of plaudits since he burst on the classical music scene in 1999 as a prodigious teenager lionized for his brash and bold technique. Settling into superstardom can always become predictably complacent, so it’s nice to see him trying to expand the audience. It’s New York, Lang says, “that turned classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles.” With New York Rhapsody, the experiment continues.

[Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody will be featured on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center on November 25.]

First published as Music Review: Lang Lang – ‘New York Rhapsody’ at Blogcritics.org

Age is Abstract

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Linear perfection: a canvas from the “Blanco y Verde” series (1959-1971)

She sold her first painting at the tender age of 89. She turned 101 years old in May. And now, Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, finds herself with a career retrospective at the fabled Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Who says perseverance doesn’t pay off?

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“I work, and I work, and I work”: Carmen Herrera, shown here on her 94th birthday

Herrera’s works, now recognized as seminal pieces in the development of abstract minimalism, were long kept largely private by the artist, who was a bit overshadowed by her great Cuban-born contemporary Wifredo Lam. Celebrated for her perspicacious use of lines, shapes, and colors, Herrera is often  mentioned with another master of the abstract, Barnett Newman (who, coincidentally, was a neighbor in 1950s New York — they often shared breakfasts together), as well as that other magical juggler of lines and color, Ellsworth Kelly.

The recently opened exhibition at the Whitney, entitled Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, makes clear the artist’s lifelong obsession with precepts of architecture (which she studied at the University of Havana); her artworks are drawn with the geometric precision of a draftsman in search of linear perfection. In fact, Herrera once said that, “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”

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Precise geometry: “Green and Orange” (1958)

She continues to create, albeit when she’s up to it, as even she is not immune from the mundane maladies of aging. More involved now in conception rather than execution, Herrera sketches out ideas for new paintings that are then transferred to grid paper and which her assistant subsequently finishes.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” Herrera recently told the Wall Street Journal  (which praised her “intense visual power”). And there’s no fear of the future. Also known for her acerbic sense of humor, she wryly quips: “When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it.”

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 2, 2017.