In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.
Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.
But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.
Now that the shutdown is over, I can tell you about a small but punchy photography exhibit at the Sackler.
“Sense of Place,” which runs through November 11, disrupts many of the cliches of East vs. West. In these tired oppositions, Europe is a clash of swords and horses; China, Japan, or any other part of the undifferentiated East is a lone monk crossing a quiet pond. The West is the land of change and history, the East is the land where life is as fleeting and yet eternal as the seasons.
Well, there is a lone man crossing a quiet pond in “Sense of Place.” Hai Bo’s image is gentle, sad and misty, as a bridge arches in graceful curves over the placid water. But this is only the first in a series of three images. The bridge is destroyed. The man is left wandering in a foggy forest, and then abandoned among concrete structures under a blank white sky. In just three photographs we’ve entered the modern world: a world of industrialization and rapid change. Despite the exhibit’s title, time rather than place is the major theme of the small show—it takes up only two rooms—and the emphasis is on the aftermath of distinctly twentieth-century destruction in China, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam.
William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is usually considered a comedy—albeit a dark one. But in Shakespeare Theatre Company director Jonathan Munby’s production, currently playing at Washington’s Lansburgh Theatre, the play is both comedy and tragedy: “I think people find the duality of it problematic,” he said in a video interview. “For me, it doesn’t feel problematic. It actually feels like one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I really do think this is a masterpiece. What Shakespeare offers us, I think, is a slice of humanity. And as we know, life is both comic and tragic.”
In Munby’s production, paradox—between comedy and tragedy, truth and duplicity, temptation and purity—takes center stage. The beautiful set, with its tattered curtains and peeling paint, seems to symbolize a façade of morality fallen into decay. Everything is colored in bold black, white, and red, bringing a symbolic representation to the virtue, vice, and temptation threaded through each scene.
Measure for Measure is a play of ethical dilemmas. The dialogue is strewn with moral irony, in which “some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” The Duke of Vienna (Kurt Rhoads), has allowed rule of law to deteriorate through soft rule, and decides to elect a magistrate in his stead: the puritanical and dogmatic Angelo (Scott Parkinson). Though the Duke pretends to leave Vienna, he actually remains in a priestly disguise. Meanwhile, Angelo begins cracking down on the city’s rampant sin. He condemns Claudio (Avery Clark) to death for sleeping with his fiancé out of wedlock. Distraught at her brother’s impending death, Claudio’s sister Isabella (Miriam Silverman), a novice nun, goes to Angelo and pleads for his life. As she implores mercy for her brother, Angelo’s lust is awakened toward her. He promises to spare her brother’s life—if she consents to sleep with him. The story unfolds around this moral predicament: whether Isabella should give up her chastity, or allow her brother to die.
Munby chose to stage the play in post-WWI Vienna, an early 1930’s society of disillusionment and ungoverned sexuality. It is a post-Freudian society, in which his conceptions of psychoanalysis, creativity, and liberation have unleashed new views of sexuality and the ego. Prostitution and extra-marital fornication represent new norms. But against this backdrop of licentiousness, Fascism raises its bold fist. Angelo, in full Nazi costume, represents a new and harsh rule of law.
The play pushes boundaries at almost every turn, taking Measure for Measure’s inherent sexuality to a more controversial level. In Munby’s conception, sexuality is the central dilemma of every character. Thus, this production fully earns its “Recommended for ages 18 and above” rating. Even while the audience was shuffling to their seats, the play included a cabaret pre-show and striptease.
Perhaps the director’s most interesting character rendering was the Duke. From perusing the play’s dialogue, one pictures him as rather paternal and kind, but a soft leader. In conceptualizing the Duke, Munby looks to the man Shakespeare modeled him after: James I, a “bi-sexual, hard-drinking, theatre-loving” king. Thus, the Duke in Munby’s conception is “a man wrestling with his own sexuality and identity, someone who is seeking to know himself after a period of anarchy for fourteen years.” The Duke cloaks himself in priestly garb and orchestrates the judgment of Angelo—but isn’t afraid to smudge ethical rules in order to obtain his end purpose (“The doubleness of the benefit will defeat the deceit,” he assures Isabella in one scene). Munby lends the Duke an ethically messy past, full of intrigue and cowardice. When he reveals himself at the end of the play, in full regalia and authority, it almost seems he is putting on an unlawful mask of moral authority. Thus, the greatest foil this play seems to offer is between Angelo, the man of great moral resolution who falls, and the Duke, the fallen man who puts on moral resolution. And betwixt the two of them is Isabella: perhaps the one character who offers both moral and intellectual integrity.
One wishes the acting were a bit stronger. Scott Parkinson’s characterization of Angelo was sadly one-dimensional: he embodied the ascetic Angelo, perhaps, but never the wild and lustful man beneath. The character’s deep emotional complexity was glazed over. Similarly, Kurt Rhoads could have showed greater passion and feeling as the Duke, especially considering his interesting backstory. The only characters that ultimately charmed were Lucio, played by Cameron Folmar, and Miriam Silverman’s Isabella. Folmar is a stellar comedic actor, with a gift for witty dialogue and comic expressions. Silverman portrayed Isabella’s devotion and winsomeness with spirit.
The play is sexually charged and messy. But its thoughtful presentation of ethics made it a worthwhile interpretation of an oft-overlooked Shakespearian drama. It will run at Lansburgh through October 27.
The engine which runs “After the Revolution,” a play by Amy Herzog that will show at Theater J (the theater of Washington’s Jewish Community Center) through October 6, is a generations-old betrayal: A fledgling leftist activist from a family of Communist Jews learns that her much-honored grandfather spied for the Soviet Union during World War II and then perjured himself in front of HUAC denying it.
The revelation shatters Emma Joseph’s trust in her family and in her own righteousness, and, because she’s the founder of a legal defense fund for Mumia Abu-Jamal which she named after her grandfather, it threatens her career. As her family struggles to deal with her intense reaction to this news from the Venona decryptions and their own conflicted, complicit responses to it, further family secrets and resentments get unearthed.
Emma and her family never quite arrive at a full reckoning, but there is enough meat here to make the play well worth seeing if you have any interest in its subject matter. Be sure to have somewhere you can go afterward for drinks and arguments. (I am only half a Jew, but I had at least three opinions about this play all by myself!)
Mark Oppenheimer started a conversation over at The New Republic on whether parents ought to force their children to learn a classical instrument. He contended that, despite arguments for the education’s lifelong value, his grown associates have experienced few benefits from their former musical training:
All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago. And the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.
In light of this, Oppenheimer argues that only the inspired student should delve into classical training. Although he sees the benefit of the perseverance and self-confidence learned, he notes, “Studying anything over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. There is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin. Otherwise, you’re learning the same valuable lessons that you’d get from karate class, or from badminton. Or from endless hours of foosball.”
Oppenheimer is right: many of the lessons learned from the practice room are also inculcated on the basketball court, tennis field, or machine shop. Why should students be forced to pursue classical music? Paul Berman, a Senior Editor at TNR, responded to this question on Friday. He contended that the study of classical music is, in his words, “a spiritual enterprise”: “I do not mean to say that classical music is better than other kinds of music,” he writes, “…But I do think that classical music is, in some respect, bigger than other kinds of music. The music has been going on for five hundred years as a self-conscious tradition, dedicated to an extended meditation on a series of musical structures so limited as nearly to be arithmetical.”
This is true of my experience with classical music, as well: it is the “mother art.” When you pour your heart and soul into learning her quirks and essence, she rewards you immensely – not just in the classical strain, but in every other realm of musical study. Those trained classically usually find other genres easy to pick up. I’ve met several classically trained guitarists whose jazz and rock solos put others to shame. They learned the “mother art,” and her demanding rigor made other styles accessible.
I began piano lessons at age seven. Though auditory memorization came naturally to me, sight-reading was a long and painstaking process. I wonder at times whether building that reflex also enhanced my speed-reading. Early on in my classical training, I developed a love for Romantic music—especially Debussy, Brahms, and Beethoven. During one of my first competitions, I played a simple romantic-era waltz. I was so in love with the piece, I forgot where I was. I forgot anything and everything—except those soulful, otherworldly notes. Indeed, I was so swept up in the moment, I almost forgot how to end the piece. But after the song’s conclusion, when I turned around, the judge was smiling at me. Despite my trance-induced memory hiccup, he awarded me the highest prize for my age group. I think he knew I was in love with the music.
Should there be rules about how we conduct ourselves in movie theaters? The debate ratcheted up this week, after tech blogger Hunter Walk suggested theaters should allow audiences to use other media. He wants “the ability to multitask” and suggested theaters offer more light, wifi, electricity outlets, and even a second screen experience. Anil Dash agreed, adding that “shushers” are a “textbook case of cultural conservatism” whose arguments are akin to those stating “women should not wear pants, or defending slavery…” He sounds rather like a modern Punchinello, crying to theater snobs, “Possibly it may disturb your neighbors; but you do not ask them to hear it … Isn’t this a free country?”
It’s true that the idea of sitting quietly and watching a performance is rather antiquated. It used to be a sign of respect – not merely to fellow observers, but also to artists themselves. Classical musicians were prone to “shush” audiences who clapped at the wrong moment. You can only imagine the outrage expressed when ringing, buzzing phones appeared on the scene. They believed their hard work and skill should command a level of audience respect. But Walk and Dash belong to a generation that rarely experiences this classical culture. They have likely never attended a ballet, opera, or orchestral performance. Most Americans live in a world where every entertaining event is accompanied by Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If Americans can tweet at rock concerts and rodeos, why not at the movie theater? Moreover, movies are not live events, which understandably impedes any sense of “respect” one feels for absentee actors and director.
However, Atlantic Wire’s Richard Dawson believes silence is more than artistic “respect” – it is an act of community: “Dash says the shushers are trying to block out the world, when I think it’s the opposite. Being considerate of those around you — recognizing that they might want to watch a movie in the quiet dark — is an act of communion.” Quiet consideration thus defined requires accepting and respecting the place you inhabit. Ballet reviewer Reese Thompson compared theater and ballet to a waltz between artists and audience. A lack of audience energy or participation dynamically affects the quality of the performance. No one, she writes, “whether they’re watching a comic perform in a bar or sitting in the orchestra section of the Metropolitan Opera,” should ever answer their cell phone during a performance.
In the age of distraction, it’s hard to reject multitasking and outward-connecting. But Fast Company writer Laura Vanderkam argues “monotasking” is key to conscientious flourishing, and she encouraged readers to embrace focus once more. To “monotask” during an artistic event (be it movie or concert) is an act of simple respect. But it is also something more: it is a moment of community between audience members, in which they allow their imaginations to become entranced with another world. As a child, I remember losing myself so completely in a movie, I emerged feeling slightly foreign in my own skin. But that sort of enchantment is harder nowadays; you never know when your neighbor might break the spell with a text or phone call.
Art may be the next frontier of the localism movement: local C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) programs are branching from agriculture into the arts, according to a Sunday New York Times story. The programs have developed a shareholding model to support local studios and artists.
Ironically, Amazon just announced yesterday that it is re-opening its Fine Art platform – selling everything from Salvador Dali works to living room decor. The contrast between this international selling giant and the C.S.A.’s localism efforts hearkens to wars between Amazon and independent booksellers. One wonders what effect “Amazon Art” will have on these community projects.
The C.S.A. believes their system is an “organic alternative” to the commercial gallery. Participants range from youth to older couples “interested in reinvesting in their community and getting involved with something.” The programs acquaint interested buyers with emerging artists and build connections within the local art community:
“The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them. The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold.”
Amazon Art, in contrast, offers an art collection replete with original and limited edition pieces from more than 150 dealers and 4,500 artists. Amazon Marketplace’s Vice President Peter Faricy told the New York Times, “Amazon Art gives galleries a way to bring their passion and expertise about the artists they represent to our millions of customers.”
For those who merely want to cover a wall, Amazon Art will serve their purposes well. But if shoppers want a story behind the paint, independent studios and local artists may better serve the purpose. For instance: every summer in Sun Valley, Idaho, the Kneeland Gallery hosts a motley crew of artists for a plein air painting event. The artists congregate in the Wood River Valley, spread their easels across the rugged landscape, and spend the next few days painting aspens and mountains. Locals and tourists observe artists in action, and buy paintings still wet.
The Kneeland Gallery and C.S.A. support a concept of art that transcends decorative purposes. They advocate art as experience and connection. Amazon Art, however, provides a platform for those who merely want art. This contrast is reminiscent of the Amazon book controversy: independent bookstores offer a unique reading and buying experience. Some book-buyers, however, prefer shopping in the cheapest and most expeditious fashion possible.
Perhaps because of its visual medium, art seems even more valuable as an experiential purchase than as an online buy. Books contain a built-in story and experience. Paintings, however, have more inferred meaning and depth. Art buyers who meet the artist or watch their art being created will have a deeper connection to the work. Neither purchasing method is “right” or “wrong” – but art aficionados must determine the importance of artistic experience and relationship in their purchasing decisions.
It’s the kind of Mother’s Day card you might give if you come from an especially unflinching family: A mother stands tall and imposing in front of the camera, facing it squarely and glaring at it. The daughter stands behind her mother–she’s slim enough that her body fits entirely behind her mom’s, as her face looks away and down. Their two shadows merge on the wall, creating one larger, indistinct shadow. The mother is fighting to protect the daughter, the daughter is willing to take shelter, and yet there’s that private look away from the camera, that looming shadow. A mother’s protection and a daughter’s acceptance won’t be enough. No one can protect a child completely, even when the child wants to be sheltered.
This is one of the most striking photographs in the Brooklyn Museum’s small show dedicated to Pennsylvania photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier (running only until August 11, so you should make time to go soon). There are a few extra photos from Frazier in the “American Identities” permanent collection on the fifth floor, so don’t miss those. But the main show, “A Haunted Capital,” is an attempt to tell the story of a decaying industrial town through the story of her own family. She created wallpaper which juxtaposes the heyday of the steel mill, protesters carrying signs alleging racism at the local hospital, and tender family portraits. Some of the urban landscape or slice-of-life photos here are excellent: “UPMC Braddock Hospital and Parking Lot,” from 2011, shows an abandoned building so destroyed that it looks like it’s been clawed open. The thin drifts of snow and contrasting diagonal lines create balance and suspension in the composition, taking it beyond reportage. “Mom and Me at the Phase,” from 2007, shows her mom wryly settled in at a local bar hung with Christmas stockings and festooned with a big bow; there’s a Robert Frank feeling in Frazier’s mother’s careful hair and makeup, and her holiday isolation.
The best pieces in the show is about Frazier’s family. She has an unexpected respect for the sentiment and kitsch with which we pad our habitats. Because so many of these photos are family portraits and tributes, there’s a sweetness and gentleness to the exhibit’s tone. Her grandmother collected dolls, and there are several portraits in which dolls or other bric-a-brac dominate; there’s an especially blunt one in which Frazier’s mom sits on a bed, slightly slumped, beside a big sprawling cat, surrounded by cute pictures of kittens and Jesus. In other hands this could have been a sneering portrait or a merely ironic one. Look, that’s the fake and this is the reality! But the real person chose the kitschy pictures. They spoke to something in her, and so they, too, are real.
New Yorker blogger Bee Wilson explored the narrative form in recipes on Monday. While introducing readers to William Sitwell’s new book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, she demonstrated cookbooks’ ability to read like novels. Her article shows how narrative threads through unexpected facets of human experience.
To that end, here is a list of some diverse manifestations of narrative, starting with Wilson’s own observations:
“Serve your spargus”: Recipes
Wilson believes recipes offer a story arc, a version of reality that appeals to our imagination and our senses. In addition, she writes, “part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.” Recipes have excellent potential for both comedy and tragedy. They contain a fun and interesting history, as well—for instance, Wilson refers to a recipe written by chef La Varenne in 1651, advising cooks to boil their greens and take them out “as little sod as you can, it is the better,” to “set them draining,” and then to “serve your spargus.” Many modern food bloggers capture the experience and narrative of cooking in their recipes and pictures. One example of this is Beth Kirby, blogger at Local Milk: “It features purple asparagus thicker than my thumbs, asparagus so prized I actually had a nightmare about not getting to the market in time to get my paws on them last week. And it, my most precious produce, alongside the hairy, stinging dead nettles. The ancient quinoa. The glorious egg.”
“There lies a baseball”: Sports
Sports stories are some of the most popular and acknowledged narratives. Sports books and movies abound—covering everything from baseball to chess. They give us a narrative replete with struggle and perseverance, protagonists and antagonists, suffering and triumph. A personal favorite example of sports narrative is Gary Smith’s feature “The Ball”:
“It looks like such a simple thing, the ball in the metal box. But if you were to begin to pull it apart to know it at its core, you’d have to unstitch 88 inches of waxed thread sewn in a factory on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano, peel back two swaths of cowhide taken from a tannery in Tennessee, unravel 369 yards of Vermont wool and pare away a layer of rubber applied in Batesville, Miss.—and you still wouldn’t have gotten to its heart.”
“The music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand”: Music
Each piece of well-crafted music has a beginning, climax, and conclusion, connected by strands of conflict and tension, harmony and melody. It usually features themes and interweaving characters. It has a complex and fascinating history. Music reviews like Russell Platt’s “Master Builder” show us the literary elements of musical form:
“The brooding, major-minor opening chord and the ‘wayward’ tune over pizzicato cellos; the herky-jerky rhythms enunciated, en masse, by the winds; the big, brassy, timpani-thwacking, polytonal finale. As Swayne admits, sometimes ‘the music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand.’”
Bill Watterson’s comic series Calvin and Hobbes has inspired a religious following since its publication. Even after its retirement in 1995, millions of readers remained devoted to the series. Now a new film documentary called “Dear Mr. Watterson,” opening in theaters November 15, explores how comic book characters could inspire such devotion.
“Little can compare to the nostalgic value of that particular comic strip,” says TIME in a story on the documentary. “And it’s not just nostalgia: the artistic value and the message of Calvin has endured, as is discussed by the fans who make appearances in the film.”
But can a comic strip really have “artistic value?” It’s a concept Watterson personally promoted throughout his career. He was a political science major from Ohio’s Kenyon College, and painted Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on his dorm room ceiling sophomore year. He named six-year-old Calvin after John Calvin, the 16th-century Christian theologian, and Hobbes after 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
The comic focused on tomfoolery between Calvin and his stuffed tiger. Often, Calvin and Hobbes’ witty banter ventured into the philosophic, theological, and political. Calvin discussed “haranguing the multitudes,” “literalism”, and “self-actualizing anima.” Even with its intellectualism, the comic was a fantastic hit: in a 1987 article, The Plain Dealer reported it was No. 1 in reader support in several papers, and had already reached 500,000 book sales. Watterson was “shell-shocked” by his sudden celebrity status.
When Watterson retired Calvin and Hobbes, readers were devastated. But Watterson said, “If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now ‘grieving’ for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine…” Watterson was also weary of pressure to merchandise Calvin and Hobbes. For him, Calvin and Hobbes were more than lucrative pop art to plaster on t-shirts. He had an artist’s stubborn loyalty to the integrity of his craft: “The so-called ‘opportunity’ I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation,” he said in a 1990 Kenyon College Commencement Speech. “It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce.”
Watterson was passionate about the potential of comics, and upset when newspapers tried to limit their artists. “I think that papers are killing the art form,” he told the Plain Dealer. Publishers had reduced cartoon space, thus forcing cartoonists to simplify their work. “Adventure strips have gone right down the tubes. Strips are just getting stupider because they have to be so simple. There’s no drawing, no movement, no expression.”