Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reasons to Be Pretty

The other day, I saw an interview with the playwright Neil LaBute in which he discussed his recent Broadway play, reasons to be pretty, a show that I had enjoyed Off-Broadway last summer. You might be familiar with some of LaBute’s earlier works: The Shape of Things, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Fat Pig, and In the Company of Men. Of these plays and films, reasons to be pretty, bearing only slight traces of the dark, misanthropic LaBute stamp, dares to be hopeful about relationships between men and women and explores how beauty (or the perceived lack thereof) can and does dictate our lives, whether we care to admit it or not.

Richard Avedon understood beauty and captured it in iconic photographs of his beloved muse Suzy Parker, Suzy’s sister Dorian Leigh, Dovima, and Carmen, all of them wearing stunning gowns created by Balenciaga, Lanvin, and Patou. A photographer who worked closely with Diana Vreeland, the formidable editor-in-chief of Vogue, Avedon (following Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi’s style) brought models out of the studio and onto the streets of Paris in the 1940s and 1950s. Avedon’s warm relationship with Parker was the inspiration for the 1957 film, Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire as Dick Avery (a thinly-veiled Avedon) and Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton (a thinly-veiled Parker), as well as Parker herself and other Avedon models. You can see his groundbreaking work in Avedon Fashion: 1944-2000, now at The International Center of Photography through September 20th. Avedon transformed the look of Vogue and his influence is still felt today.

The September Issue, an Anna Wintour (present editor-in-chief) -approved (and maybe even commissioned as a rebuttal to The Devil Wears Prada?) look behind the scenes at the making of the September 2007 issue of Vogue, is an entertaining documentary that doesn’t quite evoke the playfulness and glamour of Avedon’s era, yet still manages to capture the allure of the fashion world. I liked the reality TV, warts-and-all depiction of life at Vogue, e.g. none of the impeccably groomed creatures that populated The Devil seem to actually work at the magazine, which is staffed by - dare I say - dowdy, non-make-up wearing, quite serious women and nattily attired men. I also liked the old married couple of creative director/fashion editor Grace Coddington and Wintour. Coddington emerged as the deceptively insouciant protagonist, much the same as Isaac Mizrahi did in the delightful Unzipped. Robert Altman’s tedious 1994 take on the world of beauty and fashion, Prêt-à-Porter, fell short. Wintour herself acknowledged the lack of respect her siblings have for her profession; even her daughter, Bee Shaffer, finds it hard to take fashion seriously and has instead chosen to pursue a career in law.

Beauty, fame, and fashion will always captive our attention. But how important are these things in the great scheme? For example, do they have the power to trump nuclear disarmament? The answer is yes, at least at the height of the Cold War. According to the September 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, “…the World Disarmament Conference scheduled at Geneva was hastily called off as the press flew to Paris and SUZY [Parker] AND MIKE [Nichols], who had become top news all over the world.” Maybe that is reason enough to be pretty.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Bacchae Again

I went with a friend to see this play again last night - different seats (better view of the Belvedere Castle and the actors as they entered and exited the stage), no raccoons, and a light rain throughout. Still ghastly and magical.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Bacchae - A Night of Wine, Thunder, and Tragedy

Euripides himself would have applauded last night's performance of The Bacchae at The Delacorte Theater (Shakespeare in the Park). Following the hushed final moments of the Greek tragedy, the actors took their curtain call, and then the audience began exiting the theater. Throughout the play, there had been faint rumbles of thunder and flashes of light which signalled a true ominous storm brewing - indeed, it unleashed itself in full force moments after the play ended. Dionysus (God of Wine, Thunder, and Theater, among others, and known as Bacchus to the Romans) played by a sinister, sexy Jonathan Groff (uncanny resemblance to Jim Morrison's "Lizard King" persona), lived up to his godly attributes. One alternative explanation was posed by a friend who suggested that Zeus was getting back at the audience for giggling when a large raccoon appeared stage left twice during the performance.

Returning to The Public Theater after a long hiatus, JoAnne Akalaitis directed this breathtaking play, with a musical score composed by her former husband, Philip Glass. There was not a detail out of place in the stage direction (delicate, synchronized hand movements and gestures of the Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus), music (gorgeously scored), scenery (minimal and right), and costumes (flame-colored robes on the women strikingly contrasted with modern attire for the male characters, even Dionysus, who had a leather jacket and biker boots).

After waiting in line for the requisite 2 1/2 hours, my friends and I were lucky to have gotten front row center tickets, enabling us to see eyes flash and spit fly, and to get sprinkled with water when the Bacchae splashed in the "stream."

Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening, Hair, and The Singing Forest) was excellent, as was André De Shields (Tiresius) whose performance was one of the only good things about this spring's Impressionism with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen. George Bartenieff as Cadmus gave a lovely, understated performance, evoking the weary sadness of King Lear. Joan Macintosh (Agave), Anthony Mackie as Pentheus, and the rest of the cast, not least of all the lovely Bacchae, stirred the audience.

Only one week into the run, I am planning my next line-wait to see The Bacchae again (minus the rain, but in the open air as Euripides intended) before it closes on August 30th.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dan Graham and Lucinda Childs at the Whitney

Go to the Whitney Museum of Art if you want to be confounded by reflections of yourself past and present, courtesy of Conceptual artist Dan Graham. If you want to experience the serenity and calm that come from a particularly good game of chess, combined with the grace of dance, see the collaboration of choreographer Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol Le Witt in Dance Nos. 1 - 5. Created thirty years ago, perhaps it's time that this hypnotic work be staged again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Flammen & Citronen

Is there anyone in America today who has the single-minded purpose of acting upon their convictions in a manner that could result in prison or death? To stand up against a government in order to effect change? Do people here protest against anything anymore? Has it been made more difficult to do so? [Read Naomi Wolf's The End of America and visit the site.] As the country remembers the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this month, notice how the zeitgeist has incrementally shifted inwards towards isolationism over the past two generations. In the 1960s, young people organized themselves to stage mass demonstrations against policies and laws that were morally wrong. Instead of carrying on this tradition, Americans have increasingly become a complacent lot, focused on the banal rather than the profound. What happened?

You may also reflect on the above while watching Flammen & Citronen (Flame & Citron, so-named for their hair color), a superb film set in 1944 Copenhagen which tells the true story of two Danish members of the resistance during WWII. The film features Thure Lindhardt as Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Flame), Mads Mikkelsen as Jorgen Haagen Schmith (Citron), and Stine Stengade as Ketty, the mysterious woman whose allegiances are unclear. From 65-year-old history, director Ole Christian Madsen has created a drama as intense and exciting as if the action had taken place today, with beautifully-realized characters, human and flawed in every way, even managing to make a Gestapo chief sympathetic. Sublime music interspersed with silence, moody (but not false) lighting and cinematography, and lingering close-ups of the actors' faces as they agonized their way through their own private resistances made this one of the most powerful films I've seen.

Friday, August 7, 2009

James Ensor at MoMA

If you haven't done so already, you have until September 21st to visit the James Ensor exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. I cannot add anything to Holland Cotter's New York Times review, Peter Schjeldahl's New Yorker review, or Jerry Saltz' New York magazine review, except to say that I am slightly unnerved, though happy, to have become better acquainted with this Belgian artist's work.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gold Jewelry, a Silver Maelstrom, and Pizza with (photos of) Celebrities

A friend and I visited The Met yesterday. Our intention had been to see the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at The Guggenheim, but it was choked with tourists. Instead, I showed my friend the Wright-designed replica of a Wayzata, Minnesota home in The American Wing of the Met. So much calmer, much more peaceful, a lot more air. And a much better representation of what Wright did as compared to the Guggenheim museum's nautilus.

Since both of us had seen the Francis Bacon show, we visited Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which was stunning. In particular, we admired a belt made of solid gold. In general, beautiful delicate rings, earrings, and amulets were breathtaking. Ivory carvings were exceptionally fine.

I recalled the time I spent in Afghanistan, in the spring of 2002. The state of the country -dire in 2002 - has become even more so now. Foreign (our) presence there has only exacerbated what has been a volatile situation going back much earlier than the era of The Great Game .

We went up to the roof to have a drink and enjoy Roxy Paine's Maelstrom, a stainless steel sculpture the artist designed especially for The Met. It reminded me of the trees that come to life in The Wizard of Oz. Set against an overcast sky with Central Park and a great city view all the way around, Maelstrom fit in nicely, as confirmed by the fact that birds, adults, and children alike were compelled to interact with the piece. Some of Paine's earlier, similar pieces had been in Madison Square Park back in 2007, but had been unsatisfyingly roped off. Today's experience with the art was so much better.

As you know, looking at art increases my appetite (actually, just being alive does this), so we went off in search of the best pizza in New York City (and possibly the world) at John's Pizzeria of Bleecker Street. Graced by the presence of such luminaries as Billy Crystal last week (according to our waiter), Johnny Depp (above our heads in a photo), Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, and Al Pacino (in another of the many celebrity photos), my friend and I quite shamelessly devoured a thin crust brick-oven fired pizza covered liberally with pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, basil, garlic, and peppers. Accompanied by a bottle of Montepulciano and surrounded by rather groovy art (John's art gallery), we did not sight any celebrities, but felt pretty special all the same.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Notorious at the Rubin Museum of Art

One of the best ways I've found to spend a Friday evening is to visit the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea. For the low price of $7 (actually, they should just state that the price is $10 because the beer is $5 and the wine and cocktails are $10 and $12, respectively), you get a drink, a chance to explore galleries of exquisite Himalayan art, and you get to see a film in the ongoing Cabaret Cinema series.

Last night, my friend and I saw Alfred Hitchcock's espionage thriller Notorious, starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. The film is the first in the new series entitled Walls are Doors, "...inspired by the [upcoming] exhibition Mandala: The Perfect Circle, Himalayan Buddhism’s artistic representation of man and the universe, [the series] looks at cinema’s use of keys and passwords that allow us to navigate our way through the labyrinthine puzzles of our existence." Keys figure prominently in Hitchcock's film, not to mention a racy kissing scene which taunted the censors of the time. Next up is The Shining on August 7th. Remember that terrifying labyrinth scene at the end?