Into the Woods

Raavan (2009, dir. Mani Ratnam). Aishwarya Rai’s Ragini remains too little marred by abduction, rock-scaling, near-drowning, food refusal, traumatic witnessing, being dragged from cave to pit to cave and so on. The camera still fondles her face as it might any cover-girl—confirming this face to be as fascinating as that of some infant cyborg. Abhishek Bachchan’s Raavan is a convincing maniac, however, in whom a certain fathomlessness carries forward the fantastical Ramayanan subtext. His hands chopping about his face, acting out the knives in his head: a brilliant, dramatically efficient tic.

Raavan’s forest is vitally extrajurisdictional space. The forest villagers protect him, want to be left alone—and here the bleeding heart may think: alas, the Indian state has trammeled upon these people’s bare but honest subsistence lives. But how suspiciously convenient, for any state in fact inadequate as provider, when the people do not want to be civilized—or therefore subsidized. This is the story’s social pathos: as Ragini asks her police-chief husband Dev (played by Tamil screen stalwart Vikram), “Is he Raavan or is he Robin Hood?”

Thunderous zombie-like rain-dance to the song that assaults whatever haute Delhi may think of them: the best song-dance of the film, perhaps of any popular Hindi film of the last decade. Abhishek may not have the liquid flow of Hrithik Roshan’s dance moves—e.g., all cartilage in Krrish opposite J.-Crewish Priyanka Chopra—but ever since Refugee, and even throughout Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, he has grown peerless in transmitting compressed, punctuating intensity.

However gorgeously cinematographed, Ratnam’s obsession with waterfalls, rainfall, and rotational views, and concession to gratuitous violence during climactic scenes, only venn-diagrams this film with Bollywood’s triter image-sectors. The directorial triumph lies rather in an insistence that Raavan’s attraction to Ragini stay indefinite, as a sort of inter-species gravitation: she pure wife, he bog demon, though each susceptible to the pull of another life. (He is thus a different animal from the Beast or Frog who’s actually an incarcerated prince, say, and from the altogether irredeemable Alberich lusting after Rhinemaidens.) There is a wondrous delicateness to Raavan’s seeming monstrosity; he contemplates possessing her, yet never seems merely to want to ravish her—and yet there’s also nothing chaste about his heated state. That honor-bound Dev cannot imagine forms of close encounter other than the coital, cuckolding kind—and so exacts his crude, cruel revenge—may leave the viewer rather depressed for being human.


Mughal-e-Azam again and forever, but this time on the big screen at Walter Reade, in the original version, not 2004 full colorization. As heady a myriad of beauty and sensation as ever. The full ten scintillating seconds of pearls sent scattering, pattering onto a polished patterned floor. The billet-doux secreted into the lotus flower, the flower’s shuddering yet purposive drift down the canal. Anarkali’s candle, sliding slowly downscreen and leaving her face in eclipse, only to be held in Salim’s hand when it next appears—surely their first and most furtive act of touch; her hand then rising again to cup its flame for modesty, proximity, and gentler chiaroscuro. Those drowsy flurries of giant feather across her face—brushing her eyes closed, sweeping her lips ajar, soon transporting both to blossoming grove then bed of petals—as Tansen’s raga drugs all passage of time. The hulk and chafe of the hay-lined prison cell, the iron chains that famously bruised Madhubala during filming. The robust foil, no lightweight rival, that is Bahar—her solid ambitiousness, her steady challenging gaze. And of course the infinite reflections righteously shimmering across the mirror medallions of the Sheesh Mahal—taunting Akbar as Anarkali sings love’s truth to power: “Pyar kiya tho darna kya… aaj kahenge dil kaa fasaanaa.”

Madhubala’s face—barer and barer with each ordeal yet ever dewier and more arresting in its beatific resolve—and Dilip Kumar’s most lustrous hair. Who could fight the urge to sing to him and to his hair, “Ude jab jab zulfen teri, kavaariyon ka dil machle—jind meriye”?

The imperial-scale mustering of decade-long labor across the land that produced this dense cinematic lavishness, the gratuitous war between Akbar and Salim that inadvertently dramatizes these contributions. The hallucinogenic plot loops (not twists) in the third hour, the late dabs of dialogue thickening Akbar’s pathos, the final resolution by which point satisfaction no longer depends upon any. All of it mysterious, all of it immediate.

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]

LA SCALA Opening Night in HD | Carmen

[Anita Rachvelishvili before her admirers]

If I were to reduce to a single word Anita Rachvelishvili’s La Scala debut yesterday as Carmen (the HD simulcast of which I saw at Symphony Space), it might be “sovereignty.” She reigned supreme. This Carmen was the center around which all else could only hope to hold and the sole circumference of her own self. Men in heat fanned themselves and fell aside. Women melted toward her like heliotropes to the sun. During the Habanera, elevated atop a mere water trough outside her factory, she was a radiant and pungent Venus, rising out of the blander foam of humanity. That is, even if one would want from the Carmencita of one’s dreams more slithery a seduction dance during the “Je vais danser en votre honneur” bit—done here without castanets, freeing her hands for much skirt-play—than Rachvelishvili’s potently self-possessed rendition.

Too many ideas can spoil an opera, and this may have been the case with Emma Dante’s staging, wherein cloth and fiber figured prominently as the materials of inspiration. Act III opened to a shifting formation of trees played by actors completely cloaked in heavily pleated cloth and topped with thickets of fir—definitely not a bad way to spike a Pleats Please runway with a gothic touch, but distracting here as a visual demographic once joined onstage by smugglers and black-veiled, death-messaging wraiths. A translucent white cloth spanning the entire middle of the stage, slowly stretched over Micaela during her first visit to Don José, made a point well-taken—she in her pale cocoon of love and purity, oblivious that Don José is already lost to another—but one felt a bit sorry for Adriana Damato, who had to push her arms about and sing on in that gauze (too like a mosquito net?). Micaela endures another illusionistic gag in Act III when, returning to beg Don José to leave his wicked life, a giant pillow and giant billowing bed-sheet (supplied by “invisible” stage-hands) suddenly render her an apparition of Don José’s dying mother and no less helpless. Her head and upper torso swimming in this sea of white, the effect had the scale-jolting strangeness of Alice in Wonderland—an interesting idea but wasted in this opera. More effective creativity with fiber gave us two long, thick ropes tied to Carmen’s wrists during the Seguidilla, each rope hanging from each upper corner of the set. The rope tenses and slackens as she sways and leans, such that the precise position of her incarcerated body, all extremities stretched, understandably makes Don José lose his wits at just this moment. All these outstretchings of cloth—including also a brilliantly choreographed bit with banderillos spinning in and out of taut swathes of red silk that are by turns banners and cummerbunds—had a way of activating the stage as highly tensile and flexile space.

In addition to some heavy-handed Catholic iconography—e.g., a giant swinging thurible bisecting the upper stage in Act IV, lots of big tilted crosses, and assorted uses of chiaroscuro and vanishing-point symmetries straight out of Dan Brown’s film adaptations (the author was in attendance)—Dante’s staging also offered commentary on the effects of the adult world on children. In the “Avec la garde montante” scene, the children who mimic the soldiers really march about in uniform—a troubling sight. When Don José gets out of prison, Carmen welcomes him with an indoor picnic setup that “Papi” Presidente might call “the big bed.” Around the edge of this blanket several young girls from the gypsy band sit watching as their default role-model dances her “Je vais danser en votre honneur” aria, at once seducing Don José and educating her prepubescent audience.

[Jonas Kaufmann as Don José]

There’s lots to say about the interpretive liberty in the final scene—rape—and the downright bestial band of teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling gypsy women as Dante chose to depict them, but probably not much that hasn’t already been said.

Jonas Kaufmann captured Don José’s earnest ardor as well as desperate infantilism with pathos and a beautiful voice he certainly knows how to sculpt. I’d be especially eager to hear his recording of Schubert Lieder, and to see his Lohengrin, which premiered in Munich this summer, as that seems a great role for him. Erwin Schrott, not only lovely to look at (as Anna Netrebko knows), made for an irresistible Escamillo—his voice rich and commanding, his expressions and gestures full of heartbreaker antics. Frasquita and Mercédès were honey-voiced and acted with care by Michele Losier and Adriana Kučerová.

Among the peculiarities of the HD presentation is a frontal view of the conductor during the overtures. Barenboim, fidgeting with what did seem a precariously diminutive high-chair, produced some endearingly comical expressions. More importantly, of course, the La Scala orchestra under his leadership made the proceedings musically exciting all the way through, too, especially the woodwinds and strings so crucial for this score.

Revolutionary Roads: Robert Kramer at the Harvard Film Archive

RK Route1 Poster

A long-form poet of political cinema, Robert Kramer (1939-1999) may be the greatest American filmmaker we hardly knew. His unique alloys of fiction and documentary chronicle the doings and undoings of the revolutionary Left from the Sixties through the Eighties. Yet the perspectives offered in his films are prismatically personal: the hesitations of a militant on the eve of armed revolution, the ambivalent patriotism of a returning exile, the passions and prejudices of a lobster fisherman and a sardine-canning woman, a Southern Baptist campaigner and a New England Wiccan, inheritors of Civil War pedigrees and immigrants recently arrived. Although Kramer died before Bush fiascos and Obama prospects, his vigilant examinations of the American experience remain moving and timely.

Nearly a decade after his death, a trio of Kramer’s highest-impact films returns to the Harvard Film Archive, September 26 to 28, in “Robert Kramer’s Reports from the Road.” “Ice” (1969), the earliest work, is a pseudo-documentary thriller set within the operations of a militant radical group. “Milestones” (1975) tracks a set of loosely connected characters amid a sedated political landscape, as each seeks out a conscionable existence through communal, familial, or individual transformation. In the five-month-long drive (and 255-minute-long footage) that gives us “Route One / USA” (1989), Kramer delivers a rich array of under-represented voices along the highway from Fort Kent to Key West—in the spirit of a Robert Frank or a Studs Terkel, and resulting in nothing less than a people’s history of the late 80s.

A longer Kramer series unfolded this July at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Although, yet precisely because, Kramer’s work is nearly impossible to find in library collections or to purchase copies of—and the following clips are both utterly unrepresentative and already rare—no one with even the faintest interest in the documentary tradition or in the American century at twilight should miss these screenings. (In a heartening nod to Kramer, incidentally, the annual summer International Seminar on Documentary Film has been calling itself Doc’s Kingdom.)

A clip from “Ice”:

A clip from “Milestones”:

A clip from “Route One / USA”:

Metropolitan Opera in HD | Madame Butterfly

minghella butterfly

Madame Butterfly in HD [rebroadcast of the live March 7 Met performance]
March 17, 2009, Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Production: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)

The drama was taut, the gorgeousness detailed. The staging: imaginative, often exquisite, though always immodest enough for opera: bright scarlet blossom groves, glowing lanterns constellating unto galaxies aswirl, shimmering petals threaded onto filaments slowly descending like a seeping horizon, and of course measureless swathes of silk set unfurling. At times one almost feared it might verge on anime choreographed for wax-museum figures as directed by Zhang Yimou, but (Minghella’s English?) good taste reined things in.

Patricia Racette: powerhouse Puccinian—voice capacious, mellifluous throughout, the movement of her face and limbs in studious mimicry of girlishness. Nothing really could render her believable as an Asian child bride—the singing and emoting both were ripe too far beyond pubescence (and the ethnic makeover erred toward Morticia Addams, I thought)—but that’s the usual trouble so perhaps had to be forgiven. Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton presented a solid amalgam of cad, brute, and dolt—nothing very complicated, though sung with soul. The whole supporting cast was surprisingly great, especially those in the roles of Suzuki, Sharpless, and Yamadori (played by an actual Asian singer—to odd yet doubly sympathetic effect somehow). Even Cio-Cio San’s mother, who barely gets any lines, lingers in this heartbreaking way on the hill upon leaving her just-married daughter—a supreme indication of the directorial care taken.

The silent puppet child, center and cipher of all this theatrical artifice, turned out to seem the most human and expressive of all—and even for this uncanny effect alone I’d recommend, and indeed repeat, the experience. Also for the thundering final act. Not one predisposed to Puccini, I left feeling dazzled and stricken. The performance will surely come out on DVD soon enough, so all is not lost to those who missed it this time.

‘Damage’ (dir. Malle, 1992)


Like Last Tango in Paris and Unfaithful, Damage is a film that explores—with punishing severity—the nightmarish consequences of lustful abandon. The acting excels within the category of tense facial tableaux: Jeremy Irons as MP Stephen Fleming, at once wooden and craven, Juliette Binoche’s Anna Barton trancey and transfixing, her gaze by turns pleading and rejecting. But all this thespian potential is confined within what turns out to be a morality tale that lunges toward fatalism (and literally into fatality) just when it’d need to grapple with complexity. The hurt son backs up over the low railing of a high staircase and falls to his death. The father grows his hair long, retreats to some inconspicuous Italianate town, subsists on sparse slices of cheese, all the while living daily with a photograph of himself, son, and their joint ex-lover wallpapering his monastic room. We learn that Anna eventually returned to her adolescent love and bore a child with him. This, reflects Stephen, reveals her to have been the same as everyone else.

What a pedestrian insight—and one nearly irrelevant to this particular story. Anna’s initial refusal to be possessed—the only semi-rigorous premise of the film—has fizzled embarrassingly. Is real life, it turns out, the only place where the human animal can stray from monogamy and be allowed, justly or not, to survive, within society still, and without retracting and contracting into yet another dyad? Has the dyad come to represent the only alternative to alienation?

Symphonic forms

dovzhenko zemlya still

[A still from Земля]

Chinese National Symphony Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry and Dovzhenko’s Земля [Earth] at the Harvard Film Archive.  Labor and land preoccupy both; and in each, a visual symphony of tractors. One is reminded of Russian cinema’s obsession with the sun-baked, dirt-caked, beard-bristling face — eyes always squinting at sun, faces yanked every which way in a primitive yawp, self-torn, encrusted with tears.

Recent viewings

Fidelio at the Met. Karita Mattila sang Leonore’s role gorgeously, and she was impressively spry as Fidelio, too, scampering around the stage with boyish aplomb, scooting up and down ladders, bearing groceries. Apart from the limpid quartet in the opening act and the arpeggiated vocal mountaineering of the ‘Abscheulicher!’ duet in the final act, it can be hard to believe Beethoven really wrote this work for voices. It often feels more like a serial tone-poem. As drama, very little happens. The opening subplot flourish has often been criticized, but a naïve opera-goer might expect, might even wish for, even more subplots, or at least discernible turns in action. Unfortunately the production on my night of attendance was Heppner-less; marginally less unfortunately, it was also Levine-less (he’s out of commission this season due to a fall in Boston). Florestan’s role, respectably donned by Richard Margison, is also uncomfortably difficult. When we first hear him he is holding on for dear death — yet the singer must still capture the strength beneath. Interesting above all thematically may be the opera’s wishful solution to the dyad-vs.-collectivity quandary: here, conjugal love actually clears the way to pan-human fellowship.

Alex Ross’s review some months back in The New Yorker of some opera recordings features a phrase I’m insanely fond of: ‘a Heldentenor in heat.’

Claire Denis’ L’Intrus (France, 2004) at the Brattle. Find me a review that does not proclaim this film’s ‘enigmatic’ qualities, or call for an uncritical, non-interpretive, pleasure-taking stance. (Stephen Holden somewhat dissatisfyingly asserts that ‘The best way to enjoy The Intruder is surrender to its poetry without demanding cut-and-dried explanations.’ Zizek is right again that there’s something conscriptive and commanding in the very notion of enjoyment.) Or, they resort to the other poor overtasked critical lifeboat: cinematic intertextuality. The film seems more concerned with ownership — of one’s body, one’s progeny, and of land (and vice versa — land’s ownership of you, i.e., citizenship). Claire Denis, the director, knows and speaks of this as the reviewers do not (though Lim in the Voice does a decent job).

Peter Watkins’ The War Game (UK, 1966) at the Harvard Film Archive.

Zizek! (USA, 2005) at the Brattle. The film follows Slavoj from a talk at the University of Buenos Aires to a talk at Columbia to a talk at Deitch Projects to a talk at the Brattle Theatre — but would have done well to give more room to his run-on sentences and less to cameos by its own director, Astra Taylor. The best part may be at the beginning, where Zizek points out the violence of love — of romantic selection, to the exclusion of the world — the point that love is not love of the world but of the particular torn out from the world. There’s also the nice moment when he describes himself as a monster, in opposition to academics eager to portray themselves as all too human beneath the skin. Robespierre’s desire for a revolution without a revolution gets compared to leftist academics’ reluctance to give up their bourgeois comforts. Sounds familiar. But ticklish subjects all.


the conversation toilet

I’ve long been haunted by toilet scenes in two particular films — Coppola’s The Conversation and (less famously) Andrzej Zulawski‘s The Possessed. It was nice to discover, then, that artist Margaret Morgan has compiled some other cinematic toilet scenes in her video Toilet Training — which, she writes, ‘began as a response to my research on the importance of plumbing in a history of early twentieth century art — from Marcel Duchamp to Adolf Loos.’ Nicer still to find that Zizek has already summed up the matter:

[T]he domain to where excrement vanishes after we flush the toilet is effectively one of the metaphors of the horrifyingly sublime ‘beyond’ of the primordial, preontological chaos into which things disappear. […] Lacan was right in claiming that we pass from animals to humans the moment an animal has problems with what to do with its excrement, the moment that waste turns into an excess that annoys the animal. What is ‘Real’ in the scene from The Conversation is thus not primarily the horrifying and disgusting stuff reemerging from the toilet sink, but rather the toilet’s drain itself, the hold that serves as the passage to a different ontological order. The similarity between the empty toilet sink before the remainders of the murder reemerge from it and Kasimir Malevich’s The Black Square on the White Surface is significant here: does the look from above into the toilet sink not reproduce almost the same minimalist visual scheme, a black (or, at least, darker) square of water framed by the white surface of the sink itself? Again, we of course know that the excrement that disappears is somewhere in the sewage network; what is here ‘real’ is the topological hole or torsion that bends the space of our reality so that we perceive / imagine excrement as disappearing into an alternative dimension that is not part of our everyday reality. [from ‘Why Is Reality Always Multiple?’ in Enjoy Your Symptom!]

What Zizek’s characteristically sensible, savvy gloss doesn’t mention is another aspect of the horror: the visually conspicuous possibility that the ‘topological hole or torsion’ leads not to another dimension but back into the body. For what is the flush if not an image of one hole vacuuming up what another hole has just ejected? The horror is that the holes may be commutable, that there’s no relief, no ridding, to be had. The very contours of the toilet bowl, after all, seem oddly biomorphic (Duchamp’s urinal isn’t without its sculptural finesse) — like the negative space of some human organ.

The whirls and eddies in Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo are of course cognate images, as Zizek goes on to address. The best part of his analysis, however, concerns labor:

While watching this scene [of Norman Bates’ cleaning the bathroom] recently, I caught myself nervously noticing that the bathroom was not properly cleaned — two small stains on the side of the bathtub remained! I almost wanted to shout, Hey, it’s not yet over, finish the job properly! Is it not that Psycho points here toward today’s ideological perception in which work itself (manual labor as opposed to ‘symbolic’ activity), and not sex, becomes the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye? The tradition, going back to Richard Wagner’s Rheingold and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in which the working process takes place underground, in dark caves, today culminates in the millions of anonymous workers sweating in third world factories, from Chinese gulags to Indonesian or Brazilian assembly lines; in their invisibility, the West can itself afford to babble on about the ‘disappearing working class.’ yet what is crucial in this tradition is the equation of labor with crime, the idea that labor — hard work — is originally an indecent criminal activity to be hidden from the public eye. [ibid.]