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.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

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”:

Labor histories

Ingmar Bergman, in his introduction to Four Screenplays:

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ [‘Questions from a Worker who Reads,’ trans. Michael Hamburger]:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

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.


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.]


Carmen was the first opera I knew and loved, before its tunes became too familiar and the eager young self dismissed it as unsophisticated. Last night, in the Zeffirelli production first staged at the Met in 1996, I began to rediscover its musical as well as dramatic intelligence. My memory of Don Jose, formed upon the Migenes-Domingo film version many years ago, before I could read its English subtitles, had been as the hot-blooded paramour Carmen ultimately loved just as much. But Bizet’s opera offers no such certainty: Don Jose seems all but marginal to the tale, in fact, albeit constantly pushing himself back into it, sacrificing everything for the centrality in Carmen’s life he will never have—precisely because he has sacrificed and thereby compromised his role—whereas Escamillo the toreador (superbly sung by Ildar Abdrazakov!) is all role and no compromise. Mistaking a life in shambles for persistence of love, Don Jose can assert his existence only through the decisive act of murder—a childish pointing of the finger, a tantrum that could not go the extra step of sublimation. Carmen does prize freedom above all, not from men but to love, even as audiences might wish to believe she sings against her own heart—that somehow this time it’s different, that we’re wiser to her emotions than she can be. Love is easy, she sings: as soon as you think you’ve lost it, there it is again. This openness—radically vital and for her vitally sustainable—is a serious stance, as haunting as Isolde’s monomaniacal steadfastness, and puts the audience to shame for daring less.

Cigarette girls: fascinating; a whole song praising the pleasures of the cigarette! (Richard Klein of course notes this.) Carmen is part of the underground economy even as she has worked, too, in a legitimate factory….

Irina Mishura as Carmen could have used more sass and sauciness. Her voice was almost too rich to suggest impetuosity. But sets were stunning, switching between civic spaces—the Seville square with its corner café, market, spare yet gorgeous Cezanne-esque backdrop of rooftops—and the mountain clearing and grotto of Carmen and her company—criminal hideout, palatially wild. Lots of pageantry, especially in the final Act, with assorted potentates striding and sometimes horseback-riding across stage.

Yet: one feels that French is a sub-optimal language for opera.

Uses of a body

A famous British chemist, Dr. Charles Henry Maye, tried to determine exactly what man is made of and what is man’s chemical worth. Here are the results of his scholarly research. The amount of fat found in the body of an average human being would be enough to make seven pieces of soap. There is enough iron to make an average nail, enough sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. The phosphorus would yield 2,200 matches; the magnesium would be enough to take a photograph. There is also some potassium and sulfur, but the amount is too small to be of any use. Those various materials, at the current rate, would be valued at around 25 francs.

— Georges Bataille, “L’Homme,” in Documents [possibly quoting from Journal des Debats], 1929.

Serra, 1988

Weight is a value for me… the balancing of weight, the diminishing of weight, the addition and subtraction of weight, the concentration of weight, the rigging of weight, the propping of weight, the placement of weight, the locking of weight, the psychological effects of weight, the disorientation of weight, the disequilibrium of weight, the rotation of weight, the movement of weight, the directionality of weight, the shape of weight. I have more to say about the perpetual and meticulous adjustments of weight, more to say about the pleasure derived from the exactitude of the laws of gravity. I have more to say about the processing of the weight of steel, more to say about the forge, the rolling mill, and the open hearth.

It’s hard to convey ideas of weight from the objects of everyday life, for the task would be infinite; there is an imponderable vastness to weight. However, I can record the history of art as a history of the particularization of weight. I have more to say about Mantegna, Cezanne, and Picasso than about Botticelli, Renoir and Matisse, although I admire what I lack. I have more to say about the history of sculpture as a history of weight, more to say about the monuments of death, more to say about the weight and density and concreteness of countless sarcophagi, more to say about burial tombs, more to say about Michelangelo and Donatello, more to say about Mycenaean and Incan architecture, more to say about the weight of the Olmec heads.

We are all restrained and condemned by the weight of gravity. However, Sisyphus pushing the weight of his boulder endlessly up the mountain does not catch me up as much as Vulcan’s tireless labor at the bottom of the smoking crater, hammering out raw material. The constructive process, the daily concentration and effort appeal to me more than the light fantastic, more than the quest for the ethereal.

— Richard Serra, “Weight.”