CityArts April 11th, 2013

Page 1


Edited by Armond White

New York’s Review of Culture .

Built to Last Jackie Robinson and Hollywood make history again By Armond White


e are fortunate to have been spared Spike Lee’s take on the Jackie Robinson story, which surely would have been spiteful; emphatic about race grievance and loaded with other Spikey tangents. But Brian Helgeland has made a superb tale about Robinson’s groundbreaking desegregation of baseball through the machinations of Branch Rickey--and about American spiritual history and destiny. The issues and emotions have a beautiful clarity. 42, titled after Robinson’s player number (retired for all teams by the Major League Baseball association yet worn by players every April 15th--Jackie Robinson Day), commemorates Robinson breaking the game’s color bar in 1947 as the first Negro playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Helgeland depicts this world-changing risk as a cultural story--not simply one man’s life story. Instead of biographical depth, 42 sustains the same benevolence as the MLB’s memorial; its lively and vivid narrative goes through the arduous steps of a social and moral revolution. More than a baseball movie, 42 is a folktale touching on the spirituality evidenced in Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers’ General Manager Rickey (played by Harrison Ford). Seeing baseball as the medium of social change; its practice and rituals are understood as basic to America’s sense of capability despite prevailing social divisions. That explains Helgeland’s elastic sense of class. Robinson steps into the roughneck world of sport possessing higher personal principles. He and wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are already upwardly mobile; they need only the income and recognition that white Americans take for granted.


Now let’s get rid of the narrow-minded complaint about Hollywood race stories always unequally pairing history’s black sacrificial figures with white cohorts. Helgeland’s even-handed vision of the Rickey-Robinson revolution enlarges it, taking in different aspects of America’s racial reality. Not merely the Jackie Robinson story, 42 relates tandem efforts and transformations by Rickey, Negro sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), assorted teammates (many brief, perfectly etched characterizations from Max Gail’s captivated retired manager, Chris Meloni’s virile Leo Durocher to Lucas Black’s affable Pee Wee Reese) and the crowds who fill the stands. All profiles in courage. The back office functioning behind America’s public face rarely gets shown but 42’s story fortunately reveals that it appropriate significance and appeal, primarily through Harrison Ford. Projecting established magnanimous decency, Ford puts Rickey’s risk-taking and persistent urging in perfect balance to newcomer Boseman who


portrays Robinson’s circumspect heroism. This isn’t a timed, harmless Black man; he’s self-assured yet resentful of those who want to make him humble. (Jeffrey Wright has played this Poitier complex but Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington never has). Boseman’s wary intelligence conveys deep pride, a forgotten aspect of black America’s gradual civil rights evolution. 42 revives it. The way Helgeland balances Ford/Rickey’s courage represents the modern audience’s guileless ignorance of history and the period era’s attitudes. The young black actors--all ebullient, optimistic, determined--represent Blacks’ hopes while the familiar Whites personify fears. When 42 explicates these details, it surpasses Steven Spielberg’s morally compromised Lincoln. Cinematographer Don Burgess makes 42 the most beautiful movie of 2013 so far. He photographs sunlight and water (when Robinson finally showers with his white teammates) with radiance. Nothing in Lincoln’s political contrivance is as resonant as Rickey confessing “Something was wrong at the heart of the game I loved and I had ignored it.” Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln never admitted such sorrowful complex. Lincoln pretended that political opposition was the essence of America’s moral progress when in fact it was only a power struggle; 42

is deeper and more honest in its display of how Americans changed through accepting skill, humanity, sympathy. This is a better approach to history than George Lucas’ lame Tuskegee Airman tribute Red Tails. Helgeland has made a film totally without cynicism. Cynicism is what ruined Lincoln; cynicism was at the core of Kushner and Spielberg’s self-congratulatory arrogance--which was why liberals overrated it. Will Obama-era audiences appreciate 42’s richness with its deep understanding of how hard-won compassion has greater everyday effectiveness than the rule of law? The splendor of ball field effort? Or a silhouetted fatherly embrace? These images test fairness within the glory of nature without the falsity of The Natural or Field of Dreams like no movie since Robert Aldrich’s The Big Leaguer. I’d like to describe more of 42’s wonderful scenes such as the shots of Robinson rounding the bases, focused on his “42” uniform imprint like an existential Bressonian icon, but viewers should discover such beauty for themselves. Rickey and Robinson unite over the idea of being “built to last” by doing the right thing. Whether or not 42 conquers the box-office, it is built to last.







PRELUDES Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 4 PM From a vision of the Holy Grail to the longing for and redemption of love, Leon Botstein and the orchestra examine the themes behind some of Wagner’s most famous operatic works, in celebration of his 200th birthday. RICHARD WAGNER “Lohengrin” Preludes, Acts I and III RICHARD WAGNER “Tristan und Isolde” Prelude & Liebestod at Peter Norton Symphony Space, 95th St & Broadway


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New take on Shakespearean politics at BAM By Valerie Gladstone “Julius Caesar” doesn’t usually get ranked as one of Shakespeare’s most exciting plays but last year theatergoers in England were given reason to change their minds after seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival, reset in modern Africa, with an all black cast. In its new incarnation, directed by Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, the political drama, concerning the conspiracy against the Roman dictator, his assassination and the defeat of the conspirators in battle, unexpectedly took on surprising relevancy. Such dramatic events are not uncommon in politically volatile Africa today or in the North African countries that were part of the Arab Spring. It comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music April 10-28. Doran decided to move “Julius Caesar” from ancient Rome to modern-day Africa chiefly because he learned that it is the Shakespeare play most performed in Africa and that it is a particular favorite of Nelson Mandela’s. When Mandela and other inmates were imprisoned in South Africa during the apartheid years, they read what became dubbed the Robben Island Bible, a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, which was smuggled into their jail. Now on display at the British Museum, it is signed with his name next to the lines from the play: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard. It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.” In recent calls to London, members of the cast talked about their new Shakespearean experience. “People find it hard to believe that we are speaking Shakespeare’s lines and that none of the action has been changed,” says Ray Fearon, who has the role of Caesar’s ally and defender, Mark Antony. “The plot has taken on a very different feel; young people get it immediately.” For some of them, long

associated with the RSC and hailing from the UK, US, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and Trinidad, the situation portrayed in the drama echoes those they or their families experienced at home. “I grew up in Nigeria during the Biafran War in the late ‘60s,” says Cyril Nri, who plays Cassius. “I saw first hand what happens when there’s a power grab that leaves a vacuum.” Adjoa Andoh, who plays Portia, remembers reading the play in school and finding it “dull as dish water but then, she says, “when I saw what happened in my father’s country of Ghana, I suddenly looked at it differently. The characters talk of gods and ancestors, which seems quaint to us in the West but is truthful and current in Africa. African ceremonial dress is not unlike Roman togas. In such a male heavy production, I feel it’s important to show Portia as a strong woman for whom politics is a part of her DNA. I’m now so keen on the play that I visit schools and encourage kids to read it.” To further the African atmosphere, Doran added a musical score by Akintayo Akinbode that mixes African music with touches of jazz and the Caribbean. “There’s so much life in the drums and sax, flutes and bass,” Nri says. “It not only affects the mood but gives a sense of the African landscape and the beauty and danger of Africa. The rhythms make certain moments incredibly passionate and moving. We always include a chorus from the community. In New York, the chorus will be local volunteers. The stage gets so full. It’s a joy every night.” In the Times of London, Libby Purves wrote that this production, “shakes the heart.”



Operatic Women Violeta and Sylvia on screen and barge By Judy Gelman Myers


hen Salvador Allende first addressed his citizenry after winning Chile’s 1970 presidential election, he did so under a sign that read, “No Hay Revolución sin Cancion”: There is no revolution without songs. In this case, those songs would have been nueva canción, or “new song,” a quasipolitical artistic movement spearheaded by the explosive, self-destructive, magnificent Violeta Parra. Chilean director Andrés Wood’s examines Parra’s politics, art, and interior life in his new, lyrical biopic, Violeta Went to Heaven. As a child, Parra supported her mother and nine siblings by singing folk tunes in the plazas of small towns; as an adult, she crisscrossed Chile meticulously collecting and cataloguing indigenous folk material. When she moved to Santiago, Parra turned her musical talents to traditionally-based but highly innovative songwriting protesting North American cultural imperialism while

celebrating Chilean identity and the rights of workers and native populations. Like Searching for Sugar Man’s Sixto Rodriguez, whose idiosyncratic songs became a symbol of resistance for the white anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Parra became an icon of social resistance in Chile and beyond. At heart, however, Parra was not a political revolutionary but an artist, and it’s this heart that Wood explores in Violeta. His two major challenges were capturing Parra’s music and private pain. By eschewing traditional linear narrative in favor of episodic storytelling that shifts back and forth in time, as interior worlds are wont to do, Wood created an elusive effect that fits his enigmatic subject. When it came to delivering Parra’s songs, Wood discovered that most of her original recordings were in such bad shape that they couldn’t be used for the film. Moreover, he wanted to create a soundtrack that had its own identity rather than being a copy. After casting the captivating Francisco Gavilan as Violeta, Wood held a casting call for voices. Gavilan showed up for the casting call, and Wood decided to let her sing, a move that proved decisive for both the actress and the film. Wood admits to feeling intimated by the idea of portraying the interior life of a

woman deemed Chile’s national cultural treasure, but he forged on nonetheless. “I didn’t think about my personal responsibility to the subject, because if I had, I wouldn’t have done the film,” he says. Violeta Went to Heaven is playing at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. For fifty-two weeks a year, four days a week, New Yorkers can find chamber music in all its forms—early, canonical, and contemporary—right under the Brooklyn Bridge. There, Bargemusic offers 220 concerts annually, even tendering weekly free tickets to groups and one free concert monthly in order to reach as many music lovers as possible. Normally Bargemusic presents chamber music, recitals, and quartets in their coffee-barge-turned-intimate-concert-hall, but on March 21 and 22, as part of their contemporary composers series, they took the unusual step of mounting an opera: Sylvia, a chamber opera in one act, for four voices and three instrumentalists. Based on the true story of a 13-year-old girl who is coerced by a friend of her parents’ into having an affair with him, the opera depicts the psychotherapy that ultimately brings Sylvia to psychic and emotional health. Mounted in concert form, Sylvia was one year in production before making its world premiere at Bargemusic. Simple but striking staging enhanced the inherent drama of a young girl on the verge of womanhood who is grappling not only with her own sexuality

but also with the psychological responsibility of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor: her seducer, like her parents, was born to parents who had survived the camps. Sylvia understands his pain; with the empathetic tenderness of youth, she wants to ease his suffering. With great clarity, composer and librettist Julia Adolphe encapsulates Sylvia’s dilemma in a plaintive cry: “What was it you needed? What did you think a thirteen-year-old girl would know?” Much of Sylvia’s seduction was played out at a Passover seder, so Adolphe incorporates a creepy Hebrew rendition of the first of the four questions, Why is this night different from all other nights? In one of the opera’s highlights, Sylvia sings her own response over the traditional, albeit altered, chant: “On this night I am different. I am disgusting. I thought I could give him freedom, so I became his slave. Oh God, pass over this house: There’s blood on the door.” With a degree in literary theory as well as multiple degrees in music composition, Adolphe shapes her musical phrases to emphasize the linguistic, rather than musical, content of words. Concomitantly, she employs the timbre of her instruments— clarinet, sax, cello, and piano—to bring out the interiority of Sylvia’s torment and ultimate redemption.

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Violeta Parra





Internet Week Kicks Off in Soho

Girlfeminist in a Coma

The event’s preview party showcased some of the out-of-the-box thinking that’s in store

Blancanieves uses radicalism to ruin Snow White

By Helaina Hovitz

By Armond White


lancanieves is the most hilariously misunderstood movie since people took Haneke’s Amour to be a sweet love story. Is this peculiarity as simple as illiteracy or is it another case of cinematically illiterate critics who don’t know how to read what they see on screen? Spanish director Pablo Berger modernizes the Grimm Brothers’ tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a feminist parable. It counters patriarchal custom by turning Show White into a female toreador who survives the murderous plotting of her evil stepmother, travels from corrida to corrida with a troupe of gay male dwarf clowns (including one tranny). Codes and transgressions are all over the screen yet reviewers have praised the film as a charming fairy tale and an innocuous parody of a silent movie like the inane French film The Artist of two years ago. Although I recognize the wishfulness of those who prefer to see Blancanieves as an enlightened divertissement, I can’t get past Berger’s grim solemnity. He has an obsession with fatality: Blancanieve’s father, a famous matador, paralyzed by a bull endures his wife’s death from childbirth; Blancaneive witnesses her grandmother’s grotesque Flamenco demise only to suffer her rapacious capitalist stepmother’s abuse. These are not Grimm facts of life but textbook radical feminist theory—from Snow White’s sexual ambiguity and her rejection of social indoctrination to her violation of bullfighting’s male tradition yet refusing to eat meat as confirmation of her asexual vegetarian diet. A male villain’s phallic fountain pin slowly rises to ensare Snow White. These ideas are less covert than the quasi feminism of last year’s Pixar movie Brave (which cartooned a more Grimmlike fear of Family and Matriarchy). It’s not right-wing paranoia to recognize these films’ political meanings but to deny them signifies real gullible ignorance. Beguiled by the preteen Snow White’s (Sofia Oria) pluck and cuteness and accepting adult Snow White’s (Macarena Garcia) butch passivity, critics approve a new product rather than analyze what perversions are actually being sold. (This means indulging the least beginning onscreen maturation since gorgeous teenage


Jean Simmons turned into stuffy ladylike Valerie Hobson in David Lean’s Great Expectations.) Even the formerly radical Village Voice review failed to appreciate Blancanieves’ clumsy fanaticism. Blancanieves cannot be appreciated on its own bizarre terms. Imagine a Snow White without a happy ending: This Snow White falls victim to patriarchy, the impotent gay dwarf who loves her embodies pity for what the old ways make impossible. When Berger can’t figure out how to improve on the Grimms’ original he simply debases it. His mangled version feminism dictates that the old Disney chestnut “Someday My Prince Will Come“ won’t be sung in a movie that’s adverse to heterosexuality—not even as a joke. A radical feminist desecration of Snow White without a Prince Charming but a Snow White who ends up in a coma? Yeah, that’s right I “spoiled” it. It’s the same nonsense as Andrea Arnold’s recent unwatchable Wuthering Heights which saw fit to make Heathcliff Black so that he could be called “nigger” just to congratulate Arnold’s “smartness.” Problem is, Blancanieves is rather dumb; it doesn’t make the most of young Snow White’s cuteness, innocence, filial devotion, not even on a female bullfighter’s aptitude that might change people’s perceptions. This half-assed feminism proves Berger hasn’t studied his own revisionist film history. Blancanieves lacks the creativity of Neil Jordan’s 1985 A Company of Wolves, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s feminist fairytale revision. Instead, Berger emulates silent movie burlesque. His poor technique uses rushed TV-style montages without the complex meanings of Dmitri Kirsanoff ’s silent movie experimental editing principles in Menilmontant. The black and white photography is not lush or dimensional like Sternberg, Dreyer, Murnau, but flat digital imagery. Critics who call this film beautiful must never have seen a black and white silent movie. Whatever “progress” we have made sociologically, Blancanieves does not make artistically. Berger’s lack of political and artistic cred turns Blancanieves into yellow snow. Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair



ast Thursday, April 4, an Internet Week New York preview party was held at Design Within Reach’s newly renovated Soho Studio at 110 Greene Street. Eventually, 400 guests mingled easily as they sipped on ginger-flavored cocktails and Saporo beer, but those who arrived painfully on time at 7 p.m. were faced with an awkward, half hour free-for-all in the enormous space, not sure where to go or what to do, likely appearing, to those looking in, to be shopping for furniture. “I didn’t know what to expect or what to do when I got here. It feels really insider-y,” said Lisa Niedermeyer, whose nonprofit, Fractured Atlas, hopes to host a panel called Revenge of the Art Geek. “I think they kind of assume you were here last year.” Though it was never explained to the crowd trickling in, the main aim of the party was to get people to vote for the festival’s panel entrants, 228 in all (voting will remain open through April 10th at InternetWeekNY. com). Promising contenders include “Will The Internet Save the Publishing Industry?” “I’m Tired of Being So White” and “Combating Device Schizophrenia: Get Your Message Heard Across Screens.” A DJ spinning trippy futuristic songs eventually abandoned his post and joined the crowd shortly before 8:30 p.m., when a preview panel called Sex, Drugs, Drones, and Codes was set to begin. The panel was kicked off by Daniel Pinchback, editorial director of website Reality Sandwich and author of Breaking Open the Head, Pinchback briefly talked about the resurgence of the Internet in psychedelics, highlighting the ways in which the Internet is “fostering a psychedelic renaissance.” Next up was Matt Stinchcomb, former employee of Soho’s Rockstar Games and currently Etsy’s VP of Brand & Social Responsibility, who preferred to keep his Internet Week panel a secret but did his best to garner interest, saying, “I’m not gonna tell you what it’s about, but you guys are really gonna like it.” Brian Anderson, an editor for Motherboard, proceeded to give a speech on drones that honed in on the lack of attention given to the topic. “More people are losing sleep and commenting on articles about chocolate milk than non-consensual surveillance,” he said. “It’s compelling to see him so passionate about it, but at the end you’re like, what

Photo by Stephanie Mei-Ling

exactly is a drone?” said one baffled audience member to her date. A drone is, by simplest definition, an unmanned aircraft or other floating device used for surveillance and bomb/missile launching, but can also be something like “that stupid little vacuum robot,” Anderson explained. Ears perked up during columnist Kelly Bourdet’s panel run-down, which will be, essentially, on pornography. “Everyone — well, many — people watch porn, and yet it’s not part of our every day conversation. The panel will discuss how the Internet proliferates porn and how it affects us,” she said, adding that the first picture to ever be uploaded to the Internet was a Playboy centerfold. “Iceland wants to make porn illegal. What do we want to do about this medium, as children, teens, and adults?” she posed rhetorically to the audience. Her panel will also discuss how technology affects our modern day relationships. Co-presented by Made in New York, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Crain Communications, Internet Week is a weeklong event headquartered at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street). There will also be Meetups, exhibits, screenings, parties, and more taking place at venues across the city. Vice Media will curate an expanded panel and classroom series exploring hot-button topics like sex, drugs, drones, pirating, and social media reporting from conflict zones. Flagship events like the 17th Annual Webby Awards, The Webutante Ball, and Time Inc.’s 10 NYC Startups to Watch will be joined by a roster of new partners participating in the festival for the first time. Big name speakers will include WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, Executive Vice President of NBC Universal Lauren Zalaznick, and, for some reason, Joan Rivers. The event is expected to draw 45,000 people to 400 panels and will, hopefully, impress one of the panelists’ more critical members. “I think it’s silly to have a week where we talk about the Internet,” said Anderson after closing out the panel preview. “It’s what we do every day.”


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