May 26, 2013

PROFILE: Philip Glass

THE GRID from Tom Shone on Vimeo.
'“You just say ‘Disney’ and you see mosquitoes all over yourself,” says composer Phillip Glass, swatting away imaginary skeeters. We are sat at the dining table in the living rom of a redbrick townhouse in the East Village; through the windows can be heard the distant hum of mid-afternoon Manhattan. Glass is telling me about his new opera, The Perfect America, which focuses on the last weeks in the life of Walt Disney. This is not the Uncle Walt of your childhood,” said Time magazine when the opera premiered at Madrid's Teatro Real in January. Conservatives were aghast. Ruben Amon, critic of Spanish right-wing daily El Mundo, said Disney was shown as "arrogant, misogynist, racist, tyrannical, mean, ultraconservative, uncultured, hypochondriac and megalomaniac". Back in America, Glenn Beck caught wind of the production’s perceived assault on an American hero, wailing “We have nobody left!”

Contemplating the brouhaha, Glass affects a seignuerial impatience. “When people heard I was doing Walt Disney for some reason they assumed I was antagonistic.  I wouldn’t waste my time making fun of somebody. It’s too much work to do an opera. You have to really be involved with the subject. On the other hand I couldn't dust him off and make him all pretty for people. This isn’t a movie. This isn't a documentary. Opera is a species of poetry.”

Adapted from Peter Jungt’s 2004 novel, which took a magnifying glass to Disney’s flaws — his treatment of his employees, his casual racism, his testimony before HUAC — the opera opens with Walt cowering behind the bars of his hospital bed, ceding immortality to Mickey and Donald but fearful of what lies in wait for him.  “We had been struggling to a certain degree   to find the arrow that goes to the target, the thing that holds you to the piece,” says Glass. “I decided that it was his actual death. It’s really about the Death of Disney. We should have called it The Death of Disney! I would have got into just as much trouble! Many, many people have told me, it’s actually very touching isn’t it? Of course! It's the death of a creator, the death of a man. Is that good enough for a controversy? I don't know. It’s good enough for an opera!”

He laughs voluminously. With his head of brown curls, baggy, workman jeans, and scurrying speech patterns, he seems the youngest 76-year-old you’re likely to meet, with more than a touch of that cracked genius David Helfgott. Speech pours off him in a cascade, a Joycean murmur that changes direction on a dime to head down that tributary or up that alley, before rejoining the main thread, or swimming off again — much like his music.  In fact, meeting him makes you think again about the cascading arpeggios and locomotive rhythms of his music, which puts so many people in mind of heavy machinery at full throttle, and point you instead towards something more organic and vital: bubbling rivers, streams of thought, cellular reproduction. During rehearsal of the new opera, director Phelim McDermott happened to hear a passage of Glass’s music as a silk curtain was being put in place, and “the music suddenly seemed to be perfect accompaniment of the rippling silk.”

It’s telling that the effect was accidental. From what I could gather, Glass does not work all that closely with his collaborators. “Philip gives you lots of space,” says McDermott, most of whose interactions with Glass were long-distance, with McDermott sending Glass photographs of his sets for inspiration. Glass’s librettist, Rudy Wurlitzer, was also kept at arm’s length. “Writers can get too close,” he says, “I’ve learned from experience it’s better that way.” He once had a dust-up with Martin Scorsese over the score for Kundun, the two men both introverts who use a wall of words to keep the world at bay. His most celebrated score, for Geoffrey Reggio’s film Koyanisqatsi, was a fruitful mismatch. Reggio has intended the film as a critique of late capitalism. Glass gave him a teeming, cogs-whirring celebration of man and machine.

“There were people close to him who thought the score should be more depressing, but I don't find the films depressing at all,” he says. “They’re kind of … mmm… ecstatic. In fact it’s this penchant for the ecstasy that brought me to realise: this cant simply be about technology and the environment. Because why do you get that lift from it? There’s another message there — which is the grace and ecstasy of being alive. Is that too simple a message?”
Arguably the same mismatch is at work in The Perfect American, only less serendipitously.  Onstage we get a series of vignettes showing Disney acting the corporate big shot with his brother, interacting with an animatronic Lincoln  (“We’re folk heroes,/ Mr. President…You were a supporter of the Negro Race./ That’s a major difference between us.”), bashing the Reds and the unions, waving off Ronald Reagan on his way to political office. None other than Andy Warhol pops up in the third act “tell Walt that we are one and the same.”  The compliment feels as off-target as the slurs:  Disney refashioned in the image of the heroes and villains of  New-York-Review-of-Books readers.  Here’s the rub, though: the music is resonant, endlessly inventive, showing “more harmonic richness than ever” according to the New York Times which called the work Glass’s  "most personally intimate,” and suggested that the intimations of mortality shivering through the work were Glass’s own.
Glass seems a little put out to be eulogised so soon. “Of course,” he says grumpily. “Of course we think about that. Artists think about that, they worry about what’s going to happen to their paintings, what’s going to happen to their books. Everyone thinks about that. People say you will live in your work. I don't think people are satisfied with that. It’s no consolation. Not really.” Looking back on a career that has included 17 operas, going back to his groundbreaking Einstein on the Beach in 1975, 43 film scores, including those for Kundun and Koyanisquatsi, scores of orchestral works and chamber pieces, he says, “I was always a bit of an over-achiever. I worked harder. There were many more talented composers at Julliard than me. It just made me work harder. I didn't take any success as a sure thing.”

Like Disney, Glass would seem to be a supremely American, not to say capitalist, artist. “The whole idea of High and low art nobody cares about that any more,” he says, recalling work in his father’s record store in downtown Manhattan, when he was 12.   “One of the indelible memories I have is when people would come up to him with a Beethoven record — this would be old 78s — and he would give them the record and they would give him 10 dollars. I said: Ah…. Art….. Money. I saw that from the age of 12. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with it.   To me that was the way the world worked. The world was set up that way. When later on I met my European colleagues and discovered that most of them had never had a day job I was amazed — can you believe that?”

Until he made enough money from his music at age 41 for that to be his day job, he worked variously as a taxi driver, a plumber, even a furniture mover, once moving Time film critic Richard Schickel into a new apartment, to Schickel’s utter dumbfoundment: Glass was by that point famous for his 1975 opera Einstein on the Beach. “I only did jobs I could work away from,” he says, “I never worked for someone else,” an urge towards autonomy cuts to the very heart of him. Even his music Glass never sent to anyone else, setting up his own ensemble to perform it. “The idea of sending out music and having it rejected to me that was unbearable. There’s a vanity in that too. I didn't want to have to ask permission to be a musician. Basically I decided to be the captain of the ship whether it might be a little ship or a big ship. It was mine.”

That ship is now pretty big, its head-quarters located a few blocks west, in the same NoHo building as Details magazine, and including Point Music, a record label; Looking Glass, a recording studio used by David Bowie, David Byrne, and Glass himself; Euphorbia Productions, which stages the Philip Glass Ensemble's performances; and Dunvagen Publishing, which licenses the rights of Glass’s music for commercials and the like. Glass is a brand, these days. His friends rib him that he is a “captain of industry.”  Not unlike Disney himself, I point out, who when asked for his role within the company, likened himself to the conductor of an orchestra.   

“He also said and we have him say this in the piece, ‘I’m like the bee that goes around pollinating the flowers.’ There’s a wonderful scene at the end where the little boy says to him. ‘Walt, how did you do all those characters — Mickey and Donald and Snow White. He goes, ‘Well I didn't. I’m like the bee. I took people who are talented, I inspired them, and made all these people. Nothing would have happened without me.”   
— From my interview with Philip Glass in The Sunday Times

May 23, 2013

Man, this sounds good

“The dread and anxiety are slow to build. Although he manages to temporarily repair the hull, the boat’s navigational functions have been completely shut down, leaving the Virginia Jean to sail helplessly into the path of a gathering storm. Our Man barely manages to keep himself afloat as he and the boat are repeatedly tossed and turned by the waves, lashed by pounding wind and rain. Yet such is the character’s resourcefulness — stockpiling rations, emptying the hold of water, and at one point climbing the 65-foot mast to secure the sails — that he manages to hold out as long as possible before the irreparable craft finally capsizes, at about the one-hour mark, leaving him to spend the rest of this harrowing journey in a life raft.... Nothing here feels fancy or extraneous, least of all Redford’s superb performance, in which the clearly invigorated actor (having a bit of a comeback year with this and The Company You Keep) holds the viewer’s attention merely by wincing, scowling, troubleshooting and yelling the occasional expletive. That we have no access to this man’s history or inner life merely heightens the poignance of his situation, detailed knowledge being no prerequisite for basic empathy under such extreme circumstances.” — Variety

On My iPod: May 22nd 2013

1. Diane Young — Vampire Weekend
2. Fireproof — the National
3. For Now I Am Winter (Nils Frahm rework) — Olafur Analds
4. Lights — Josh Ritter
5. Young and Beautiful — Lana Del Ray
6. Go Wherever you Wanna Go — Patty Griffin
7. Give Life Back to Music — Daft Punk
8. Hotel Catatonia — William Tyler
9. On The Ropes — Eels
10. Fruit Tree — Green Gartside

May 19, 2013

"She was vocal about saying that if she was to do this movie she’d need to do something very, very different from what she’s used to doing. I got an email she sent me of herself with a blonde wig, very Miami-ish. She said, “I think I need to look like this.” That Donatella Versace kind of extravaganza, with a creature feel to it, came from that. I’d call her KST. She was so larger than life, she needed a logo." — Nicolas Winding Refn on Kristin Scott Thomas

May 17, 2013

Is Hamlet likeable?

A gaggle of literary types have chimed at the New Yorker to conduct a "Forum on Likeability" in support of Claire Messud, who suffered the indignity of being ask if she would befriend the protagonist of her new novel. She responded angrily:
"For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter?" 
Actually, the answer to most of those is yes. Maybe not the family in The Corrections, or anything that Pynchon has written, but yes to Sabbath, Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Krapp, and O don't see why not Oedipus. All of them strike me as very entertaining company. But everyone piles on the concept of "likeability" as if sensing their last chance to alienate anything resembling a general reader. Franzen:
I hate the concept of likeability—it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook. You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would.  
Really? That's quite a statement: You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would. Why? I thought it was the artist's duty — or aim — to view their creations with the love and forgiveness accorded all God's creatures. Likeability is surely covered under that rubric. Only modern novelists mistake their pissy judgments of others for "the truth." It's why nobody reads modern fiction. Why I don't, anyway. 

May 16, 2013

Hearing His Master's Voice

'I’ve long held the view that too much attention is paid to the way movie actors look, and not enough to the way they sound. Of the two senses we use to take in cinema, or apprehend an performance, sound accounts for a full 50%, maybe more. "The ear goes more towards the within,” said Robert Bresson, “the eye towards the outer”. An actor’s voice can be the most distinctive thing about them, whether that of Marilyn Monroe, which was variously compared to    “cotton candy, smoke, wind, lollipops and velvet”, “Champagne lava,” and “the slow folding and unfolding of a pink cashmere sweater,” or the strange transatlantic locution of Cary Grant, neither quite English nor quite American, but some strange place in the middle where men in top hats did backflips and leopards interrupted your golf game.  
Then there is Bogart. “They all said he lisped,” wrote Kenneth Tynan of the actor, whom he could imitate perfectly. “He did nothing of the sort. What he did was to fork his tongue and hiss like a snake.” As Bogart’s latest biographer, Stefan Kanfer recently pointed out, nobody “does” Di Caprio or Gosling they way they tried to do Bogart or Cagney. Such idiosyncracy seems to be a hallmark of the 1902 and 30s, when that first generation of Hollywood actors attempted to gain a foothold, or earhold, in the brand new landscape of sound cinema.   In a post at her indispensible movie-blog savoring the “delicious purr” of Sydney Greenstreet, the “somber, nun-at-vespers intonation” and the “silky” growl of Robert Mitchum, The Self-Styled Siren argues that  
“Early talkies did the human voice no favors, hitting the squeaky high notes with a frequency that gelded male stars and made female ones sound like Kewpie dolls. Once technicians got the sound more under control, though, performers began to stand out on the basis of their voices. Vaguely aristocratic tones like that of Ronald Colman were especially coveted. You strove for that mid-Atlantic accent, meaning not Delaware and Pennsylvania but somewhere in the middle of the ocean, between England and the former colonies. Eventually individuality blossomed, and the full spectrum of American accents was heard. The Siren thinks you hear a much wider variety of dialects in 1930s movies than you do in modern ones.” 
Who these days can compare? There is always Christopher Walken, of course, who reportedly taught himself his halting manner of speech by deleting all the punctuation from his scripts and who continues to sound as if recently arrived from the outermost ring of Saturn. There is Alan Rickman, who always manages to sound like a python halfway through a protracted process of digestion. But while I am second to none in my admiration for Di Caprio, particularly in the latest Gatsby, the only thing holding him back in other roles — particularly Eastwood’s J Edgar and Scorsese’s The Aviator — has been his voice, which plays much younger than his characters. Imagine him with Kiefer’s Sutherland’s sand-and-molasses murmur, or Alec Baldwin’s mink-lined fondle, or Sam Eliott’s resonant cello — sweet Jesus. Truly, we would have the new Orson Welles on our hands.' — from my Guardian column

May 12, 2013

PROFILE: Richard Linklater

"Ruddy of cheek, with long, floppy, brown hair and only a smattering of gray in his beard, Linklater, at 52, has the helpful glow of someone about to tune up your car engine, but with a daydreamer’s bashful, abstracted air. Most of his answers wind through some combination of “you know” or “I don’t know,” before hitting a groove on the effect of nitrous oxide on creativity (some of his best ideas have come in the dentist’s chair), or the Apollo 13 missions, then tailing off with a shrug and a look into his lap. At one point, comparing the mind’s imaginative leaps to the way people walk on the moon, he makes a slo-mo bound with his fingers across the table—a gesture whose disarming sweetness is impossible to imagine coming from any other working film director. He and Hawke have pitched many movies to studio executives over the years, and Linklater’s pitching abilities have not improved with time. “Rick and I would go into a meeting,” says Hawke, “trying to sell somebody on an idea for a movie, and the head of the studio would go, ‘So tell me about your film,’ and Rick would go, ‘Well, gee, I don’t know,’ and just stop there. He just doesn’t ever lie. ‘Well, you know ... what I hope to do is this.’ In a world where all directors seem like salesmen trying to project themselves as some kind of visionary, you don’t get this brittle ‘Oh, I’m an artiste, my work is important’—you don’t get any of that vibe from him. You tell him his movie is important, he’ll run as fast as he can.” — from my profile of Richard Linklater for New York

May 6, 2013

Kent Jones on The Bling Ring

"Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye ... If you wanted to get pithy about it, you could call her a neorealist of hyper-materialist life ... Like SomewhereThe Bling Ring sneaks up on you. Somewhere during the first visit to Paris Hilton’s house (if it isn’t the real thing, it could just as well be), you might find yourself, as I did, alternately charmed, mesmerized, and horrified by the lives of the characters and the homes they enter. Halfway through the film, Marc and Rebecca wander through what is supposedly Orlando Bloom’s open-plan house at night, viewed from an exquisite remove several tiers above in the Hollywood hills, the sounds of howling coyotes and wailing police sirens quietly echoing in the distance—a suspended spell of uncanny beauty, and one of the most beautifully lyrical stretches I’ve seen in a movie in ages." — Film Comment

May 2, 2013

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby (d. Luhrmann)

Ever since I heard Baz Lurhann was filming a 3-D version of The Great Gatsby I've been hopeful but nervous: Moulin Rouge and Australia had all the delicacy of drag acts bellowing at hecklers. On the other hand, I loved Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet, and both Di Caprio and Luhrmann have enough of the mythomaniac about them to channel Fitzgerald's improbable, pink-suited bootlegger.  As for the 3-D, bring it on. If anyone was going to recreate the spectroscopic gayety of Fitzgerald's book it was Luhramann, who knows how to throw a party. Here, we get dancing girls, fountains, spumes of champagne, cameras tracing the arc of confetti,  even what looks like a 1920s version of ecstasy which causes downtown Manhattan to go all wiggy on Tobey Maguire. It's all very impressive yet slightly boring at the same time, falling afoul of that old law of cinema that states: no act of Dionysian revelry is ever quite as exciting to watch as it was to conceive. And Luhrmann is nothing if not a filmmaker of immaculate conceptions, his film a brochure of gorgeous images, like someone leafing through a Prada catalogue, with the effect that anyone who has seen a trailer for this movie already has an unnervingly accurate sense-memory of what it actually feels like to watch. 

Take Gatsby's entrance: a famous drop-shot in which Nick Carraway is taken in by a stranger at one of Gatsby's bashes, only for the stranger to let slip that he is, in fact, Gatsby himself. It's a wonderful, weightless moment, but Luhrmann botches it with elephantine emphasis: at the words "I'm Gatsby", we get the climax of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the soundtrack, a fireworks display erupting in the background and the sound of Tobey Maguire describing Gatsby's smile for those members of the audience without the gift of sight:   "He had the kind of smile that seemed to believe you and understand you as you wanted to be believed and understood..." We can see that. It's Leonardo frigging Di Caprio. To that old rule of cinema we can now add another: no act of Dionysian revelry is quite as laborious as the one narrated in voiceover by Tobey Maguire. He's all over this movie, regrettably, patiently explaining the effects his fellow actors are trying to pull off ("....with every word Daisy retreated further into herself"). Luhrmann has clearly tried his utmost to rev up Maguire's notoriously lethargic delivery, he still he manages the excitement levels of a small vole, recently awoken from hibernation by the roaring twenties and now anxious to get back to sleep. 

I was a full  30 minutes into this film before anything really clicked. It came during Gatsby's big reunion scene with Daisy, as Di Caprio fusses with some flowers in anticipation of her arrival — no big moment but it gets a laugh, so relieved is the audience to encounter anything as recognisable as date jitters. The entire film rests on di Caprio's shoulders. If Lurhmann's Gatsby finds its audience, it will be because of the desire, nurtured by large swathes of the population, to find out whatever happened to that nice young man in Titanic, before he got all scuzzed up for Martin Scorsese, and does he still look good in a tux? The answer is a resounding yes, although the real artistry of di Caprio's performance rests in the entwining of the two stray halves of his career, delivering both burnished movie star and  Scorsesean wild side: listen to him  roar as he tears across the room to silence Tom Buchanan at the Plaza hotel. Redford was never this roused, barely allowing himself to break sweat, but Di Caprio looses the obsession at the heart of Fitzgerald's millionaire.  His Gatsby is an obsessive coming apart at the seams,  a recluse hounded by the newspapers, the first celebrity nutbag — a prequel, of sorts, to Di Caprio's turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. 

You realise what Lurhmann has done here. If Fitzgerald's book was about money, Luhrmann's version is about celebrity — an understandable recallibration, even as it renders even more indistinct the class fissures tearing Gatsby and Daisy apart. Their relationship was never a model of clarity.   As Fitzgerald wrote Max Perkins:
“The worst fault in it is a big fault; I gave no account (and had no feeling or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Daisy and Gatsby from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However the lack is so astutely covered by the retrospect of Gatsby past and by blankets of excellent prose that nobody has noticed” 
The Redford version  had a solution to all this: montages, all tennis whites and lawn-fed languor, filmed through  lens so smeared with vaseline you wonder the operator managed to get it on the camera. The gauziness was fitting. As much as Fitzgerald's prose mimics the sensation of falling in and then out of love with Daisy,  the suspicion has always lingered that not only is she unequal to the weight of Gatsby's desires, but viewed in the cold light of day, undeserving  (“For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery"). The thankless task of turning her into a romantic heroine goes this time to Carey Mulligan, an actress whose forte is soft-throated vulnerability and therefore not at her absolute best when posing coquettishly between orchids. Mulligan does her best to go digging for a part without making much of an advance  on the gasps and giggles Mia Farrow came up with in 1974; as for the scene in which pulls away from a clinch with Di Caprio with the line  "Why can't we just gave fun like we used to?" I thought I heard a thousand teenage gasps at such heresy. Luhrmnn's ambition to film the iGeneration's Gone With The Wind just went splat into the brickwork.    

Nobody could begrudge this film its fabulousness but make no mistake that what Luhrmann purveys is a species of cinematic camp, with the emotional tinniness that implies. He mounts huge pop-art embellishments on the theme of certain emotions — the look of them, the sound of them, the pop cultural density of them — without the bother of actually going through with them. He makes a fetish of romance without feeling it: it's telling that the film's sex scene is slipped under the mat in the form of  — yes — a montage.  His valentine of a movie, it turns out, is not aimed at Daisy, nor Gatsby. 
"If there's something you would change, just say"
"It's all perfect. Sprung from your irresistable imagination."
 It's hard to mistake the compliment Luhrmann is paying himself here: by the final reel, the film is one long air-kiss to it's own visionary prowess, a character study of a chronic perfectionist that is also made by one.  The movie ends with Di Caprio breaking the surface of his pool, alone at last, as if letting the burden of this handsome, hectic movie slip from his bronzed shoulders. How strange that this most phantasmal of characters should, in Di Caprio's rendering, be the most rock-solid presence in the film. B-