Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Trompe L'oiel

February 28, 2007


The culmination of announcement season arrived yesterday with the Metropolitan Opera’s plans for 2007-2008. Not to be outdone, New York City Opera had an announcement of its own, that Gerard Mortier, the Belgian “bad boy” formerly of Salzburg and Paris fame, will take over artistic leadership there in 2009. And suddenly, everything has changed. Probably the most staid and conservative opera town in the world seems to be throwing itself head first into something new – who knows? It may even be the future.

The latest evidence that things feel a little different to me though, came courtesy of the Met’s marketing folks who have chosen Lee Broomfeld’s lovely and sure to be oft duplicated photo of Natalie Dessay as Lucia di Lammermoor for the new season’s ads and promos. Just as Sutherland and Sills cast long shadows over the bel canto repertoire for their vocal performances, their physical presence is hard to shake as well. I can’t seem to imagine Lucia as being anything other than six foot tall, big as a house and blond or red-haired as the day is long. Who is this wispy French racoon-eyed wraith we see before us? My ears know she can sing these bel canto roles, but my eyes are having a hard time letting go of the past. Here's to looking with new eyes and hearing with new ears.

For Your (Re)consideration

February 26, 2007

Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Last weekend was filled with opportunities to revisit the recent past which can sometimes be a good thing, and sometimes not. Over at the Ahmanson was the LA visit from the much-traveled Kathleen Turner/Bill Irwin production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Despite the seemingly endless good press about this show, I was hesitant given that my exposure to this particular play was mainly through Mike Nichols' famous film version. I have never really made it all the way through the film before because at some point I always decided I I'd rather be doing something else than listening to all that yelling. I’m glad I went, though, since this production greatly rehabilitated my view of the piece. This production reinserts much of the humor in Albee’s words back into the mix, making the whole affair a little less Suddenly, Last Summer, if you know what I mean. Credit must be given to the stellar performances of Turner and Irwin who manage to keep the balance between the laughs and the profound undercurrents of loss. I am always partial to works about the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves functional. Martha and George know this all to well and the final act of this production burns with knowledge that is too great to bear. There is great tragedy here, not in all the shouting, but the intolerable silence it covers over.

I got a second go at the Met’s current Eugene Onegin on Saturday, this time through the great HD theater simulcast. I was excited to see Gergiev behind the podium after he called off the night I saw the production in New York. He definitely made a difference in this great production and I was still amazed and touched by Fleming, Vargas, and Hvorostovsky. However, the simulcast proved my previous suspicions about these events to be true: a multi-camera filmed version of an opera can be as a much help as a hindrance. While the broadcast of I Puritani greatly improved a boring staging, the broadcast of Onegin sucked out most of the production's visual punch. Part of the beauty of Carsen’s staging is the contrast between the stark white stage and the relatively tiny performers in their period garb and minimal props. In the HD broadcast virtually all of this is lost. For this round, the broadcast was definitely no match for the live experience.

Sunday contained two moments of reconsideration of the recent past. First, was the Oscar broadcast. As usual the Academy missed the boat on many of the year’s best films in favor of big statements and feeling good about one’s self. (In case you’re wondering the correct answer to that question, the best movies were Children of Men, Little Children, Volver, L’Enfant, Flags of Our Fathers, and Inland Empire.) As I watched Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson (try saying that without it getting stuck in your craw) warble through the C-rate numbers from Dreamgirls all I could think of was how sad pop culture has become when someone like Simon Cowell may in fact be a good judge of talent or lack thereof. However, prior to this annual disappointment, I revisited another recent one by a second viewing of LA Opera’s Mahagonny. I had extra tickets and decided to use them despite my prior experience and after reading a rather positive review from Alan Rich over at the LA Weekly. At first, I felt better about things in Act I, but then came Act II and all the mind-numbingly stoic direction came flooding back with a vengeance. Which only goes to show – sometimes it’s best to trust your instincts.

After the Fall

February 24, 2007

Patti LuPone and cast
Photo: Robert Millard 2007

My partner and I often debate which is preferable – to see a great performance of a mediocre opera or a mediocre or bad performance of a great one?

Case in point: LA Opera’s current new production of Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny which I saw earlier this week. (Yes, I know that some people with too much time on their hands will want to dicker over whether or not this is an opera and then furthermore whether or not it is a “great” one.) I had high expectations for this production with an experienced and lauded Broadway/Opera hybrid cast and a new production directed by Broadway director-du-jour John Doyle. Plus, this would be a chance to see a not frequently performed work under the musical leadership of James Conlon. Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed to discover this evening would fall into the opening question’s later category as I began to wonder about the relative joys of seeing some half-assed Figaro instead of this very boring production.

I would have to agree with the nearly-always on target Mark Swed in that the biggest problem is that this Mahagonny is far too sweet and easy going for a work that trades in society’s ills and a fierce indictment of cultural hypocrisy. There was about as much malice on stage as found in your average Disney film. Everyone is shifty and slimy but you wouldn't know that by the way the characters were dressed. Many of Jenny’s fellow prostitutes in Mahagonny end up looking less like whores and more like middle-aged women who never quite got over their failed auditions for orphan parts in Annie. The cast members frequently stand around with vacant looks on their faces when not performing, creating the effect of some catwalk left over from fashion week. Doyle seems to have missed that there is a difference between decadence and apathy.

What is perhaps most disappointing though is that so much talent goes to such poor use here. Audra McDonald is engaging and handles the Weil songs well. An unamplified Anthony Dean Griffey held his own and was a completely convincing Jimmy. Even Patti LuPone did an admirable job playing up to her strengths as an actor. But their cause was a lost one in the midst of a huge, empty, and amateurishly decorated set. What little action there was centered around various cast memebers struggling with tangles and snags in a number of large flags they are asked to wield and drape themselves in over and over throughout the evening. But there are no doubt worse sins than this one. Despite the many problems, LA Opera should be given credit for trying something a little off the beaten path. Even if everything doesn’t quite work, at least they are trying.

The Trouble with Simon

February 19, 2007

Angela Gheorghiu, Thomas Hampson, and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2007

This New York weekend wrapped up with the season’s first performance of Simon Boccanegra at the Met with an all start cast including Thomas Hampson in the title role, Angela Gheorghiu, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Marcello Giordano. Let me start by saying that the singing overall was top-drawer. The music was too. Fabio Luisi and the Met Orchestra were in fine form with a strong, not-too-overly-studied performance. You are unlikely to hear a more stellar cast in this opera anywhere in the world right now than the one the Met has currently put together. Gheorghiu is amazing, but of course this is Hampson’s show, which he handles heroically. I love Furlanetto and he did not disappoint here. The chorus was excellent and was actually given a little bit of business to do compared to some of their more stand-and-deliver outings recently.

So why was I so bored for much of the evening? I think my neighbor my have had it right – no umph, or at least not for the first half of the opera. I wasn’t really convinced from their acting that anyone meant anything they were singing. It was studied but never really connected, I felt. As well sung as it was, nobody was doing much acting outside of the hand-wringing head-grabbing variety. Maybe this is one of those “warm-up” effects that improve with multiple performances. However, I tend to think the awkwardness is more due to bad direction or lack of it as opposed to any decision made by the performers themselves.

Then there is the production itself. This is another one of those well-done but completely uninteresting stagings that is shockingly stodgy for only being a little more than 10 years old. It’s the operatic equivalent of a late Cecil B DeMille picture. All this grand "authenticity" but so little to show for it. Plus someone really should have reconsidered the sequence where the crowd pulls down the deposed leader’s statue in the Prologue. It’s 2007, people, and while this may not have seemed cliché a decade ago, news events since that time have left it as a somewhat strange theatrical gesture.

Perhaps I’m quibbling considering all of the show's strong attributes, but on a weekend that included two great productions, I couldn’t resist thinking about how many ways in which this could have been better. Still, given the star power and the musical performance, it is definitely worth seeing.

New York Double Header

February 17, 2007

Karita Mattila as Jenufa and Anja Silja as Kostelnicka
Photo: Beatriz Schiller 2007

The best shows tend to come in twos and threes for some reason and this Saturday was no exception. It was a double header at the Metropolitan Opera with the final performance of Jenufa in the afternoon and later that evening, Eugene Onegin. This was probably one of the best opera days I’ve had in awhile for a number of reasons, but as is usually the case with opera, it rests on a confluence of factors. While great singing is no surprise at the Met, great productions too frequently are, but you would never suspect it seeing these two shows.

There are few superlatives left that have not already been bestowed on the current Jenufa. It deserves all of them especially those directed towards the exemplary Anja Silja. Karita Mattila, Jorma Silvasti, Jay Hunter Morris, and maestro Jirí Belohlávek were all excellent. But equally important to this success was the inventive but subtle production from Olivier Tambosi. There have been naysayers on this design but I think it works very well, especially the huge rock that dominates the stage in the second act providing extra metaphorical weight to Silja’s tour de force performance. The rock becomes everything - the truth, the baby, honor - and Kostelnicka is left to hopelessly throw herself against these immobile facts with no good choices. And then there is the snow. Janácek seems to take very well to snow-effects on stage, and Jenufa is no exception as the back walls parted in Act II to reveal snow during Jenufa’s dream of her child’s distress. It's not often that I'm tearful at anything, but I was here. Too bad so many people stayed away from these fantastic performances over the shows run. Oh well, their loss.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Eugene Onegin
Photo: Ken Howard 2007

Jenufa was worth the trip to New York alone, but to my surprise, that evening’s Eugene Onegin turned out to be a real winner as well. Of course the bad news was that conductor Valery Gergiev was out that night and replaced by Paul Nadler, but the rest of the cast was intact including Ms. Fleming Mr. Hvorostovsky, and the ever-present Ramón Vargas as Lenski. But what really made the evening was another modern, visually engaging and insightful staging this time from Robert Carsen. The stark empty white stage allowed for a variety of powerful lighting effects and an intense focus on the performers who were uniformly excellent. The dueling scene was performed behind a white scrim and back lit leaving the performers to appear only as silhouettes to the audience heightening the sense of fear and loss the characters themselves are facing. Rooms are suggested with only the simplest of furniture. Though it wasn’t clear what language Fleming and Vargas were singing in all of the time, they more than held their own against a radiant and super steamy Hvorostovsky. I've always been a little ambivalent about the white-maned one, but last evening I was sold without a question on his abilities. As sorry as I was to miss Gergiev, the theater HD broadcast next week should allow me another chance to catch him and the rest of this stellar cast again.

Before heading back to LA there is one other matter of business, and that is Monday’s Simon Boccanegra with my favorite soprano, Angela Georghiu.

Catching Up

Jeanne Sakata as Maria Callas
Photo: East West Players 2007
I feel neglectful of my blog duties this week, which is in part due to my trying to catch up on some movies and the sordid matter of gainful employment that runs this machine. There have been a number of events worth mentioning that haven't gotten their due. I saw East-West Players current production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class with Jeanne Sakata as Callas last Saturday. A good production to be sure and I think Sakata pulls off the role but I felt the production still looked a little cheap particularly in the wig and costume department which is always distracting if you're down front. The internal monologues came off as rushed and stiff, but the humor was largely intact.

Over at the Pasadena Playhouse, there was the West Coast premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s Defiance with the uber-sexy Kevin Kilner as Col. Littlefield. I admire Shanley’s effort to produce plays about serious moral and philosophical concepts but this work isn’t as emotionally engaging as Doubt and what’s at stake for the characters in Defiance seems confused and less risky in many ways.
Christopf von Dohnányi with the LA Phil
Photo: Axel Koester/The New York Times 2007
My disatisfaction may result from some particularly rocky southern accents, but I suspect it’s more than that.

I’ll be in New York this weekend for some operas but before leaving town I did get to see Christoph von Dohnányi conduct the LA Philharmonic on Thursday in Brahms’ 1st and 3rd Symphonies as part of a “Brahms Cycle” over the next two weeks. These interpretations were lively and not overly sentimental. The audience seemed very enthusiastic despite being particularly noisy. Even New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini was there (probably in town for the Mahagonny across the street, which isn't fairing well in the press, though I won't see until next week) and threw more ink at the LA Phil event than even the LA Times has as of yet.

Anyway, look for updates from New York in the next days. Happy Presidents Day!

Oscar Docs II - the Shorts

February 11, 2007

The good folks at the American Cinematheque provided their annual public look at the four Oscar nominated documentary short subjects this weekend at the second theater they have restored in LA, the Aero in Santa Monica. (The first, of course, is the lovely Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd.) I really love seeing these shorts not necessarily because they are the most technically sophisticated films, but because the short film, and in particular the non-fiction short film, is an art all its own. The short film, in a way, is like the cinematic equivalent of haiku – a brief and directed piece that if done well can have a surprising impact. It has to be lyrical or profound with only the most basic elements and can draw one’s attention to beauty or terror or unspoken truth in the smallest gestures or images that are often overlooked in feature length films.

from The Blood of Yingzhou District
As is their wont, the Academy has selected four shorts mostly from veteran filmmakers, most of whom have had prior nominations for documentary work. Two of the four are standard “big issue” films. The Blood of Yingzhou District is director Ruby Yang’s look at children orphaned in China’s AIDS epidemic. This film is stark not just because of the fear and social isolation these children face, but also for the devastating rural poverty it portrays. There are beautiful images in this grainy digital film and it does a good job of not losing the subject's sobriety to an overly slick production. The film also wisely focuses on the children and not on the manner in which people became infected as part of local paid blood donation programs. Definitely moving and often difficult to watch.

from Recycled Life
Poverty and children are also central to Leslie Iwerks’ and Mike Glad’s Recycled Life which concerns the Guajeros of Guatemala City - a society of thousands of adults and children who make their living by scavenging for food and re-salable items in the city's main garbage dump. Many of them live in or near the dump itself amidst toxic methane fumes and other dangers. There is a deep irony at work here as the film points out that despite the tragic aspects of this by-product of urban poverty, there are unexpected benefits. The Guajeros reduce the city's daily waste by nearly a third due to their recycling efforts resulting in less garbage for the landfill. This story does have a somewhat happy ending when after a huge 2005 fire consumes the dump for days, the government finally takes action to place some safety restrictions on the dump including security and the banning of child workers in favor of their placement in day care and refurbished local schools. A more professional looking film, Life suffers from appearing almost too corporate at times like a commercial for some large aid agency. For example, the monotone narration by Edward James Olmos places the specter of a Sally Struthers-like voice in the midst of images and people who can more than adequately speak for themselves.

from Rehearsing a Dream
Of course, the documentary short subjects have an easier time focusing on more upbeat and lighter fare than the feature length works do and this year's nominees again demonstrate this aspect of shorter films. This nominees include Rehearsing a Dream, a film sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, a non-profit group that encourages talented children and adolescents to develop careers in the performing or visual arts. The film from Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon follows a group of teens invited to participate in an annual conference and workshop event with professional artists in Miami in 2006. Here the likes of Michael Tilson Thomas dole out warm supporting advice to high-school bassoon players. I guess whether or not you find this inspiring depends on your tolerance for adolescent hyperbole and dramatics that are in abundance here, particularly amongst the theater and drama enthusiasts. Watching these histrionics makes one long for the days when Mickey and Judy would just put on a show in the family barn. Where have all the flowers gone?

from Two Hands
Finally there was Nathaniel Khan’s Two Hands, a very brief biography of Leon Fleischer, focusing on how a focal dystonia radically changed the course of his music career and how carpal tunnel surgery and botox have made it possible for him to play the piano once again with both hands. While interesting, Two Hands seemed overwhelmed by the other films in the screening due to its relative brevity (easily half as short as the others) and its rather straightforward approach and narrative. I kept feeling something was missing here and the film simply wasn't probing enough to be very interesting. However, Fleischer gets to go to the Oscars apparently since his local date at UCLA was rescheduled to accommodate this. So, more power to him.

Who’ll win? It’s harder to tell this year than last. What little I know on the topic seems to suggest that voters like films that look like films: high production values that don’t look like digital video PR films so Two Hands may have an edge, but it could just as easily be any of the others, particularly Blood.

On the Horizon

February 08, 2007

Members of the LA Philharmonic
with Sir Neville Marriner
Photo: mine 2007
After the sizable disappointment of the LA Opera 07/08 Season announcement a few weeks back, it was heartening to get the LA Philharmonic 07/08 mailing this week. Although not as overall immediately exciting as last two seasons, there are a number of what promises to be must-see events. Clearly there are some details yet to be hammered out in this schedule that was sent out to renewing subscribers early this year; more so than normal. But already, there will be plenty of new and recent music and other challenging programming to look forward to.

The season starts out with “Sibelius Unbound”- a series of programs conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen that will feature all of Sibelius’ symphonies paired with other works. The other works in these programs will include a new piece from Steven Stucky, Salonen’s own Wing on Wing and other works from Sibelius including songs to be performed by Ben Heppner. Salonen will also lead local premieres of Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone with Dawn Upshaw and his own Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman as well as the world premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Cello Concerto with Anssi Karttunen. In the new music “Green Umbrella” series there will be programs dedicated to works by Saariaho, Salonen, Stucky and a new commission from Thomas Adès with video artist Tal Rosner.

One of the two other major programming concepts next season is “Concrete Frequency”- three programs conducted by David Robertson that are described as an examination of “the elements that define cities [their italics] and how those qualities are affected by, and reflected in, music.” While this seems a rather spurious concept, it does include some rather interesting and unusual works like Feldman’s The Turfan Fragments, Benjamin’s Palimpsest I and II, Boulez’ ”…explosante-fixe…”, Frank Zappa’s Dupree’s Paradise, Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape, and a new music/video work from Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison. At the other pole programming-wise is the International Youth Orchestra Festival, which will feature performances of much more standard fare, including Beethoven and Mahler’s 5th symphonies as performed by the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra under Salonen’s direction and two shows from the Simòn Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

Dudamel will also head up a star-studded list of visiting conductors including Iván Fischer, Jonathan Nott, Edo de Waart, Zubin Mehta, Nicholas McGegan, Charles Dutoit, James Conlon, Christoph von Dohnányi, Christoph Eschenbach, and even Lorin Maazel who will lead a performance of Britten’s War Requiem. Of course there is no shortage of celebrity instrumentalists and vocalists either. Renée Fleming will help kick off the season at the opening gala concert and other visiting vocalists will include Anthony Dean Griffey and Lilli Paasikivi in a Salonen-led performance of Das Lied von der Erde. András Schiff will give four solo recitals as part of a two-year cycle of all the Beethoven piano sonatas and the WDCH stage will also be graced by old-stand-bys Lang Lang and Midori as well as Leif Ove Andsnes, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Christian Tetzlaff, Olivier Latry, Vadim Repin, Leila Josefowicz, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. All and all not too shabby.

Sunday at the Freud with Jason

February 05, 2007

Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano
Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/LAT 2007
The problems with the current Reprise production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at the Freud playhouse are many and more often than not stem directly from the directorial vision, or lack thereof, of Jason Alexander. The production is so interminably slow that one wonders if it covers not only Sunday but a large part of Monday as well. At least it feels that way. Many of the cast and orchestra seem to be wandering listlessly throughout waiting for someone to point them in the right direction to no avail. Like some insidious sleep experiment, Alexander manages to keep the audience just barely awake for nearly three hours while events plod along.

Admittedly, my expectations were high, given the masterpiece of a score, and two up and coming Broadway names in the leads, Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano. But my hopes were soon dashed. Or at least they were dashed in extreme slow motion. Both Felciano and O’Hara were quite good, but they had a lot to overcome. It often felt like they were singing without accompaniment since the orchestra was on a platform both above and at the back of the stage. Ideally placed so that absolutely no one could hear them, not even the cast. I kept thinking of how much better and more audible it would have been if the entire cast were playing their own instruments. Where is John Doyle when you need him? In fact, this production points out why Doyle is a genius. Here's a production that tries too hard to be too much without the resources to pull it off. Doyle's adaptations are inspired for dealing with this exact problem: his recent stagings serve both practical constraints and artistic considerations simultaneously. Here the cast seemed flummoxed by rinky-dink sets. Even with relative star power, this is one afternoon that may be better spent at home.

Oscar Docs

February 04, 2007

It's February in LA and besides sunshine and 70 degree highs, that can mean only one thing - Oscar time. Suddenly, the theaters are filled not only with good and interesting movies, including some gems that you may have overlooked and which you now have another chance to see. Plus in LA, you don’t have to be an Academy member and receive copious screening copies of films since virtually every film the Academy has nominated for an award will screen for the public in local theaters between the nominations and the award show itself. As I catch up on some movie viewing over the next few weeks, I intend to post about some of these highlights.

This week I’ve had a chance to screen the nominees for Best documentary feature. As is their normal tradition, the Academy tends not to favor the actual best documentaries and instead has generated a list of five films concerned with the controversies du jour. Certainly, the Academy’s effort to make its selection process less idiosyncratic over the last few year’s has resulted in the inclusion of documentaries that some people have actually seen and admired. But frankly, the lion’s share of credit for the near revolution in broader distribution of quality non-fiction films comes from the efforts of HBO and the folks at Sundance. The five films the Academy singled out this year include a film about global warming, two about the effects of the Iraq war, and two others about child abuse perpetrated under the auspices of religion.

Probably the best known of the five is Davis Guggenheim’s film adaptation of Al Gore’s book/Keynote presentation An Inconvenient Truth. The film has had the intended effect of drawing much more attention to the critical issue of global warming and the continued willful ignorance of the right wing and the Bush administration. This film is likely a shoo-in to win given the make up of the Academy voting pool and their seeming inability to distinguish a good film from a star/topic/issue they care about. The film is slick, but it is what it is: a lecture with slides. Looking at 90 minutes of charts and graphs, even with charts and graphs done well with theatrical flair, is boring. To make matters worse, there is an attempt to graft in topics and events from Gore’s own personal and political history that, while interesting, don’t seem relevant to the project as a whole. While very well intentioned, Truth carries on in the post-Bowling for Columbine tradition where the distinctions between a documentary and a non-fiction film begin to fade.

If there is a film that can appeal to the voters more than the Al Gore lecture, it just may be Deliver Us From Evil. Amy Berg’s film recounts the Catholic Church’s failure to deal with one specific priest, Oliver O’Grady, who sexually abused children in a number of parishes in central California for decades. The film includes powerful and disturbing stories from many of his victims and their families and stands as a huge indictment of the Church’s leaders including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney. While Deliver Us relies too heavily on segments featuring lawyers involved in past and current court cases against the Church, and there are too many segments that appear overly staged, there is much to admire here. One of the most disturbing and fascinating parts of the film is O’Grady’s own emotionless account of his actions. Also included are videotaped depositions from Mahoney and other Church officials working hard to cover their history of inaction. While in many ways shot in a standard and uninteresting documentary format, Deliver Us exposes too much about human behavior and emotion to be easily ignored.

The other film in the Academy's group that deals with what some may view as child abuse by a religious organization (albeit in a more socially acceptable way) is Jesus Camp. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady focus on a group of kids from evangelical households over a year including a stay at a summer camp where they are indoctrinated and prepared to fight in America’s culture wars. The film enters a world where children are encouraged not to believe in science and faith replaces logic. Pre-adolescents talk about being “born again” at age 5 and become emotionally distressed over concepts like sin. 12-year-olds learn to proselytize and preach and do so in churches and on the streets of Washington, DC. The film also contains a cameo appearance from Ted Haggard, the now deposed “Senior Pastor” of the New Life Church in Colorado. Although the people and events in the film are creepy, it provides relatively little insight into these individuals or their lives and is focused more on the outcome of their actions. The film seems eager to make political connections between the events in the movie and the larger world, but at other times shies away from them. There is a great film in here somewhere, but I don't think this is it.

My Country, My Country is one of the two documentaries about the Iraq war in the competition this year. Both examine events in the country during the 2005 provisional elections. What is most intriguing, though, is how different in approach and style the two nominated films on Iraq are from each another. Laura Poitras has chosen to follow one man, Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician living in Baghdad as he runs for a local government post and attempts to convince others in his community to participate in the elections for the good of Iraq. This is a film about the impossible struggles of a family during an occupation looking for peace but unable to find it so must play by what rules that are left. The focus here is on the occupation and there are many scenes emphasizing the presence of foreign armed forces and the tension they create. The best moments are when the film glimpses into how these political tensions around occupation and voting begin to play out within the personal world of the family. Even though the Sunni's decide to boycott the election, Dr. Riyadh's name is still on the ballot. While he will not vote for himself in defiance of the boycott, he encourages his wife and daughters to vote which they do with a mix of excitement and resignation: proud that they have supported their father in what is also clearly a futile gesture.

However, the best film of these five is undoubtedly James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments. Unlike Poitras, Longley takes a broader and more lyrical view of Iraq during the same time period examined in My Country. While the title stinks, the film itself is a beautiful multi-layered meditation not just on the current situation in Iraq, but the lives and history of many who live there. The film is divided into three segments, each filmed in a different region of the country and focusing on a separate ethnic group. Longley is also interested in the lives of children who feature prominently in the segments on poor Sunnis living in Baghdad and Kurdish northern brick makers. These children’s stories are offset against those of much older men in the same community and each story is about much more than the war or the political realities of their lives. There is a startling beauty in these images both of nature and violence – crowded streets outside a mosque at night in Basra, a poor one room school house at dawn, and billowing smoke from a brick kiln against the evening sky. Wonderful and provoking, Iraq in Fragments will hopefully benefit from the attention it has received from the nomination. Go see it, if you can.

The lure of the red carpet

February 01, 2007

Welton Becket's Mark Taper Forum
Scheduling issues for two of the city’s largest arts organizations made headlines twice this week here in LA. The first piece came from Michael Ritchie and the Center Theater Group who noted that beginning this summer, the Mark Taper Forum will close for a year to undergo significant and frankly very needed renovations. The very tight seating and lack of a lobby has made this building seem out of date for quite awhile and apparently these are the top two issues on the renovation agenda. The good news is that the good parts of the theater itself including the magnificent relief mural on the front and sides of the building designed by architect Welton Becket will remain intact. The Taper will reportedly offer subscribers a four play season next year with two shows at the Ahmanson Theater and two others at the Kirk Douglas. Whether or not this event will help with the perceived artistic floundering at the Douglas remains to be seen.

The other interesting note was yet another reminder that LA is still a company town. Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo will be on tour in February across the country and an LA performance had been scheduled for February 25th on the campus of UCLA. This also happens to be the night of the Academy Awards Telecast and fate would have it that one of the oscar-nominated short documentary subject films, Two Hands directed by Nathaniel Kahn and Susan Rose Behr concerns Fleisher and his struggles with his own health and physical issues. I’ll be screening this and the other documentary short subjects on the 9th so more on this will follow. Needless to say, the producers drummed up a ticket for Fleisher at the Kodak Theater on that Sunday, so the concert has now been moved up a day to Saturday the 24th. Too bad for me since I have another conflict that night, but at least UCLA with what is easily the worst-run box office in the city has wisely chosen to allow people refunds on their tickets if they want.

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