Thursday, December 18, 2014

'The Interview:' The faceless cowards win

There's an emotionally stunted kid in every high school who thinks about calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm, then sitting in the bushes sniggering as people scurry out of the building. My high school had one, and I thought of him when I heard hackers had threatened Sony Pictures and theater owners if "The Interview" opened as scheduled on Christmas Day.

It never looked like a masterpiece to me, but it might have been funny. Here's the trailer:

As you see, it's about a tabloid show host and producer invited to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, then assigned by the CIA to assassinate him. The announcement of its release prompted hackers to interfere with Sony's business affairs (including private internal communications) and threaten violence against movie chains that dared to show it. The film has been pulled everywhere, though I expect it to come out on DVD someday. That's where it would have made most of its money anyhow.

Commentators have correctly pointed out that a movie suggesting the death of a real person is in bad taste, even when he's a brutal swine. They've also mulled over the possibility that threats of real-world attacks were hot air (likely) and that further provocation of the still-unidentified hackers isn't worth the trouble (also likely, especially if the Chinese assisted the North Koreans).

Folks have also discussed whether this backing down by Sony will start a trend. Will ISIS threaten the same kind of reprisal if a movie makes the bad guys Islamic extremists? Probably not, unless someone declares open season on the prophet Muhammad -- we've seen that scenario play out in murder in Europe -- or ruthlessly mocks the Qu'ran. I'll be curious to see whether this incident triggers other kinds of reprisals, such as homophobic assaults on movies with gay themes.

Before the Internet, when bile was harder to spew anonymously and widely, people protested pictures in person. For example, the Catholic Church disapproved of the 1991 movie "The Pope Must Die," a comedy with no real people in it: A foolish priest was elected pope by mistake, arousing the ire of the Mafia and other villains. So church officials asked Catholics not to see it, to write letters of complaint, etc. Those protesters wanted demonstrations, not detonations.

Now the faceless cowards of the world call in their threats and hide in the bushes, laughing. We can't suspend them from school -- or from the Internet, for that matter -- so all we can do is weigh each menace and respond accordingly. No satisfactory solution has presented itself, and I don't think one will.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Goya in Boston: An unmissable exhibit

Before I heard anything more than the words "Francisco Goya" and "Museum of Fine Arts Boston," I knew where I'd be taking a mini-vacation this fall. Here's the scoop:

Goya remains unique in the history of western art. Over his 82-year-life, he evolved from rigorously formal paintings of the Spanish court to what could be considered the first "modern" art, surreal pieces that step out of time and come from some dark psychic place most of us don't dare go.

His brush gave us handsome princes and wizened witches, nabobs and nightmares, deeply religious pieces and savage attacks on corrupt clergy. This show has them all in 170 works culled from his six-decade career. (It represents about one-tenth of his output.) Yet at the end of the exhibit, you come upon a beautiful piece in which a physician comforts the aged Goya -- bringing him back from death, in the painter's estimation -- and you realize he never lost his ability to invoke optimism and hope.

You'd have to go to the Prado in Madrid to see most of the large paintings for which he's famous. But the curators for this show, reputedly the biggest Goya retrospective in America since the 1980s, have done an extraordinary job of revealing the whole man. They've grouped galleries according to topics (portraiture, sport, etc.) rather than chronology, so we can see how Goya thought and rethought about ideas. The show includes paintings, etchings and especially drawings, where he did some of his most unsettling work. Here's a famous example, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters:"

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828. That span was marked by wars: The fight for American independence, the French Revolution and Napoleon's two attempts at conquest. In Spain, the latter took the form of the Peninsular War of 1808-14, when Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king of Goya's native land.

Goya painted war like no one before him. A small drawing in the show depicts severed body parts hung on a tree like trophies, and no one until Civil War photographer Mathew Brady would make the battlefield seem so terrible. War was another form of "unreason," and Goya -- the greatest painter of the Age of Enlightenment -- spent his career attacking ignorance in politics, religion, social roles and the court.

If I had to take the collected works of one artist to a hermitage to study until I died, I'm not sure whom it would be. But if I took three, I know Goya would be one of them, and I would find something new every time I contemplated him.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Symphony Hall: Music like I've never heard it

I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time Saturday night, and my ears are still tingling.

Guest conductor Leonidas Kavakos led a program of Bartok, Haydn and Mussorgsky. He used the broadest tempos for "Pictures at An Exhibition" I've ever experienced, luxuriating especially in the massive brass chords. And though I've listened to that piece live and in recordings dozens of times, I really heard it for the first time.

Yes, having so many musicians onstage made a difference, especially when they're all first-rate. But the special difference was Symphony Hall. The program notes rate it as one of the three best halls acoustically in the world, along with the Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I haven't been to either, but it could be so: Every note, from low grumblings in the violins to the high whine of the oboe, came across with perfect clarity and projection. Here's a look at the hall in transition from a Boston Symphony to a Boston Pops set-up:

That's the sound you get when you build a hall specifically for an orchestra, which Boston did in 1900. As the program says, "The walls of the stage slope inward to help focus the sound. The side balconies are shallow, so as not to trap any of the sound, and though the rear balconies are deeper, sound is properly reflected from the back walls. The recesses of the coffered ceiling help distribute sound, as do the statue-filled niches along the three sides."

Contrast that with the Belk Theater, which has 500 fewer seats (2097 to 2625), is shorter front to back and has three tiers above the orchestra, not two. The overhang in the Belk is much closer to the stage, and the seats under it get diminished sound even during the best of mixes. The Belk's a fine all-purpose hall, useful for opera and dance and Broadway tours as well as symphony concerts, but it's not designed for one purpose alone.

Lest you think only the Boston Symphony can shine in Symphony Hall, check out this video of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band in the same venue:

Charlotte won't build another concert hall in my time at The Observer, maybe even my lifetime. So I'll have to fly to Amsterdam, Vienna or Boston to get a bead on the perfect sound.

P.S. Unlike the organ pipes in the Belk, which are as handsome and useless as a chiseled eunuch in a harem, the ones at Symphony Hall are actually connected to an organ console.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Obsession with The Beatles, 1964

I was perusing a timeline from the year 1964, a watershed year in American and world history in so many ways. A military coup in South Vietnam pulled us into a decade-long war, the passage of a Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the United States, Nelson Mandela went to jail and kicked off the ultimate transformation of South African politics.

And looking at the upcoming week, between the Roman Catholic Church replacing Latin with English in its prayer services and the Nobel Peace Prize being given to Martin Luther King Jr., I see this line: "Ringo Starr's tonsils are removed." (The 50th anniversary will be Dec. 2nd, should you want to plan an anniversary celebration.)

Here's an interview about that event:

People who complain rightly about our fascination with reality TV may have forgotten where this level of obsession first raised its ugly head: With the rise of The Beatles, who in 1964 were not only the most popular entertainers in the world but perhaps the most recognizable people in it, short of a president or pope. I am second to none in appreciation for their amazing music, but did we really need to contemplate the state of Richard Starkey's throat?

Movie magazines and the tabloid press had long carried stories -- most of them invented by publicists -- about stars, often purporting to say what they were "really" like. (As if they would then or now share their deepest secrets with journalists!)

But when The Beatles came along, audiences couldn't get enough information about their most insignificant habits: What they wore, ate, drank, read, smoked or slept on. The fact that Ringo sang in a clogged baritone (when the other three let him sing at all) didn't stop the media from contemplating the effect of the operation on his voice or the band's output.

Psychologists can speculate why people who eat this stuff up remain so attached to pointless minutiae. I just wanted to point out that my generation set the tone for an inanity that has now prevailed for half a century. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Auf wiedersehen, Mike Nichols

The obituaries for Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, rightly mentioned his status as an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards). They praised his film and theater work over a 50-year career and recognized him as one of the few directors to succeed both on Broadway and in Hollywood -- and with both critics and audiences. Some even mentioned his early years as a performer, notably as a comedian teamed with Elaine May. Here's a sample:

But two of the most important things about him have been overlooked: English was his second language, and America was his second home.

The boy born Mikhail Pavlovich Peschkowsky grew up speaking German in Berlin. He emigrated to America in 1939 and became a citizen in 1944. Like a handful of European-born writers before him, Joseph Conrad and Tom Stoppard among them, he fell in love with the English language and made it his own.

He also had an immigrant's eye for American foibles. Think of the traits he skewered in movie after movie: The obsession with achievement in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the corporate mentality in "The Graduate," the hollow lies we attach to patriotism in "Catch 22," our childish fascination with sex in "Carnal Knowledge."

Like Elia Kazan, who was born to Greek parents in Turkey, he came to love America but saw its shortcomings clearly. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that Kazan also had dual careers in film and theater. Both men thought verbally and visually and knew how to get the best from actors.)

I was lucky enough to see three plays Nichols directed on Broadway: Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and David Rabe's "Streamers" and "Hurlyburly." I couldn't tell you why his direction worked: He did nothing showy or obviously clever. He simply elicited remarkable performances from people who had star quality (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver) or were just hard-working actors (Paul Rudd, Dorian Harewood).

Nothing lay outside his ken. He directed or produced hit musicals ("Annie," "Spamalor") and heavy classics ("Uncle Vanya," "Death of a Salesman"). Nichols directed four Neil Simon comedies from 1963 through 1973, and all four were nominated for Tonys for best play. ("The Odd Couple" won.)

He was busy on Broadway as recently as last fall, directing a revival of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." Nichols and Hollywood had long since fallen out. After directing an extraordinary version of "Angels in America" for HBO in 2003, he made just two movies in the last decade: "Closer" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

He still had the same cynically appraising eye for romance in the former and politics in the latter. Half a century on, he was proving that someone born to another culture may have the deepest insights into our own.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dan Locklair has people singing

Charlotte native Dan Locklair has darted all over the musical map: symphonies, chamber music (especially for brass), even a ballet and an opera. Here's a little taste of his style in an organ processional:

But he's probably best known for choral music, and a two-CD package issued by the MSR Classics label will show you why.

The longest piece on this "Tapestries" set owes its existence to Charlotte, specifically the Oratorio Singers and former director Mary Nell Saunders. "Windswept (the trees)" was dedicated to both and premiered by the Singers under guest conductor Catherine Comet 20 years ago; texts come from celebrated poet A.R. Ammons, a Whiteville native. The rest of the set ranges from Christmas motets to a brief mass. Here are some thoughts:

Even in a sacred text, Locklair's not afraid to syncopate. A "Te deum laudamus" may begin as a chant and end with a swing in its hips.

You can't always infer a composer's religion from his work -- Brahms wrote one of the great Requiems -- but a lot of this music has been set to Christian texts, almost all of them comforting.

He's not afraid of dissonance, though he never veers too far from tonality, and he writes for unusual combinations: "Windswept" uses a choir, woodwind quintet and piano. He can switch moods from drama to reflection quickly, as he does in these poems.

He's got moxie. Locklair reset the text we know as "America the Beautiful" to an ethereal wisp of a piece with only a mild climax, renaming it "For Amber Waves."

When he writes melodies, they're extended, rather than concise or catchy. "A Christmas Carol" repeats itself, as a traditional carol does from verse to verse, but it doesn't have a traditional hook.

He has a sense of humor: An inscription on a tombstone inspired his jaunty, 80-second "Epitaph."

He asks for patience. Literally so, in "Instant Culture," a piece mocking our obsessions with short-form events that deliver quick gratification. And metaphorically, in pieces that unspool slowly and require time to absorb. But then, he's a pipe smoker. I never knew a pipe smoker who rushed into anything.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How bad could 'Serena' be?

When "Serena" was announced three years ago, it sounded like a guaranteed Oscar nominee.

Stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were en route to Academy Award nominations for "Silver Linings Playbook." (She won.) Director Susanne Bier had made the Danish film "In a Better World," which got the foreign film Oscar. Ron Rash's novel about the Lady Macbeth-style wife of a 1930s lumber baron had earned the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award.

North Carolinians took special note, because the story is set in our mountains. (Sadly, shooting took place in the Czech Republic. Shades of "Cold Mountain"!) And then...nothing.

The movie was supposed to come out at the end of 2012. Then 2013. Then, perhaps, the end of 2014. But every major distributor passed after seeing it. Now Magnolia has picked it up for a Feb. 26 release in 2015, during one of the dead spots in the filmgoing year. (The production company 2929 is a sister company, so perhaps Magnolia couldn't say no.)

The reaction of the British press and public may explain why. According to the snarky site, these are actual lines from reviews after the film played the BFI London Film Festival last month:

"Have you ever wanted to punch a film right in the face if it, you know, actually had a face to punch? Well, that’s 'Serena' for you."

"Considering the chemistry Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have – both as friends and frequent co-workers – they fail to fizzle here, and that’s down to the wafer-thin prose they have to spit."

And (my favorite): "The movie seems to know it’s outstayed its welcome, stumbling loudly to its conclusion like a scream queen chased through a field in high heels by an axe-wielding maniac."

Audiences spurned it, too: It opened on 185 British screens and earned less than $1,000 per screen. Naysayers suggest it'll go straight to video, though Magnolia generally releases its films for brief theatrical runs.

Now I want to see it even more, partly because I can scarcely believe so much talent would fail spectacularly and partly because I like an occasional cinematic train wreck. Bring it on!