Thursday, February 01, 2007

I Enjoy All the Meats of Our Cultural Stew

Recent cultural highlights:

A couple of weeks ago I finally went inside the Yale Art Gallery, instead of admiring it from a distance — though I think I ducked in there briefly last spring, but they were largely closed for renovations — and it is indeed a fine museum, though I think most of the interior architectural & technical facets to its reputation are beyond my easy observation. Displays are small-scale and well laid out. I found myself in an unusual African-and-Asian art mood when I went in, and spent a lot of time admiring pots and other ceramic wares from China and Japan: the simple designs that could belong to a 300- or a 2000-year-old vase, or the intricate blue-on-white Chinese style that the Dutch ripped off for their celebrated Delftware.

I also enjoyed overhearing a father with two young kids (twins maybe? they both seemed about 3) showing a Jackson Pollack painting to them; one of them declared that it looked "like gas" and then "like snowflakes." Next to the Pollack was one of those minimalist black-and-white-panel numbers, which was quickly determined to be "silly."

Aside from Little Miss Sunshine I haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees, but I can't understand why Notes on a Scandal didn't make the cut: I haven't watched a movie this riveting for a long time. Judi Dench does an amazing job with the creepy, manipulative character at the center of the story, keeping the proceedings as believable as they are disturbing. Cate Blanchett's fine too. Go see it. Philip Glass's score is quite good too — occasionally a bit heavily applied, but effective, propelling especially well a crucial flashback scene.

There's a powerful, cold undertow to this film that I didn't realize in full till it ended; then I felt how much it had taken me. It really leaches away your belief in human goodness and friendship.

This was, um, possibly not the best choice for a date movie.

Last week I got some of my similarly aged coworkers to come to a university Philharmonia concert last Friday, the Philharmonia being the school of music's orchestra. Bartok's 2nd Violin Concerto, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony: get some twentieth-century music going on too. Dramatic pieces, if long.

Having really enjoyed the two concerts I've seen from the university's undergraduate orchestra (including an impressive Mahler 6), I figured the Philharmonia would set off even more fireworks, but no!! Gosh, this was a sleeper of a concert. The student playing the Bartok concerto hit all the notes, but one after the other, with none of the folk-musical verve that lights that music on fire; the Prokofiev was better but still lacked the spark or sparkle I was expecting.

Part of the problem is that they play in a hall with terrible acoustics, giving a dull waxy sound to everything except the loudest passages, nakedly laying out intonation problems, and muffling those marvelous Bartokian brass dissonances into radio drama–grade blurts & burps. Maybe it was an off-night, but still, I have the feeling that whatever they're teaching them in that music program is turning them into a bunch of drones. (This is probably not really true.) The guest conductor was entertaining, at least, an arm-flappy Russian specimen.

I'm kind of glum that this had to be the concert I dragged some coworkers to; they didn't mind it, but if I'm going to introduce people to classical music I'd like it to be as un-boring as possible, of course. Undergrad orchestra it will be, next time. Specifically, Faure's Requiem with the university's excellent Glee Club & the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony in a few weeks. I'll try to wrangle up more people: I think that one's going to be a legitimately fine occasion.


Blogger Nate said...

Probably the poorest date movie, or anyway the least appropriate on the face of it, I ever selected was "Hotel Rwanda". I think that one might have been nominated for an Academy Award though. I also remember a slightly chilling effect from "Matchstick Men", way back whenever it was when that one came out; it's a movie about small-time criminals that's quirky and warm until about 20 minutes from the end, when it kind of kicks one of your knees out from behind, then kind of halfheartedly helps you back up. The last really appropriate date movie I saw was "Love, Actually", though as I may have detailed previously on the blog I watched that with a room mostly full of guys shortly before midnight on this past New Year's.

2/01/2007 10:28 PM  
Anonymous danblim said...

I'm glad you liked Notes- it didn't quite do it for me. I liked it, but more for the acting and effective voice-overs, but everything seemed a little too over-the-top at times. I liked it in the way I can like old 1940s melodramas. Yeah it's supercheesysudsy, but kind of revelingly, gloriously so.

The more Glass scores I hear, the more I dislike him, just because every score has these moments which seem wholly interchangeable with other films. Still, it worked better than Undertow, which is a bitter, violent dark-secret-in-the-family film, set in the rural south. Call it a prejudice, but the bright, almost peppy minimalism of his score there doesn't exactly evoke economically-depressed bayous.

2/05/2007 12:18 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

Really? What I liked best about the movie was how it didn't go over the top, and stayed disturbingly plausible. I guess we have different tastes in twisted psychodramas.

"Supercheesysudsy" sounds like an advertising gambit for the worst laundry detergent ever. [Housewife voice] "Now that's nacho fresh!"

Mandy & I watched "Hotel Rwanda" when it came out, and yeah, that really grabs you by the gut too. Don Cheadle's great.

2/05/2007 1:27 PM  
Blogger Nate said...

Pretty much everything Philip Glass has written for a while is interchangeable with everything else. I'm not really familiar with any of his scores for major Hollywood movies but the danger is always that his music will just kind of chug along and paper over any other dramatic subtext that would otherwise be present in the scene. His stuff works really well in Errol Morris documentaries (particularly The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War) since Morris' technique produces the same sense of cool detachment giving way to anxiety. And I think Glass' score for Koyaanisqatsi is a high point in film, mainly because the sounds and images there are so closely and democratically fused.

Glass' score for the classic "Dracula" (available as played by the Kronos Quartet on at least one Universal DVD) is an interesting specimen, since over the course of the film it moves from highlighting the composer's movie-music weaknesses (repetitive, superfluous) to his strengths (pensive, mesmerizing).

2/06/2007 11:42 PM  

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