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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

By any Stretch of the Imagination: Missing the Mark

I believe there is a certain stretch that acts as a limit to projects of the imagination. That's not to be pessimistic about creativity--after all, it was Albert Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than fact." Nevertheless, when people begin to test the limit of what is overly intellectualized I have to put ear plugs on. Case in point: Yo-Yo Ma's series "Inspired by Bach." I am a cellist. I have actually met Mr. Yo-Yo Ma twice, and the second time it freaked me out that he remembered my name. The first time was backstage when he came to play with us in Washington; the second time was about a year later when I attended a master class he conducted at the Kennedy Center. It didn't feel special, really. I have met several people that can retain people's names and greet everyone like their best friend even after not seeing them for years. At any rate, when the "Inspired by Bach" series was first broadcast on PBS, a great schism took over the cellists' world. Those who took Yo-Yo Ma as trying to be overly intellectual, and the others who argued the man was not only a legend in the music world, but was also a Liberal Arts scholar and genius. I have been on both sides of the argument.

Watching the film "The Sound of Carceri" again after 10 years made me reassert my initial reaction to it. The series "Inspired by Bach" offer a wide spectrum of professional artists cooperating with Yo-Yo Ma. My belief is that some of the projects worked and some others were an atrocious stretch of an overly intellectualized group of experts. For example, both of the films that interpret Bach's 6 Suites for Cello Solo by creating dance choreographies (the Mark Morris Dance Company film, and the one with the world class kabuki dancer Tamasaburo Bando), work perfectly. The others not so much.

The premise of "The Sound of Carceri" is basically to create a computer model of Piranesi's engravings in 3 a dimensional surrounding and then place Yo-Yo Ma playing Suite No. 2 right in the middle of the graphic rendition. The concept is far too complex to actually bring about with purity to the original idea; that is to say, it really isn't the space Piranesi created because the Carceri were never built, and thus the whole concept of a 3 dimensional graphic generated setting is not "pure Piranesi," but rather the Carceri interpretation of those computer geniuses constructing the engravings inside the computer. Again, I am trying not to be pessimistic, but that was the first red flag for me the first and second time I watched the film. The film is directed by Francois Girard, but little mention or none at all is brought in to the "making of" section of the film about the computer experts the created the "space." Credits are credits, and I am sure all the names of the computer experts that rendered the engraving in 3D are mentioned at the end. However, too much emphasis on the actual sound engineering (the attempt to create the resonance, amplitude and the acoustic environment of the Carceri) took nearly one third of the film, and after a while it lost its sense of interest. What is more, the actual sound engineering took place in one of the only buildings Piranesi was able to build--the Church of the Pierazzo in Rome. This was curious to me due to the fact that it seemed such a stretch, an overkill--I think spaces to recreate the acoustic environment of the Carceri could have been engineered in any abandoned warehouse in Manhattan, perhaps with better and easier results. I am not being cynical, but what was the significance of using the Church of the Pierazzo? What was it about that particular space that made the project more accurate, better? This is never explained, but I am imagining that perhaps they thought the ghost of Giovanni Battista Piranesi would "guide" their project from beyond.

There are some good commentary from two experts whose insight actually made the project "passable." The first of these is Moshe Saidie, an architect who seemed skeptical at first. He states "architecture is something we experience... a blue print or engraving is not architecture... models are not architecture [especially inside a computer]... " The second scholar is John Wilton-Elly. His commentary dealt with the "reality" of the engraving. Looking at these engravings is enough to "feel claustrophobic, feel a sense of frustration... it turns into a Kafka's sense of containment... the engraving are only manifested in our imagination... "

I don't think I've ever been more critical of what is to a degree a good project, a good piece of art. I think Yo-Yo Ma's heart was in the right place, but the stretch made the film into an unanswerable inquiry into the limits of imagination and left both Bach and Piranesi in the rear-view mirror.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Sad Side of Being Billy Crystal

I normally do not write about celebrities, but something occurred to me recently and I felt I wanted to write about this topic but from a very singular angle. Many of the people that have worked with Mr. Billy Crystal in over 10 films have died, many of them quite young. I don't know Mr. Crystal's age, but I believe he's still a young looking man. It must be very difficult to lose so many friends so early. I think first, of course, of Bruno Kirby who died of cancer a few years ago. I have no idea what it must be like to work on a movie set, but by the same token I can't think individuals can simply forget or feel indifferent if a large number of their "co-workers" at a "place of employment" died in rapid succession. Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal were absolutely perfect in "Running Scared." Mr. Hines was not only a great actor, but an excellent tap dancer as well. About a decade ago, there was a tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. (thankfully before he died), and Gregory Hines and Mr. Davis did a tap dance number together. As with most tap dance routines, they squared off imitating each others steps. Towards the end of the routine, Sammy Davis, Jr.'s tapping was so complex that Mr. Hines got on his knees and kissed Sammy Davis, Jr.'s shoes. Now, anyone with a cynical side would say it was all for show; however, there was something about Gregory Hines' sincerity in the act of bowing to a superior that was far too genuine to fake. His tears spoke for themselves. A few months later, Sammy Davis, Jr. was dead--cancer.

Billy Crystal has had to endure the loss of friends such as (the aforementioned three), Andre the Giant, Anne Ramsey, Jack Palance, John Spencer, Carl Ballantine, Joe Viterelli, Carroll O'Connor, Nancy Walker, Pat Morita, John Fiedler, Tom Pedi, Ted Bessell, Walker Edmiston, Jean Le Bouvier, Fred Sadoff, Henry Wilcoxon, Stephen Roberts, Steve Allen, Foster Brooks, Ray Goulding, William De Acutis, George Carlin, John Candy, Estelle Getty, Buddy Hackett, Madeline Kahn, Henny Youngman, Brother Theodore, and perhaps some more I did not list here. (Also Mickey Mantle with whom Mr. Crystal did not work, but was very good friends with). For a relatively young man, by any measure, I happen to find this "statistic" quite outrageous.

Let's not say here that working with Billy Crystal is an occupational hazard--far from it, Billy Crystal is the comic's comic. He has given the world so much laughing material and I bet the odds of him winning the Presidential Medal is nearly a certainty. Beyond the sad side of his incredible career I bet it's awesome to be Billy Crystal.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Impromptu Writing Lesson

In the spring semester of 2009, I had a student from my AP English class come up to the board. I told the student to simply "let it rip," and go with the flow and to write whatever she wanted or came to mind--no grammar, punctuation or even sentence structure needed. This is what came out:

"I was seated at a crowded cafe when he came in. My first thought was that he stood out from the rest of the people waiting in line. My second impression was that of the passage from Hemingway's book I had read so many times, but I knew Hemingway to be a terrible liar and the impression he wrote about in the book about watching a girl walk into the cafe where he was writing was probably made up. I had had a vision and mine was entirely different from his. Other thoughts took me back a year earlier to an encounter with a similar complete stranger while running to catch a bus. It was raining hard and he was a real gentleman, and without hesitation gave me his umbrella. We sat together inside the crowded bus and exchanged vague information about each other. I didn't find him defensive, but rather much reserved and I began to think he was probably married. Then he told me a sad story about an ill-fated balloonist whose hot air balloon deflated at an incredible height. While on the way down to his death, the man called his wife on a two-way radio and told her how much he loved her, and the children, etc. I found the story strange and random for having just met him, but it was a story that almost made me cry. Then he rang for the stop, stood up, and said good-bye. The bus began to move by the time I realized he had forgotten his umbrella. The more I thought about the story he told me, the more I thought he had probably lied... just like Hemingway."

We spent the rest of the hour discussing her impromptu story, and the rest of the students loved the exercise and we kept doing it twice a week for the rest of the spring semester. Everyone was impressed at the fact that she DID follow grammar rules--it took her a little under five minutes to complete the story! Boy that was fun!

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Octavio Paz: "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" Part 003

There is not critical power stronger than that of an academic who crosses borders of artistic criticism at his or her own will. I don't have a problem with Octavio Paz' examination of Pablo Picasso, and I admit readily that most of what he says is dead-on. The only polemic I can bring up is Octavio Paz' constant use of that which contradicts itself in his criticism; sentences say one thing and before they end, they express the complete opposite. At the center of this constant contradiction is Picasso--is there anything more to say about this artist beyond saying his name? Paz' writing narrows down the rebellion of Picasso's art, the non-conformity of every inch of the artist's life, personal and public. Paz' is at once comfortable and ill at ease with Picasso (wow, now I am starting to sound like Paz). Octavio Paz' essay runs along the same lines of Norman Mailer's biography of Pablo Picasso--there's much metaphoric and analogical language to sink a ship and enough contradiction to raise it again from the depths. Paz states that, "The paradox of Picasso, as a historical phenomenon, lies in the fact that is the representative figure of a society that detests representation." Any examination of the chronology of Picasso's work exhibits enough evidence to debunk Paz' statement. Picasso did not represent, Picasso shaped, he led, he transfigured what society held as representative. He led and dictated the idiom of that representation; society be damned if it did not accord to Picasso's view of the world. Critics have labeled each and every one of Picasso's "periods," and even that signification did not make amends between the Catalonian and the rest of the art world. For example, Picasso embraced the brutality of the bullring in his art, producing even what some experts call "menial" advertising copy posters for bull fighting events. I think this harsh criticism (a criticism which also ignores the fact that those "menial" ad posters sell for thousands if not millions of dollars), and this view of Picasso's so-called "menial" work is based on today's incapability to understand the bull fighting tradition. Bull fighting, as explained by Hemingway, the self-declared first aficionado of the sport, is a representation of the ultimate combat between beast and human, perhaps Picasso's struggle against the art world. Having its roots on the great Roman games at the Colosseum, bull fighting represents not only brutality but also a sort of reverent art, a dignified moment for a man to face his ultimate fears and by the ice cold nerve of his own courage, either win or lose the battle. How does this apply to Picasso? In this case I do agree with Octavio Paz. He describes the connection as follows: Picasso, being the essential lone/rebellious artist, comes to embody the bullfighter calling out to his cuadrilla to leave him alone with the beast; the moment has come for him to individually kill or be killed. In this case, art is the beast, and Picasso its tamer. Paz states that "Like all art of this century [the 20th], though with greater ferocity, Picasso's is shot through with an immense negation. He himself once said: 'In order to make, one must make against." We live with the understanding that producing art that rebels against representation is a rebellion against plurality and an attempt at a hermetic singularity; that is to say, to go against the current by leaving behind any sort of influence, to embark in the most pure of all originality that defies the criticism of the day, is not only sacrilegious, but in most cases artistic suicide. Picasso was the first to break the dependence of art on criticism. I am not sure this is Picasso--I mean the interpretation, but Paz' takes it a step further and I begin to understand: "Our art has been and is critical; by this I mean that in the greater works of our day--novels, paintings, poems or musical compositions--criticism is inseparable from creation. I correct myself: criticism is creative. Criticism of criticism, criticism of form, criticism of the human figure and of the visible reality in painting and sculpture. In Marcel Duchamp, Picasso's opposite pole, the negation of our century is expressed as a criticism of passion and its phantoms." We know the visible world by labels, and by labels alone we interpret and criticize. This was the academic tumult of the post World War II era--perhaps what this particular American manifestation brought about. Academics became specialized, concentrated on one of a million forms in order narrow down their critical eye and create by "destroying" the singularity of meaning. Art became feminist, or anti-feminist, Marxist or even Imperialist. These specialized critics narrowed down on what they thought was Picasso's Achilles' heel; the period that propelled Picasso into the "modern" idea of art appreciation. The critics seized Cubism not because it was simple to "break down" into criticism, but because the Blue and the Pink periods of Picasso's artistic representation were difficult to narrow down, to entrap and "abuse." But with Cubism Picasso also had his coup d'etat--as if saying to the so-called interpreters to kiss his royal ass. In the late 1950s, when asked by critics what Picasso and his contemporaries spoke about in their days-long tertulias, he responded that the topic of most interest was where to get cheap turpentine. The critics were outraged. How dare the artist trick us like this! Picasso went to his grave undefeated, a master of his time and his art still speaks of that unanimity.

This is my last entry on "Convergences: Essay on Art and Literature." There's much more to discuss about Octavio Paz' vision of the literal, the lines of meaning and translation, among other themes, but the volume is thick in substance and I don't want to turn this blog into a tribute (however well deserved) to Octavio Paz. I think these entries are enough.

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