Sunday, November 24, 2013

WHERE I'VE BEEN (part two)

8.  The main reason I went into NYC was not to see a vampire movie—it was either that or Žižek—but to stay over and visit the Met with Kajsa, on Sunday, 11/3, to see the Balthus exhibit.  The exhibit struck me as something of an exercise in kitsch.  Not because Balthus’ paintings are kitsch, though some are, but because the Met was doing its level best to both trade on the so-called illicit eroticism of these paintings of underage (for the most part) girls while also striking a high-minded pose that strove to avoid an objectification we might find offensive.  The very title of the exhibit, Girls and Cats—Paintings and Provocations lets us in right away on the come-on quality of the show.  Everyone loves images of putty-cats, apparently, and if you throw in some pre-nubile flesh then we get to be prurient while also not.  It’s art, y'know.  I state this as the “advertised” aspect of the show.  It’s not, in other words, simply a retrospective of Balthus, it’s a show that tries to put his penchant for depicting felines and young females into some kind of “dialogue.”  Meanwhile the wall commentaries apprize us of the name of every young model as if trying to make us see them as real little girls, often including some statement a model made once she was all grown up, as if to say: “see, they weren’t really damaged by having to sit motionless with their underpants showing or their bottoms raised up while reading on the floor.”  Such anti-objectifying is a bit peculiar, inasmuch as there seems to be little attention to what the paintings “say.”  No one, apparently, wants to see little girls simply as images, to allow what qualities of the pre-pubescent female form make it eminently depictable, but at least the show’s curator has arranged the paintings in groups that let us read a progress: the first room is a lyrical treatment, from the girl’s perspective, of the awkward and lithe appeal of her own body, while the second room takes us to something much more corrosive, where vanity about appearance and the flush of hormonal fluctuations make something else of teen-aged girls—children become baby machines.  This in itself is perfectly natural, we know, and yet everything in our culture—and in the stultifying interiors these young girls inhabit—tells us to suppress it.  These are bodies “underage” only because they are kept within the precincts of childhood, by a law of the Father and a complicity of the Mother that must have it that way.  In the third room Balthus is trying on different aspects of sensuality but not doing nearly as well—his skill is fitful—but the final room brings us to his very mannered matching of figure to interior that create images that are almost classical—if not, they are at least monumental.  Seeing so many of his canvases at once though makes one more critical of the painter than one might be seeing one or two in a collection.  Very much my father’s grand-daughter, Kajsa pointed out the painter’s problem with feet/shoes, and it’s really a bit bothersome how such deliberately rendered figures and settings can sport terribly gauche moments of bad draftsmanship.  Looking at these paintings made in the heyday of Picasso and Surrealism and Matisse, we see how the effort to maintain a certain realist fidelity often surrenders any strong painterly interest.  There are some lessons here for the Surrealists, but only fleetingly. I don’t have much to say about the putty-cats.  In the third room, Balthus loses his ability to make them sweetly sensual and was more clearly “King of the Cats” when he was younger. 

9. Speaking of young girls: my read on the train on Sunday, 11/3, was Charles Portis’ True Grit, which I finished when I got home.  The voice of Matty, the grown woman who narrates her adolescent adventure, in the company of Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, to find and bring to justice the man who killed her father, keeps before us the singular presence of mind that children can have.  There were two elements of the story in the novel that differed a bit from the film version by the Coens.  One was that the written Matty made me feel her affection for LeBoeuf better than the film does, though that may be simply because I like laughing at the figure Matt Damon cuts in the role.  Matty pokes fun at him in the book as well, but the grudging care and admiration they feel for each other—present in the movie but hard to render without Matty’s choice of words available in every instance—comes out stronger in writing.  The best aspect of the book that the film doesn’t do much with is the degree to which the West Portis presents us with is a territory united with the other states primarily through mutual ridicule and distrust.  Matty is clear about political forces that are altering the world she lives in and she’s clear about the distinct differences between, say, Texas and Arkansas in amusing commentary.  Portis gives us a very American voice in its appraisals of her fellow citizens.  The best thing that both book and film do is make Matty admirable as not simply some kind of “plucky” heroine but as a force of moral reckoning. She intends to be the Avenging Law and has no interest in anything else.  And yet Portis has sport with her because her achievement costs her more than anyone—save the dead of course—and the story, in dragging on beyond its climax, hints that we are finally in a woman’s tall tale of her youthful exploits.  The film surprises us with that sadder view—in showing us a grown Matty—because it made young Matty such a vivid and charming figure. 

10. Wednesday, 11/6, was another trip into NYC, this time to see a matinee on Broadway.  My company on Metro North this time was Thomas Pynchon’s new novel The Bleeding Edge.  It seemed the perfect companion for such a ride, and on a bright, fresh day.  I even read a bit of it in Bryant Park, sitting outside, after I arrived.  Reading on the train, I was chuckling, smiling.  I’m a fan and he knows how to work me.  It has a keen sense of how surface-rich our world is now, without a lot of depth to it, which inspires a lot of jokes.  In fact, TP seems more or less amused these days and aims to be entertaining.  The part that impressed me most, so far, is the description of DeepArcher, the untrollable layers of the internet, that are described in the terms that visionaries used to use for the internet, which has yet to become the virtual reality some could imagine when its technology first became familiar: “the echoing dense commotion of the terminal, the profusion of hexadecimal color shades, the choreography of thousands of extras, each differently drawn and detailed, each intent on a separate mission or sometimes only hanging out, the nonrobotic voices with so much attention to regional origins.”  Yup, you’ll never find online what you can find in a book. 

11. My trip on Wednesday, 11/6, was to see Mike Nichol’s production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring the husband-wife team of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, playing Robert and Emma, a husband and wife in late-seventies Britain; he’s in publishing and his best friend is an editor, Jerry, who, in 1968, began an affair with Emma that lasted till 1975.  We meet them in 1977 and then journey backwards to the party at the home of Robert and Emma—in their bedroom, actually—where Jerry first makes advances on his hostess.  What has always drawn me to this play, since first seeing it as a film with Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons as Robert and Jerry, is the march through time, backwards, and the sense of what having a woman “in common” does for a relationship between friends.

We open with Emma telling Jerry that she and Robert are finally splitting up, that she found out he has been unfaithful to her with various other women.  This comes as a shock to Jerry because he never suspected, even while carrying on an affair for seven or eight years with Robert’s wife.  The fact is, which Jerry also does not suspect, Robert has known about Jerry and Emma since 1973, which Robert tells Jerry in the play’s second scene when Jerry, quite anxiously, runs to Robert to try to salvage their friendship after what he thinks is Emma’s revelation of the affair the evening before.  What those first two scenes establish then is that the marriage of Robert and Emma withstood Emma’s infidelity with Jerry and that Robert still very much values Jerry’s friendship.  What Rachel Weisz brought to the role is a real feeling of loss at the opening, a testing of whether “she and Jerry” meant anything when measured against Robert and Jerry, or her and Robert.  Emma has now lost Robert for good, and she lost Jerry when, in 1975, they broke up the flat that was the scene of their erotic rendezvous but had fallen into sad disuse.  The sorrow in Weisz in that scene is also revealing.  We may not know what she hopes to accomplish—keeping both men in her life happy?—but we see that it costs her to lose whatever hope there was in the affair.  She’s the odd man out in the friendship. Perhaps sleeping with both brought her closer to each man but, if it was her intention to maintain a relationship with either indefinitely, she has failed.  In that first scene, it is let drop that she’s “seeing” a writer named Casey and that there has been gossip about this.  Jerry proudly proclaims that no one gossiped about he and Emma during their affair.  But the upshot is that, perhaps, Emma has found a new paramour.  And yet, as portrayed by Weisz, she doesn’t seem a woman bent upon serial affairs.  She may be in demand (she certainly should be) but we can only guess what is really driving the affairs and the continuation of the marriage—in that decade from ’68 to ’77.  Admittedly, a very particular era, one in which divorce became quite common to say nothing of other ways to work marriage to get around the old “one man and one woman forsaking all others” model.  But the play isn’t called “Affair” or “Marriage,” it’s called Betrayal.

Craig plays the betrayed husband well in those scenes in 1973.  He doesn’t like the way he learned of it; he doesn’t like the doubt about who his son’s father is; he doesn’t like that Jerry doesn’t have the depth to sense what’s wrong on their lunch date.  But does he disapprove of Emma’s choice?  He likes Jerry, genuinely.  He admits at one point that he likes Jerry more than he likes her, so . . .   We might think Pinter’s playing around with the homoeroticism between two close friends, suggesting that, if it were permissible (in their view), they’d become lovers themselves.  Nichols even puts that before us (for a laugh, admittedly) when he has all three on a bed together in 1968 and Jerry seems to want to cozy up to Robert.  But let’s not be hasty. That version of things is rather unsubtle, actually.  If all it were is a case of repressed homosexual attraction, we might tell the two to get on with it.  Then “betrayal” would be the two “betraying” their real feelings.  But it’s not that.  Really, Robert just wants to play squash with Jerry. The point being that these are hetero men and hetero men have their own codes about how close they can get, and what they can get out of that.  One way they can get closer, maybe, is by having the same woman.  This is suggested when, after Jerry visits in 1974, Robert gets amorous with Emma.  He’s turned on by knowing something Jerry doesn’t, who thinks he knows something Robert doesn’t. And he’s turned on that Jerry leaves and he has Emma because, after all, he’s married to her.  If this sort of thing doesn’t interest you, then, I’m afraid, there’s little else here to beguile you.  Along the way, the trio talk books a bit—a factor that, at one time, I would’ve simply felt included by. Now, it seems almost quaint.  Remember when books were a major medium and novels, well, still important?  Possibly you don’t, but Pinter does.

Do we feel bad for anyone here? Emma, in this staging because, finally, she’s out of her depth.  She’s not a man and can’t quite understand them the way they understand each other.  She can love them or not (it’s up to her) but she can’t get closer to how they see things.  She can’t matter to them more than the other things that matter to them.  Today we like to be ultra-aware of sexism, as though it’s a factor of social relations that could be subtracted, thus making things “as they should be.”  Which translates, at some point, to: “without sexual difference.”  Betrayal knows all about the sexual differences of its time; it hails from a time when it was still a man’s world (even book-publishing!) if “with a difference.”  As an old hand of the Seventies myself (do I have to say “product of”?), I find myself amused by seeing it played before me, at this remove.

It’s an interesting lesson about staging plays, after all.  If I read a novel from 1977, I may react as I am now but I don’t have to decide how to present it.  In putting on, in 2013, a seventies artifact, one must decide whether to make it more feminist and LGBT-friendly, or to let it be what it really is, for the sake of something that many would not find sympathy with.  Much hinges on how Jerry is presented.  In Rafe Spalls’ performance, he’s very typical of his type: self-absorbed, likeable, edgy at times; Spalls has a tendency to over-emote that comes to be characteristic of Jerry, as though he’s trying to convince himself that he is feeling things, that he has reasons to be swept up in Emma, that he has reasons to remember throwing the young daughter of Robert and Emma up into the air, that he has reasons to feel “betrayed” when Emma tells Robert.  Does he feel betrayed when Robert tells him he already knew?  Yes, of course, but that means he never knew what Robert knew, which means, finally, that it was Robert’s game from ’73 on.  Robert’s “I hope she took care of you alright” is just what it is: a genuine hope that the woman in it was worth the candle.  Is either man?  Well, both seem to light Emma’s fire when in the mood; neither, it seems, is all that steady in the position, over the years.

The proceedings benefit from stage over screen if only because the scene-shifting creates a definite pace that must be adhered to.  Each vignette has its own point, its own value in the reckoning.  Triangulated desire, we might say, is what we start with, and what we end with is two mates who have come through “all that,” still able to talk books and have a pint or lunch or, yes, play squash. 

12. After the show (Craig and Spalls came out to sign playbills; Weisz didn’t), on Wednesday, 11/6, there was time for me to pop up to MoMA to take in the Magritte show.  It’s a show easy to see quickly (was I there a ½ hour, 45 minutes?) because Magritte’s paintings are almost like one-liners.  You take in the image, you reflect on its suggestion—about illusion or psychological distortion or about logical fallacies, or metaphors literalized—and move on.  Magritte is a painter who, like Balthus, is good enough for rendering a certain “reality,” making his images quite legible, with everything “realistic” enough to be like a dream, where we know it’s not real but are struck by what’s happening nonetheless.  It’s a very good show, laid-out well, and includes some early pieces of his I’ve never seen before, that are interesting in being more concerned with pictorial planes than with imagery per se, and some paintings in private collections that one might otherwise not see, that, anyway, haven’t been reproduced ad infinitum.  Magritte is not a bad painter, he’s just not a very good one.  What he does is fine for commercial art, and so he seems now a progenitor of Pop Art (when artists ceased to be concerned with the quality of painting), but that loss of what made for fine painting was lost on most of the Surrealists too.  In the urge to express ideas, the unique value of oils as a medium was lost, and that lets Magritte make paintings that would be even more effective as photo-shopped images.  Still, he possessed a fertile imagination and there’s something to be said for taking a little detour on your day through someone’s grasp of dream logic and the power of the cryptic image. So what if his sensibility harkens from the time when the female body was still an image for “mystery.” 

13. Friday, 11/8, was a visit to the Shubert in New Haven to see and hear a solo performance by the man who penned the words, “but when she’s lying stretched out on the floor / It’s no mystery to me any more.”  Elvis Costello appeared on stage behind a phalanx of pedals and before a phalanx of guitars, and proceeded to play for over two hours, accompanied by himself only.  There were a few songs on a keyboard as well, notably a stunning delivery of “Shipbuilding.”  He opened the show with “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” a song buried back there on Blood and Chocolate, but which had great punch as an opener: “here comes Mr. Misery…”  It’s not that Costello is miserable, exactly, but that he is able to make great melodies match lyrics that have their share of misery, so that the witty engagement between sentiment and musical setting does much to sell the song.  He took requests, which led to a striking “The Other End of the Telescope,” a song which took me back with some poignancy to when it was new—1996—and lots of riding about listening to music with my daughter on tapes that always had some share of Costello.  It’s a brilliant song.  And he also agreed to perform what he called “a song I hate”: “Everyday I Write the Book.” The popularity of the song (it had a great MTV video with Princess Di and Charles lookalikes, when Di was still very much alive, mind you) took him aback as it wasn’t “what I’m like.”  It’s a very clever lyric and he played it in a slower more soulful version, with the crowd echoing the “everyday”s to produce impromptu back-up vocals.  He also pulled out a few covers, notably “Walking My Baby Back Home” (which he dedicated to his wife), that included some lovely whistling, and was able to surprise me by doing “I Want You,” also from Blood and Chocolate and quite a thing of nasty beauty.  From my favorite LPs of his he didn’t do my favorite tracks, but “Human Hands” was good to hear, as was the conviction he gave to “I’ll Wear It Proudly” (alas, Get Happy! was not represented at all—had I been in earshot and not the balcony, I would’ve called for “Riot Act”), while “Little Triggers” had a lot of bite and, late in the show, a segue into “What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love and Understanding” arrived as one of those “everybody knows this one” moments.  Another pleasant surprise was “Stranger in the House,” and my favorite track on Momofuku, “Flutter and Wow.”  Then there was "Girls Talk" (!) which took me back to 1980 when he had only four LPs and each was a gem, and then came a disk of the stuff that hadn't fit. In short, pretty much all of his career was represented and I’d say there was only one Costello original that I didn’t know.  Sometime I may have to say more about this guy and the long run he had, from 1977 to 1986, with significant sightings after that, to define what matters to me in the contemporary pop song.  And he’s a very affable entertainer as well, his voice—never exactly a pretty instrument—able to register inflections and nuances that make for fascinating listening.  Oh, and he did a new song that was quite good too.

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