Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Battle for Love (on Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog)

Lasse Hallström, Reidar Jönsson [based on his novel], Brasse Brännström, and Per Berglund (screenplay), Lasse Hallström (director) Mitt Liv Som Hund (My Life as a Dog) / 1985

I first saw My Life as a Dog when it originally appeared in 1985, equally enjoying it again on television this year. And in a year gone "to the dogs," (the connecting link of My Year 2007) how could I resist briefly speaking of Lasse Hallström's moving work, devoted to a child whose has, to his way of thinking, been as unloved and overlooked as the famed Russian mutt, Laika, I describe elsewhere, sent into space, as the child puts it, "without enough food to survive?" The boy, Ingemar, (beautifully performed by the young Anton Glanzelius) has, himself, been lied to, told that his beloved dog, Sicuan, was been sent to a kennel at the moment he himself was shipped off to his uncle's house in the small Swedish town of Kalmar, a move to provide his terminally ill mother some peace; but in fact, as his friend, Saga, tells him late in the film, the pet has been euthanized. Is it any wonder that the child transforms himself into a barking beast, holing up in a kind of doghouse, his uncle's newly built one-room "summer retreat?"

Fortunately, Ingemar's situation is not as horrifying as it seems. The mother, who spends much of the early part of the film alternating between quiet bedroom rest (she is dying of tuberculosis) and fits of frustration and anger for her children's quarrels, has previously been—as we witness in flashbacks of Ingemar's memories—a joyful and loving woman. Yet the more he and his brother try to take over household chores and keep themselves out of trouble, the more havoc they wreck on their dying mother's peace. The brothers, accordingly, are separated, Ingemar going to a maternal uncle in Småland.

Lucky for Ingemar he is placed in an easy going and loving home of his uncle Gunnar and his wife, where the chaos which he created in his mother's house is utterly accepted. For Kalmar is a town filled, like most small towns, with eccentrics. Unfortunately, for the film, some of the eccentricities come right out of the standard catalogue of film types we've seen in small-town-based productions from Ealing films such as Whisky Galore to Federico Fellini's Armacord.

Mr. Arvidsson, and old man living downstairs from the family asks Ingemar to read him passages each evening from a lingerie catalogue he hides under his mattress. Fransson spends most of his life upon the roof of his house, repairing any possible leaks. Konstnörne, the local sculptor, entices the shapely girl, Berrit, to pose nude for him; she agrees to do so, but only with Ingemar in tow for her protection. Saga, a young girl of Ingemar's age, plays soccer and boxes better than any boy in the town, but feels compelled, with Ingemar's help, to keep her breasts a secret, strapping them tightly in tape. All these characters and others come together regularly in the factory of the town's major employer, the Boda glassworks.

Befriended by many of these figures, the slightly clumsy, ill-at-ease Ingemar is made to feel at home, and, before long is playing on the soccer team and sparring with Saga. Yet he is also a circumspect young boy, and frequently compares his life with tragedies such as that of Laika and a man who, taking a shortcut across a the field during a track meet, was killed by a javelin. His brooding mind is met with the loony joyfulness of his uncle, whose favorite record is the Swedish ditty, "Far, jag kan inte få upp min kokosnöt" ("Oh, What a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts").

After a few months in this zany world, Ingemar is returned home, where it quickly becomes apparent that his mother is near death. Unable to comprehend the situation, Ingemar spends a great deal of the time choosing a special Christmas gift for her: a toaster that will be easy to operate and not make too much noise. She dies before he can present her with the evidence of his love. This time he is sent to his other uncle in the city, but is quickly deemed "crazy" by his wife, and is packed off to the country uncle once more.

This time, however, things have seemingly changed. The glassworks company have replaced Mr. and Mrs. Arvidsson (the old man has died) with a large Greek family on the first floor of his uncle's home, and there is no longer any room to bed the boy in the house. Late each evening Ingemar is trundled off to old Mrs. Arvidsson, a worn-out, slightly cynical woman, with whom he must share a bed. Ingemar has insisted that his uncle send for Sicuan, his kenneled dog, but every day the uncle seems to forget to do so. Ingemar's friends continue to welcome him, but Saga, although still a top athlete, can no longer hide her womanhood, and she and another girl fight over Ingemar's attentions. Angry over his agreement to attend a party with her competition, Saga cannot resist revealing the truth about his dog. For the insightful young Ingemar, the death of his beloved dog suddenly brings his situation into new perspective, as in his pain for both his mother's and pet's death, he must face that perhaps he is not so much better off that the figures he has read of and heard about in the newspapers and on radio. His escape to the "summer house" is, in a sense, a retreat to a small world, where he can briefly gain control over his own current of events.

The news that Mr. Fransson is coming down from his roof for his semi-annual bath in the river, electrifies everyone, and, after his uncle breaks down the door to the summer house where Ingemar hides, the boy readily joins him and the other townspeople to witness the swim.
The movie ends with most of the town listening to the famed boxing bout of June 26, 1959, between Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (with whom, obviously, the younger boy shares his first name) and Floyd Patterson, a bout, as all boxing enthusiasts know, that ended with Patterson knocked "out on his feet." The townsfolk are delighted, some, in celebration, coming to their front doors to scream out their joy. Saga and Ingemar, after having sparred so many times throughout this film, lie together on a couch, blissfully unaware of the event. It is clear that the young Ingemar has won his own battle for love.

Los Angeles, August 17, 2007

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Effects of Art (on Jean Fremon's The Real Life of Shadows)

Jean Frémon The Real Life of Shadows, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Sausalito, California: Post-Apollo Press, 2009).

The nineteen short récits of Jean Fremon's new collection, The Real Life of Shadows, mainly concerns art and artists (Frémon is also the director of the famed Galerie Lelong in Paris, Zürich, and New York), but these poetic tales are less about the artists than the aesthetic issues behind their art. Moreover, there is a kind of comic lyricism to the whole which pulls each work away from a demonstration of the obvious erudition of the author to a playful encounter with the reader on the subject of aesthetics. Although it obviously enriches the experience of these tales, one doesn't necessarily need to know about the Japanese artist Hokusai, Dutch artist Mondrian, or French artist Yves Klein to joyfully share in the experience of these works.

The Klein story, "On the Coast," for example, playfully invokes Klein's numerous blue paintings painted from 1949 to 1957: "Yves Klein, having painted vertical, horizontal, large, small, medium, square, rectangular, and oblong paintings in the same uniform blue, was unsatisfied." On a beach of the coast, Klein lays back and dreams, watching the "cloudless expanse of the blue [sky] with no visible limit." Klein claims the great monochrome as his own, adding his signature to it, an act not unlike his 1958 exhibition in which he chose to "show" a completely empty room with a window painted blue. Peacefully, the artist falls to sleep. Suddenly three seagulls cross the sky, waking Klein, who shouts "How dare you, you filthy fowls, how dare you make holes in my painting, the biggest and most beautiful painting ever."

But the story does not end there. "Not far away, on the other side of the Italian border," we are told, is the artist Lucio Fontana, whose own monochrome paintings were generally cut and slashed, often with holes bored through them. Entering Klein's dream, Fontana wonders how he might pierce the great blue monochrome, making it his own. The tale ends in the ironic statement: "But not everyone can be a bird."

In short, this fragile tale not only reveals the grand differences (and similarities) between these two modern artists, but challenges the very question as to what is art. Is it perception itself, and, if so, what determines that perception? Perhaps if art is what and how one sees, this particular sky has been created by the birds instead of the two men who, in their perception, claim it for their own.

The void is also the subject of Frémon's dream-like vision of a "Moonless Night." Awakened by a "blazing light," the narrator assumes it's day, but as he enters his garden, he realizes that the shadows of the trees and house have no source. He "seems" to hear a bird singing, but he cannot recognize the bird's cries. Suddenly it becomes clear that it is the "song of the bird that doesn't exist," and he returns to bed sinking comfortably into sleep. This gentle fable, once again with a ironic self-deflating ending, bears similarities to the world created by the artist Magritte, or the work of surrealists where the shadows emanate from some unearthly source. It is a dream-world of shadows that is somehow as real as life.

Perhaps the most profound work of the volume is the wonderful tale, "The Duke of Milan, Leonardo, and the Lying Prior." Frémon begins this tale with a sort of maxim: "History need stories in order to make itself clear." He then proceeds to tell a series of stories about the great Leonardo, beginning with a young boy, studying all forms of vile creatures—toads, snakes, salamanders, bats, and catfish—in order to create the terrifying visage of Medusa's head. In another tale within-the-tale, Leonardo is asked to create a painting for Ludovic Sforza in a refractory kitchen of the local priory, the painting that we would later come to know as "The Last Supper." The Prior in charge, however, is most unhappy with Sforza's choice of an artist, and oversees the work with careful disdain. After deciding upon the subject, Leonardo quickly renders all the disciples save one, the traitor Judas. Painting only the outline of the figure, he leaves the painting standing for several weeks as he goes about the countryside, nightly visiting bars and inns, without returning to finish the work. The Prior reports these facts to the Duke, who calls Leonardo on the carpet, insisting that the artist return to his work. Leonardo assures him that he has been working, seeking aspects of the face in the common people of the places he has visited, and the Duke is satisfied until, when once again Leonardo does not return to painting, the Prior once more complains. Leonard protests: "You must understand, my Lord, that I don't paint dolls or marionettes, but men dressed in hope, doubt, and distress. Their eyes, their hands speak for them." Explaining how he has used figures from the region as the basis for the completed Disciples, he explains once more that he has not yet found the right combination of eyes, nose, and cheek: "The division of light and shadow across the planes of a face is a subtle art...," he declares, reiterating his methods even as a child. However, when the Duke demands he finish the painting, Leonardo suddenly realizes that the face he has been seeking is that of the lying Prior, the man who has reported his activities to the Duke, and he quickly finishes the masterpiece.

Once more Frémon's gentle irony is interwoven with a tale about the relationship of art to life, the interdependency of the two where the artist steals from life, but transforms it into something else. It is that "unknown quantity" of art that must be added to life before we can perceive the real, what Leonardo seeks as the "right" lie that allows one to speak the truth.

One of my favorite works of this collection is a short work titled "Pieces." Arguably, I like it simply because it was supposedly written in response to a work I sent Frémon in 2001 for my collaborative book, Between (which I described in My Year 2008); reading it again in this context reminded me what a wonderful tale it is.

A woman cuts up an apple into numerous pieces and seeing the small pieces of apple upon her plate begins to sob uncontrollably. Her husband enters the room and sits down beside her, trying to reassure her that the pieces of apple on the plate are not her mother, her brother, sister, children. They are just pieces of apple which she must eat. She has not failed as a lover or mother or daughter any more than anyone else.

After a bath, he carries her to the bed and they make love. In the morning she goes down to her studio and gathers various pieces of wood and scraps, gluing them, screwing them together, wedging them in to various shapes and small sculptures, which, when she shows them to her husband, she speaks, "You see, I put the apple back together again." But her guilt will not go away, and she writes a note:

1 I love you 2) bad daughter bad wife bad mother 3) It's hopeless 4) I miss you 5) bad woman
6) bad life 7) where is it all leading? 8) I love you 9) forgive me

She tears up the letter. She writes Not guilty. Pasting the letter back together with scotch tape, she writes, "10) Not guilty Not guilty Not guilty," putting the letter back in the drawer and locking it away.

The very image of such fragmented and broken objects has, like all of art, revealed to her, temporarily perhaps, something of her own life, her fears and feelings of failure. Images, accordingly, are powerful things, dangerous in themselves, in their effects upon our lives despite their lack of reality. What we see, Frémon suggests, must also sometimes be mitigated, forgotten, locked away from our sight.

Time and again in these subtle stories, Frémon reveals to us how the shadow, the image of experience, is quickly transformed into reality.

Los Angeles, June 2, 2009

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Crazy House (on Rossini's The Barber of Seville)

Cesare Sterbini, based on the play by Pierre Beaumarchais (librettist), Gioacchino Rossini (composer) Il barbiere di siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione (The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution) / High Definition broadcast of March 24th, 2007 production at the Metropolitan Opera / the production Howard and I saw was at Century City in Los Angeles

The story of The Barber of Seville, as most opera-goers know, is a simple one, the kind of contrived plot behind hundreds of 17th and 18th century farces. Count Almaviva, having espied Rosina in the streets, has fallen in love and followed her to Seville, where he disguises himself as a poor student, Lindoro. Rosina is equally in love with the young man, but is locked away in the house of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, advised by the musician Basilio, who warns him of the Count's love for Bartolo's ward. Hearing of the Count's interest and the arrival in Seville of a young man, Bartolo tightens the young girl's security, since he himself intends to marry her.

Figaro, the local barber who has entry to all homes and—so it appears—hearts, is an old friend of the Count, and plots with him how he might enter Bartolo's house. He will disguise himself yet again, this time as a drunken soldier, ordered to be billeted in Bartolo's home. When that ends in chaos and failure, the Count visits the house as a disciple of Don Basilio to teach Rosina a music lesson, plotting with her their escape that night.

The rest of the story predictably involves around a number of temporary setbacks and detours, but ends in the joyful marriage of Rosina to the Count with a nod to Figaro's necessary help, although by opera's end it does almost seem that if the Count had simply appeared as himself in the beginning he might more easily have won Rosina's hand, as if, as the subtitle suggests, all his precautions were useless. But then, of course, there would have been no occasion around which to weave Rossini's joyous arias!

Aspects of this plot have been employed in so many instances that it may sound to the reader than I am describing another opera or play. Certainly the flaxen-haired ward of Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Lucy, a young girl also held against her will, whom the lecherous Judge intends to marry, quickly springs to mind.

What makes Rossini's version refreshing, however, is the heady willfulness of his heroine, who from the first scene is determined to get the man she wants and is so artful in her quick-witted lies that the audience gasps as she nearly outfoxes her suspicious guardian. In Act II, when Bartolo suggests the letter of love he possesses was sent by the count to another woman, so strong is Rosina's sense of vengeance that she is willing to destroy her own life by marrying the old coot. In short, we can only feel a comic delight when the Count sings of the pains and sorrows the poor, innocent girl has had to suffer; for the woman with whom he will awake in the morning is, in fact, another being than the one of which he sings. There is, indeed, a kind of madness in his love.

Not only is Rossini's opera, at times, a madcap farce, but is a work that speaks again and again of madness. It is, first of all, a world dominated by the busy activities of Figaro, involved as he is in the secrets and scandals of city life. Despite the seemingly sequestered world of Dr. Bartolo's house wherein Rosina is confined, moreover, people rush in and out on a regular basis, particularly the Count, first as a soldier, then as a musician; but so too does Figaro feel, evidently, at home in the place, so much so that he is even able to obtain Bartolo's keys. At one point, when Basilio is locked out of the house, he simply pulls apart the iron gate that protects the place. These comings and goings provoke such an uproar at the end of Act I that a crowd gathers in the streets outside the home and the civil guard arrives to correct the chaos. The maid, Berta, sings of the crazy household ("Il vecchitto cerca moglie."). Madness reigns throughout this opera, a storm accompanying even the would-be saviors of Rosina. Is it any wonder that when order is restored, Bartolo defeated, and the Count married to his love, we who have witnessed all these events can only suspect that Rosina and Almaviva may soon continue that chaos in their own new abode.