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Blu-rays of the WeekBen-Hur: 50th Anniversary Edition (Warners)William Wyler’s costume epic swept the 1959 Oscars with 11 wins, more than any other film before or since. Despite stretches of clunky exposition and dull characterizations, there are many breathtaking moments, like that still heart-stopping chariot race. Charlton Heston won Best Actor for his solid, workmanlike performance, but it’s the color photography, sets, costumes, editing and Miklos Rosza score that make it memorable.
Read more: Kevin's October '11 Digital Week I
Blu-rays of the WeekLe beau serge, Les cousins (Criterion)Claude Chabrol, remarkably spotty through 52 years of filmmaking before his 2010 death at age 80, began with these character studies from 1958 and 1959, shot on location both in the village where he grew up and in a bustling Paris. Both films are loaded with atmosphere, and two magnificent actors, Jean-Cluade Brialy and Gerard Blain, reverse roles in the films, giving more substance to Chabrol’s spotty scripts and laconic direction. Criterion has given both films typically excellent transfers (the B&W photography sparkles); extras include commentaries, vintage interviews and retrospective featurettes.
Dumbo (Disney)For this 70th anniversary release, Disney has pulled out all the stops: maybe not extras-wise (although there are a commentary, a deleted scene, a deleted song, a making-of featurette and animated shorts), but in the actual Blu-ray transfer. Simply put, Disney’s beloved classic has never looked better, with bright colors that pop off the screen and a detailed clarity to the images that belies the fact that this movie was made in 1941. Dumbo remains one of Disney’s very greatest masterpieces, an emotional rather than sentimental experience, unlike a lot of the films that followed.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert (MVD)This reunion concert by this bloated prog rock trio shows that, although the musicians are a little grayer and a little heavier, their undeniable chops are still there: Carl Palmer’s propulsive drumming, Keith Emerson’s keyboard wizardry and Greg Lake’s unique bass and voice. The concert, shot in splendid hi-def, has equally superb surround-sound which gives the music an extra oomph, notably the classical “cover” of Pictures at an Exhibition. The lone extra is an interview with all three group members.
Glee: The Complete Second Season, Modern Family: Complete Second Season (Fox)These hit series enter their third seasons this fall, and these releases collect all of the episodes of their bumpy sophomore seasons. Although it still hits highs like the Britney/Brittany and New York City episodes, Glee is still too self-consciously cutesy for its own good. Modern Family, helped by its estimable comic ensemble, usually gets away with superficial scripts that look for cheap laughs too often. Blu-ray’s clarity enhances the visual experience; extras include featurettes, interviews and music videos.
Inspector Lewis: Series 4 (PBS)This collection of four full-length mysteries from the most recent season of yet another Masterpiece Mystery winner (based on a series of novels by Colin Dexter) stars a superb actor, Laurence Fox, as the thorough British detective who always tracks down the killers he is up against. Strong support comes from Kevin Whatley, Rebecca Front and Claire Holman; the episodes have a strong sense of visual and narrative unity, considering they were each written and directed by a different team. This Blu-ray release features stunning photography, but there are no extras.
Lourdes (Palisades Tartan)This low-key study centers on Christine, a young woman confined to a wheelchair, who goes on a pilgrimage to Lourdes to see if a cure awaits for her condition. After something seemingly miraculous occurs, Christine heartbreakingly discovers that life hasn’t become any easier. Sylvie Testud gives a nuanced and subtle portrayal in the lead, and writer-director Jessica Hausner allows her characters to live and breathe as ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary. Subdued visuals are complemented by stunning shots of Lourdes, all faithfully reproduced on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a short director interview.
Nostalgia for the Light (Icarus)Patricio Guzman’s powerful documentary shows luminous outer-space explorations at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert and ongoing explorations by family members looking for remains of their loved ones, “disappeared” by dictator Pinochet. Contrasting heavenly viewing with body excavation might seem contrived, but Guzman’s sensitive touch keeps his film from being cloying as it alternates between awe-inspiring and down-to-earth. Interviews with astronomers and relatives complement each other perfectly; Guzman’s camera catches the beauty and terror of infinity and mortality. Needless to say, this is one sumptuous-looking Blu-ray; extras comprise five Guzman short films.
The Strange Case of Angelica (Cinema Guild)Now 102 years old, Manuel de Oliveira has finally made a watchable but still unsatisfying film: a ghostly romance about a photographer haunted by a beautiful but dead young woman. True to form, Oliveira makes this serviceable tale a bizarre shaggy-dog story with extraneous bits to stretch its running time. Portuguese locations (shown to gorgeous advantage on Blu-ray) and Chopin soundtrack music work best, but stiff, robotic acting and static visual style make this ultimately disposable: still, Oliveira keeps earning near-universal raves. Extras include Oliveira’s first feature, the 1931 silent Douro, Faina Fluvial; director interview; commentary; and 1992 documentary about his career.
DVDs of the WeekAngel of Evil (Fox)Michele Placido’s kinetic study of an infamous Milanese criminal of the 70s and 80s showcases not only physical violence (and there’s a lot of it) but also much emotional violence, which in this context is even more unsettling than the bloody sort. A thoughtful performance by Kim Rossi Stuart as the film’s anti-hero gives Placido’s character study an emotional jolt that lasts far beyond mere shooting or stabbing. This is the first release of the Fox World Cinema series, which is off to a good start with this exciting crime drama. Extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
Art of the Western World (Athena)Historian Michael Wood’s extraordinarily detailed 6-½ hour series encompasses western art from the Greeks and Romans until today (it was made in 1983). Shot in artistically and historically important locations from Athens to Rome to Chartres to Salisbury, Wood narrates but also smartly cedes the floor to other historians, whose expertise gives viewers even more illuminating insights. The nine episodes are valuable art history lessons as well as close-up glimpses at hundreds of classic works of art from the Parthenon and Florence’s Duomo to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.
Bridesmaids (Fox)This crude comedy from the pen of SNL’s Kristen Wiig and producer Judd Apatow is the female Hangover or Knocked Up: an overlong exercise in comic self-indulgence that doesn’t know when to quit, nearly every scene belaboring its lone point hammer and tongs (bantering between Wiig and Rose Byrne, ending with “That’s What Friends Are For” duet or Wiig getting pulled over by a friendly Irish cop). Then there’s the gross, unfunny puking/diarrhea bridal shop scene. I’ll stop right there: too bad Wiig and company didn’t. Extras include commentary, gag reel, deleted and extended (!!!) scenes.
Wishful Drinking (HBO)In her one-woman show, an amusingly cynical look at celebrity in-breeding padded with personal anecdotes, Carrie Fisher tosses off self-effacing quips about surviving her career, addictions and failed relationships while dishing about her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Although there are plenty of gossipy laughs, Fisher’s attempts to endear herself to a loyal audience by spilling her guts about her foibles seem too calculated by half. Extras include three deleted scenes and a lengthy (and intriguing) interview with Reynolds.
CDs of the WeekKristin Chenoweth: Some Lessons Learned (Sony)Luminous Broadway singer-actress Kristin Chenoweth foregoes her bread and butter to return to her first love: country music. Unfortunately, the mixed results on this slick disc of Bob Ezrin-produced tunes are due to Diane Warren, who penned 5 of 13 faceless songs and whose “commercial” spirit pervades this toothless record. Chenoweth finds sentiment in ballads like “Fathers and Daughters,” but it’s the faux tough attitude of the single “I Want Somebody (Bitch About)” that underscores a purely commercial product.
Music by Kurtag, Nono, Trojahn, Weinberg (NEOS)The latest contemporary-music releases from an enterprising label include the Athena Quartett playing the complete string quartet works by Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag; two edgy electronic compositions by Italian Luigi Nono (who died in 1990); the Henschel Quartett doing Austrian Manfred Trojahn’s quartets; and, in a moving performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir, unheralded Polish master Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s emotional Requiem, set to texts by writers like Federico Garcia Lorca (Weinberg died in 1996). Whatever one’s preference for modern music, these discs give one a taste of works outside the mainstream (if there is such a thing any more).
Every generation gets the children's book author it deserves. Today's tots have Adam Mansbach to inscribe the woes they inflict on their parents at bedtime. His smash hit Go the F**k to Sleep is of course aimed squarely at adults, which complicates the question of who deserves what, but that's another story, so let´s get the f**k on with it. Mansbach replicates the helpless adorableness of toddler literature in 14 illustrated verses, only to sic a chorus of drunken sailors on each closing stanza. In solidarity with other bleary-eyed parents, the 30-something writer captures the fast ones that young children traditionally pull to evade sleep. All the kids from day care are in dreamland. The froggie has made his last leap. Hell no, you can't go to the bathroom. You know where you can go? The fuck to sleep. Go the F**k's birth has itself become the stuff of fable. Once upon a time...
Mansbach jested on Facebook, "Look out for my forthcoming children’s book, Go the F**k to Sleep.” His friends laughed heartily and encouraged him to really make a book. So one afternoon the grumpy dad sat down and wrote. He tried and tried to blow the leaked manuscript down (from the Internet). But its viral success made the book a bestseller prior to pub date.
Next thing he knew, Go the F**k to Sleep was on the bestseller lists in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly, and it's now being made into a movie. Mansbach, illustrator Ricardo Cortés and publisher Akashic Books are living happily ever after. Go the F**k had outsold Mansbach's entire literary canon around the time it was charting as a bestseller. This includes three novels -- Angry Black White Boy, Shackling Water and The End of the Jews -- and a poetry collection, Genius B-boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the Garden of Delights, as well as A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing. On a recent morning when Mansbach was a bit sleep deprived -- through no fault of his offspring -- he shared his thoughts with JCCGreenwich.org. Q: Children's books date back to Romanticism, which favored natural innocence over the power abuses of reason and progress. Talk about the comic tension you got from pitting idyllic nature against such profane bossiness as "go the f**k to sleep." A: The juxtaposition I was interested in was that of the honest internal monologue going through the parent's mind while reading classic traditional bedtime stories and the dreamy, gauzy outer story. Q: From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, the post-9/11 era quashed the notion of America the idealistic youth or even the nice parent. Does your book strike something in the zeitgeist that laments the withering of American innocence? A: In my reading of history, long before 9/11 or Guantanamo Bay, America had ceased to be any kind of global nice guy, if we ever were. My take on American history is a lot less romantic than that. As a parent and a person in my mid 30s, I don´t feel like I lived through a loss of American innocence. I feel like I was born into an America that I never readily harbored any romantic notions about. Most of my work before this book in the form of novels has dealt with things like race and identity and class and religion in this country. My own personal educational background has always focused on the inequities in American life. So I don't see these things as any kind of pivot point. Q: We can start with 19th-century expansionism, and an obvious 20th-century hallmark was Vietnam, but for many Americans our preemptive warfare, legal and security complex and decline since 9/11 have led to a broader disillusionment. It's this more recent zeitgeist that I´m wondering if your book tapped into. A: It´s interesting -- it's certainly possible. The fun thing for me about having tapped into the zeitgeist is having done so with no calculation and no intention. Of everything I've ever written, this is the thing I wrote with the fewest expectations -- which is to say zero. I am a writer so there is in the back of my mind the intention of publishing anything that I do write.
Read what art's most famous couple wrote one another, in My Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The book's editor, Sarah Greenough, offers a scholarly peep.
"At last, a woman on paper!" photographer Alfred Stieglitz enthused when, in 1916, he was presented with the drawings and watercolors of Georgia O'Keeffe. Exhibiting her work several months later in his famous 291 gallery, he launched her star. But art wasn't all he was to see of O'Keeffe's output on pulp.
The two would swap some 5,000 letters during their three-decade correspondence, which had already begun in 1915. Stieglitz was in his early 50s, married and considered nobility on the New York art scene. She was in her mid-20s and little known outside the farflung campuses where she taught art. Today they'd be texting with r's and u's. As if meant to make us nostalgic, their letters sometimes swelled to 40 pages.
National Gallery of Art photography curator Sarah Greenough has quarried 650 of these letters to yield My Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933 (Yale University Press, 2011). The 800-page book is as big as a cow skull.
O’Keeffe had tapped Greenough to edit her hand-scrawled trove, with the stipulation that it remain sealed for two decades after her death. The wait ended in 2006. Greenough had first met O’Keeffe while working on her dissertation about Stieglitz's iconic photography. In addition to having mounted exhibitions of his work at the National Gallery of Art, Greenough is the author of Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, among other critically admired books.
My Faraway One encapsulates the two artists' insights into the cardinal players and ideas of early American modernism. But more than anything it's a collection of love letters from two creative souls who enthralled and inspired one another — when they weren't rankling one another's nerves. They married in 1924, shortly after Stieglitz's divorce.
In the beginning, O’Keeffe seems quite the wide-eyed ingenue swept up by art's alpha male. Stieglitz had charm -- and self-regard -- to spare, and put much of it toward wooing the woman artist he deemed on a par wtih the likes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Constantin Brancusi, among other European novas whose work he had debuted in America.
Yet fault lines emerged to rock the romance. Partly in order to claim time and space to paint, and partly just to breathe freely, O'Keeffe sought refuge elsewhere. In 1929 she visited New Mexico. Lured by the natural and intellectual light, intensified by such forces as D.H. Lawrence, she would soon summer every year in the dessert highlands around Taos.
The letters give glimpses into their agonies and ecstasies.
In July 1929, O'Keeffe writes, "I seemed to be in the world only for you--But I must be here a while yet...I cannot be of any use to you unless I can grow much myself and every day I feel more and more on the earth..."
Stieglitz replies, "...I am the loser--the one weakened..." Another letter from that month finds him lamenting, "Our parting as we did--both inwardly crying for love...your steeling yourself, your letters not those of former years--my bleeding to death by inches..."
A little over a decade earlier, O'Keeffe had rhapsodized, "...can I stand it--the terrible fineness and beauty of the intensity of you...lying here--wanting you with such an all [over] ache--not just wanting--loving--feeling--all the parts of my body touched and kissed--conscious of you--A volcano is nothing to it..."
And Stieglitz had smoldered, "To wake up at daybreak & lie here in bed & feel that there is the loveliest someone on earth not so far away waiting--feeling like I do--Two beings so full of the same feelings for each other--Converging into a focus--a complete oneness--"
To put the two artists' outpourings in context, FilmFestivalTraveler.com spoke with Greenough.
Q: What was O'Keeffe like, and how did the letters compare with the person?
A: She was really quite extraordinary. One of the things that most surprised me is that I had come to know her through Stieglitz´s photographs that he had made 50, 60 years earlier. And in those photographs there´s very little sense of humor. In real life she had a marvelous, dry wit and a twinkle in her eyes. So there was a huge difference between the person that I saw and the person I had expected to see from Stieglitz's pictures.
Q: Why do you think he played down her lighter side?
A: He began to photograph her in 1918, when they were passionately in love. She was an extraordinarily sensual, sexual human being who excited him down to the end of his fingertips, and it's that sexuality that comes through his photographs of her. His most well known photographs are the monumental nudes that he took of her. There are a few snapshots where he got her sense of humor and that twinkle, but they´re very few and far between.
Q: How did his fixation on her as a female artist morph into his fixation on her as the object of his affections?
A: When Stieglitz first discovered O'Keeffe in 1916, he had been fascinated with women´s art for a long time. He had an understanding of women that had been clouded by the literature of (German writer) Goethe or (British socialist philosopher) Edward Carpenter and others who saw women as fundamentally less cerebral and intellectual than men and more emotional and intuitive. Stieglitz felt that a woman´s art would be more subjective and an expression of pure emotion.
Q: How did O'Keeffe fit in with his theory?
A: He seemed to find verification of those ideas with O'Keeffe. At first he was more focused on her as an artist. But he was also fascinated that she lived in Texas and wanted to make others believe she was a product of American soil uninfluenced by European artists.
Q: Was she?
A: It was not true, since he was sending her the latest artistic publications of the time.
Q: Her writing has an earthy quality he must have also adored. How did their styles differ?
A: He fell in love with the way that she expressed herself not only though her art but also through her words. O'Keeffe was a very idiosyncratic writer. She couldn´t spell at all: "before" was always spelled "befor." Stieglitz wrote in regular sentences that could pass for prose. O'Keeffe had a more elliptical way of writing. She would frequently write a phrase and follow it with several squiggles and then drop down several lines. It almost seems that she was trying to sketch out her ideas as much as writing them. Her style was far more fractured and impressionistic than Stieglitz's.
Q: And all those breathy dashes! What's that about?
A: What´s fascinating about the letters is that they contain almost no passages or words that have been crossed out. They both just sat down and wrote whatever came into their minds. They clearly didn't have an agenda; it's all very stream-of-consciousness. That´s what gives them their extraordinary immediacy. It's almost as if you´re listening in on a conversation between the two of them.
Q: Which adjectives spring to mind to describe their letters?
A: Passionate, lyrical, fervent, lucid, immediate, unfiltered, spontaneous, lush. Or as one friend of mine has said, very hot.
Q: What do the letters tell us about their creative lives?
A: Stieglitz's importance as a major force in art and culture in the first half of the 20th century is unquestionable. The letters show how intimately involved he was in many of the key artistic discussions of the time. And from O'Keeffe there are minute-by-minute details about creating her paintings. In 1929 she talks about seeing a subject and going back to paint it again and again till she gets it right. For example, she wrote letters about a painting that is now known as "The Lawrence Tree," which she painted while visiting the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in New Mexico.
Q: To what extent was New Mexico also an escape from Stieglitz?
A: Between 1929 and 1946, she went out to New Mexico and spent two or three months there every summer, but she always returned to live with Stieglitz for the fall, winter and spring months. By the late '20s she had begun to feel that she needed something that Stieglitz and the East Coast couldn't provide her. She was increasingly frustrated with the routine, and with the suffocating atmosphere of Stieglitz's family home at Lake George in the Adirondacks. She wanted to travel. She also wanted very much to have a home of her own. Stieglitz didn't want to buy a house just for the two of them; he wanted to continue spending summers at Lake George with his family.
Q: In July 1929 she wrote, "...when I think of Lake George it just seems to take all the breath out of my body." What did New Mexico have that the Adirondacks didn't?
A: When O'Keefe first went to New Mexico, the driving motivation was that she needed to find new inspirations for her art. She had loved living in Texas in 1916 and '17 and had heard stories about New Mexico from other people and knew it was a place she wanted to explore more. She hoped to find things that would revitalize her art.
Q: Such as?
A: In 1929 she writes eloquently about how she´s trying to find something out in the New Mexico landscape, something that symbolizes her feeling about it. She´s talklng about trying to find objects that express her love and fascination with the New Mexican landscape: the colors, the light and the intensity of the life that she found there.
Q: What toll did her absence take on their relationship?
A: When O'Keeffe began to spend time in New Mexico in 1929, Stieglitz turned his affections to another woman, Dorothy Norman, who was a much younger woman whom he had met at his gallery. This was what really caused a major rift in the relationship in the early '30s.
Q: You have this interesting footnote about Stieglitz apparently sending O'Keeffe a letter where Norman confessed to being "a little naughty." Meanwhile, in the letter you're referring to, he reminds her that she's "free." But he also pours out his passion for O'Keeffe.
A: Biographers have recognized about Stieglitz that he was an immensely charismatic individual with a capacity to profoundly affect people. But Stieglitz's egotism and narcissism have never been understood to the extent that they appear in these letters. By the '30s you see how duplicitous he was with O'Keeffe as he was conducting his affair with Dorothy Norman. I don't believe this was ever seen before. You see how he conducted the affair in a very public way. Neither Norman nor Stieglitz tried to conceal it from O'Keeffe or from Norman´s husband. They felt their relationship made them much better people, that it enriched those around them.
Stieglitz needed people around to bolster his ego. O'Keeffe on the other hand was a far more independent person and needed that space. So there was an inherent tension in their relationship that they both struggled with in the '20s.
Q: How did their ethnic and socioeconomic differences come into play?
A: One of the things that attracted Stieglitz and O'Keeffe were their differences. Stieglitz was from a large, secular German-Jewish family in New York. O'Keeffe's early life had been far more of a "hard-scrabble," Midwestern farm existence and in a family that was by no means as close-knit as Stieglitz's. The very fact that O'Keeffe was not a pampered New Yorker, like [Stieglitz's first wife] Emmeline Obermeyer, had been; that she had made her way in the world and had a real job to support herself, something that Stieglitz never did; and also that she was dry, witty and acerbic, not verbose and theatrical, like members of the Stieglitz family; all of these things appealed to Stieglitz immensely.
Q: Yet their backgrounds also posed a challenge, no?
A: In his letters to Norman, Stieglitz lovingly calls her his "Little Jewess," and contrasts her with O'Keeffe, whom he coldly referred to as "Southwest" and said she--presumably with her Midwestern or Southwestern heritage-- just didn't understand him. Stieglitz was not devout--in fact, for much of his life, there is no record that he ever went to a synagogue--but I think [his Jewishness] is important to understanding him and his activities.
Q: O'Keeffe wanted to have children. Why was he so opposed?
A: Stieglitz felt that O'Keeffe's paintings were in a sense their children. He felt that if she had a child, it would divert her attention from her art. Also, Stieglitz had a daughter who had been diagnosed with what we now know as schizophrenia. He feared he had a genetic defect. So children was another bone of contention.
Q: Today Georgia O'Keeffe is a more recognizable name than Alfred Stieglitz. Does the book serve to recoup some of his fame?
A: During their lifetime Stieglitz was the far better known of the two. His galleries and Camera Work journal and what they did to foster the careers of artists like John Marin, Mardsen Hartley, Arthur Dove... that was critically important. I think the letters put them both back on an equal footing. Q: Can we consider My Faraway One a cache of love letters?
A: What´s important about the letters is that they're an amazing source of information on early 20th-century art and culture. Yet even more than that, they are an exceptional record of the evolution of a relationship between two intensely committed, passionate individuals. In their letters you see them falling in love; you see their intense passion in the '20s; and then you see the relationship almost fall apart in the early '30s.
Q: What are you planning for an encore?
A: Volume Two will pick up in 1934 and continue to 1946, when Stieglitz died. We´re hoping to have it out in 2014.
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