Saturday, September 21, 2013

Caught Off Guard

It doesn't happen often, but on those rare and blessed occasions when it does, oddball works of art give a person multiple reasons to be grateful. These are situations in which one's expectations (large or small) are completely upended. What one experiences is vastly different (and so much more inspiring) than whatever one had anticipated.
  • Sometimes someone enters a theatre with minimal expectations and is rewarded with a cornucopia of delights.
  • Sometimes one starts to watch a film and, instead of being taken on a linear narrative, is slowly seduced by an intoxicating mixture of art and realism.
  • Sometimes one is swept away by a sudden turn of dramatic events.
  • And on equally rare occasions, an oddball headline (Creative Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe) leads to a dizzying display of visual riches beyond one's wildest imagination. In the process, one discovers the work of a fascinating photographer like Charles Frégere.
Portrait of an elephant and mahout by Charles Frégere

People often ask me questions like "What's your favorite opera?" or "What's the best show you've ever seen?" I've always found these questions to be a bit ridiculous, since they assume that all art can be measured on a scale of 1 to 100.

My reaction to any piece of art is entirely subjective.  It can be affected by all kinds of pressures ranging from weather, mood, fatigue, and stimulants to the company one keeps. However, the following two experiences are among those that I genuinely cherished this year.

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It was a hot and stuffy night. I was tired and wishing I could be lying horizontal at home instead of heading into another performance at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.  But I'm a sucker for a title like Movin' Melvin Brown: A Man, A Magic, A Music. And then it happened.

Brown is the kind of man the AARP should hire as the poster model for an ad that says "68 Years Young." A native of Cincinnati, he's an old-fashioned song and dance man who follows in a long, proud line of supertalented African American entertainers like the Nicholas Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" RobinsonSammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines. A gifted impressionist who can mimic famous singers, he also has a low-voiced, three-syllable laugh that completely disarms his audiences.


Much of Brown's show has him taking the audience on a tour of the music that shaped his life from the time he started crawling out his bedroom window at age seven and sneaking into music clubs. Whether impersonating artists like Louis Armstrong or James Brown, he'll sing snatches of their songs before fading into the background so he can continue his narration.

What he enjoys even more is showing people what fun it is to dance. From tap dancing to clogging, from moonwalking to stripping down to a thong to demonstrate a pair of powerfully-trained glutes, his 90-minutes onstage delivers the kind of physical workout that would exhaust younger performers.


One could easily wonder why Brown is still touring at his age, playing any venue from a small theatre at the San Francisco Fringe Festival to some of the larger arenas seen in the above video clips. The answer is simple: It helps raise money and awareness for his foundation, the Change The World Project in Austin, Texas, which helps homeless children and elderly people. The goals of his foundation are every bit as inspiring as the performer himself.

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In 2010, I had an almost unearthly experience at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I attended a screening of an incredibly beautiful Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof entitled The White Meadows. In my review, I wrote:
"Rasoulof's 92-minute film grips the audience in his artistic vision from its opening moments. Even in the film's slowest passages, the audience never loses interest. This is a film of such lush visual beauty, such intense theatricality, and such powerful imagery that one exits the theater deeply moved and yet unable to articulate why. Rasoulof's ability to combine the rituals and hardships of an alien landscape with the drama of souls tortured by the inanity of their culture is an astounding achievement in cinematic art. While it would be easy to try to look for political messages in the film, one would be better served by just sitting back and enjoying a cinematic gem so dramatically captivating and visually entrancing that the experience leaves one struggling to think of another film quite like The White Meadows."

Although far less dramatic than The White Meadows, I have been equally haunted by Jem Cohen's new feature, Museum Hours, which I saw earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It contains no political message, no car chases, explosions or violence. Instead, this is the kind of film that slowly and gently seduces its audience without ever pointing in the direction it is headed.

Bobby Sommer as Johann in Museum Hours

The film's two main characters start off as total strangers. Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) has flown to Vienna from Canada to visit a dying cousin who is lying in a coma. While wandering the city, she stops into its famous Kunsthistorisches Museum where she meets Johann (Bobby Sommer), an elderly gay man who spends his days as a museum guard, observing the art as well as the building's visitors. During Anne's repeated visits to the museum, they strike up a conversation which leads to a casual friendship in which they share several meals and Johann offers to act as an interpreter between Anne and the hospital's medical staff.

Following her cousin's death, Anne returns to Canada.  As he walks down a city street toward an apartment complex, Johann muses about the power of art to mirror and alter our lives. In his director's statement, Jem Cohen writes:
"The film got its start in the Bruegel room of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Looking at certain paintings there, all from the 16th Century, I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant. One such painting (ostensibly depicting the conversion of St. Paul) has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree. I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand but, instead of being peripheral, one's eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He's as important as anything else in the frame.

I recognized a connected sensibility I'd felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I've done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they're constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows … (And it isn't limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives). In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path."
"How, then, to make movies that don't tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even 'what kind of movie this is'? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum. In making movies, I'm at least as inspired by paintings (and sculpture and books and music) as I am by cinema. Maybe this project would bring all of that together for me, a kind of culmination.

There were other important things found in museums that guided me. In the older ones that are so beautifully lit, the visitors begin to look like artworks -- each becomes the other. This transference undoes a false sense of historical remove; we stand in front of a depiction 400 or 3000 years old, and there is a mirroring that works in both directions.(This is one of the things that makes old museums sexy, an inherent eroticism which runs counter to the unfortunate, perhaps prevalent notion that they are archaic, staid and somewhat irrelevant.) The phenomenon underscores for me the way that artworks of any time speak to us of our own conditions. The walls separating the big old art museum in Vienna from the street and the lives outside are thick. We had hopes to make them porous."

Through some remarkable editing, Cohen has created a quiet masterpiece in which silence is golden, patience is rewarded with death, and a stranger's friendship becomes a blessed and welcome gift. Just as the faces in Breughel's paintings mask untold backstories, so do the faces of contemporary Viennese as they move about the city, pass through the museum, visit a flea market, or gather in a tavern. As the filmmaker explains:
"Years later, with limited resources but a small, open-minded crew and access to the museum and city in place, I began to trace a simple story. The figure best positioned to watch it all unfold (and with time on his hands to mull things over) would be a museum guard. He would preferably be played by a non-actor with a calm voice who understood odd jobs. I found him in Bobby Sommer. Almost 25 years ago, I saw Mary Margaret O'Hara perform, and I've wanted to film her ever since. She is equally sublime and funny and knows a thing or two about not being bound by formulas. She would surely channel things through unusual perspectives, especially if dropped into a city she'd never known and given room to move. Making this movie could not come from finalizing a script and shooting to fill it in. Instead, it came out of creating a set of circumstances, some carefully guided, others entirely unpredictable. It meant not using sets (much less locking them off); it meant inviting the world in … "
Bobby Sommer as Johann in Museum Hours

Five months after watching Museum Hours (which is now enjoying its theatrical release), Cohen's film still haunts me. I can't think of another film that so casually articulates the way great art brings solace to the souls of people trapped in a state of limbo or how the most mundane contemporary architecture (when viewed through an artistic lens) can frame a moment that captures the beauty of a wintry day whose skies are a gloomy gray.

Museum Hours is the kind of masterpiece that lies far below the cacophony of the entertainment industry's infernal publicity machine. It's a quiet gem, perhaps best appreciated by quiet people. Here's the trailer:

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