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July 2007

Anime'd Summer Night's Dream

Of course, you have to imagine this passage as being read in the stentorian manner of Mr. Coming Attractions, Don LaFontaine:

The year is 2017.  Global climate change has devastated the Earth.  This is now a cyberworld in constant dread of war.  The state of Denmark has grown prosperous and defended itself successfully against neighbouring states.  But could it be that its greatest threat comes not from without, but from within the state itself?

It is in this cyberworld that we find the young Hamlet.  His grief over his father's recent death turns to something far darker when the ghost of his father appears to him.  Hamlet is very soon to discover that something is rotten in the state of Denmark...

No, this is not your father's Hamlet -- or mine.  This is Hamlet from the new Manga Shakespeare series of graphically novelized versions of the plays from UK publisher SelfMadeHero.


What you get with this series are Shakespearean plots moved to imagined worlds consistent with the manga form -- hence Hamlet in a dystopian future and Romeo and Juliet set "in the highly fashionable Shibuya district of Tokyo" where Romeo (a rock star, naturally) and his love are "caught up in a bitter feud between two Yakuza families."  The dialogue is a cut-down version of Shakespeare's own, as seen in this animated version of the beginning of a Hamlet scene much prized Fools the world over. 

The rationale behind these adaptations is the predictable one: to make Shakespeare -- *sigh*, let's all say it together -- "more accessible to today's reader."

Manga is a dynamic, emotional and cinematic medium easily absorbed by the eye. Its attractive art and simple storytelling methods will enthuse readers to approach Shakespeare's work in the way he intended – as entertainment.

Shakespeare has survived worse.  Personally, I am less disturbed by any apparent "dumbing down" of the Bard -- or by the odd use of the verb "enthuse" in that last quote -- than I am by the prospect that we are only ten years away from living in an environmentally devastated cyberworld ruled by Denmark.

Hamlet and R&J came out in March, and are available domestically via Amazon; the publisher's catalogue [PDF] promises expansion of the series later this year to include Richard III, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  In the Fall, SelfMadeHero will also launch The Classical Eye, a series of graphic versions of non-Shakespearean literature, starting with selections from Kafka, Poe, and Bulgakov and moving next year to include Stevenson, Wilde, and Dostoevsky.  This cover is certainly striking, although it owes more to Dashiell Hammett's black bird than to Poe's:

[Manga Shakespeare links via John Holbo on The Valve.  For sheer amusement value, I recommend that you not miss the collection of chibi Shakespeare avatars appended as the first comment to Prof. Holbo's post.]

May the Cubist Be With You

Everyone, yes everyone, is linking or posting the Mighty Morphin' Women in Art video, which surely you have seen.

But wait! There's -- as they say -- More!

Christian Chensvold reveals at that the creator of that piece -- he who would be known only as Eggman -- has an earlier work in a similar vein.

Ladies 'n' gents,

we give you

-- despite perfectly valid complaints from our beloved that there are
Too Darned Many YouTube videos being posted here recently -- 


Follow the Lieder,
or, All to Goethe Now!


Although I am a longtime enthusiast for the work of Long Beach Opera, scheduling conflicts prevented me from seeing any of the company's performances this season until last night. 

LBO, a quintessential ambitious-but-underfunded arts institution, is under more economic stress than usual this season, and for that reason was obliged to cancel or postpone its planned west coast premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's Lorca-based Ainadamar.  (Alex Ross was duly impressed with Ainadamar at its premiere at Tanglewood back in 2003, and his description causes me to hope that Long Beach Opera will be able to put it back on the schedule soon.)  In its place, company director Andreas Mitisek re-mounted his 2005 staging of Schubert's final song cycle, Winterreise, in which the 24 songs are intermixed with excerpts from Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther.  (None dare call it Wertherreise.)

German art song is not a genre high on my list, largely because the performance of lieder generally involves no more than a talented singer, preferably with a talented accompanist, just standing around singing.  In German.  Beautiful, perhaps, but not particularly gripping.

In Long Beach, the talented singer was baritone-turning-tenor Erik Nelson Werner; the talented accompanist at the piano was Michelle Schumann.  Rather than simply singing Schubert's setting of Wilhelm Müller's poems, Werner assumed the role of young Werther on his final night, in his little room, surrounded by his books and his scattered writings and sketches, drinking heavily and thinking aloud about how he came round to putting a pistol to his head.  Charlotte, or Lotte, for the love of whom Werther takes himself out of the world, is present as a silent apparition, initially in white -- with tasteful blood stain, see above -- and later in black -- with tattooed wings on her back, combining an angel of death with the crow/raven imagery that recurs in Müller's text.  Jennifer Hart Jackson did all that was needed with the part.

Both Werther and Müller's unnamed winter wanderer are beset with misery in proper high Romantic fashion over the loss of their beloved to another, and their respective bitternesses, angers and suicidal ideations make for an effective combination.  Because both Goethe and Müller tapped the same store of Romantic imagery, Andreas Mitisek had no trouble finding passages from Werther that mirrored or foreshadowed passages in the songs.  By setting the action within the walls of Werther's room, and Werther's head, in the hours before his suicide, Mitisek made do without having to recount or portray the actual plot of Goethe's novella, focusing in tightly on its climax.  In the mode of Krapp's Last Tape, you could think of this as Werther's Last Lieder.

All told, this production did what Long Beach Opera (to its credit) always tries to do: it combined music and drama as equals, each providing strength to the other.  It is a small, sad gem of a piece and, having missed out on it in 2005, I am happy to have seen it revived.

We really are a long way removed from the Romantic sensibility, aren't we?  When Goethe wrote and published Werther, at age 23, the novella was a sensation.  Young men all over Europe adopted Werther's blue coat as a uniform and some unknown number of them were moved to kill themselves, precisely because that is what young Werther had done.  Can you imagine the lawsuits if a book -- a book! -- had similar effect today?  The Sorrows of Young Werther might well be discussed by Oprah, but as a problem to be solved, not a book club selection.

That bloodstain on Lotte's dress is a product of Werther's be-sturmed & be-dranged imagination.  He does not kill or threaten to kill Lotte in the book, but instead leaves her and her new husband, whom he has also befriended, stunned and shattered by his suicide.  A contemporary Werther would not be embraced as a figure of impressive sensitivity and heroic suffering to be emulated: he would be pegged as a stalker and arrested or dispatched to therapy. 

Someone's cell phone, ineffectively muffled in a bag, went off four or five times during the performance; always the same phone and always during a critical pianissimo or a significant moment of silence.  The Romantic dream, it seems, is over as over can be.  Cell phones notwithstanding, it was good to spend some time with that dream in the dark last night.

[Photo, from the original 2005 production, by Keith Ian Polakoff.]

Come Away, O Human Child
To the Waters and the Wild

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the death by drowning of Jeff Buckley, who disappeared while swimming in the Mississippi near Memphis on May 29, 1997; his body was eventually recovered, at the foot of Beale Street, on June 4.

The moody video below is for the song "Mississippi" by Edinburgh-based English singer/songwriter/recording engineer Steve Adey, who reports that it used to be "a big song with many verses" until he re-wrote it after watching a documentary on Buckley.  Lyrics, which include at least one oblique reference to a Jeff Buckley song and an even more oblique reference to a song that Buckley made famous (Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah") are here.

Steve Adey generally and "Mississippi" in particular first came to my attention in the past day or two, when Tim Elsenburg of Sweet Billy Pilgrim announced the issuance of his remix of the song via the SBP Pilgrim's Progress weblog.  That sent me scurrying to eMusic, from whence I downloaded both Adey's album, All Things Real, and the various "Mississippi" remixes.  There is currently a streaming version of the Sweet Billy Pilgrim "Mississippi" remix -- featuring the patented SBP "banjo, beats 'n' orchestra" aesthetic -- on Tim Elsenburg's MySpace page.

For extra Buckley family credit, Leon (from supplies) of the Spoilt Victorian Child weblog recently posted a lovely video clip of Jeff's father Tim Buckley performing his "Song to the Siren" in 1968 on what was apparently the last-ever episode of The Monkees.   (No Monkees are present in that clip, though, just Tim and his guitar.)

Today's post title courtesy of that crazy ol' W. B. Yeats.

"Eye'll Get You, My Pretty . . . and Your Andalusian Dog, Too!"

Yes!  It's Salvador Dali -- il est complètement fou! -- hawking choccies.  And here he is again, with thanks to Megan McArdle, as the mystery guest on What's My Line?

Discussion Questions:  Has there been a visual artist, at least since Warhol, who would have the sort of immediate recognizability that Dali possessed?   And when was the last time the panelists on a game show were so obviously a collection of grownups?

Dali seems never to go out of style, and today marks the opening at London's Tate Modern of "Dalí & Film," an exhibition focusing on Dali's work in film in collaboration with Bunuel, Hitchcock, and Disney, among others, and on the influence of film on Dali's painting.  Dali & Film will (oh joy!) be traveling to Los Angeles in October.

For the occasion, the Guardian calls on JG Ballard to say a few words.  Here, Ballard takes up Dali's famed limp watches, which the Museum of Modern Art (oh joy yet again!) has lent out as part of the show:

Dalí's masterpiece and, I believe, the greatest painting of the 20th century is The Persistence of Memory, a tiny painting not much larger than the postcard version, containing the age of Freud, Kafka and Einstein in its image of soft watches, an embryo and a beach of fused sand.  The ghost of Freud presides over the uterine fantasies that set the stage for the adult traumas to come, while insects incarnate the self-loathing of Kafka's Metamorphosis and its hero turned into a beetle.  The soft watches belong to a realm where clock time is no longer valid and relativity rules in Einstein's self-warping continuum.

What monster would grow from this sleeping embryo?  It may be the long eyelashes, but there is something feminine and almost coquettish about this little figure, and I see the painting as the 20th century's Mona Lisa, a psychoanalytic take on the mysterious Gioconda smile.  If the Mona Lisa, as someone said, looks as if she has just dined on her husband, then Dalí's embryo looks as if she dreams of feasting on her mother.

(Link via 3quarksdaily.)  Meanwhile, on the Guardian Arts blog, Jonathan Jones puts in a good word for both parties to Dalí's collaborations with Disney:

Far from the final corruption of the renegade surrealist the movement's leader André Breton nicknamed 'Avida Dollars', Dalí's attempt to bring surrealist radicalism to a Disney cartoon has a striking quality of innocence and integrity - he really was trying to popularise modern art.

Disney, too, comes out of this story well, and let's face it, with intellectuals it's his image that needs the boost.  Disney was not, as an artist, anything like the conservative all-American propagandist invented by hostile biographers.  Whatever he was in his life, in his imagination he was sublimely audacious. His attempt to collaborate with Dalí was an avant-garde follow up to the Wagnerian ambition of Fantasia.  Disney's films are full of surrealist moments: he even shared Dalí's obsession with bottoms.  Forests of thorns, skull islands, dancing skeletons and clock-swallowing crocodiles abound in Disney's cinema which goes further than the surrealists ever could in unlocking the dream life of children and adults.

Is it October yet?  To tide us over, here is an obscure and appropriate musical selection drawn from Ellen Foley's 1981 album, Spirit of St. Louis:

Ms. Foley's gentleman companion at the time was Mick Jones of the Clash.  Spirit of St. Louis features numerous contributions from Jones and fellow Clashster Joe Strummer as players, producers and songwriters.  "Salvador Dali" is one of six Strummer/Jones tunes on the record and with its self-consciously surreal lyrics -- "Priests married themselves using Bibles and mirrors" -- is certainly the oddest of the bunch. 

For her part, Ellen Foley contributed vocals to "Hitsville UK" on the Clash's own Sandinista! album, and the Mick Jones-penned hit "Should I Stay or Should I Go" is reputed to have been inspired by his relationship with Foley.  A deliciously eclectic concoction and worth hunting down if one could do so affordably, Spirit of St. Louis is sadly out of print.   A bit more information on the recording can be found at Lost Bands Of The New Wave Era.