All Mozart on the Western Front:
Kenneth Branagh's Magic Flute Receives a US Release

  Beedle dee, dee dee dee... Three ladies!

Seven years after first becoming available in the rest of the world, Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Mozart and Schikaneder's The Magic Flute has at last received a US release, with a selection of theatrical showings over the weekend (the theatrical trailer is below) and a DVD release earlier this week. The film was originally released in Europe in 2006, to coincide with the sestercentennial [250th anniversary] of the composer's birth, but it did not receive US distribution at the time. Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed stumbled upon it in 2008 and bemoaned the absence of a legitimate Stateside version. 

As well he might, because Branagh's Flute, with an English adaptation of the libretto by Stephen Fry, is a lively smile-inducing charmer, broadly and immediately appealing. Greatest opera film ever? Hardly: that would likely be Ingmar Bergman's Flute (once you disqualify Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers). Does the world need another Flute? One can never have enough Flutes, really, and Branagh's offers plentiful justification for the work's enduring popularity.

Abandoning the quasi-Egypt of the original, Branagh has reset the tale in and around the trenches in the latter part of the First World War. This seems less for purposes of commentary on that war, or on War generally - beyond the message that Peace is much to be preferred - than for the purpose of having a distinctive and attractive production design. As in Branagh's Shakespeare films, everyone and everything looks great. Even when they are flooded and muddied during Tamino's and Pamina's testing by water, these are some of the prettiest trenches you have ever seen. (This must have been by choice: Branagh is no stranger to depicting the grit and misery of warfare, as in his Henry V.)

Here, the prince Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) is an army officer—seemingly British, but any one-to-one mapping of historical allies and enemies breaks down almost as quickly as the weather, which bounces from high summer to snowy Yuletide and back, seemingly in a single night. During the bravura overture—built around a marvelous long tracking shot through the trenches, up, over and out to the massed forces—Tamino leads his men across No Man's Land in a frontal assault on the opposing line. His fellows largely felled, he finds himself facing not a fearsome serpent, but a cloud of poison gas. The three Ladies of the Queen of the Night ( arrive as frontline nurses, all in white. The Queen herself (Lyubov Petrova) enters fearsomely atop a tank, backlit and wind-machined. Papageno the bird man (Benjamin Jay Davis) is a weary infantryman, his birds kept to detect gas attacks; he himself is encased in a gas mask when the Ladies seal his overeager mouth. The noble priest Sarastro (René Pape) now presides over a ruined chateau turned field hospital turned temple, gently bringing about the inevitable bonding of Tamino with the Queen and Sarastro's daughter Pamina (Amy Carson) and the more earthy union of Papageno with Papagena (Silvia Moi) while incidentally shedding a bit of Masonic enlightenment on all and sundry.

Dernière sélection Magic FLute Hight def 112
The orchestra is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of James Conlon, whose principal day job is as musical director of Los Angeles Opera. LA Opera-goers know from experience that Conlon is a dab hand at Mozart, and the playing here is uniformly fine.

Flute has been and remains perhaps the most immediately lovable piece in the standard opera repertoire, and the qualities that make it so lovable—a fairy tale love story, plucky comic relief, and the fact that Mozart's score bears pleasure on all its surfaces while revealing ever more pleasures the deeper the listener digs down into it—are all on display. Where Bergman (as one would expect of Bergman) was interested in the Flute's more sublime and philosophical corners, Branagh is out to show us a good time in the company of a masterwork. Mission accomplished.

[This post was written on the basis of a review copy of the DVD provided by the distributor, Revolver Entertainment. As my curiosity about this film had nearly driven me to piracy in the past, I was well pleased to have a legitimate copy tumble my way.]

Drive-In Saturday:
Die Neue Spieluhr
[The New 'Music Box']

Laurel and hardy transfer company

Our theme for today is:  Pianos.  

Pianos, and the women who love them.  

Pianos, and the abuse to which they are prone at the hands of artists.  



In 1932, the first Academy Award for live action short film was presented to The Music Box, in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy struggled to deliver a piano up a very long flight of stairs.  The stairs, all 131 steps of them, still exist in the Silverlake district just outside downtown Los Angeles.  

In a somewhat similar vein, we begin with The Key, a short film by Jeff Desom created to accompany "Children," a piece from Foreign Landscapes, the newest release by Hauschka, aka composer and performer Volker Bertleman of Düsseldorf.  The Key is the story of a hard working young woman and her piano—I think of the piano as having the nickname "Sparky" for reasons that will become clear—as they adventure through an Old World landscape and myriad indignities to meet at last with a reclusive musician (Bertleman) and an O. Henry-style twist of an ending.

Although "Children" is mainly a piece for strings, Hauschka's instrument of choice is the prepared piano.  In live performance, he inserts and removes objects with abandon, modifying his sound palette on the fly.  His method and its result can be seen and heard in a film profile by Andreas Huth: How Much Material is Contained in a Tone?  

Jeff Desom, who directed The Key first drew attention with another Hauschka video, for "Morgenrot" from 2008's Ferndorf.  More of a mood piece than The Key and largely plotless, "Morgenrot" features a falling, flaming piano which we follow as it falls in flames above and into early 20th century Manhattan: King Kong meets Magritte.

Meanwhile, in the Manhattan of today, the Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting a different approach to the prepared piano from the artistic team of Guillermo Calzadilla and Jennifer Allora: Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008).  

In a sort of pianistic body piercing or perhaps a tribute to the late Gordon Matta-Clark, a large circular hole has been carved through the center of a grand piano.  A pianist is inserted, and from within plays an arrangement of Beethoven's setting of the "Ode to Joy," all the while wandering about the gallery space with the instrument.  

Calzadilla remarks at the start of this video introduction that for he and his partner "it is very important that a work does not make sense." Success is his. 


Allora and Calsadilla video via Hyperallergic.


Drive-In Saturday:
Nothing Beats the Great Smell of Brutalism

Lines and testures by Loozrboy

Brutalism: it's the 20th Century architectural style so many Love to Hate. Marked by harsh, unfinished concrete surfaces, windowless or admitting light from Caligarian angles, the style has become associated with cold authority and faceless bureaucracy, perhaps best exemplified by the much loathed City Hall in Boston.

Brutalist buildings have come in handy to suit the needs of a certain sort of filmmaker.  While they tend to be seen now as relics from an unfortunate past, locked into the era of the late 1950s to mid-1960s, Brutalist structures have served well in film as shorthand for The Dystopic Future.

CFCF is the nom sonique for Montreal-based producer/synthesist Michael Silver, whose most recent release,The River, is reported to have been inspired by Werner Herzog's cautionary tale for opera lovers, Fitzcarraldo.  While Herzog is the progenitor of the music on the River, this video for an alternate version of the track "It Was Never Meant to Be This Way" looks to a different film maker: David Cronenberg.  The moody pulse of the piece is accompanied by radically reedited sequences from Stereo, one of Cronenberg's earliest films, made in 1969 and shot in and around the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, then about two years old.  Brutalist unease is on display in abundance. 


Stereo in its original form moves much more slowly than the edited music video version.  It lacks the explicitly nasty physical violence for which Cronenberg is known, but it touches on many of the themes that have marked Cronenberg's work for the rest of his career: mental telepathy, radical sexual tension shading into violent expression, science as at best untrustworthy and often actively malevolent, and so on.

The film purports to document a series of experiments conducted by a Dr. Stringfellow of the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry (CAEE), in which a group of subjects have been surgically and chemically altered to render them telepaths and placed together for observation.  The experiment is not, as you will have guessed, a complete success.  Several subjects commit suicide.  One is reported to have eased his mental tension by drilling a hole in his own skull—an incident that is described but never shown, as it necessarily would have been in any later Cronenberg film. Erotic tension, expressed and otherwise, abounds.  Breasts—healthy, natural, Canadian—are occasionally exposed.  There is a great deal of ambiguity concerning what is actually happening at any given moment, whether events are playing out in chronological sequence, et cetera.  It has its charms, but is ultimately not so interesting to watch as this description may be making it seem.

Cronenberg filmed Stereo without sound, reportedly because his equipment was too noisy to make live recording of dialog practicable.  The film's soundtrack instead consists of a series of voiceovers, purportedly by CAEE scientists, punctuating long silent sequences that often move at the truly glacial pace so beloved of self-consciously serious film makers of the late 1960s. The black and white cinematography—Cronenberg shot and edited the film himself—effectively heightens the off-putting architecture: large physically empty spaces become spiritually empty and more than somewhat threatening in themselves.  Personally, I find the architecture more interesting than anything that is happening in it.

Here, for those who have an hour available, is the complete original version of Stereo:


I have a personal favorite Brutalist building: the University Art Museum [now the Berkeley Art Museum] and Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley. Constructed between 1967 and 1970—and therefore still relatively new when I got there in 1974—the Museum is structured internally as a series of descending terraces, arcing around nautilus-like from top to bottom. The topmost gallery was (and presumably stil is) devoted to displaying the Museum's substantial holdings of the work of abstractionist Hans Hoffman.  The exposed concrete works remarkably well as a display environment, particularly but not exclusively for modern and contemporary work. Natural light penetrates the space well, making it a surprisingly airy pile o' slabs on a sunny day.

Berkeley Art Museum - by Gay Swan

Regrettably, the Museum building has been found to be seismically deficient—something of a concern when a branch of the San Andreas Fault is literally only a few blocks away.  Additional support structures have been added, keeping the place open but somewhat compromising the original design. The current building will, however, be closed in the next few years and the Museum and Film Archive moved to a new location in downtown Berkeley, still to be constructed.

I assume demolition will be the ultimate fate of the original Museum building.  That saddens me, because I am surprisingly sentimental about the place after spending so much time inside it in my Bright College Days. (I say "surprisingly" because Brutalism is an obvious nominee for Least Cuddly Architectural Philosophy Ever.)  Perhaps, after the collections have been moved downtown and before the wrecking ball arrives, some enterprising filmmaker can put the space to use one last time, to preserve its memory.  Or as a cool place in which to whack zombies.


Top Photo: "Lines and Textures," University of Toronto Scarborough, photograph by Flickr user Loozrboy, used under Creative Commons license.

Middle Photo: Postcard image, ca. 1967, of Scarborough College, via Toronto Modern.

Bottom Photo: Interior, Berkeley Art Museum, 2008, photo by Gay Swan, via


Quaint and Curious, Unforgotten "Laura"

You can have your Rod Stewarts and your Barry Manilows: when it comes to aging popstars exploring the Great American Song Book, give me Robert Wyatt.  Here, Wyatt ventures David Raksin and Johnny Mercer's "Laura" (1945), adapted from Raksin's theme music for Otto Preminger's 1944 film.  


Clicking the "MP3" icon at the bottom of the player will download a free copy of the track, which comes from Wyatt's new collaboration with saxophonist/composer Gilad Atzmon and violinist/composer Ros Stephen, For the Ghosts Within.


Wholly irrelevant! Laura provided two Batman television villains in the 1960s: Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze and Vincent Price as Egghead.


Easton's Eden
[William Brittelle's Television Landscape]


I am probably going to have to break up my "favorite music" list this year in to two parts, just to give a fair shot to all the composers and performers who aren't released by New Amsterdam Records.  As matters stand today, New Amsterdam artists have locked up nearly half of any 2010 Top Ten, and threaten to drive the competition into the sea altogether before the year is out. 

There is probably no such thing as a "typical" New Amsterdam release, but William Brittelle's Television Landscape may be the least typical of them all.  The emphasis at New Amsterdam—of which Brittelle is one of the three founders—is generally on contemporary music in a neo-alt-counter-nu 'classical' vein, but Television Landscape mines a different tradition: grand lush ambitious orchestral prog-pop ca. 1980, the product as it were of some mythical supersession involving Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa (in his guise as serious composer and virtuoso guitarist).  

With the exception of one guitar solo, Television Landscape is fully composed and notated, sung by Brittelle and played by him with a contempo orchestra featuring members of a number of New York's best new music ensembles, such as NOW EnsembleSo Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.  There is even, inevitably, a children's chorus.

Television Landscape
At one of Landscape's focal points lies "Sheena Easton."  The song that may or may not be about the Scottish singer of the same name, seen posing cheekily atop this post.  Probably both.  At his site, a dove on fire, Brittelle writes that the real Easton "was en vogue and dating prince when i first started listening to the radio.  her audrey hepburn-like looks and eighties edge will forever be fodder for nostalgia in my mind."

The Sheena of the song is the unattainable beloved, the girl outside whose house our hero waits in the cold, among the pianos and strings and shimmering guitars—NOW Ensemble guitarist Marc Dancigers is MVP among this album's players—realizing that he is "just a man of flesh and bone," that "the truth is not kind" and that, Sheena, "you are the truth." In the end, he leaves for warmer climes as all the children sing that he is "goin' off to Miami, Sheena!"  It is just that sort of song.  It is the richest finest fluff, and it will make your teeth hurt, and you will like it.  

William Brittelle - 'Sheena Easton'

All of Television Landscape can be streamed from its page on the New Amsterdam Records website where, in exchange for a wee bit o' information, you may also download the sparkly autotuned travelogue, "Dunes of Vermillion."  Hello!

William Brittelle - 'Dunes of Vermillion'

The New York Times profiled Brittelle in July, including the remarkable story of the loss and return of his ability to sing.  The composer also sat for an illuminating interview for eMusic.


Among Sheena Easton's own distinctions is having been the first James Bond theme-song-singer to appear in the title sequence in which said theme song is sung.  The film is For Your Eyes Only (1981), one of the better regarded of the Roger Moore Bonds, and the titles naturally are the work of Maurice Binder:


Everybody Give It Up for . . . Giving Up!

You declared you would be three inches taller
    You only became what we made you.
Thought you were chasing a destiny calling
    You only earned what we gave you.
You fell and cried as our people were starving,
    Now you know that we blame you.
You tried to walk on the trail we were carving,
    Now you know that we framed you.

— from "The Punk and the Godfather" (P. Townsend) 
    Quadrophenia (1973)

"The Punk and the Godfather" (or "The Punk Meets the Godfather," as it was titled on the U.S. release) appears at the end of what was, in the days of vinyl, Side 1 out of 4 on The Who's Quadrophenia.  In the arc of the album's story, it deals with the young protagonist, Jimmy, attending a concert headlined by . . . The Who.  Pete Townsend, ever one of the more self-aware of songwriters, took the occasion to reflect on the fundamental oddness of the relation between rock mega-star and audience, the heightened expectations each holds for the other, and the inevitability that those expectations will be unfulfilled.

It is perhaps the most "Who-ish" of Who songs, trotting out virtually every signature trick in the band's arsenal: the windmill guitar chords, the barely-controlled spatter of the not-yet-late Keith Moon's drum kit, Roger Daltrey's mighty howl offset by Townsend's limpid vocal on the bridge, even a self-mocking look back at "My Generation."  (That generation was, of course, Townsend's own: the immediate post-war first wave of the Baby Boom, the generation that made the '60s . . . and that, today, is well into its 60s.)

Disappointed expectation is the order of the day as U.S. mid-Term elections approach.  Incumbents generally are discovering that their constituents are not so Into Them as they once were, having been let down a few dozen times too many.  The President, while not facing reelection himself, is a particular target for the disgruntlement of one and all, having gotten the job in the first place by setting himself up as the very embodiment of heightened Expectation, positive Change, and boundless Hope.  As he zooms about the country in "campaign mode," it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the same rhythms and phrasings and cadences as sounded so genuinely vigorous and inspiring to so many only two years ago now come across as merely shout-y, almost as hard to buy into as a hearty "Helloooo, Cleveland!"

The President—a man at least as self-aware, I think, as Pete Townsend—surely knows that he is himself in large part to blame for all this disappointment: there are many important promises he offered up that he was actually in a position to deliver over these past two years, obstructionist legislators notwithstanding, but that he did not.  (I'm thinking here in particular of my own pet peeves concerning the President's ghastly record on civil liberties, but you can supply your own examples.)  But the fault, Horatio, lies not alone in our public figures.  It lies within ourselves, as well, and within the lies we tell ourselves.  Our expectations would not be so frequently disappointed but for our own folly in having many of those expectations in the first place.  

H. L. Mencken explained it all some 90 years ago in the opening paragraphs of his aptly titled essay, "The Cult of Hope," collected in the Second Series of his Prejudices:

    Of all the sentimental errors which reign and rage in this incomparable republic, the worst, I often suspect, is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform.  Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: 'The fellow condemns without offering anything better.  Why tear down without building up?'  So coo and snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue.  The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain.  It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not 'constructive'—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of the intelligence.

    In this protest and demand, of course, there is nothing but a hollow sound of words—the empty babbling of men who constantly mistake their mere feelings for thoughts.  The truth is that criticism, if it were thus confined to the proposing of alternative schemes, would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole object of the critical process is to demonstrate it.  The poet, if the victim is a poet, is simply one as bare of gifts as a herring is of fur: no conceivable suggestion will ever make him write actual poetry.  The cancer cure, if one turns to popular swindles, is wholly and absolutely without merit—and the fact that medicine offers us no better cure does not dilute its bogusness in the slightest.  And the plan of reform, in politics, sociology or whatnot, is simply beyond the pale of reason; no change in it or improvement of it will ever make it achieve the downright impossible.  Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of government reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won't and don't work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment.  That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble.  To tackle them with a proof of insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile.

Remnants of hope by jonathan mcintosh

So, as we trundle along in our troubled age, or in any age, we may not be any happier for it, but the best and most clear-eyed policy must be to break the false connection between Hope and Expectation.  Hope, for all that it may comfort us, ofttimes must be consigned to the land of dreamy dreams, while expectations should recognize what can be rather than what we merely wish to be.  

Or, as Mel Brooks advised in The Twelve Chairs, "Hope for the best, expect the worst."

Don't forget to vote, citizens, and try to remind those that you elect that what they cannot in fact make better—a vastly broader category than the typical politician, or typical constituent, is typically prepared to recognize—is probably best left alone.


Video: The Who, at the Cow Palace, San Francisco, Nov. 20, 1973, seemingly from the archives of Bill Graham Productions.  As a bonus, here is audio of the song from the band's show in Maryland sixteen days later—my 18th birthday, as it happens.

Photo: "Remnants of Hope" by Flickr user jonathan mcintosh, used under Creative Commons license.


Drive-In Saturday:
Antony and Destiny by the Lake

Upon hearing the singing voice of Antony Hegarty listeners tend to divide in to two classes.  There are those who find it a bit of a wonderment and who never want it to end, and there are those who, after 15-20 seconds, never ever ever want to hear that voice again.  I am in the first class. Your own results may vary.

As an Antony and the Johnsons enthusiast, I am looking forward to next week's release of Swanlights.   Until October 12, the album is streaming on NPR, and a listen there reveals that its songs include "The Great White Ocean."  That song has actually been around since at least 2008, when it was used as the soundtrack to an animated short by James Lima, "Fallen Shadows," created for the purpose of selling Prada handbags and apparel.  In the film, a woman's shadow wanders about in a vaguely surreal cityscape, musing on life and memory while Antony warbles mystically.   (A large Quicktime version is viewable here.)

"Fallen Shadows" is somewhat obviously influenced by painters such as Di Chirico and Dalí, and some sequences -- the dancing compass in particular -- seem to derive directly from "Destino," Salvador Dalí's uncompleted project for Walt Disney.  Dalí worked on storyboarding "Destino" at the Disney studios in 1945 and 1946, but only about 18 seconds were actually animated before production was stopped.  Eventually, at the instance of Roy Disney, contemporary Disney animators pieced together a version of the film that saw release in 2003.  Compare and contrast:

Antony and the Johnsons' music frequently walks the imagined line between popular and "serious" forms, and is oft inclined to slip toward the realm of the art song.  An example of that tendency is "The Lake," a setting of a lesser-known poem of Edgar Allan Poe, released on an EP in 2004.

Animator Adam Schechter created a video for the song.  Originally unofficial, the piece was subsequently endorsed by Antony and the Johnsons and now receives a link on the group's official site.  The video bears no apparent relationship to the song or to the poem, and is instead a strange and somewhat incoherent tale of the death (?) and transfiguration (?) of a feudal fox.  Or something of the sort.  In any case, you may view it below.  Poe's original text is beneath the video, for those inclined to read along and to take note of the liberties and variants in Antony's adaptation.

The Lake; To --
    Edgar Allan Poe, 1827 

In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less-
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.

But when the Night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody-
Then-ah then I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.

Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight-
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define-
Nor Love-although the Love were thine.

Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining-
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.


Drive-In Saturday: Ernst Enough For Us

I made my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago on a blazingly humid July day some twenty-plus years ago. The Institute is possessed of an admirably effective air conditioning system.  It is also possessed of one of the finest collections on the planet, and few stretches of time have had such an impact on my own mental life as have the four or five hours I spent inside the Institute that day.  

It was a case of one grand discovery after another: known images seen in proper size and context for the first time (Seurat, the room full of Monet haystacks, the parade of 20th century greats), fresh/new appreciations of entire periods (mmmm, more Medieval altar pieces please), and unexpected new discoveries (Joseph Cornell boxes!  Rossetti's Beata Beatrix!).  

Somewhere in the middle of it all, not the high point of the day but nonetheless memorable, I had my first extended run in with the collages of Max Ernst.

Ernst - musee dorsay

Ernst was more or less Present at the Creation of the Dada and Surrealist movements.  In the 1920s and 1930s, he began creating surreal collages from bits and pieces of illustrations from 19th century novels and encyclopedias.  (A before and after illustration of Ernst's process can be found in this essay from the Musee D'Orsay.)  The results were collected and reproduced in a series of novels-in-pictures, culminating in Une Semaine De Bonte (A Week of Kindness).  China Miéville included Semaine De Bonte on his list of the top 10 weird fiction books, calling it "[t]he best comic strip of all time. The best illustrated book of all time. The best sustained work of surrealism of all time."

This video collects the Semaine collages in sequence, accompanied by the appropriately fantastical music of Krzysztof Penderecki.

Ernst's collages have been enormously influential, combining as they do the staid appearance of Victoriana with the trappings of dream and hysteria.  Donald Barthelme combined Ernstian illustration with his typically gnomic text in a number of stories.  (Scroll down in this article for a pair of exemplars.)  The entire Steampunk genre owes Ernst an unacknowledged debt.  What Ernst did with razors and glue, anyone can (and seemingly everyone does) now do with Photoshop.  

Below are two recent music videos in which the aura of the Semaine is on full display.  The first, for "Flush" by Loser, is animated by Tom Werber and draws on illustrations not by Ernst, but by Ernst emulator Dan Hillier.  The song's not all that, but the video comes with ample quantities of tentacles and guest appearances by a heavily armed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which adds a certain Terry Gilliam quality to the proceedings:

More purely Ernstian is our next offering, a video by Stefan Nadelman for "I Say Fever" by Ramona Falls.  (Ramona Falls is a project of Brent Knopf of the band Menomena.  Previously, I embedded Ramona Falls's other video, "Russia," here.)  

"I Say Fever" transports the Ernst aura from the mean streets of Paris to the American frontier.  The requisite sexual hysteria, lopping of heads, and displays of hidden animal natures have all made the long journey with no loss of potency.  

Apropos of nothing: Is it just me, or is that Richard Wagner lounging at left below?  Whoever it is, I predict that it does not end well for him or for his saloon companions.


Drive-In Saturday:
Talkin' 'Bout Yer Evolution

The street artist/film maker known as BLU returns with "BIG BANG BIG BOOM," a ten-minute epic of handcrafted "frame by frame animation painted on walls, cars and other found objects."   

The ascent and potential eventual decline of life on Earth, in all its multiplicity and oddity, is the topic at hand.

This film was made in Europe -- Bologna? -- and the sheer variety of urban sites, streets and surfaces that the artist was able to use is impressive. Had this project been attempted in Los Angeles, odds are that the World would end not with a bang, but a restraining order.  Or worse.


More of BLU's work in this medium can be found on the video pages of his website or via the artist's Vimeo pages.

This fool last looked at animated variations of the origin of species on the occasion of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.


Tableaux Vivants? "Art!"
Tableaux Vivants It? "Now!"

Artaud tableau 

This is the first weekend of the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California.  First staged in 1933, the Pageant is an institution unique, I think, to Southern California: a nighttime spectacle in which performers stand very very still pretending to be more or less Famous Works of Art.  The official Pageant trailer gives some idea of the elaborate, volunteer-driven process:

As with the Tournament of Roses parade to its north in Pasadena, the Pageant of the Masters adopts a new theme each year.  I am annually disappointed when the Tournament of Roses selects another of its resolutely upbeat themes.  Must we always begin the year with "Joyful Childhood," or "Candy-Coated Memories," or "Entertainment is Nifty"? Just once, of a New Year's morning, I would like to see a flower-bedecked flotilla depicting something a bit more bracing: "Man's Fate", perhaps, or "Guilt and Revenge."

With the full range of World Art History to draw upon, the Pageant of the Masters can at least glance in the general direction of the Dark and Somewhat Difficult from time to time.  As seen in the trailer above, the Pageant has incorporated Modern and Contemporary art, including Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon.  Still, the Pageant like the Tournament tends to accentuate the positive in selecting its themes.  This year's theme is "Eat, Drink and Be Merry," and the nearest the selected works get to the dark side of those pursuits is in a sequence of three images drawn from the Great Depression and the public art projects of the WPA.


In the Pageant of the Masters each work of art is translated from its original medium -- paint, marble, fabric, gold -- into that most curious genre, the tableau vivant, the "living picture" in which the inert are replaced by the vivid doing their best to appear to be inert.  Let us pause now to think some random thoughts about les tableaux vivants.


Ceci n'est pas un tableau vivant:


As with Magritte's pipe-that-isn't, this is merely a picture of a tableau vivant.  An actual tableau vivant requires actual people pretending not to be such, depicting scenes that are not actually occurring before you -- or occurring at all, since they are standing still.  A film or photo of such a tableau is at least two moves removed from reality.  Writing about or describing tableaux vivants in words takes us even further away, wandering the forest of signs or, at the very least, lost in the metaphysical weeds.  Cf., on tableaux in literature, the blog entry linked in the photo credit at the end of this post.


If a tableau vivant involves people pretending to be arts and crafts, I suppose the opposite would be arts and crafts pretending to be, or becoming, people.  The sculpture Galatea -- of whom the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme is currently on display at the Getty -- is a famous example, as is Pinocchio.  Medusa, in the Heroic Age of Greece, turned her beholders into tableaux, albeit not precisely vivants.  It's complicated once you start pondering the variations.


Regardless of theme, the Pageant of the Masters always ends with an enactment of the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci.  The one exception to the rule, apparently, was a year themed around the work of Salvador Dali, in which Dali's version of the Supper provided the final tableau.  

While Leonardo's Supper is presented in Laguna Beach with all due reverence for the work and its subject, it has also been favored by certain film directors as a target or vehicle for more satirical or subversive tableaux.  Luis Buñuel infamously restaged it with beggars and thieves in the climax of Viridiana, earning himself official Vatican condemnation as a blasphemer.  Only slightly less well known: Robert Altman incorporated the image in to M*A*S*H, during the farewell meal prior to the intended suicide of the company dentist, Capt. Walter "Painless" Waldowski.  That scene also features the film's theme song, Johnny Mandel's "Suicide is Painless."  Perhaps because of his associations with blasphemy, suicide and particularly tableaux vivants, Painless is one of the few principal characters in the film who did not later appear in the long-running television version of M*A*S*H.

In the music video below -- "70 Million" by Hold Your Horses! -- the Last Supper is the jumping off point for a witty series of PotM-style tableaux of famous paintings:

Now I will confess it: in the more than three decades I have lived in Southern California, I have never attended the Pageant of the Masters and I do not expect that I ever will.  My principal excuse for bringing up the Pageant at all was as a roundabout way to drop some non sequiturs on tableaux vivants, and as an excuse to share that video, which tickles me more than somewhat.


Photo (top): "La Séduction Intéressée", one of six tableaux vivants created by Antonin Artaud to illustrate incidents in The Monk by Matthew Lewis.  Via A Journey Round My Skull.

Photo (lower): A tableau depicting Jeanne d'Arc, found on the blog At the Lighthouse accompanying quite an interesting post on "The Tableau Vivant in Literature".