Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Self-consciousness is exhausting. It’s such a drain to have to maintain one’s personality or to display a situationally appropriate persona as one moves from place to place over the course of a day. This is why we cherish those private places where we can let our guard down and especially those rare public places in which we feel comfortable enough to do so. Iris Gottlieb’s earnest pen-and-ink drawings of everyday objects, currently on view at Durham’s Carrack Modern Art Gallery through Feb. 9, provide just such an art experience.
Gottlieb’s hand possesses a couple of Edward Gorey’s digits next to a pair of fingers from a scientific draftsman. One of the three notebooks on display (which you’re thankfully allowed to flip through) contains page after page of carefully labeled protozoa. Gottlieb’s work could just as easily be found on pages of a biology textbook as in a gallery.
And there’s sleight of hand, too. Textbooks aren’t allowed to have Gottlieb’s sense of humor, which lacks even the slightest shade of Gorey’s gothic darkness. Even in “Windowsill Death,” a drawing of an expired fly on its back, tragedy is absent.
In recent years, I've become fascinated with animated foreign films for kids. There's so much good stuff out there — some recent examples include The Secret of Kells (Ireland), Chico & Rita (Spain), A Cat in Paris (France) and Ponyo (Japan). These are movies you're unlikely to see in theaters, so you have to track them down on DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.
While I certainly appreciate the artfulness of these films — each has earned various world cinema awards — I have very practical reasons for keeping them on the shelf. I have two young kids at home and if I have to watch one more goddamn Shrek movie I'm going to kill myself.
Tales of the Night — the enchanting French animated feature new to DVD and Blu-ray this week — is the kind of children's movie you can feel good about putting into rotation. It's the latest project from French animation artist Michel Ocelot and it will provide you and the kids with some images you've never seen before.
Ocelet has worked in a variety of media, but he's most known for his "shadow play" style of silhouettes set against intricate and impossibly colorful backgrounds. The six stories in Tales of the Night have been compiled from previous television specials, anthologized in 2011 for European cinema presentation.
End of Watch — the intense police drama new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — truly is a different kind of cop movie.
I know, I know. They all say that. But director David Ayer (writer of Training Day) executes an interesting game plan here and gets big results by going small. He narrows the focus radically by following two L.A. cops and their day-to-day experiences in a notorious South Central neighborhood.
Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Brian Taylor, a young patrolman for whom the term "gung-ho" was apparently invented. As stated in the film's opening voiceover, Taylor fully believes in the concept of the thin blue line: That a brotherhood of good guys with badges is the only thing standing between a safe society and a murderous criminal class of bad guys.
Taylor's on-the-job experience seems to support this theory. Along with partner Miguel Zavala (Micheal Pena, Tower Heist), Taylor encounters scene after harrowing scene of violence and despair on the streets of South Central. When the partners break down one too many doors, they're targeted for bloody elimination by a terrifying Mexican drug cartel.
The film's narrative twist is that Taylor carries a hand-held digital camera with him on duty, as part of a community college project. Director Ayer uses the digital camera — plus lapel cameras and squad car dash cams — to deliver much of the film in dizzying first-person close-up. In fact, as the extras reveal, the original plan was to film the entire movie in the "found footage" style so fashionable of late.
Ayer eventually chose to integrate traditional cinematography as well. Good call. The found footage gimmick is too conspicuous and too implausible — why would the gangbangers have cameras? End of Watch is a good movie, but it could have been even better film if Ayer had discarded the shaky cam entirely. You don't need a reason to use weird, tight camera angles. Spike Lee does it all the time.
North Carolina Theatre’s Nerds: A New Musical Comedy, running from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is the story of Bill Gates (Stanley Bahorek) and Steve Jobs (Darren Ritchie), the two men most celebrated for the rise of personal computing.
“We thought it would be fun to watch nerds singing,” says co-writer Jordan Allen-Dutton. “In any type of musical you have to believe that someone at anytime can burst into song. And in order to do that, you need characters who are really over-the-top, bigger-than-life characters. And these two guys fit that model.”
Allen-Duton, along with writing partner Erik Weiner and composer Hal Goldberg, have crafted the story of how two lowly nerds rose to the highest levels of wealth and success. The heart of the show, however, is Gates and Jobs’s personal rivalry. In real life, their companies, Microsoft and Apple, were fierce competitors for decades, and the play makes this competition personal: Gates the insecure geek, Jobs the brash stoner, both trying to overcome the social limitations of being a “nerd.”
The celebration of nerds in all their forms is a major theme of the show. Producer Carl Levin notes that nerds have transformed from being social outcasts to leaders of the world. “They’ve evolved. I think now being a nerd is cool.”
Covering the years 1975 to the present, the show also uses the music as a way of exploring history and the characters. “We define Jobs as a rock star in a lot of ways,” says Goldberg, “so that comes through musically. Whereas Gates, he starts off in more of a traditional musical theater way, which is nerdy.”
At rehearsal, it takes no time at all to fix the LED screens. Such technology, of course, is possible thanks to the show’s real-life subjects. “I think the show is really a celebration of American ingenuity and innovation,” says Allen-Dutton.
“Over those 30 years that the show focuses on, we went from seeing a computer that was the size of a city block to a computer in everyone’s pockets at all times. And that was a lightning speed transformation.”
The NC Theatre production is the very first time Nerds is being performed for an audience. After being given a chance to workshop and premiere in Raleigh, Levin hopes to bring the show to New York and, eventually, the world.
“People in Europe and Japan, they really know Bill Gates and they know about Steve Jobs.”
It surely can't hurt the show's chances, then, that nerds are a universal subject.
For several years now, I've held the considered opinion that Jessica Chastain is the single most beautiful creature on the planet. Now I know the truth: Jessica Chastain dressed as a goth rocker is the most beautiful creature on the planet.
Chastain's lovely performance regularly elevates Mama, the very effective new paranormal thriller from producer Guillermo del Toro and first-time director Andrés Muschietti. Fans of del Toro's previous horror movies (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) will recognize his sensibilities all over this thing.
The film opens with a disturbing scene. A distraught father, who has apparently just killed his wife, speeds off in a car with his two little girls. The car crashes and dad leads the kids to a creepy old cabin in the woods. Some very scary things happen, dad doesn't make it, then we flash forward five years.
The girls, now age nine and six, are finally discovered — still in the cabin and living like feral cats. Actually, the way they skitter around on all fours is more insect-like and this is the first of the many, many disquieting images director Muschietti has in store.
The girls are eventually adopted by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime Lannister to you Game of Thrones fans). Lucas' girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) isn't crazy about raising two untamed forest kids. But she becomes more agreeable when the local research institute offers a beautiful rent-free home, in exchange for permission to study the kids.
It soon becomes apparent that the little girls have brought a companion with them, a maternal yet decidedly terrifying presence from the other side of the grave. This is Mama. She's been looking after the kids for years and is none too happy with the new custody situation.
Family lore holds that my mom and dad met as teenagers during Detroit's heyday in the 1950s, when the Motor City was an enviable American metropolis. Mom worked at a diner downtown. Dad raced hot rods up Telegraph Road. She calmed his ass down and we settled in the suburbs, six blocks from Detroit's famous 8 Mile Road.
My dad worked as a truck driver in the city for the next 40 years, often shuttling parts between auto plants. A dedicated union man, he clocked overtime pretty much every day and made enough money so that my mom didn't have to work and us kids all had the chance to go to college.
I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but my family was among the last beneficiaries of Detroit's Golden Age.
Detropia — the darkly fascinating documentary new this week to DVD, digital and cable VOD — poses the simple, awful question: What happened? Over the last several decades, Detroit's economic collapse has been so severe it's practically science fiction. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit now has half the median income and three times the poverty rate of the nation as a whole. The average home price? $9,562. In the national and international consciousness, the city of Detroit is an object of pity — too sad to even be a punchline anymore.
Detropia profiles an assortment of Detroit natives and newcomers and finds episodes both despairing and cautiously hopeful. But that shell-shocked central question — what happened? — is always pulsing underneath.
When it comes to good art, sometimes late is better than never. In August of last year I wrote about Volume I of Project 35, Independent Curators International (ICI)’s collection of new video works, 35 artists chosen by 35 curators from all over the globe, housed in a small dark room at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The series offers the chance to witness the great equalizing medium of video and its myriad expressive possibilities as taken up by a spectrum of artists from around the world, all within the confines of a single venue. Last Saturday, I returned to the small dark room at the NCMA just in time to catch the end of Volume II, which closes on Jan. 13. I came away invigorated but challenged, with the distinct sense that I’d been exposed to an array of new modalities of expression.
Daniela Paes Leäs is a Portuguese artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. Her video, "The Freedom to Question" (2008) is a meditation on the politics of hospitality in the relationship between sponsor and sponsored in the arts. It centers on Igor Dobricic, a programming administrator for the European Cultural Foundation and Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk who swapped offices every Wednesday for six months in 2007.
With the exception of a very brief glimpse of them at the start of the piece, the video’s protagonists are represented solely by their words, scrolling texts of their email correspondence. The piece includes occasional voiceover narration by Dobricic and van Heeswijk and by Canadian performer Tabitha Kane, who serves as a surrogate for Leäs, musing on her role as witness/observer. Leäs’s first-person commentaries blur the boundaries between artist and camera (“I” and “eye”) as it wanders through empty sterile office interiors past desks piled high with boxes and papers, gliding over books imprinted with salient words such as “gift,” “guide,” and “dialogues.”
The scrolling texts make it difficult to process the heady terms that are tossed back and forth by the two arts professionals. Phrases such as “Positive disposition of a negative condition (difference)” are challenging enough to parse in the relative stasis of the printed page or computer screen. Trying to manage them as they scroll past, often competing with voiceovers and other soundtrack elements, is close to impossible. The cumulative experience of "The Freedom to Question" becomes by necessity a kind of sonic/ visual abstraction, seeding our psyches with shards of word clusters and concepts that might subtly get us thinking about the dynamics between funder and funded in the arts.
Eschewing the standard video aspect ratio, "Man with Cockerell II" (2004) by New Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka is framed vertically against a ground of black and comes off as an ink painting of the ocean that has come alive. From the video’s first moment, its stained, distressed surface is activated with rippling waters as a bare-armed man glides into frame grasping a large rooster to his chest. He raises his head just in time to stare directly into the camera as he fades swiftly into the mist. A bell clamors as gulls flap energetically across the top of the frame. Amid further sounds of clanking and crashing, the man reappears in the center of the frame clutching the rooster, which now begins to writhe, destabilizing the man, who stumbles out of frame as the bird escapes. Thus begins the set of binary actions that repeat throughout "Man with Cockerell II," establishing a philosophical construct: sometimes you keep the bird, sometimes you don’t.
The video’s absurdly cacophonous soundtrack, with its uproarious clanking, cranking, creaking and all manner of other madcap sonorities could have been lifted from a Laurel and Hardy film, a somehow perfect foil to the peaceful through-line of Kaleka’s video, which is the continual flow of the waters, eventually brought into welcome sync with actual water sounds toward the end, followed by blissful silence.
"Samsara" is a Sanskrit term that suggests the endless flow of life and death in the material world. It's a core concept in Indian spiritual traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Samsara is the trap of the waking world, from which we can only awaken through enlightenment.
The film Samsara, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, is an attempt to evoke this cosmic concept by way of music and motion picture images. It's a non-narrative documentary, a visual essay, or — in the words of director Ron Fricke — "a guided mediation on the cycle of birth, death and re-birth."
But, hey — don't let that scare you off. Above all, Samsara is a visual wonder with world-class cinematography that rivals anything bankrolled by the BBC, National Geographic or Discovery. Director Fricke has been working in this vein for a while and he knows what he's doing. He directed the similarly-themed Baraka in 1992, and before that was cinematographer for director Godfrey Reggio's pioneering Koyaanisqatsi in 1982.
The film begins with Tibetan Buddhist monks assembling a sand mandala, an intricately designed abstract pattern created over the course of days, grain by grain (literally). The sand mandala ritual is intended to suggest the world's transience and impermanence, and the rest of the film can be considered an expansion on that notion.
In the film business, Fricke is an acknowledged master of time-lapse photography and much of Samsara is built around this technique, now familiar from a thousand nature documentaries. Here, Fricke takes things to another level. As he films a particular scene — carved stone faces in the desert, say — he moves his camera in tiny increments over 12 or 24 hours. The result is a 10-second sequence in which the camera appears to be meandering through the scene at a tourist's pace. But clouds speed overhead, stars wheel in the night, and those ancient stone faces stay utterly still and serene.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a sequence like that is worth a thousand sutras. Fricke pulls off similar magic tricks throughout the film, juxtaposing images and using his cinematic toolbox to have his way with time and space.
As revealed in the DVD extras, Samsara was shot in the 70-mm film format over the course of four years, in 25 different countries, by Fricke and a four-man skeleton crew. The score — by composers Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci — moves from blissed-out ambiance to stately cathedral organ to hard-thumping EDM.
Scenes and images flow into one another in dreamlike fashion. Drifting dunes of sand give way to the pulsing red highway arteries of the city. A sequence of toddlers getting baptized flips to Asian street punks in Elvis pompadours. An opera in Milan is time-lapsed into five seconds: People file in, some other people move around a stage, people file back out. It sounds surreal, but it's not quite that. There's rhyme to the sequencing, if not reason.
If you’re not a Deborah Cox fan, you’ll probably become one if you see Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week. The Grammy-nominated R&B star pushes the rest of the cast out of the way with her round, rich voice and nuanced singing. It’s too bad this show doesn’t keep her onstage enough.
Cox, as hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Lucy Harris, belts bawdy brothel songs like “Bring On the Men” as well as she croons moony ballads “Such as Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” The same can’t be said for co-star Constantine Maroulis, who’s only up to the Hyde half of his dual role of innovative, headstrong Doctor Jekyll and lunatic murderer Edward Hyde.
Maroulis moves comfortably in Hyde’s muscular stalk, and Hyde’s vocal turns fit the Rock of Ages star’s skills perfectly. But his Jekyll is stiff and hesitantly voiced, suffering from the restraint he applies in order to contrast the character with Hyde. It’s a little silly, also, that director Jeff Calhoun makes Maroulis take his glasses on and off and put his flowing black hair in and out of a ponytail with each of his character’s transformations. We get it.
Calhoun’s choreography doesn’t help Maroulis either. The stagehands, in the process of shuttling various set pieces on and off, exhibited more interesting movement than the stars. Featuring almost constant video projection onto parts of the set, Tobin Ost’s scenic design was busy but effective. In the song “Confrontation” in one of the play’s last scenes, Jekyll argues with a gigantic video Hyde who’s periodically distorted and washed by waves of fire as if a pop metal show had broken out.