Monday, July 31, 2006

Film Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Tonight was the last of three consecutive Mondays of a Japanese film series at Manbites Dog Theater. At 7p, they showed Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980), followed by Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000).

I enjoyed Kagemusha, though I thought that, at a minute shy of 3 hours duration, it could have been shorter. It takes place in feudal 16th century Japan, and I believe is based on a true story of Lord Shingen and the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Shingen dies and his inner circle follows his deathwish of not letting his enemies know for three years. The advisors find a poor thief lookalike, who is able to fool spies and even Shingen's grandson.

This grandson, perhaps five years old, is to be the next leader; Shingen has skipped his son in the succession. In the epic story, we see large armies consolidating and enlarging their realms. Obvious misgivings and anger of the skipped son play out. Court intrigue and situations (including making a decision on going to war and entertaining mistresses) that could uncover the thief keep the film interesting.

I left early on in Battle Royale. Similar to Lord of the Flies, high school children are whisked away to brutality on a deserted island. They have the horrendous game of survival - they must kill or be killed. If, after three days, more than one person survives, they all will be killed. I don't have the constitution to see such violence, so didn't stick around past the first 20 or 30 minutes.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Richmond Vegetarian Festival

I was a speaker at the fourth annual Richmond Vegetarian Festival in Richmond, VA, a little under 3 hours by car away. I gave my Why Vegetarian presentation and had a fairly full tent of good listeners and questioners. I was amazed at the size of this event - there were more than 3000 attendees and more vendor booths than we had a chance to visit! We discovered a new bagel company whose bagels we loved and purchased to bring home - Agnes' Very Very Bake'mmm organic vegan bagels. It was delightful to spend time and have dinner with another speaker, my friend Harold Brown from Farm Sanctuary, who gave the primary talk.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Concert: KC and the Sunshine Band / Tavares / Gloria Gaynor / Sister Sledge

Back in the late 70s, I enjoyed a few songs by KC and the Sunshine Band - they have a good beat though they have fairly silly lyrics. Songs of theirs that I particularly like include Keep it Coming Love and Please Don't Go. KC coincidentally lives, I found out, nearby in Chapel Hill - he visited the Rice Diet Program in Durham some years ago and decided to stay in the area.

Anyway, KC is on this "KC's Boogie Blast" tour, and we went with a few friends to see it at Raleigh's Alltel Pavillion. I don't like KC enough to see him on his own, but he is touring with a group I like much more, Tavares, especially their songs Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel, their (and the Bee Gees' as well) version of More than a Woman, and It Only Takes a Minute (To Fall in Love). A few years ago, I bought one of their greatest hits compilations, and came to enjoy a number of their other songs, such as Don't Take Away the Music and Whodunit.

Gloria Gaynor, famous for Never Can Say Good-Bye, Last Night, and I Will Survive, is part of the tour, and also Sister Sledge, with really just the one hit We Are Family. So the night promised a fun harkening back to the disco era with dancing. We had a fun time, though I wish that Tavares had more time to play. The concert was orchestrated by KC, and the bands each played a few songs at a time.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Film Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, 2006)

Tonight my wife and I saw Wordplay, a documentary about crossword puzzles, focusing on Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times' crossword and NPR's puzzle master. It was about an hour and a half long, and describes puzzle creators who submit their puzzles to Will. He could create the puzzles in each day's New York Times, but enjoys receiving a diversity of contributions which he selects and edits, for example to conform to the paper's style and difficulty by day (a "Monday" puzzle is the easiest and each day thereafter gets more difficult, I believe). He also creates, as I recall, about half of the crosswords published.

The film has discussions with a number of celebrities about their interest, skill, and habit of doing crosswords. President Bill Clinton, television humorist Jon Stewart, master documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, baseball player Mike Mussina, retired Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, and singers Indigo Girls all appear in interesting discussions several times in the film.

One particularly interesting story that both Bob Dole and Bill Clinton told was the Times puzzle, on the eve of the 1996 presidential election which pitted them against each other. That puzzle included a 2-word horizontal solution to something like "tomorrow's headline" - and the puzzle worked with phrases like either "BOBDOLEWINS" or "CLINTONWINS" - with all intersecting vertical words having solutions with corresponding letters from either choice! (I found a site where you can read more about this and which allows you to do the puzzle after installing some software.)

The hilight of the film is the annual March Crossword Tournament held in Stamford, Connecticut, where a few hundreds compete every year. Several are interviewed, and we witness the weekend long results as they unfold. It's amazing to see how fast these experts are at solving the puzzles, and finding some words I have not heard of!

I have never been good at crosswords, though I think I am reasonably literate and at problem solving. Visiting online crosswords at USA Today (which gives immediate feedback when an incorrect letter is typed) and tonight after the film confirmed my poor skills. I also found an amateurish crossword maker.

The film was well made and fun to watch. In addition to reading about the film on imdb, one can also visit the official film website.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Film Ugetsu monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

I returned to Manbites Dog Theater tonight for the second night of the Japanese film festival after seeing one of my favorite films, Tokyo Story, at the first night of the festival. I saw Ugetsu monogatari at 7:30p; it was a film about two couples who fought for their survival during wartime in feudal Japan. One of the husbands has his heart set at becoming a samurai at almost any cost, and the other, a potter (and farmer, as I recall) seems to lose his sense of balance in life and care for his family in a sudden material interest in making and selling as much pottery as possible. The story is a morality tale with obvious messages, but presented in an unpredictable story.

We were next to see Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003) around 9:30, a modern Japanese film in which "a female assassin is charged with bringing peace to war-torn Japan". The film ended up not being available, so Versus (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000) was shown. I suspected I wouldn't like this film with zombies and underworld figures duking it out, in spite of its being supposedly comic and intentionally unrealistic - and I was right. I can't stomach such violence so left about half an hour into the film.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

American Dance Festival: Noche Flamenca & Soledad Barrio

The CompanyIt's sad to think that tonight was the last night of ADF this season! It seemed to go by way too fast. I was privileged to see every performer, from Paul Taylor on the 2nd day of ADF through Spanish flamenco (alternatively spelled flamenca, I believe) tonight, with the exception of Emanuel Gat Dance (which again used ADF to premiere a work, this time K626 ["10 women, 45 minutes of music, 20 minutes of silence, 65 minutes of dance"] and last year Rite of Spring), Shen Wei Dance Arts, and Doug Varone & Dancers (whom I've never seen), all of which I had to miss due to being out-of-town.

We felt fortunate to see the Soledad Barrio and Manuel Gagostrong dancers, singers, and musicians of Noche Flamenca & Soledad Barrio from Spain tonight. We also briefly met several of them outside after the performance. According to their website, Noche Flamenca was formed in 1993 by artistic director Martín Santangelo and his wife Soledad Barrio.

My wife, an aficionado of good vocals, shared my admiration for the amazing impassioned voices that reminded us both of qawaali music, with, at least to us, similar arm and hand gestures and style of singing - though neither of us know Spanish and couldn't understand the words. The music itself was traditional Spanish flamenca guitar (toque), along with hand clapping and feet stomping.

The dance seemed to me to be traditional in the Spanish flamenca style. I'm not sure why traditional dance was included in ADF, but I'm certainly not complaining - and since I know next to nothing about flamenca, for all I know there may have been modern interpretations presented tonight.

Sometimes the dancer would be Soledad Barrio solo, sometimes one of two men solo, and Manuel Gago and Antonio Vizarraga with Soledad Barriosometimes some combination thereof. Most of the performers were dressed primarily in black with a black backdrop, but Soledad had a beautiful red dress on. Except for a few years ago at the first "Festival of the Feet" at ADF, I don't think I've ever seen flamenca dancing, but what I saw tonight was powerful, skillfully fast, and beautiful to see. The News & Observer's ADF blog refers to a glossary of terms that could be shouted out to show appreciation, and I did often hear Olé! ring out - which I echo! I can't wait for ADF's return next June and July.

Postscript: There is a strong review of the performance in the July 26 issue of The Independent. Also, the pieces that were peformed, according to the program, were "La Plaza", "Tangos", "Solo de Guitar", "'Maria' -- Alegrias", all before the intermission. The second half consisted of "Solea por Bulerias", "Solo de Cante y Martinete", "Siguiriya", and "Esta noche no es mi día".

All pictures from the company's website gallery, © Noche Flamenca.

Film: Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme, 2006); Beloved Binge CD Release Party

Tonight I attended the summer concert/film series at the NC Museum of Art to see Neil Young: Heart of Gold . I have enjoyed the music of Neil Young (remember songs like "Helpless", "Old Man", "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", "Harvest Moon", and "Cinnamon Girl"?), as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (with great songs like "Ohio", "Love the One You're With" "Teach Your Children", and "Our House") for as long as I have been listening to radio growing up. The film was concert footage of Neil performing in Nashville. It was particularly enjoyable to see outdoors!

Our friends Eleni (aka Binge Cafe) and Rob (Sloping Band House) of Beloved Binge have recently released their new CD Other Places, described by the duo as "Rubble pop rooted in punk pot infused with a hint of old Greek mountain village uprising", and tonight they played at a CD release party at Joe & Jo's Downtown casual club in Durham. We had never heard them before; their music seems to be an interesting mixture inspired by hardcore and punk with a dose of 80s sensibilities. Isn't their album cover attractive?! The base photograph is Rob visiting a Greek village with an ancient tree.

Our friends loudly proclaim their animal rights philosophy, such as in the song "Why Vegan". It's probably my own lack of exposure to much hardcore, but I had difficulty understanding most of the lyrics. We were impressed with some of the neat back-and-forths that the two did with their voices. They switched several times during the show with Rob on guitar and lead vocals and Eleni on drums, and vice-versa. My wife liked Rob on vocals better, and I had the opposite preference. We're proud of them and bought (well, we tried - Eleni just wouldn't take our money!) a t-shirt for my wife to happily wear!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

American Dance Festival: International Choreographers Commissioning Program

We couldn't make the Tuesday night (I was teaching) ADF show with the post-performance discussion, but did get to see the three international choreographer commissioned pieces tonight, the last of its three night run. It was an interesting evening filled with quite contemporary dance theatre that makes me continue to think about how to best define the term "dance".

My favorite piece was the Japanese Butoh-style one, choreographed and performed by Takuya Muramatsu, entitled Taiyo no kokuin (Mark of the Sun). The picture here, captured from the ADF website, gives a glimpse into what the dance was like. Moody ambient techno music provided the backdrop to a slowly revealed dance that was a bit scary, with starkly original costumes and characteristically Butoh white makeup.

Tatiana Baganova, whom I saw on June 27 as part of the Russian Provincial Dances Theatre, choreographed Post Engagement, the closing performance, and my second favorite. It also had interesting costumes and abstract theatre.

I didn't much enjoy Argentinian Luis Garay's 12, which opened the night. It featured a Chinese woman in a red dress and heels who was searching for something (as revealed in supertitles) and who would occasionally yell, evidently causing the other dancers to fall to the ground, motionless. There is a disturbing end - but if I better understood the dance, perhaps the end would have not been so incongruous and shocking? My wife had an interesting theory; the red colors were perhaps symbolic of Red China, and authoritarianism. For a long time it all seemed to work, but at the end it fell apart and became clear that people couldn't be controlled. Hmm... it sounded convicing to me! One nice twist to this piece: I saw my friend Derrick Acker in the lobby after the show, and he asked if I had seen his name - he was featured in distorted silhouette playing one of his guitar compositions!

By the way, there is a good description with many pictures of the performance at the News & Observer ADF blog. That blog includes reviews of each of the shows this season. The July 19th issue of the New York Times has a review about this performance.

Pictures from the ADF website.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Film Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari; Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Downtown at the funky Manbites Dog Theater, tonight was the first of three consecutive Mondays of showing Japanese film, juxtaposing an old classic with a new film. I teach a course on the films of Yasujiro Ozu (and Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray), and enjoyed visiting Japan last year; I specifically went almost in the shadow of Ozu to the Ozu Museum and sites around Kamakura where he shot many of his films, and I even found his bit-difficult-to-find grave (and the grave of Chishu Ryu, who often played a quiet and admirable father).

I couldn't miss an opportunity to see Ozu on a big screen so, in spite of time challenges, caught the last hour and a quarter or so of the classic Tokyo Story. This film appears on many critics' all-time best films, and is certainly one of my favorites, a sentimental and characteristically Ozu understated film about the dissolution of family in post-war (WWII) Japan. What a masterpiece, and what a delight to see it again.

I didn't stay for the second film, which sounded violent. I hope to make the next two Mondays in their entirety. I am quoting the email from their film coordinator, David Fellerath, below.

David Fellerath wrote:
For the next three Mondays in July, Movies @ Manbites will present Japan Then and Now, a series that pairs a classic Japanese film with a recent pop hit.

The most jarring juxtaposition will happen this Monday, July 17, when we’ll show Ozu’s TOKYO STORY at 7:30 p.m., which will be followed at 9:45 by Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER.

If you’re unfamiliar with some of the titles, let me recommend two in particular: UGETSU is one of our all time favorite movies, and we also love the 2000 instant classic BATTLE ROYALE. (The latter film, according to recent reports, is now headed for the dreaded Hollywood remake.)

Here’s the full lineup:

Monday, July 17:
7:30: TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) – A nearly unbearably moving tale of an elderly couple that travels to see their children. Perhaps the most lauded Japanese film ever.
9:45: ICHI THE KILLER (Takashi Miike, 2001) – Depending on your point of view, this is one of the most notorious or celebrated yakuza movies of the last decade, from Japan’s prolific gore-teur.

Monday, July 24:
7:30: UGETSU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) – An unforgettable epic of the divergent fortunes of two couples during wartime.
9:30: AZUMI (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003) – A female assassin is charged with bringing peace to war-torn Japan.

Monday, July 31:
7:30: KAGEMUSHA (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) – A poor thief is hired to pose as a dead warlord and becomes The Shadow Warrior!
10:45: BATTLE ROYALE (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) – A brutal allegory: Most Dangerous Game meets Lord of the Flies. Not to be missed!

$5 for the double feature. Movies @ Manbites is located at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham. In addition to our usual popcorn, soda, beer and wine, we’ll be serving edamame!

Pictures show Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama as Mr. and Mrs. Hirayama; and Setsuko Hara as Noriko with her father-in-law played by Chishu Ryu.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Film Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

Tonight the NC Museum of Art's summer lawn series showed Brokeback Mountain, which won three Oscar awards this year and a film for which I had heard nothing but strong praise. Perhaps it will grow on me, but I found the film to be almost oppressively sad and stagnant. I particularly found it very difficult to relate to one of the two main characters, Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, a person truly of few words and a lawless temper. The scenery was beautiful and the story, of two cowboys who develop forbidden feelings of both love and lust for each other, not at all formulaic.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Film Mad Hot Ballroom (Marilyn Agrelo, 2005)

Finally I made it this summer to a film at the NC Museum of Art's summer lawn series! I have wanted to see Mad Hot Ballroom since it came out last year, and tonight was my chance! It is a documentary about New York City students in the (I believe) fifth grade who learn ballroom dance and compete in a city-wide competition, going from quarter-finals through the finals. I loved the dance and music (if only my wife and I could learn swing!), but mostly relished seeing how the children approached their task at hand. They were, for example, coached that demeanor counts and to smile - this at an age where children often shun those of the opposite gender.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

American Dance Festival: Keigwin + Company

Tonight I went on my own to ADF to see Keigwin + Company, a group I enjoyed seeing last year. Their pieces were motivated, we learned later during a Q&A session, by one of troupe leader Larry Keigwin's mission statements of having fun. Some of the dances were quite clever, especially the opener Orbit (a world premiere) and interesting to see, but I found a few to be somewhat dull, such as the short dances following Orbit and preceding intermission, Self Portrait #1, Love Songs, Couple One, Couple Two, and Couple Three .

I really enjoyed their last piece, A Modern Line, where they had more than 40 local folks (mostly ADF students, but they've done this piece elsewhere without the luxury of a colocated dance school) whom they had trained over a few days. They enacted a funny piece about dancers auditioning for a show. The remaining dance, just after intermission, Urban Birds, was fun to watch dancers somewhat impersonating caged birds. I was in the front row at or near the very center for this performance!

Pictures sent by Larry Keigwin and used here with his permission. I believe they were both taken by Tom Caravaglia.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

American Dance Festival: Faculty Concert

Long ago, I came up with a fairly general and abstract definition of art that is relative to the observer and the time of observation - simply something that causes a person to make some interpretation such as triggering an associational memory or to be emotionally moved as a direct result of observing the artifact (I added the emotion part just now). Perhaps a guard working at a museum may be stationed in front of a Picasso, but is daydreaming; that Picasso, by my definition, ceases to be art in that context to that observer. On the other hand, perhaps a person stumbles upon some garbage strewn in the street, and in so doing his mind creates a pattern out of the hodgepodge that reminds him of a visit to a friend's home several years ago, or maybe an abstract philosophical concept. I would, by this definition, call the strewn garbage art.

Dear reader, do take this all with a big grain of salt, as I am not an art theorist. But I bring this up because I wonder if I can come up with a definition of dance. My initial thoughts are that two aspects ought to be covered:
  1. Dance as an activity of entertainment, such as when we dance to music that we like
  2. Dance as a form of expression, often by athletic individuals, that may or may not be synchronized to music or sound at all, and that may or may not be conveying a message

It's a definition of aspect (2) that I would like to come up with. Does it have to be pleasant? I didn't much like several aspects of the ADF Private Parts show a few weeks back, but it was, at least by ADF, called "dance". Also, one person's pleasure may be another's pain, so that's out of the definition. Does it have to involve movement? Probably, though it can include periods of rest.

Anyway, let me motivate where this rambling is going. My wife didn't much enjoy tonight's performance; I thought it was worth attending, but I think the intent was for faculty of ADF to present short pieces, and not collaborate to present any unifying theme. Some of the pieces may stretch individual definitions of dance, hence my wondering.