Robbins 100 – New York City Ballet

Standard
West_Side_Story_Broadway_Rehearsal_1957_ Jerome Robbins_HR.jpg

Playbill, West Side Story Broadway rehearsal 1957, Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The wordless arts, like dance and music, are sometimes harder for me to access and appreciate. I tend to sit there and tell myself stories about what I think is happening—which is of course a valid way in, but not as emotionally satisfying as for people who open themselves to the artwork without needing language as a conduit.

Knowledge enhances and informs appreciation. And there too, with dance, I fall short. I really don’t know much about it, but was very fortunate to go several times decades ago with my friend Kim, a former dancer. What little I do know I learned from her (and from a childhood book, To Dance, To Dream, whose mini-bios of notable dancers I unabashedly loved). Mostly, as when I go to the theater with my brother, or to a concert with my husband, I just revel in watching these empathic experts experience the art form that resonates so for them.

The evening was one of several programs put together by New York City Ballet to commemorate the centennial of Jerome Robbins, familiar to most as the choreographer of West Side Story and On the Town and Peter Pan and Fiddler on the Roof. What I love about Robbins’s choreography is how he expresses pent-up passion, youthful restlessness, mournful longing. But he can also be funny and playful, and I never find his work pretentious or stuffy. Maybe that’s because I came to him from the Broadway side of his career.

I chose the program we attended because it had a minimum of pas de deux—which I don’t enjoy, as I can never find a satisfying or sufficiently lengthy storyline to tell myself during them—and a maximum of unfamiliar, yet promisingly diverse, works. These included The Cage, which I think of as a bug ballet, since it concerns, according to the program notes, “the rites” of “certain forms of insect and animal life” involving “the female of the species considering the male as prey.” Like spiders and praying mantises that eat their mates. Bug ballet. It was wonderfully inventive and thrilling, with a stage filled with dangerous Amazons with wild hair and unrepentant female empowerment. And the lead bug lady made a marvelous leg movement, reminiscent of a cricket, stretching limbs a human does not have. Here is the full ballet from 2016 by the Paris Opera Ballet; around 4:30 in, you’ll see the insect moves I’m talking about.

I had selected the program too because of Interplay, a four-part, eight-dancer piece, which I thought would be like Robbins’s other youth-oriented ballets like “Cool” or Sneaker Ballet (see below); it was fun and playful and light, but didn’t have the jazzy tension I had been hoping for. Steve quite liked it, and it was bright and friendly and airy, if lacking the repressed undertones I’d been expecting.

I had not been particularly enthusiastic about Other Dances, described in the program notes as paying “homage to Chopin’s romanticism and the purity of classical ballet technique, featuring two dramatic dancers in a series of short, folk-infused dances.” The piece was originally created to show off the special talents of Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976. I am sure the dancers we saw were very good (Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz), but they were not Makarova and Baryshnikov, who appear below. To me, staging this work—and the boisterous audience reception—smacked of nostalgia, much like when the crowd at Motown gave a fevered standing ovation to the child imitating Michael Jackson. But I really know nothing and so should not judge.

On the other hand, In the Night, which also looked less than promising initially, as it featured three separate couples (pas de deux again) and no storyline turned out to be fascinating. The Chopin nocturnes were lovely, and each couple was so different. There was a story to each relationship and it was all there to find in the way they danced and interacted with each other. It reminded me of my delight in seeing Antony Tudor’s psychologically based ballets years ago with Kim.

Like the program, I have saved the best for last: Fanfare. What fun this was, and so meltingly beautiful visually—the blues and the oranges particularly. This piece, commissioned by Balanchine on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, uses Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and pairs sets of dancers with the four components of the orchestra: woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion. Each dancer is an instrument—in every sense that you could read that sentence. The effect was synesthetic: you watched the sound, you listened to the dance. It was a fluid, seamless melding of sound and vision. And yet funny and flighty and utterly delightful. A taste follows.

So, in all, a very uplifting evening. And sufficiently inspiring that I have embarked on Amanda Vail’s biography of Jerome Robbins to learn—and appreciate—more.

Advertisements

The Upright Thinkers (Leonard Mlodinow)

Standard

Science books aren’t supposed to make you cry. But I found myself doing just that at the end of Leonard Mlodinow’s informative and inspiring trek through human history, highlighting the foundations and elaborations of physics, chemistry, and biology and their discoverers.

Mlodinow (pronounced Mel-AH-din-oh) is, like Oliver Sacks, a most humane scientist. But where Sacks aches with compassion for his patients and subjects, Mlodinow has a breezier, more buoyant, humorous, and at times gee-whiz approach. He is an optimist, which he sees as an outgrowth of a scientific bent.

(An aside: Mlodinow, in Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us about Ourselves, covers similar terrain as Adam Alter in Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. But where I was in existential despair for days after reading Alter, faced with the grim recognition that “I” don’t really “decide” pretty much anything but am instead in thrall to a part of my brain to whose activities and proclivities I have very little access or knowledge, Mlodinow sees it much differently:

That realization doesn’t bother me; it gives me a greater appreciation of my unseen partner, my unconscious, always providing the support I need as I walk and stumble my way through life.

The Upright Thinkers is a celebration of that bent, and a tribute to those who tirelessly pursue it. But he never loses sight of why he wrote this book: he wrote it for his pragmatic father, a concentration camp survivor with no scientific training and little knowledge of scientific theory, method, and discoveries.

The book is brilliantly structured. The first part — under a hundred pages — is a rich survey of humanity’s efforts since dropping from the trees up to the time of Aristotle to wrest meaning from mystery. Filled with panoramic observations, the part traces an arc from curiosity through culture and civilization to reason. So elegant.

Mlodinow presents a very interesting insight about mankind’s earliest settlements. The common wisdom is that we stopped being nomads because that was a hard and unpredictable way of life and began instead to tend our own gardens, ensuring a stable food source. But Mlodinow debunks this on two fronts, first pointing out the difficulties and ceaseless labor inherent in farming versus an average for contemporary hunter-gatherers of two to four hours’ work each day. (Another aside: This observation made me wonder if the myth of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden is in fact a dim recollection of man’s hunter-gatherer “good old days.”) Second, he builds a case that the agriculture part followed the settlement part. And driving settlement — some 11,500 years ago in southeastern Turkey — was the desire to join together in worship:

the Neolithic revolution was not, first and foremost, a revolution inspired by practical considerations, but rather a mental and cultural revolution, fueled by the growth of human spirituality.

Living in settlements led to villages and then to cities. The specializations, divisions of labor, and overall complexity of life in cities led to a huge breakthrough on the path toward scientific understanding — the invention of writing:

writing enabled us to exchange ideas with people far away in both space and time… In doing so it allowed us to outgrow the limits of our individual knowledge and memories.

It also led to recordkeeping and engineering — which meant the development of mathematics and geometry, first pragmatic, then theoretic.

I really enjoyed part I. But parts II (which focuses on physics, biology, and chemistry) and III (which focuses on quantum physics) are equally fascinating, if not as compendious. Here, Mlodinow tells how the world moved from the Aristotelian concepts of the centrality of human beings and the Earth, of purposeful creation and meaning, to first a Newtonian order of objective reality and a universe of limitless comprehensibility through laws and reason, and then to an upended era — ours — of uncertainty and limits as articulated by quantum physics. He tells this story through a series of miniatures, highlighting the scientists who effected this paradigm shift.

Throughout, he emphasizes two key stumbling blocks to the progress of human scientific inquiry. The first of these is a lack of the proper tools for investigation. For much of recorded history, we simply didn’t have the language or notation or means to be scientific. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the first clock to record hours of equal length was invented; time couldn’t be measured to the second until 1670. The equal sign wasn’t invented until 1557. Ingenuity, intuition, and indefatigibility ultimately triumphed over these deficiencies.

The second stumbling block is more pernicious, more pervasive: cultural bias. As Mlodinow explains:

an almost universal limitation of human thought: our creativity is constrained by conventional thinking that arises from beliefs we can’t shake, or never even think of questioning.

This bias permeates society, hindering and hampering scientific work. Notes Mlodinow:

medieval scholars made surprising progress, despite living in an age in which people routinely judged the truth of statements not according to empirical evidence but by how well they fit into their preexisting system of religion-based beliefs…

(An aside: how eerily reminiscent of our own time…)

This bias keeps breakthroughs and innovations from being recognized in their own time. For example, after Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers on evolution were read at the Linnean Society’s 1858 meeting, the president lamented

that the year had not ‘been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, [our] department of science.’

This bias also makes many scientists play a Moses-like role, leading their colleagues and followers to a certain point but then being unable to cross the threshold of discovery themselves.

science, like society, is built upon certain shared ideas and beliefs… As a result, pioneers from Galileo and Newton to Bohr and Einstein — and beyond — had one foot in the past, even as their imaginations helped to create the future.

Einstein, on whose work quantum theory squarely rests, refused to accept its inherent uncertainty and fundamental notion that “there are limits to what we can know.”

Mlodinow also emphasizes the major strength that nurtures scientific inquiry: collegial communication. He stresses that science is not made in isolation, but requires people working together — not necessarily in harmony, but in tandem. And it is this respect for the human element that makes this book moving as well as informative — enlightening in all senses.

Our Little Sister

Standard

What a quietly lovely movie. Particularly when compared to the relentless bombast of the news, the depressingly unspringlike nor’easter we’re slogging through, the shrill fragmentation that has become our daily lot. There is this gentle, affirming film, reminding us of the rhythms that underlie the sturm und drang.

Our Little Sister tells of three sisters who make room in their lives for their younger half-sister; their father, who long ago left his original family, has died. You think there will be some sort of reckoning with the stepmother. No. Then with their own mother, the first wife, who left her girls when living in the family home after her desertion became too painful? No. With any of the men who gravitate around one or another of the older sisters? No. Then among the girls themselves, some impassioned betrayal, some long-festering wound? No.

The four sisters eat and talk and quarrel and go to work and walk on the beach and climb hills with breathtaking views of the Japanese countryside. They pick plums and make plum wine. They shop for groceries and cook dinner. They decorate a screen. They revisit memories they share and memories they don’t. They turn down and are turned down by lovers. They attend funerals and memorials. They grow.

Nature and its passing seasons thrum throughout and withal. There is the rainy season, the unspeakably beautiful blossoming of the cherry trees, the ripening of the plums, the summer fireworks, the death of an old friend.

One of the things that always amused me when my girls were little: We would come up on a particular holiday or annual milestone, and they would say, “well we need to do this. We always do this on that day.” Even if we’d only done this once before. It was always and ever and forever. The sweet continuity.

And the movie brought to mind my mother-in-law, a generation older than my own mother, and rooted in family and situational traditions. There was a day the winter curtains came down and the lighter ones went up. A time when the mattress got rotated, and the Easter bread baked, and the good dishes taken out. And, I know from Steve, there was the time when all the cousins were getting married, and then when all the babies were being born, and then rituals becoming less communal and more home-based, and then the quickening pace of viewings and funerals.

The achingly simple circumstances of the passing days and the complicated array of feelings, memories, regrets, and hopes attached to them, embodied in them, and tangled through them. That’s what this movie evokes. A desire to clear the cobwebs, to renew and reiterate. To eat, to quarrel, to celebrate. And to let life and love flow through, while only half-perceiving the reasons and whys and wherefores, but trusting to the flow and celebrating its familiar turns.

2017 Round-Up

Standard

Books (me)

  • The Woman in the Fifth, Douglas Kennedy
  • Get in Trouble, Kelly Link
  • The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson
  • TransAtlantic, Colum McCann
  • Brothers, William Goldman
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin
  • Classics of the Macabre, Daphne du Maurier
  • Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, Mark Frost

A depressingly short list, again, but a couple or three that exceeded 500 pages, so maybe not too depressing. The standout in terms of influence was The Organized Mind, which provides clear explanations of how the mind works—and how to work better within these confines. The big takeaway is that no one, no way, no how, can multitask. Another revelation: the importance and joy of being “in the zone”—engaged in a task that perfectly suits your level of competence. The two biographies are exceedingly well written, well researched, and exhaustive; respectful and knowledgeable of their subjects (the Mitford sisters and Shirley Jackson). Of the fiction, the best and most lingering was TransAtlantic. The most annoying, to me, was Erik Larson’s book: this was history written as fiction, and it grated on me. Just not to my taste. And one quick shout-out re. the du Maurier: this was a hardback book, and just the perfect size and weight for holding and reading in bed, making it a joy to engage with.

Books (Steve)

  • Mash, Richard Hooker
  • My Sunshine Away, M.O.Walsh
  • Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, Miriam Linna and Randell Fuller
  • Boardwalk Empire, Nelson Johnson
  • The Double, George Pelecanos
  • Loss of Innocence, Richard North Patterson
  • Moriarty, Anthony Horowitz
  • The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk
  • Lost Horizon, James Hilton
  • Me and Orson Welles, Robert Kaplow
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo
  • Railway Viaduct, Edward Marston
  • Pretty Boy Floyd, Larry McMurtry
  • A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
  • Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser
  • Armageddon, Kurt Vonnegut
  • A Simple Habana Melody, Oscar Hijuelo

A variety. Steve reports that the book that really stands out is The Plot Against America. He greatly enjoyed reading Lost Horizon; he’d never read Hilton before and found the story and idea of it very pleasurable. He always likes Vonnegut, calling him a great storyteller; this collection is stories from throughout his life. The book Danny gave him, by his professor in New Orleans, My Sunshine Away, Steve says would make a perfect movie. Pretty Boy Floyd is a fun, light read from McMurtry.

Concerts

  • Chris Smither, Town Crier, Beacon
  • Robert Klein, Paramount Theater, Peekskill
  • Ian Anderson, Count Basie, Red Bank

We are getting very very fussy about concert experiences. Consequently, we have, I think, sworn off the Count Basie from here on. We like, as I have written many times before, concerts where the people are respectful of the performers and possess strong bladders and low voices. The Hudson Valley venues both featured this kind of audience, making the concerts warm and inviting and friendly. Chris Smither is no longer in good voice, but his lyrics and music remain thought provoking and stirring. Robert Klein was an evening of good fun: it was very nice to laugh. Even aside from a set of downright rude audience members, who were more interested in talking to each other and hollering for their favorites, the Ian Anderson concert was very disappointing. His voice also is gone, and he seemed to be quite definitely pacing himself. While a good show, it lacked heart and soul. We missed a show at Peekskill, John Lodge of the Moody Blues, due to bad weather. There was a lot of that this year.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • The Band’s Visit (Atlantic Theater)
  • The Woolgatherers (Yael; Frigid Festival)
  • Louis and Ella (Manasquan)
  • Sunday in the Park with George (Broadway)
  • The Room Sings (Talking Band, La MaMa)
  • Not Knowing Where We’re Rowing (Sarah reading; Inwood Park)
  • Ring Twice for Miranda (Broadway)
  • Martin Denton, Martin Denton (Kraine Theater)
  • Friends Call Me Albert (Julie; Access Theater)
  • Hamlet (Public Theater)
  • A Christmas Carol (Julie; No. 11)

The price of Broadway tickets have kept us largely off Broadway, where, as always, there is much magic and delight to be found. And as usual, our favorites were the art created by our girls: now adding Julie’s fiancee, Yael, to our roster of favorite creatives. Locally, we saw a very light piece, a joint musical biography of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I have to confess to walking out midway through Ring Twice for Miranda; Sarah had free tickets which gave me leave to—well, leave. We missed the controversial Julius Caesar in the Park due to deadlines; we also missed a Twyla Tharp show at the Joyce (and she herself danced at the performance we were to have attended); we did get to see Oscar Isaac and Keegan-Michael Key in Hamlet, which was exciting, but I can’t say that I loved it. I found many of the director’s choices bewildering and, frankly, distracting. The acting was wonderful, and we were glad to attend. I think my favorite, though, was Sunday in the Park with George. I love this play, to the extent that I cannot listen to the OCR as it makes me cry too much. While this staging was, in many ways, only a faint echo of the original, the principals were both very very good. Again, the director’s choices were disappointing, particularly with regard to the stripped-down and unimaginative set.

Movies

The following are movies we either saw in theaters or streamed shortly thereafter.

  • The Brand New Testament
  • 2017 Animated Shorts and Live Action Shorts
  • Hidden Figures
  • Paterson
  • La La Land
  • Frantz
  • Landline
  • High-Rise
  • Demolition
  • Hell or High Water
  • Max Rose
  • The Ones Below
  • A Woman, A Part
  • Tale of Tales
  • Krisha
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Obit
  • Their Finest
  • The Clan
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Revolver
  • Personal Shopper
  • Norman
  • Split
  • Colossal
  • Get Out
  • My Cousin Rachel
  • Beatriz at Dinner
  • Things to Come
  • The Big Sick
  • Brad’s Status
  • Marjorie Prime
  • Lady Bird
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • The Meyerwitz Stories
  • The People vs. Fritz Bauer
  • Loving Vincent
  • Endless Poetry
  • Lucky
  • The Florida Project
  • Three Billboards
  • The Square
  • The Shape of Water

A wonderful year for movies, and hard pressed to say which was the best, although high on our lists are Lucky, Paterson, Frantz, Loving Vincent, The Square, and Endless Poetry. These were extraordinary: moving, thought provoking, and innovative, each in their own special way. Frantz was devastating; I do not want to give any of it away. Paterson I still intend to write about. And the trippy frenetic Endless Poetry is in its own class.

Ranking in a second tier as highly satisfying and smart are The Brand New Testament (so mordantly funny), Hidden Figures and Bridge of Spies (much-needed quiet heroism), Get Out (a great horror film and a wonderful social experiment), The Big Sick (delightful in its sweet sincerity), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (surprisingly satisfying),The Shape of Water (another dark fairy tale from del Toro), My Cousin Rachel (probably the best suspense film we saw this year), and Marjorie Prime, Krisha, and The Florida Project  (intriguing perspectives from each).

Downright disappointing were La La Land and Three Billboards. I don’t get the hype around either. A musical should have, I don’t know, singers and dancers? As to Three Billboards, I am coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t get black comedy or Martin McDonagh; this had no soul, no heart, and we could not get past its improbable cruelties to see any humor. (But we love Frances McDormand.) All the Beatles movies were great fun: highly informative and scholarly—and nostalgic. As always, we are so grateful to our local arthouse theater, the Showroom. It continues to be a great joy and privilege to be able to walk to wonderful films. We are also grateful to the great art theaters in NYC: the Sunshine Cinema and the IFC, especially.

A hidden gem we chanced upon on TCM: The Young in Heart, an absolutely delightful 1938 movie with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Paulette Goddard, and Billie Burke—great fun and deliciously wicked.

On TV, and dwarfing almost everything else seen in the movies this year—or ever—was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Every Sunday night all summer was a wild, weird, wonderful ride: the expectation, putting it off to the latest possible time slot to heighten the anticipation; the actuality, during which I spent more time standing next to the TV, drinking in the images, than literally perched on the edge of my seat; and the post-show reaction, feverishly reading Reddit and various Peak-y sites to prolong the experience. There will never be anything like Episode 8. Beautiful, damned, tragic, sorrowful, profound, laugh-out-loud funny, breathtakingly shocking, gorgeous, terrifying, glorious. A unique experience whose like I doubt will ever be undertaken or seen again.

We are consoling ourselves over the end of Twin Peaks with the second season of Stranger Things (charming and well done) and old episodes of The Wire (intense and brilliant; we just finished season 3 and are stretching it out now that Mad Men has finished for us—although we intend to revisit it and The Sopranos; these two, along with Upstairs, Downstairs, rank in my mind as the best TV dramas of all time).

Food

The hands-down restaurant find of the year was Christine’s in the Atlantic Highlands. Not only is the food delicious and plentiful, but the owner and atmosphere are warm and inviting. A lovely unpretentious place. Marandola’s in Bradley Beach was another serendipitous find, particularly for patio dining; another new favorite, albeit out of the way, the Blue Danube in Trenton.

Speaking of Trenton, we were disappointed that the farmers’ market there has gone so downhill: a shadow of the bustling market we first knew.

In cooking adventures, Steve has created a new blistered spicy string beans recipe. We made an herb orzo and rice side dish to replace mashed potatoes at this year’s Thanksgiving; quite tasty.

Field Trips and Museums

The big field trip was our five days, just ended, in New Orleans. I will write about this in a later post. Overall, it was a good experience, but I don’t think we are anywhere near as in sync with this city as other places we have been. But it was wonderful to see Danny, and it was a genuine pleasure to travel with Sarah.

We took two trips to the Hudson Valley and greatly enjoyed both. We did learn to try to avoid the humid seasons there, however. But the scenery is gorgeous, particularly going up the east side via Route 9. We want to go back, this time to see Hyde Park and maybe Woodstock. Tarrytown was fun, as was Beacon, filled with charming shops and art.

A couple of days in DC for work meant a full day for Steve with Danny, and a visit with a circle of loving and lovely friends at two favorite restaurants. But my God, the DC traffic and heat.

Our one museum trip this year was an excursion with Julie and Yael to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which had a terrific Scorsese exhibit. The highlight of the exhibit, for me, was this nine-minute short:

After the museum, we hit Penn Station right after an accident and tasering incident had left all Jersey-bound trains halted on the tracks, leading us to two discoveries: (1) Uber and (2) the Seastreak ferry. We have since had many exhilarating ferry rides to and from Manhattan and are extremely happy with this new transit option.

Miscellany

I attended the Asbury Women’s March, which was affirming and positive and friendly and inclusive: a bright note in an almost cheerless civic landscape. We heard our representative speak later in the year, and it was good to hear a reasonable voice of pragmatic and unembittered compromise.

In July, we had a party, inviting about 20 or 30 neighbors. It was the first time we’ve had a casual party since leaving Virginia, and it was really nice. We intend to make it an annual tradition.

***

All in all, in a year when we put our heads down and immersed ourselves in work, clocking far too many 15- and 18-hour days in a deliberate effort to ignore the drumbeat of bad news and upsetting developments, it was soothing and gratifying to have such distinctive and meritorious diversions of sight, sound, and sensibility.

“The Square”

Standard

The Square is an intriguing, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engrossing look at a panoply of timely concerns: white male power, entitlement, class divides, the disconnect between the haves and have-nots, poverty, prejudice. It is also about a host of timeless considerations: compassion (and the lack thereof), communication (and the lack thereof), conformity, cowardice.

From the trailer, I thought it would be a skewering of a sleek, impossibly handsome cad set against a sleek, impossibly ludicrous contemporary art world.

But it isn’t. The film, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, is far more subtle, far more nuanced. The man at its center, Christian, is not a cad. He can in fact be conscientious and kind, but he — like pretty much everyone else in the movie — makes bad choices of action and worse ones of inaction. Set against a backdrop where art is embodied by a clattering mound of stacked golden chairs and precisely aligned heaps of gravel, the inability of Christian — and his colleagues and the larger society as well — to see, hear, and connect with what is real and important is made devastatingly clear.

The choice to set the film in this milieu leads to rich satire. Years ago, we went to a museum, I think in Baltimore, which was showing, among many other items from the ’60s, a Yoko Ono installation. It was a hammer and nails, a participatory piece, inviting the viewer to hammer a nail in the painting block. But there was a big sign that the museum had put up next to it that said “Do Not Touch.” I thought it was the funniest, most clueless subversion of artistic — albeit flaky — intent I had ever seen.

And right on a par with the misguided artistic statements populating The Square. A crisis ensues when an overzealous cleaning crew inadvertently vacuums around one of the gravel heaps: an exhibit visited, may it be pointed out, only fitfully and never enthusiastically. And the eponymous, relatively tiny square — earnestly described by its creator as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” — is part of the larger square fronting the museum, where ranks of homeless daily petition heedless passersby.

There is a cool, clean look to the film, informed in large part by this art world background. But it is also the look of our contemporary modernity: crisp, sterile demarcations of white, black, and color tidily masking the muddy gray ambiguities of real life. This is where we all are, not just the art world cognoscenti: pretending that truth and reality can be cleanly, clearly, and completely divided into this and not that, right and wrong, good and bad, light and dark, us and them.

The movie is about far more than sending up contemporary art and its patrons and promoters. It’s about the whole of contemporary society, with its inability to see the authentic in a world of posturing and performance, of conformity and excessive and (in the movie, literally) explosive feints professing to shake up the status quo.

The Square may take on more than it can manage, introducing myriad plot threads, characters, and complexities. But when it connects, it does so with shattering effect. The performance art cum gala dinner at which a man portraying an ape threatens the complacency of the donor set is incredibly powerful — and highly unnerving. All told, an extremely smart and — yes — touching film.

Lucky

Standard

This small picture — with its ordinary characters, remote location, no plot to speak of, limited palette of colors, no love interest, no politics, no antihero or superhero — moved me utterly: I did not just tear up; I sobbed.

What is Lucky about? It’s about everything and nothing. It’s about mortality and aging and the void: and the ways we face that void, and how — or if — we can face it down. It’s about loneliness. It’s about community. It’s about nihilism and neighborhood. It’s about the limits of individuality and the limitations of connection. It’s The Iceman Cometh. It’s Stoppard’s Arcadia.

And at the beating heart of it is Harry Dean Stanton: stalwart, taciturn, alone. The opening title credits in fact read: Harry Dean Stanton Is Lucky. And who is Lucky? A man of around ninety, childless, wifeless, uneventfully cycling through a daily round of activities — morning cigarette, yoga, crossword at the diner, trip to the bodega, tv game shows, evening drinks at the bar — on the outskirts of a tiny Arizona community, a peripheral man in a peripheral world. But his routine is agitated and his mindset unmoored when he falls down in front of the coffee machine’s red blinking 12:00 one morning.

What does it mean? Ed Begley Jr., as the humane, pragmatic, straight-talking doctor we all should have, sums it up early in the movie: You’re getting old and you won’t last forever.

The remainder of the film is about Lucky’s coming to grips with that implacable truth.

I know a woman who had breast cancer; after she was cured, she came out as a lesbian, left her husband and kids, and started a new life. I know a man whose wife left him and their kids with just a suitcase and barely a word after having survived the Pentagon on 9/11. And I have always believed that Dick Cheney’s dispassionate ruthlessness was grounded in having successfully faced down death after multiple heart attacks.

Such dramatic reinventions and recalibrations are beyond Lucky — certainly now and possibly ever. So he continues his routine, makes his rounds, all the way weaving this new piece of information into the fabric of his daily existence. The humble process is riveting and deeply affecting.

Freshman director but veteran working actor James Carroll Lynch has selected the crème de la crème of character actors to populate Lucky’s world. These familiar faces largely without names — more peripheral people — each get an opportunity to contribute to the texture of the film as they interact with Lucky; their ubiquity makes us feel we know them too, making these various small business owners and denizens at once familiar and individual. An exception is the sui generis auteur David Lynch, who plays Lucky’s friend Howard. Howard is working through his own existential trauma that has called into question everything he’s believed in: his hundred-year-old pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has escaped. Only David Lynch could carry off this combination of absurdity and anguish and make us care — deeply.

George Bailey-like, Lucky doesn’t realize he is a fixture in this town. But this is no sentimental tale of misplaced values: being of a community doesn’t forestall the inevitable. As Lucky retorts to a man lauding the benefits of afterlife planning, you’re still dead. And it’s in this attitude that the mournful Iceman Cometh dirges sound, particularly in the barroom scenes where digs, drinks, and despair, reminiscences and reflections, are nightly exchanged.

The unnamed location contains a gratifying cross-section of white, black, Latino, male, female, young, and old: all of whom are treated respectfully by each other and the filmmakers — no, scratch that, not respectfully, normally. There is a refreshing lack of patronage or political correctness: there are just individuals tolerated as individuals, not as exemplars of a particular creed or breed. Watching an old clip of Liberace with the diner waitress, Lucky ruefully remarks that he spent so many years caring about who the pianist was screwing that he couldn’t appreciate his virtuosity. The film is richly studded with similarly insightful gems.

There is much, much more I could touch on that occurs or occurred to me during the course of this eighty-eight-minute film: the sparing use of the color red (Lucky’s phone connecting him to an unseen friend to literally exchange words, or rather, a word — “realism” is one day’s —, an exit sign, the flashing time indicator on the coffee machine); encounters with and remembrances of youth (Lucky’s own, a child’s birthday party, and an unseen and long-dead girl); a metaphoric casting out of Eden; a pervasive sense of lives being lived — rightly and normally — without reference to a larger context, symbolized by a bald, worn mountain that backdrops the town; and an evocation of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece that also features a tortoise and struggles with issues of end time and end of lives:

Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore.

Thomasina: Then we will dance.

But I will end by simply noting the indefatigable tortoise, the cacti that forlornly yet resolutely thrust toward the pale blue sky — and Harry Dean Stanton.

Loving Vincent

Standard

Vincent Van Gogh, I was taught in art history classes, signed his paintings as if they were letters to friends. To me, that perhaps more than anything makes a Van Gogh work so naked, so vulnerable, so trusting: a tug on the coat sleeve plea for us to just look, just try to see what the artist sees. And to like it and, by extension, to like him.

Loving Vincent, a jaw-droppingly awesome piece of art, essentially takes up this theme, exploring the artist and his lonely life. It does so through the visual equivalent of telling Van Gogh’s story in his own words: it tells his life literally in his own paintings.

The film unfolds as a mystery story, as the protagonist — Armand Roulin, son of the postman Joseph Roulin, familiar to us from his painting — grudgingly attempts to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother. As he meets the characters in Van Gogh’s life (except for the most important, Theo, who died six months after Vincent — of tertiary syphilis, something I did not know) and the sketchy details surrounding his life and death are filled in and elaborated on, Armand comes to admire and champion the artist.

That’s basically the whole story: there are some surprising details, drawing on a theory expounded in a 2011 biography of Van Gogh that he was not a suicide but was instead accidentally shot by a pistol-waving, Buffalo Bill–emulating teenager. And like a good whodunit, our suspicions regarding friend or foe are alternately aroused and doused as conflicting perspectives are presented by the people who interacted with Van Gogh during his last months.

But the movie isn’t really about plot or narrative or motivation. It’s about the way you feel when you look at a Van Gogh. That sensation is prolonged and magnified as the screen shimmers and quivers with the places and people we know so well from the paintings. Billed as the first-ever feature-length hand-painted animation, it is comprised of 62,450 oil paintings. The work and skill and imagination that have gone into this film are breathtaking. The magical sense of living in scenes we know, seeing a starry night become the starry night, thrilling to a casually held iris. And there is an extended sequence with a basin of water that I cannot begin to describe, but which made me have to remind myself that I was watching animation.

What is most wondrous about Loving Vincent is that it packs a genuine emotional wallop. Ironically, this filmic painting about paintings delivers up living, breathing characters. Van Gogh has done the preliminary work in this regard: we know the postman, and Père Tanguy, and Dr. Gachet, and all the rest. We really know them: as Marie says in Sunday in the Park with George, “Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?” So there is an element of reconnecting with old friends, a nostalgia, a kinship.

But the deeper emotion lies in realizing the desperate loneliness of the man even as we glory in the transcendence of his art.