Best of 2008– – review

Best of 2008– – review

Recently, I sent out a call to writers to pick a favorite cultural moment for 2008. The variety of choices offered fits the profile of writers with whom I have the pleasure of collaborating. They are intelligent people, great writers, and individuals with a vast range of passions, areas of expertise and points of view. That’s what gives a special place in the galaxy of internet sites, in my opinion. As I move into my fourth year at its helm, my mission remains unchaged–to offer a place for smart people to write about the arts—beautifully. Look for changes, however, in the look, design, and usability of the site. And may 2009 offer all of us peace, health and, yes, prosperity.

Opening Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic Summer Games

video link

My own “Best” for 2008 was undoubtedly the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Despite the political back-story to these Games—Tibet and Darfur protests, and the irony of billions being lavished in the creation of a public relations monument to a new China, where millions still live in poverty, without basic human rights, in a highly polluted, toxic environment–the images offered to the world during the opening ceremony were theatrically mind-blowing.

The vision of two-thousand (and eight) drummers working in massive unison on LED-lit drums, the modern dancers creating a scroll painting with their movements, the literal army of tai chi “fighters” creating perfect circles, then running, full-out, the aerial dancers, synchronized fireworks unlike any ever seen before, the use of children and song—all of this was a tribute to the strengths and global aspirations of this new super power.

The show, directed by the movie artist, Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “House of Flying Daggers”), along with choreographer Zhang Jigang, out-Disneyed any Super Bowl half-time ever envisioned. It was a tremendous display of special effects, lighting and stage-craft. But the main impact came from pure manpower, a massive army deployed, just this once, in the name of art.

I can’t pick one, so in random order, here are a few: Batsheva’s Kamuyot, akin to the amazing Mamootot but performed at NYC’s Jewish Community Center by teens and young dancers for their peers, who — like I — couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Richard Siegal twice, once at Danspace Project with As If Stranger, and a second time at City Center’s Fall for Dance with a mind-blowing virtuosic duet, New 45. Maguy Marin’s Umwelt at the Joyce, a hypnotic, powerful metaphor for just about anything bad or good. Babar drawings at the Morgan Library. Jane Comfort’s An American Rendition at the Duke, an unlikely concatenation of torture and reality TV performed by a ridiculously talented cast. A Giorgio Morandi retrospective at the Met Museum, compact and textbook in a good way. The resurgence of New York City Ballet’s dancers — the young generation fully blossoming now. One of that company’s principals, Benjamin Millepied, nuking my expectations with his company, Danses Concertantes’, fine Brahms/Chopin program at the Joyce. Martha Clarke’s 1984 Garden of Earthly Delights popping up at Minetta Lane Theater for an extended run, including several amazing dance world vets. The list, and the beat, goes on… ?

My favorite film of 2008 was Ari Folman’s Israeli film- Waltz with Bashir. And the best written and most emotionally complicated film moment was the central scene between the nun Meryl Streep and theAfrican-Americanmother Viola Davis in Doubt. But my single favorite cultural moment was in an otherwise quite crappy movie- We Own the Night.It was THE car chase in the film. Anyone who, alas, sat through the film will remember that chase. But what made itmy favoritemoment in 2008 was that so many films were astonishingly, ineptly, breathtakingly incapable of handling an action sequence. Extreme close ups, overly fast edits, no sense of rhythm, anticipation, surprise, delight- the rudiments of well crafted action scenes were rare in movies, and helped make James Bond’s Quantum of Solace the single most terrible and disappointing film of the year. The chase in We Own the Night won’t make anyone forget Bullitt or The French Connection. But for those of us who love action movies and action in movies- this was a very dry year indeed, and so thatbeautiful car chase was mannah from heaven.

*“As You Like It,” Shakespeare in Progress. 12/15/08 Skirball Center at New York University.

Every moment in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is potentially hilarious. The most interesting productions turn out to emphasize moments not quite exploited earlier in the play, or not in the same way, since the whole is a multifaceted gem for performers. Even on the page, however, the letter scene, when a solitary Malvolio reads and believes Maria’s forged love letter from Lady Olivia, causes eruptions of laughter and serves up the essence of Malvolio. His conceit is breathtaking. His capacity for self delusion boundless. His sheer ambition tells he will suffer while exciting the beginnings of our pity. He lives in fantasy. At the same time, the simple action of man plus letter manages to say everything at once important and ludicrous about Malvolio. Is this a formula for comedy? Dramatizing the inward thought certainly was WS’s thing. Converting a bare action into the stuff of high comedy was his genius. Michael Cumpsty’s performance for the Shakespeare Society* caught every nuance of character in the letter scene. Throbbing with desire less for the Lady than for his advancement to aristocratic class, his very soul rings out with his yearning, “Oh, to be Count Malvolio.”

Nina DaVinci

Arabian Nights, Berkeley Rep

Uncle Vanya, California Shakespeare Festival

Angela Ghergiou

La Boheme, San Francisco Opera

Elixir of Love, San Francisco Opera

Slumdog Millionaire

It was not a knockout season for theater in the Bay Area but highlights of 2008 had to be Mary Zimmerman’s imaginative “Arabian Nights” at Berkeley Rep and an “Uncle Vanya” from California Shakespeare Festival that glowed with the gold of a Russian summer as well as performances from Andy Murray, Dan Hiatt and Sarah Grace Wilson. Musically, Angela Ghergiou’s recital-cum-fashion show at Zellerbach Hall was something gorgeous, both to see and to hear. The ravishing Romanian returned, later in the season, to sing a luminous Mimi in an otherwise-flawed production of “La Boheme.” While the big noise at the opera in 2008 was the world premiere of Amy Tan and Stewart Wallace’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” the triumph of the season was a little, unassuming “Elixir of Love,” set in rural America at the turn of the century. Totally perfect in every detail, it starred Ramon Vargas as the lovesick bumpkin who reaches for the stars – and catches one. One last word: I know I am not one of culturvulture’s cadre of cinema critics but, if anybody asks me, “Slumdog Millionaire” is my Oscar choice.

This year my husband and I edited and readied for publication, The Blue Salon and Other Follies, a memoir by my husband’s cousin, Vernon Katz.

The Blue Salon and Other Follies lovingly recreates Vernon Katz’ 1930s childhood in Lippe, Germany. Through his eyes as a young boy, Vernon reveals how Jewish life in a country town gradually eroded as the Nazis came to power. He describes light-hearted family vignettes as well as dramatic events, including his parents’ escapes from imprisonment and death by the Nazis. The title, The Blue Salon and Other Follies, refers to the inability of Vernon Katz’s parents in the early years of Nazi rule to comprehend the dangers that lie ahead. Fifteen months after Hitler’s rise to power, his mother joyfully redecorates the house and creates the luxurious blue salon.

Vernon’s traumatic childhood, his literary prowess and his dry wit inspired us to help him bring his memoir to life. We spent about six months editing, with many calls to Vernon in London to discuss our changes, including details that no reader would ever notice. We selected sixty-four of Vernon’s pictures and ‘photoshopped’ them to erase the 50 to 100 years of cracks and wear.

Working with the publisher was frustrating at times, since we had a specific vision of how the book should look. Ultimately, I designed the cover, wrote the summary and biography while my husband took control of the inside of the book. We were all delighted to see the finished book and see it for sale.

This was a fascinating cultural experience for me. Exploring the publishing world and improving my editing skills was useful and interesting, but it didn’t compare with helping an author tell his important story with a clear and strong voice.

Emily S. Mendel

It takes either a genius or a dreamer to play these daunting sonatas on the same program, yet Jeremy Denk proved himself both in this inspired recital.

Undeterred by the occasional rumblings of a subway train (an incomprehensible drawback in the acoustic design of this latest venue at Carnegie Hall), Denk performed with passion, bravura, and even humor, first with Ives’s iconoclastic work based on 19th-century New England transcendentalist writers and then with Beethoven’s formidable composition, a fearsome challenge to even the most virtuosic pianists. Denk perfectly delineated the complex styles of each of the “Concord” sections, and then, after a brief intermission, trilled his way through the “Hammerklavier,” his pacing admirable throughout, from the energetic allegro to the devilishly complicated concluding fugue. Denk played each work—45 minutes apiece—from memory; through it all, he gave the most exquisitely nuanced readings imaginable, closing his eyes expressively, often smiling or leaning close to the keyboard, then arching back in sincere bliss, sighing audibly when he had finished. It was the kind of performance that prompted the audience, at first silent with awe, into an unabashed and deserved ovation. Denk, among the most promising pianists of the last decade, is something of a populist as well, addressing his followers with disarming, funny, and oddly informative posts on his blog, Think Denk (

As usual in the case of such important questions involving ranking experiences of aesthetic bliss, I am torn between two answers, either one being quite the aesthetic opposite of the other. (You guessed it; I’m a Libra.)

The first moment of pure joy that I experienced in 2008 came while watching Hsaio-hsein Hou’s movie The Flight of the Red Balloon with Juliette Binoche. How could I not be transported, being the witness of a brilliant collaboration between two gifted artists? From all reports, Miss Binoche’s performance is improvisation, and yet she is a puppet in the hands of the great Taiwanese director. Chin chin.

The other time I found myself in the obvious heights of rapture was during a performance of Robert Lepage’s The Andersen Project at UC Berkeley. When Yves Jacques (who plays several characters in this one-man show) began to disrobe a mannequin in a parody of another kind of rapture, I was beside myself, not only with a voyeur’s excitement, but recognition. That mannequin’s submissive non-response was a turn-on. The entire show was like that, a constant stream of amazing tricks for the eye and the mind. It was puppetry of another kind, equally magical.

Dame Edna, Post Street Theatre

European Galleries, New York Metropolitan Museum

Satyagraha. By Phillip Glass, Metropolita Opera, NY

Rami Khalife

Francesco Tristano Schlime’s duo piano outing on Nagam, Pop Art,

Alex North

Richard Einhorn Oratorio, Voices of Light

Sex in the City

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq

The Butterfly’s Burden ( Copper Canyon Press ) by Mahmoud Darwish

The idea of 10 best lists, or anything like it, is, for me at least, a kind of fool’s errand. For who in their right mind sees the complex business of art as an open andshut case, as if it were all a matter of apples and oranges, black or white, thumbs up or down? But since I’ve been asked to compile a list I hereby comply with one which isn’t in any ranked, much less, pecking order, because art, like life, is an unfolding series of experiences without rhyme or reason.

And Dame Edna, at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre, was certainly an event as the beloved megastar let loose with a non-stop series of barbs and asides,like when she called her squeezed into the tiny balcony faithful, formerly known as Mizzies, i.e., the Miserables, the nouveau pauvre, referring of course to all those stockbrokers who lost their shirts in the economic "meltdown. " I got an experience of a not necessarily "higher" order with a quick but focussed perusal of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European galleries on a late Sunday afternoon last April. Several sharply observed Goyas, a sombre backgounded Zurbaran " Crucifixion", 4 wonderful Matisses — a landscape and 3 small portraits parked in a corner –a knockout Sargent group portrait, and Alex Katz’s infinitely subtle and infinitely moving one of his wife Ada, Black and Brown Blouse ( 1976 ), in the downstairs contemporary gallery facing Central Park . A big and very welcome surprise was provided by the Onassis Cultural Center’s show of exquisitely made, especially the jewelry, 5 millennia old Minoan art, which I ducked into just before closing timeon my way back from Kinko’s. On the other side of town, was Philip Glass’ Gandhi opera, Satyagraha( 1979 ), in a very imaginative production at the Met ( see my review in Music ) .

Some wonderful CDs also came my way, especially Rami Khalife ( ) and Francesco Tristano Schlime’s duo piano outing on Nagam, Pop Art, which proved that even twentysomethings can be serious and accomplished, and which Iprofiled for The Bay Area Reporter ( ). Film composer Alex North’s music is always a revelation a
d continued to release original session recordings of scores both obscure — his for Preminger’s THE 13TH LETTER, Lewis Milestone’s LES MISERABLES ( both 1951 ),Joseph M. Newman’s PONY SOLDIER — and famous, ,Kazan’s VIVA ZAPATA, both from 1952, which I have and am writing up for Reviews But there’s nothing like catching North’s music "live", which I did at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, which presented the restored version of Anthony Mann and Stanley Kubrick’s fresh as ever SPARTACUS (1960) as part of its Tony Curtis fest. And then there was a really live performance of Richard Einhorn’s stripped down yet emotionaly intense oratorio, Voices of Light, which Mark Sumner’s choruses, solists, and orchestraplayed to a screening of Carl Dreyer’s 1927 silent masterwork, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, to a feverishly receptive packed house at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall this November.

One would be hard put to call 08 an entertaining yearin real life –the interminable and interminably vacuous presidential election — or in film , though SEX IN THE CITY — a must see for Kim Cattrall’s juicy ripostes and its views both interior and exterior of New York — and Disney’s talking dog movie BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA, with its hilarious one liners and adorable pooches, plus Colombian hearthrob Manolo Cardona and — Jamie Lee Curtis, delivered the goods in spades.

And books? Ilan Pappe’s harrowingbecause it’strue The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine ( Oneworld ) and some, though not all of Jonathan Steele’s dutifully reported buthardly passionate — compared to Robert Fisk who covers the same turf — Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq ( Counterpoint )Best of all was Fady Joudah’s award-winning translation of The Butterfly’s Burden ( Copper Canyon Press ) by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who diedat 66 in a Texas hospital far from his native land, Palestine, from which he and his family were ruthlessly expelled in the "48 war."Poetry is that which conspires to elude the poet" was Eugenio Montale’s description of this mysterious art, and Darwish’s was certainly mysterious and truly profound . " Along with bread, I was given your love to subsist on, / and my fate isn’t my concern/ as long as you are near / so take this to any meaning you want /with with me, or alone / for no home is closer than what I feel / right here in this swift spring / on other’s trees … / " he says in " The Subsistence of Birds. " Everything passes, even the bombs raining down on the besieged people of Gaza as I write this. We’re not talking Mary Oliver, but a real poet, whose following cut across all age and class lines, because whatDarwish wrote awakened something in their receptive hearts. And isn’t that what art, at its best,is all about?

Hands down my peak arts moment in 2008 was hearing Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Venezuelan Student Orchestra at Disney Hall. In the fall, a 28-year-old Dudamel will take over the baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. A friend put it this way, "Obama and Dudamel both in the same year; what else could we ask for?" The performance he pulled from these very young musicians, many off the streets of Caracas, could only be described as explosive. I have never before seen an audience as ignited at a classical concert. The students themselves were so fired up many gleefully tossed their instruments in the air.

The standing ovation has become an overworked cliché, but this was one occasion where the audience was as electrified as the performers. As for arts education in America, the Venezuelans put us to shame.

Beijing Olympics Opening CeremoniesGarden of Earthly DelightsWaltz with BashirShakespeare in ProgressArabian Nights, Berkeley RepThe Blue Salon and other FolliesJeremy DenkThe Red B alloonDame EdnaGustavo DudamelClick Here