Monday, March 28, 2011

Weekend reviews: Hope, that's it, or something like it

Charise Castro Smith's boomcracklefly at Miracle Theatre
By Barry Johnson

Anxiety, if not downright despair, had its way this weekend, but hope wasn't routed completely. No, hope is stubborn or at least stubbornly intermittent.  And at the arts events I attended, it fought a guerrilla campaign against overwhelming forces, a campaign that expressed itself in an invitation to lunch at a Thai restaurant and in the survival of a band of characters on a raft, tiny expressions of hope's capacity to resist the seemingly irresistible.

Is that vague enough? A little specificity: This weekend's events included the Arnica String Quartet's "Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze" concert at the Community Music Center, a first look at Matt McCormick's first feature film Some Days Are Better Than Others and a Sunday matinee of Miracle Theatre's Boomcracklefly.

Arnica String Quartet, Community Music Center:

Each of the sections of Henryck Gorecki's Already It Is Dusk (1988) begins with a bow scraped lightly against a string, lightly enough to give it a fuzzy, quavery sound that might become "scratchy" if the musician dug into the string just a little more. It's not an an unpleasant sound, exactly, and it's a common enough device in modern music. Here, Gorecki follows it with a storm of sound that will give you night terrors, if we are to follow the cues of the title. Forget sweet dreams in this night. It's a jungle out there, full of predators who can see in the dark. Hope? Maybe it's in the quavery line

The Arnica -- violinists Shin-young Kwon and Fumino Ando, violist Charles Noble and cellist Heather Blackburn -- nodded a few times toward to Gorecki, a Polish composer who was a child during World War II, losing several relatives to the concentration camps. They play him well. Gorecki was part of concert organizer Bob Priest's "Forgive Me, Mister Zappa," one of four composers Priest "adapted" to a song by rock iconoclast Frank Zappa. And the Arnica began the concert with Gorecki's Allegro Molto for two violins from his Sonata, op.10 (1957), a screeching, dissonant knot that immediately let the full house at the music center know that they hadn't wandered in for a bit of Mozart. Where was the hope in Gorecki, who died in November? Maybe just in those quavery lines, plaintive though they be.

At first I thought the concert's title, "Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze," was a comment on the early Kronos Quartet adaptation of Jimi Hendrix's famous rock song, especially since Kronos commissioned Gorecki's Already It Is Dusk and has been a champion of Gorecki's music.  No, that was the name of a piece by composer Michael Longton, whom Priest enlisted to contribute to a CD of new music inspired by Hendrix, and Longton was right: His piece has nothing in common with "Purple Haze," though I liked its slowly unfolding modulations.

The program included Lutoslawski's Bucolics (1962), a slightly gentler bit of business, lots of hope there, maybe, and concluded with Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, op 133 (1825-26), which is hardly restful itself. Stravinsky called it "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever," and it's not a huge step from it to Gorecki; it's that jagged and dissonant.

So, hope? Gorecki himself found some in words inscribed by an inmate, an 18-year-old woman, in a Gestapo prison: "Oh Mamma do not cry—Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always." He included them in his Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, his most famous work, and found some solace in the lamentation.

Matt McCormick, Some Days Are Better Than Others, Hollywood Theater

Awkwardness is fast becoming a dominant trope in American art and pop culture, not that it hasn't been with us since one of our savanah-roaming ancestors tripped in a pothole or was discovered making whoopie with the wrong, ahem, homo erectus, a joke that has already been made by a pop movie, that employs the trope.

McCormick's film, his first feature, isn't an awkwardness-based comedy, like "The Office" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm." No, it explores melancholy around the edges of Portland, Oregon, so quiet, soft and empty beyond McCormick's lens. That describes its three primary characters, too.

Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Sleater-Kinney) plays Katrina, who discovers her boyfriend's cheating on her via his email (she's cracked his password) and rapidly spirals from "getting by" into "despair." She works in an animal shelter and aspires to become a contestant on a reality television show. She knows here way around a camera and she likes to take old stuffed animals, tear them apart and make something different with them, a crazy animal hat, say. And she's pretty frank about her unhappiness. How long will it take for her pain to go away, she asks her roommate Eli, who is played by another important indie musician (McCormick has directed music videos for both), the Shins' James Mercer.

Eli says, maybe never. Eli's like that, clinging to his apartment and daily sustenance (he's figured out how to eat out three times a day for less than $7, though one of these involves lots of coffee refills at Stumptown) through a series of temp jobs, each worse than the last. He does have a friend, his step-grandfather, who spends his days making beautiful soap bubble films and traveling around town with Eli, whenever Eli needs to borrow his car.  Even Eli has begun to understand how awful his life is, though he can't figure out how to escape its clutches. At one point he says, I'll never have a job that pays $20 an hour, and though that's just a financial measurement, it doubles as his assessment of the quality of his future overall.

On one of his temp jobs, filming the beach for a few minutes every thirty minutes from near dawn to dusk (an assignment that is ultimately trash-canned, by the way), Eli spots a woman with a funeral urn, spreading ashes on the beach as the tide rolls in. That's Camille (Renee Roman Nose), who discovered the urn and its contents in a box where she works, a non-profit thrift store. Camille lives by herself and seems completely isolated from human contact, except at work, where she utters a few words now and then. She becomes obsessed by the urn and by the little girl's ashes inside. Her boss registers it with the police, but when its owner doesn't claim it, she takes matters into her own hands.

McCormick lets these little stories spool out slowly and then entangles them. Although the characters resemble Wendy in Wendy and Lucy, the film by Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond, starring Michelle Williams, Some Days Are Better Than Others is lighter, more whimsical, though mostly that's because of Katrina's quirks and Eli's strange jobs (counting milk containers at grocery stores, for example). But its subject is similar -- transience, the idea that we are in flux and headed toward uncertain futures that are shadowed by death and destruction.  Truly, I feel better about Wendy's prospects than Katrina or Eli's, even though she's scraping the very bottom and they aren't quite there yet.

Katrina and Eli (and to a lesser extent, Camille) are awkward in their lives, profoundly awkward. Their schemes and accomplishments are so minor and their blockages and hurdles are so large that we we wonder how they'll ever escape these little lives. But we know that a cure for awkwardness exists. It's called grace, and we suspect that all three characters have a karmic store of it somewhere, and that something good may await them. Maybe it starts with with Eli's suggestion to Katrina that they go to lunch together.  On the other hand...

McCormick is getting drilled by some reviewers for this film. Simon Abrams in Slant magazine writes, "Its brand of Teflon-coated humanism is twee to the extreme and largely devoid of anything that might prove that it has more than just a surface interest in the way we live now." And closer to home Alison Hallett writes, "By the unavoidable metrics of character and plot, though, Some Days is a flop, with a predictable, overlapping-lives setup that's doused in hipster melancholy and uninspired quirk."

I understand their points of view, but I like McCormick's impressionism, his willingness to allow a sky or series of boarded up houses float into his movie, not to mention those soap bubble movies. And if we get very far into the question, are these characters "real," we slip into choppy metaphysical waters quickly.

Boomcracklefly, Miracle Theatre

Oh-oh. Did I mention choppy metaphysical waters? Because boomcracklefly spills us into an ocean of them.

A new play by Charise Castro Smith and directed by Olga Sanchez for Miracle Theatre, boomcracklefly began as an idea to do a play about global warming, according to Smith at an audience talk-back after Sunday's matinee. That's hard to do, of course. How do you get someone to play a collapsing ice shelf in Antarctica, pray tell? But without really mentioning greenhouse gases, Smith has managed the feat.

The play is actually an allegory: Can we use technology to repair the problems that technology created AND create a technological utopia at the same time?  We'll just remind you of that band of characters floating on a raft at the end of boomcracklefly for the answer.

Although it has its slow spots for me, the play brims with energy, committed characterizations, odd flights of fancy, tumbling tricks and Ernest Hemingway. It links three stories -- the tale of the tumbling Lenin/Lennon sisters, the love of technology wizard Phoenix for the beautiful Fulana de Tal, and the battle of aspirations between an architect and his pregnant wife. These stories are not "realistic": Lennon has a brain tumor that allows her to fall in love with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, for example; Fulana has an imaginary grandmother; and the Phoenix uses her body parts to create a Utopia explosion. The architects wife sprouts wings. But we won't go into these --  much of the fun of boomcracklefly comes from the ways the actors and technical crew manage to make this stuff happen onstage.

Utopia. I've always been sympathetic toward utopias, even though, right, I have my doubts about getting involved in one. Major doubts. Smith's point is that they imply stasis, meaning once things are perfect, why would you want to change anything. But knowing primates as we do, we know that we aren't about to stand still for anything, even perfection. We're going to tinker. And we're going to rub each other the wrong way or get the wrong idea. And pretty soon, things are going to be just as bad as ever, maybe worse.

So, where's the hope, the theme of the day? Smith said it was simply in the fact that the characters, most of them anyway, survived to cling to that raft. And then one audience member pointed out, that's going to be one long, hard raft ride. And I'd have to agree.


Mead Hunter interviewed Charise Castro Smith to great effect (she had The Skin of Our Teeth in mind!)... and Richard Wattenberg reviewed the show for The Oregonian: "Director Olga Sanchez accepts the challenge with a spare production that may have rough edges but still captures the wonder at the heart of the play... A good selection of Matt McCormick's experimental shorts are available on Vimeo... Bob Priest organized March Music Moderne, a series of concerts featuring modern classical music, of which "Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze" was one -- thanks, Mr. Priest!


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