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A Tribute to Milton Glaser from his Alma Mater, Cooper Union

You know Milton Glaser — he’s the guy who gave the world the “I NY” logo in 1977 (and its uplifting 9-11 follow-up). That brilliantly spare design alone would have been enough to land the Bronx-born artist in the graphic arts pantheon, but his psychedelic Dylan poster and his covers for New York magazine would also have to be included in any comprehensive slide show of American visual culture. And speaking of covers, check out the images above, back and front covers from the August 23 and August 30, 1976, issues of the Village Voice — two samples of Glaser’s visionary stint as the paper’s design director in the mid-1970s.

With big pages and ever-refining color printing techniques, the middle of the 20th century proved a golden age of American print design, and in his few years at the Voice, Glaser used the tall, tabloid-size front and back pages as canvases to entice readers to pluck up the paper from a crowded news rack and hand over their 50¢. Mixing compelling photography (that’s an Avedon photo of Marian Anderson on the left), astute typography (STRUC/TURAL/ISM anyone?), ebullient cartoons (can you spot Snoopy in Stan Mack’s comic strip reporting from the GOP national convention that year?), and dense layouts, Glaser informed New Yorkers that there was going to be something for everyone in that week’s paper. Sometimes, as in this case, he even contributed the main illustration for the front page.

A portfolio of more Voice layouts by Glaser (1929–2020) can be seen in this related post:

[related_posts post_id_1=”725176″ /]

On February 24, Cooper Union will honor their 1951 graduate with a panel discussion featuring some graphic design heavyweights of our own day. The YouTube event will include Seymour Chwast, Gail Anderson, and Steven Heller, among other design virtuosos and commentators. ❖

What: Remembering Milton Glaser
When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021, 7 – 8PM
Where: The Cooper Union via YouTube

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“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Now Restored, Bustles Beautifully Between Memories

The working-class, mid-twentieth-century Liverpudlian characters who populate Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) sometimes glance in the direction of the camera, their self-conscious near-posing and the director’s portrait-like framing evoking the flipping-through of an old photo album. This combination of intimacy and remove — the startling emotional jolt of seeing a family in mourning stare toward you in silence, an image of the felled patriarch hanging on the wall behind them — characterizes Davies’s enthralling thirty-year-old debut feature, an autobiographically informed but hardly event-reliant memory piece. (It returns this week in a 4K restoration.) Davies’s reminiscences, centered on one Catholic clan, unfold according to a peculiar emotional logic: The characters are more comfortable singing than speaking. (“Bye Bye Blackbird” diffuses a barroom argument.) Scenes aren’t shaped with typical dramatic roundness, but rather pick up and cut off at surprise intervals. Even an encounter with stark interpersonal stakes — a confrontation between army-age son Tony (Dean Williams) and abusive father Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite) — is structured as a sort of de-escalation. Davies opens on an expression of mighty rage, Tony punching his fists through a window (“Fight me, you bastard!”), then transitions abruptly to a near-the-fireplace shot of Tony holding two beers in his bloodied hands, Tommy flatly but quietly refusing his boy’s offer of a drink. Such disjunctive stops and starts recur across Davies’s movie, whose look-back form — all elegiacally drifting camera movements and belted-out bar songs — endures as a grand cinematic anomaly.

Like Davies’s spiritually aligned and similarly song-rich The Long Day Closes (1992), Distant Voices, Still Lives opens with a downpour; here, the raindrops fall on a front step stocked with fresh milk bottles. Unlike that later movie, which maintains a mostly childhood-specific p.o.v., Distant Voices, Still Lives loops with abandon through the years and personalities, observing deaths, births, hospital visits, weddings, holidays. Eileen (Angela Walsh), one of the two daughters of Tommy and “Mother” (Freda Dowie), gushes over a bottle of Chanel perfume gifted to her by Dave (Michael Starke), whom she later marries. (In The Long Day Closes, the women seated around a table wish they had Chanel.) Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), Eileen’s sister, asks her father for money to go to the dance, which he agrees to only if she’ll clean the cellar; she scrubs the floors, and then he beats her with a broomstick. At a crowded pub, Tony places a seemingly never-ending drink order; seconds later, he shepherds a tray’s worth of cold beers into a bustling room of crooning loved ones. As kids, the siblings spy on their father brushing a horse and singing to himself — a moment of tenderness for this hard man.

On occasion, Davies interrupts the thoughtful solemnity with touches of humor: Eileen offhandedly calling her loud-chewing husband “Mouth Almighty” is a barb worthy of Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in Davies’s A Quiet Passion. Stylistically, some of his maneuvers create an almost confounding mix of the tragic and the unhinged, as when he depicts one accidental disaster two men falling through a pane of glass via an extravagant slow-motion shot that lasts around thirty seconds. A sudden, out-of-context image like that one is typical of the sprawl of Distant Voices, Still Lives, but the intention behind other structural decisions is more clear. Early on, Eileen and her good friend Micky (Debi Jones) loiter outside Eileen’s house after an evening of dancing, hoping to get in one final cigarette before Tommy’s strict curfew. Obviously very cool and destined for better, more glamorous things, the women covertly mock Eileen’s father’s social restrictions (“It’s worse than Alcatraz, isn’t it?”). Years later, the two share another private chat at the end of a long night out. Micky raises the specter of future get-together plans, but the conversation only amounts to Eileen’s halfhearted “We’ll see, kid.” The gradations of life — spouses, responsibilities, fatigue — have caught up with them, wearing down their youthful exuberance. As in the rest of the movie, Davies seizes this crushing morsel of wisdom practically on the fly, before rushing on to the next memory, the next song, the next glass of beer.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
Directed by Terence Davies
Arrow Films
Opens August 31, Metrograph

 

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“Henry VI,” Shakespeare’s Forbidding Chronicle of Civil War, Rings Clearly Today

Apparently, there are worse types to lead a country than a greedy, mendacious bully. Just ask Margaret (Mahira Kakkar), the Frenchwoman pressed into diplomatic service by the Earl of Suffolk (Paul Juhn), who marries her to the English King Henry VI (Jon Norman Schneider) and hopes to control them both. Margaret complains about her royal spouse to Suffolk, now her lover: “All his mind is bent to holiness,/To number Ave-Maries on his beads;/His champions are the prophets and apostles,/…[A]nd his loves/Are brazen images of canonized saints.” Mild and pious Henry may be, but his weak rule is the wound through which gushes an ocean of civil woe in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, currently being staged with great style and verve by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO). One lesson from this engaging account: The downfall of a bad ruler may be prologue to one who’s even worse.

These early-career Shakespeare history plays, which include the better-known Richard III, are devilishly hard to produce, particularly outside of England or in the absence of, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s resources. Covering decades of English dynastic struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York (known as the Wars of the Roses) as well as the loss of French lands won by Henry V, the crusade of Joan of Arc, and civil clashes such as Jack Cade’s 1450 peasant rebellion, the three parts of Henry VI are crammed with persons, locales, and almost comically swift reversals of loyalty. You see a young playwright eagerly learning his craft, stage-managing bloody battles or tracking serpentine genealogies in blank verse, and miss the rich inner lives of characters in later works. What we get instead is late-medieval soap opera, which for bingers of Game of Thrones or Wolf Hall might be perfect programming. An uncut staging of the trilogy would run about ten hours, sans intermissions. Adapter-director Stephen Brown-Fried has pared the text down to nearly half the verbiage, or two nights that clock in at five and a quarter hours.

In exchange, we get perhaps twice the narrative bang. Brown-Fried has assembled a solid acting ensemble and design team for this cynical, gory epic. Kakkar, delicate yet iron-cast, skillfully rides one of the most satisfying character arcs. As the French girl who comes of age in the English court and grimly hangs on to power, she transforms into the “tiger’s heart, wrapp’d in a woman’s hide,” scorned by the Duke of York (Rajesh Bose), whom Margaret will eventually torture to death. Bose himself cuts a coolly calculating figure, a man who claims a birthright to the throne but, more important, has the urge to command that Henry seems to lack. The dynamic Sophia Skiles looks daggers and speaks flames as Eleanor, the scheming wife of Humphrey of Lancaster (stalwart Mia Katigbak), Henry’s guardian. As the Earl of Warwick, Vanessa Kai is an icy, proud, all-around kickass. I was positively tickled by Juhn’s suave, oily Suffolk and Anna Ishida’s perpetually pissed-off Somerset. With his gleaming shaved head and coiled physique, the sharp David Huynh emerges in the second part as York’s son Richard — renamed the Duke of Gloucester — the disabled malcontent who will murder his way to power.

Keeping all these plotters and traitors and Frenchies clear is not easy, especially when NAATCO must perforce double- and triple-cast actors. Still, lean staging and deft character work keep the lines of allegiance mostly clear. (A video display in the lobby is a handy primer.) The choices for act breaks are dramaturgically clever, too. The intermission in the first part comes with Suffolk’s soliloquy about controlling the throne through Margaret. Then the first part ends with York smugly sharing his plan for gaining the crown. These villainous solo bits of direct address nicely prefigure Richard III, who divulges similarly ambitious impulses but in a much more concentrated, nihilistic way — divorced from love of family, nation, even self.

The design here is artful, resourceful, and sleekly ahistorical. Kimie Nishikawa’s blood-red floor is partly obscured by ash-like black flakes, which the feet of the actors shift here and there over the course of the plays. This physical environment connotes violence, bloodlines, the burned bodies of history. Nicole Slaven’s costumes are equally effective, a period-punk mash-up of camouflage, combat boots, and black leather. Given all the combat and bloodletting the action requires, movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin get a lot of mileage out of slow-motion staff fighting and Reza Behjat’s percussive strobe lighting.

Apart from condensing and keeping the action fluid, Brown-Fried’s editing shows a feminist urge to suppress fanciful bits that have aged less well. Gone are the scenes featuring two female characters — Joan of Arc and Eleanor — summoning demons for counsel, which were probably lit a.f. on the Elizabethan stage but strike a witchy-misogynist note today. Then there’s the heavy-handed stuff, such as the stiff passages that follow Henry’s anguished battlefield soliloquy in Part 3 (Schneider delivers a tender, moving rendition). Before horrified Henry’s eyes, a son drags the body of a soldier he’s killed, only to realize that it’s his own father; a speech later, a father does the same, discovering he’s killed his son. Rhyming lamentation follows. In its ritualized desolation it’s nearly Beckettian, but the section feels like something young Will cribbed from a morality play. You won’t miss it.

Even trimmed to manageable size, Henry VI is a serious investment of time and energy in what boils down to some very sketchy English folks squabbling over a round bit of metal. (LOTR this is not.) Even so, I never tired of NAATCO’s appealing, expert ensemble as it navigated the twisty chronicles. The last time I saw Henry VI performed was 2004’s two-part, all-male Rose Rage. (In a welcome reversal, actresses play women and men here.) I’m happy to revisit this fratricidal-regicidal pageant, in all its tribal, speechifying glory. Moreover, I’m grateful that NAATCO gives work to some of the city’s finest Asian-American talent. Casting agents and artistic directors, take note: Enlisting a diverse group of players is a surefire way to make ancient texts release truly universal music.

Henry VI
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
866-811-4111
naatco.org
Through September 8

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“Maison du Bonheur” Isn’t Just a Doc About Life With a Charming Parisian — It’s a Vacation

Fittingly, in place of a title card at the start of her 16mm delight Maison du Bonheur, Canadian independent filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz offers up a shot of a welcome mat. “Maison du Bonheur” it reads, inviting us into the home and the film. The former belongs to Juliane Sellam, a charming, chatty, vivacious astrologer who has lived in the same apartment in Paris’s Montmartre district for half a century. The latter is Bohdanowicz’s hourlong assemblage documenting a July visiting Sellam, studying her routines, taking in her talk, marveling at the gardenias in the windows, the blooms as dazzling as the July 14 fireworks we’ll see later.

The film is a portrait of a woman, 77 at the time of filming, and her home, dedicated to processes — behold Sellam’s recipe for bread for Shabbat — and striking still-life shots. Here are fruit and herbs in bowls before an open window, a breeze easing through them; here are the fashionable Sellam’s pumps and heels, a collection Galapagan in abundance and variety. Sellam speaks with enthusiasm as she waters her flowers, bakes a cake, gets her nails and hair done, or gives Bohdanowicz an astrological reading. She explains about how she refuses to leave the apartment without makeup, how much she loves not having had plastic surgery, how her late husband would buy her three or four pairs of shoes at a time. We see old photographs of Sellam in smashing gowns and watch her snack with her sister, both of whom must be gently told, when toasting each other for Bohdanowicz, not to look at the camera. (That camera: a hand-cranked Bolex.)

Bohdanowicz undertook the project without having previously met her subject, but for both the filmmaker and her audience, making Sellam’s acquaintance proves a rare pleasure. The cozy blissfulness of Bohdanowicz’s study might be suggested by a consideration of the film’s two moments of tension. One comes late, when Bohdanowicz has left the maison for a day trip to a Normandy beach, not far from a town where she once had lived, quite unhappily; on this excursion, she gets caught in the rain and shoots its glum patter on the sidewalk. (Sellam calls as Bohdanowicz schleps home on the bus, checking whether the filmmaker will make it back in time for dinner.)

That rainstorm is the darkest occurrence in the film, but Bohdanowicz does capture one brief moment of anxiety. Early on, Bohdanowicz, a stranger and guest and filmmaker, tells us in a filmed diary that she suspects that Sellam has heard the previous diaries she has shot late at night. You might tense up, as I did, at the thought of her host and subject listening in on Bohdanowicz’s own processes, on both her acclimation to sharing Sellam’s life and her thoughts on how best to capture it all. But rest assured, it’s one that something sweet comes of: What Sellam seems to have heard was Bohdanowicz lamenting that on this trip to Paris, she had not yet found an excellent pastry. Her host, the next day, remedies this, and it’s both delightful — and a little cruel — that Sellam gives us so much time to regard the dessert in question.

Maison du Bonheur
Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz
Opens August 24, Metrograph

 

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The Thrilling “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” Invites You to Rage With the Champ

Here’s as thrilling a vision as you’re likely to see on a screen this year: young John McEnroe, in the short-shorts and curls of his peak years, tossing a tennis ball up above his head and then leaping, twisting, smashing his racket into it, blasting it across the rust-red clay court of Roland-Garros. We see this again and again, in fluid slow motion that invites us to regard it as we might the time-lapse blooming of a flower, or Eadweard Muybridge’s famous movement study of a horse’s gait. McEnroe’s airborne convulsions are complex, beautiful, balletic, slightly akimbo, fiercely intimidating, an act of will and rage performed beyond conscious thought. It is the gathering and release of a ferocious power. Adding to the sense of delicious might: Director Julien Faraut has scored this to the seedily rousing chug of Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.”

And making it even better: McEnroe himself didn’t want this filmed. The footage, like most of the searching cine-essay John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot in competition at the French Open in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker specializing in the study of tennis technique. The whir of the specialized camera equipped for slow-motion shots seemed a roar on a hushed tennis court, another distraction for the sensitive champion to rail against. De Kermadec, we learn, had come to believe that the performance of athletes in competition differed from their performance in drills or tutorials, so he captured them in actual matches. He produced a contemporary study of McEnroe’s technique, complete with early Eighties computer animation charting every pivot of his serve. Faraut’s film draws upon that but is mostly assembled from a trove of 16mm footage de Kermadec’s team shot at Roland-Garros between 1981 and 1985, often intimate close-ups of a great caught up in his greatness.

The invigorating first third investigates the fundamentals of McEnroe’s game. Actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric narrates, drawing our attention to McEnroe’s unpredictable backhand, his confidence rushing to the net for a drop shot, and what we could call the illegibility of his serve. Nothing in those gyrations offers any indication of where the ball might be headed. Especially revealing — moving, even — is a series of points where we only see McEnroe’s side of the court. We witness his serve, his tracking of the ball, his hustle to return the return, his intensity and concentration, the union of strategic thinking and peak-human reflexes.

Much of the film, as you might expect, is given over to its star’s on-court outbursts. What becomes clear, watching McEnroe harangue line judges and intrusive photographers, is that the rages were birthed in a disappointed agony, a disgust at a world with inhabitants who persistently failed to see what he did. “Show me the mark,” he says, insistently, repeatedly, to chair umpires, seeking the overthrow of a call. Shrewdly, Faraut never offers us a replay, leaving us to stew in McEnroe’s aggrieved certainty. Somewhat inevitably, Amalric’s narration becomes a psychological and philosophical interrogation of McEnroe, offering extended comparisons of the athlete to a film director (those drop shots are his way of calling “cut!”) or an actor, particularly Tom Hulce, who studied tennis’ enfant terrible for his starring turn as Vienna’s problematic child prodigy in Amadeus.

Some of these assertions prove more convincing than others, but what’s indisputable is the suspenseful power of the film’s final stretch, a timestamped walk-through of the French Open’s 1984 men’s final. McEnroe, that year enjoying what is still the highest win rate in the sport’s history, at first seems to be cruising to an easy victory over Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl. But then something goes wrong. From there, Faraut’s film doesn’t just put us courtside — it steeps us in the legend’s boiling mind.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
Directed by Julien Faraut
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Opens August 22, Film Forum

 

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“Support the Girls” Is a Winning, Rambunctious Comedy About Work in America

Support the Girls marks a thorough airing-out of a most welcome subgenre: the workplace comedy of escalating crises. Unyieldingly patient Lisa (Regina Hall) runs an off-the-highway Texas sports bar, Double Whammies, with characteristic devotion and empathy toward her staff and customers. Though the servers’ tight-fitting attire may be Hooters-revealing, Lisa insists on a wholesome “mainstream” atmosphere, as amenable to families as it is to fight-watchers or before-noon, Lone Starsipping regulars like Bobo (Lea DeLaria). But on the day that Andrew Bujalski’s high-energy sixth feature catches Lisa, the managerial challenges pile up with such urgency that not even she can get through the hours without flipping off a bird or kicking the side of a building. Mostly offscreen waitress Shaina (Jana Kramer) has rammed her car into her belligerent boyfriend, so Lisa cooks up a scheme to raise money to meet Shaina’s impending legal fees: assigning a group of young women who have applied for server jobs to offer car washes in the parking lot. (“Support the girls,” reads a note on the tin can collecting the customers’ donations.)

Undertaken without the blessing of the bar’s crotchety owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), the car wash project becomes a constant source of anxiety in Lisa’s afternoon. But the more immediate, minute-by-minute complications also strain Lisa’s trademark enthusiasm. In one shot alone, Lisa receives back-to-back crisis dispatches from servers: One reports that a customer made a crude remark about her weight; another emerges from a restroom from which emanates the sound of a man hurling. Lisa takes this all commendably in stride — just before her confrontation with the offensive patron, we see her let out a deep sigh — but we’re only a half-hour into the movie. And did I mention that the restaurant’s televisions aren’t working or that the police are on-site investigating a robbery?

This frenetic suite of situations hardly adds up to Frederick Wiseman’s Sports Bar. But Bujalski — as he has in his previous work, like Results (2015), about the employees of a boutique Texas gym — still displays a productive and analytical interest in the mechanics of operating a small business. Lisa’s recruitment of job applicants for the car wash scheme demands setup scenes in which she and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) outline the statutes and philosophies of Double Whammies: an official list of “Golden Rules” posted in the locker room (“Be responsible”); Maci’s explanation of the borderline between acceptable and questionable touching of the customers (“try not to squeeze”). Even a sideline character like Jay (John Elvis), depicted chiefly through his gratuitous passes at the Double Whammies ladies (he’s married and in one line refers to his wife as his “roommate situation”), isn’t some professionally anonymous personality but the proud polo-and-khaki-wearing employee of a speaker store, Sounds Town. Bujalski works this fact into the traffic of the plot, showing Lisa and one of her most beloved colleagues, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, a/k/a Junglepussy), visiting Jay’s shop and exploiting his infatuation to secure a discount on a speaker system for the restaurant. A charming but inconsequential scene of Lisa attempting to entertain Danyelle’s son, McKray (Jermichael Gray), also can’t escape the specter of the bottom line. Lisa shares with the child her shift chart, playfully likening the schedule to a puzzle and her servers to “my bench” and “my superstars” (“Your mom, she’s right at the top”).

Bujalski frames most of Support the Girls as an almost real-time delineation of chaos, but his storytelling elegance — delicate, nearly invisible foreshadowing; cogent evocations of backstory — adds reflective layers to the surface anarchy. During one car ride, Lisa happens to see a woman crying in a juice-bar window; it seems like nothing, but Lisa later returns to the shop and consoles the woman, who turns out to be Krista (AJ Michalka), a Double Whammies server agonizing over how her impulsive Stephen Curry tattoo will be received at work and elsewhere. The more Lisa sprints selflessly around — attending to calamities as minor as an absent foosball table or as major as her on-the-rocks marriage (to Cameron, played by Lawrence Varnado) — the more Bujalski and Hall start to painfully question her superhuman investment in others. The early impression of a confident, sunny bravado, with Lisa cheerfully confronting tasks as they materialize, falls away, exposing the vulnerable interiority of a person defined so profoundly by her prioritization of work and colleagues over herself. When Danyelle says to Lisa, “You’re married to this place,” it feels like precisely the sort of line that might have kept Lisa coming back in the past — but that on this trying day has the opposite effect, sending her off on an overdue mission of personal reckoning.

Support the Girls
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
Magnolia Pictures
Opens August 24, IFC Center and Alamo Drafthouse

 

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The Eye-Popping “Cielo” Invites You to a Party in the Sky

Somewhere between a Discovery Channel special and a Koyaanisqatsi-esque head trip, you’ll find Alison McAlpine’s exquisite portrait film Cielo.

“Cielo” is Spanish for sky, but it also translates to heaven, and that’s exactly the sort of ambiguity McAlpine uses to her advantage. She opens with a sort of invocation to the cielo of the Chilean Atacama Desert, and then we meet the people living underneath it. There are travelers, cowboys, miners, and an older couple just going about their lives. Then there are the planet hunters at different observatories, some from Switzerland, others from Spain and Chile. They analyze data, they tinker with their telescopes, they sing songs about the celestial unknown. There’s also a wandering photographer looking for UFOs and a teacher retelling ancestral stories. “We are invited to a party in the sky,” he explains.

Anyone who comes to Atacama is profoundly moved by the clearness and closeness and wonder of the place. The images in the film are unmatched by any Hollywood blockbuster, but it isn’t just the awesome views of what looms above — it’s also the faces of those looking from below.

This all makes for some heavy viewing, but Cielo works in defiance of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement that we are either alone in the universe or we are not, and both possibilities are equally terrifying. Revealing a generosity, zeal and delight here, it suggests the cosmos may not be as cold as some think.

Cielo
Directed by Alison McAlpine
Juno Films
Opens August 15, at Film Forum

 

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“We the Animals” Is a Wild, Tender, Thrilling Tale of Coming of Age Queer

Brawling yet tender, wild yet rigorously controlled, first-time fiction director Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals is an impressionistic swirl of a film about masculinity, about abuse, about growing up queer, about chaotic family life, about the jumble of incidents and stirrings through which a child discovers a self. It’s essentially plotless yet dense with incident, even with its share of shocks. Much of its beautiful, sometimes tragic power comes from a sense of stasis. For the family at its heart, everything seems to be in constant, even terrifying disorder, and yet nothing really changes — not after one son discovers he’s different, not even after Dad knocks out Mom’s teeth.

Adapted from Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel, Zagar’s film immerses us in the adolescence of Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three vigorously rambunctious, perennially shirtless brothers coming up rough in upstate New York. Zagar captures their childhoods in hurtling wide shots of kids running amuck: chest-beating forest play, feral screaming in an abandoned silo; raiding the fridge, they jab their hands into peanut butter and lick off their fingers. Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan, who have collaborated on Zagar’s documentary films, shot We the Animals on Super 16mm film, utilizing wide lenses, tracking the kids as they bound across glades or kitchens rather than fussily staging their movements. The result is a freewheeling, intimate, hazy look, marked by a graininess that suggests not just home movies but the memory of home movies. Sequences of the boys bounding about have that endless-summer warmth: the sun in your hair, that essence of endless, aimless childhood.

Their parents love each other, and them, but are volatile and overwhelmed. Their cars break down, their bosses are assholes, their near-feral kiddos limit their options. And, sometimes, the father (Raúl Castillo) hits the mother (Sheila Vand). Those rowdy wide shots are complemented by raw and delicate close-ups; it’s terrifying when the energy of the former bursts into the latter, when a huggy family dogpile inspires the boys to slap their father’s bare back in imitation of his own occasional violence.

Zagar punctuates all this with inky animated reveries lifted from Jonah’s notebook and imagination. He hides under the bed at night, writing stories and drawing cartoons, making sense of the tumult. An older neighbor boy shows the brothers some cable TV pornography, including a flash of man on man; those undulations work their way into Jonah’s daydreams. It’s only at the film’s end that he has begun to understand how he’s different from his brothers — a contrast explored in two tense yet moving scenes. As always in We the Animals, what happens is momentous yet not enough to shatter this family’s tangled bonds.

We the Animals
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
The Orchard
Opens August 17, Landmark 57 and Angelika Film Center

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A Vanished Russia Comes Convincingly Back to Life in the Biographical “Pushkin”

More people probably know the operas based on the poems and plays of the crucial nineteenth-century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) than have direct experience of his writing itself. Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is still popular, whereas the source material, written in verse, is said to lose something ineffable in translation. Walter W. Arndt’s 1963 rendering of Eugene Onegin pleased many people, but they did not include Vladimir Nabokov, who published his own version of the story, seeking to capture the literal rather than the poetic sense of Pushkin’s material. Pushkin died at the age of 37 after fighting a duel over his wife, Natalya, with a count who had sought her favor, and so the lead-up to the end of his life has dramatic possibilities aplenty. What’s most impressive about Jonathan Leaf’s biographical play Pushkin, running through August 25 at the Sheen Center in downtown Manhattan in a production directed by Christopher McElroen, is that Leaf never chooses the easy way out for himself or for his audience.

This is an ambitious drama in verse, conceived on a large scale, with more than ten characters kept in play and in flux throughout. Leaf re-creates a whole lost Russian society on the stage, without ever making the mistake of trying too hard to underline contemporary resonances. Pushkin takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century in Russia, and the societal structures that dictate the action — as well as the attitudes of the many characters — are very particular to that time, and very closely observed.

From the moment that Ian Lassiter enters the space, he incarnates the Pushkin seen in paintings: He is perfect both visually and emotionally. Pushkin was of mixed race, with an African ancestor on his mother’s side, and racial prejudice against him is expressed openly — most upsettingly, by his wife, Natalya (Jenny Leona), who fairly early in the play makes reference to her husband’s “inferior stock.” She gets a slap in the face from Pushkin as a response, at which point she tells him that his impulsive resort to violence proves his inferiority. Leaf takes pains to show just how Natalya’s ugly prejudice against her husband does its part in ruining both her life and his, providing a wide social perspective and context in which we can understand these people and the reasons why they behave the way they do.

Once Leaf sets his narrative in motion, the action can occasionally get a little dry, but this is more than made up for by the sumptuous period costumes by Elivia Bovenzi — whose attention to detail is perhaps the decisive factor that makes this production so enveloping. The way she dresses Natalya’s sisters, Katarina (Olivia Gilliatt) and Alexandra (Lexi Lapp), instantly reveals their respective characters: The first sister is anxious to follow in Natalya’s footsteps and become a wife, while Alexandra is a bluestocking who has nearly resigned herself to living in her mind only (until she later makes her feelings for Pushkin known, and he responds in kind).

Bovenzi and company go the extra distance here to make us believe that we are in the Russia of this era. There is a scene where Katarina wears long earrings, accompanied by a large pearl number that seems to be hung from her elaborate coiffure. As she walked toward a gentleman admirer at the show I attended, this large pearl earring fell off, and Gilliatt made a beautifully graceful period-specific physical gesture to pick it up off the floor as she made her exit. This was one of those heated theatrical moments where something that was clearly not meant to happen wound up adding texture and mood to the drama. It would not have occurred if both Bovenzi and Gilliatt hadn’t given their full attention to just what it would be like to be a woman in a Russian court in the nineteenth century.

There are no heroes or villains here. In a deft bit of double casting, Tracy Sallows plays both Natalya’s ambitious mother and a serf who is spying on Pushkin and reporting back to Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette). It is a tribute to Sallows’s skill that these women seem at once drastically different on the surface, because of their social standing, and somehow similar at the core, at least when it comes to motherhood and what they will do for their children. Pushkin, for his part, is viewed as a proud and even arrogant man who keeps his emotions close to the vest — no doubt because he has to endure insults about his heritage not only from his wife but also from the tsar, who orders him to wear a servant’s uniform at court and serve drinks during a fancy ball.

At the end of Pushkin, the cast members spread out a large white cloth over the red carpeting of the set, a simple yet potent theatrical device that makes us feel we are in the snowbound landscape where Pushkin will fight his fatal duel. When shots are fired, curtains fall down around the space and we see the manuscript pages of Eugene Onegin on the walls. As Pushkin’s friend and fellow writer Gogol (Kyle Cameron) observes at the end of this play, there are no words finally for a dead writer when only their own words remain.

The uncensored version of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov premiered only in 2007, in English translation at Princeton University — so even though Pushkin takes place nearly two centuries ago, issues of political censorship still aggressively haunt artists in countries that seek to stifle dissent. A modern-day Pushkin wouldn’t be likely to fight a duel, but surely he would be viewed with exactly the same skepticism by Russian authorities, and likely without even Tsar Nicholas’s aesthetic appreciation of Pushkin’s verse. Leaf’s Pushkin is both a highly convincing re-creation of a Russian past in theatrical terms and also a dissection of issues that — though they may have taken on different form over the years — still plague us mightily.

Pushkin
Sheen Center
18 Bleecker Street
866-811-4111
sheencenter.org
Through August 25

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Mark Morris’s Good-Time Variations on Romance Impress at Lincoln Center

Mark Morris finds inspiration in music, and this weekend’s bill at the Rose Theater provides a particularly rich and diverse collection, all played live — including Brahms’s Liebeslieder-Walzer, performed in German, and a suite of Monteverdi madrigals sung in Italian. The orchestra pit overflows with singers, pianists, and an ensemble of “early musicians” playing the lute, harpsichord, and theorbo.

This Mostly Mozart program’s world premiere, The Trout, to the 35-minute Piano Quintet in A major by Franz Schubert, provides a luxuriant playing field on which eleven barefoot dancers gambol. Its five women wear Maile Okamura’s pretty, translucent party dresses, each a different color; the six men are in neutral tank tops and dance trousers. Lighting designer Nick Kolin washes the cyclorama with shifting shades of blue and green.

The work opens with performers arriving onstage and clapping one another on the back, as if meeting again after a long time apart; some clasp hands. They enter and exit to the wings of the wide stage, almost shyly, assaying the center of the space and darting out again. Finally managing to mingle, they begin spinning, a motif that continues through the piece. Morris seems determined to exploit all the stage levels, with dancers sometimes leaping and sometimes lying on the ground, demonstrating both lightness and weight.

Morris never forgets that he’s in show business: His works, presentational even at their most intimate, seem aimed at giving us a good time. The dancers achieve precision but never succumb to affectation; they’re human beings, not gods and goddesses, and their vocabulary includes ordinary walking and running steps as well as energetic lifts and barrel turns. The Trout is full of incident, with little variations for groups of five, four, three, and two, as well as plaintive solos; we’re not watching storytelling, but observing choreography that illuminates musical structure in much the same way that George Balanchine’s dances do.

Filling out this satisfying evening are appealing performances of Morris’s 1989 Love Song Waltzes, made during the troupe’s sojourn in Brussels, and the 1996 I Don’t Want to Love. Smooth and angular by turns, Waltzes affords us glimpses of veteran dancer Lauren Grant among an ensemble composed of both old-timers and newbies, and of course glorious sequences of a dozen dancers whirling in one another’s arms. In I Don’t Want to Love, the diminutive Grant seems to grow in stature, becoming an in-house Wonder Woman in Isaac Mizrahi’s shiny white bare-midriff outfit; Brandon Randolph claims space in a shirt open to the waist. It’s a bit of a shock to one’s system to move so quickly from listening to German to hearing lyrics in Italian, but the dancers weather the transition well, occasionally erupting into cartwheels. They leap, they stroll, they make impudent gestures; at one point, sitting on the floor, they reach out to one another with bare feet; later, they alternate between kneeling and reaching their heads toward the sky, but they resolutely refuse to meet and meld. This is, after all, a piece about refusing romance. Lesley Garrison, a rangy blonde in a long slit skirt, constantly grabs the eye.

Morris delights in off-kilter structures, and in displaying body parts — elbows, for instance — that don’t often get attention on dance stages; his métier is a fusion of folk, ballet, and modern idioms that manages to appear entirely natural. He’s taken, in recent months, to preparing dances for cold storage, as it were, ready to resuscitate after he’s gone — but he’s just 61. Has working on the Schubert spooked him? The Viennese composer only made it to 31.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Broadway at 60th Street
212-721-6500
markmorrisdancegroup.org
Through August 12