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Psyche Killer: Takashi Murakami’s New Show at Gagosian Is a Trip

Takashi Murakami’s latest exhibition, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” so generously feeds psychedelic spectacle to the pilgrims who flock to Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea flagship that measuring the show by standards other than volume of Instagram posts seems inadequate. The show renders a critic’s job (almost) obsolete.

The task we’re left with? Take it all in: a mural longer than a tennis court bursting with figures and details; a pair of towering, cartoonish demons with baroque musculature and Popeye biceps; a full-size ancient Japanese temple gate that might have come straight off a Cinecittà soundstage — and that’s just half the works in one of the exhibition’s four rooms.

And though there are a few shiny, Koonsian objects — one a nearly 14-foot-tall gold-leafed tower (destined, one assumes, for the monied precincts of Saadiyat Island) — there are otherwise few traces of the infuriatingly bald commerce of the 52-year-old art star’s Louis Vuitton boutique-within-an-exhibition of six years ago, when his Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles–organized retrospective — it was called © MURAKAMI, remember? — landed at the Brooklyn Museum. But in-exhibition merchandising is so 2008, and so much has changed since. Just think of the oligarchs’ wives who once swiped platinum cards in exchange for brown and gold satchels and are now subject to government sanctions.

In “Land of the Dead,” Murakami seems intent on speaking to these more straitened times, though any language spoken inside Gagosian is necessarily the patois of privilege. The artist says in his statement that he’s addressing the earthquake and nuclear disaster that terrified his homeland in 2011 (and, we assume, along with it the current global anxiety and economic uncertainty). Yet surely no expense was spared to create that temple gate — more than 21 feet tall and as wide as a pair of 18-wheelers, it’s an ashen wood hulk complete with curved roof and massive eaves. Modeled on the gate type originated in China but later imported to Japan, it’s the only slice of monochrome in an otherwise blindingly bright show.

For Murakami, that gate embodies the shifting meaning of a single image. In China such a formidable structure would have been used for fortification. In the isolated island nation of Japan, the imported form becomes a totem of power and pomp. Elsewhere in the show, in works based on Edo-period (1603–1868) paintings in turn based on Chinese precedents, Murakami shows us his ability to repurpose the old and make it utterly of-the-moment. The roiling seas in his massive mural unfold in riots of juxtaposed pattern and color that Vogue readers will recognize as this fall’s top fashion strategy. Backgrounds are gilded or covered in more iridescence than a cosmetics counter, while even the demons and shriveled old men populating so many of these works have the multicolored pedicures you’d expect from Vanity Projects.

Those familiar with Murakami’s output will see familiar motifs — piles of cartoonish skulls, snaggletoothed smiley faces. There’s a great piece here called Isle of the Dead that stars lesser-known cast members: an army of wizened dudes with more eyeballs per head than regulation would allow, staring out at us. They’re far less kawaii than Murakami’s earlier, seedier offerings, and that’s a very good thing. The see-no-evil yodas bear
astonished witness to the passing masses.

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The Marvelous Monk With a Camera Examines the Paradox of Fame and Humility

Nicholas Vreeland has a shaved head and a famous last name. The first, obvious and gleaming, advertises his humility and his life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The second, subtle and refined, suggests just how hard that humility was to come by.

Diana Vreeland, Nicky’s grandmother, was the editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, and her understated, impeccable vision made dandies of her offspring, especially Nicky; even after renouncing worldly pleasures, he polishes his Birkenstock sandals until they gleam.

This paradox is the subject of the marvelous documentary Monk With a Camera. Polishing shoes is practical; they last longer. Nicky has a harder time locating such tangible value in photography, the one vestige of his old life that he cannot forsake. “Would you like to meet my girlfriend?” he asks early in the film. Nicky is referring to his camera, with her “beautiful…eye.” But an eye for detail and delicacy — noticing and valuing an ant, which he feels must be protected from the destructive force of an errant human foot — is as much Buddhist ethos as good editorial instinct.

Nicky’s photography is meditation; while living at a monastery in India, he creates spare studies of his room, his desk — and the sale of those simple photos allows the monastery an unusual, financial transcendence. Because of Nicky’s powerful connections, the monks can build otherwise unaffordable living quarters. Is photography an appropriate pursuit for a monk? Can a white man with so opulent a background honor a true Buddhist ethos in the West?

Monk With a Camera hints at answers, but imposes nothing. Like a good photograph, or a wise abbot, it only presents the evidence and allows us to arrive at truth.

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Late Phases Asks Not ‘Is There a Werewolf,’ but ‘Why Is There a Werewolf?’

Two key elements in horror movies are anticipation and pacing, with the latter simply the heightening and lowering of the former.

With Late Phases, Adrián García Bogliano artfully engages with those tools, crafting a narrative whose close feels a touch underwhelming only in relation to the impressive buildup. In the most entertaining tough-old-crank turn this side of Gran Torino, Nick Damici stars as Ambrose, a blind Vietnam vet who has no sooner moved into the placid retirement community of Crescent Bay than he becomes auditory and olfactory witness to a murder committed by a werewolf.

After the beast also kills Ambrose’s seeing-eye dog, Shadow, the vet vows revenge. (And how! Wait Until Dark this isn’t — file Late Phases as the best film in which a blind individual gets trigger-happy with a series of firearms.) The filmmakers wisely reveal the werewolf early, as this shifts the source of suspense from an obvious question (Will there turn out to be a monster?) to a more mystifying one (Why is there a monster?).

In addition to the careful parceling-out of information and anticipation, the film benefits enormously from Damici’s lead performance: gruff, funny, aggressive, and, of course, commanding sympathy, the character compellingly entices the audience to board this ride.

The narrative ends up working in a smaller scope than one might expect given the premise of a beast plaguing a community, but the journey getting to the finish is exhilarating all the same.

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Cut-Artery Farce Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Is a Meta Yakuza Bloodbath

Second in Japan only to Takashi Miike as an outrageously prolific and wicked genre geyser, Sion Sono is most notorious here for the four-hour teen-perv epic Love Exposure (2011). This cut-artery farce is less typical, and a good deal goofier, riffing on yakuza films by way of Hong Kong comedy, a wink-nudge-slash reflective Tarantino-ness, and millennials’ absurd nostalgia for the ’80s.

Sono makes long movies obese with plot, and here we have, over a 10-year span, a movie-drunk amateur “cinema club” called the Fuck Bombers getting entangled with a mob war that evolves, preposterously, into a film shoot, so as to showcase one boss’s punky actress-daughter, to impress her mother, who’s getting out of prison after slaughtering the other gang’s men in a lake of blood years earlier, when the little girl was the star of an infectious toothpaste commercial…That’s a sliver of it, and it just gets more manic, as the inevitable clash of clans is fought and “directed” for the Bombers’ cameras in an endless mega-set-piece filthy with bouncing severed heads, samurai-sword hackings, spoofy gags, and machine-gun-blasting cameramen in mid-dolly.

It’s hard not to love the pitched combat between shrieking cinephilia and everyday yakuza mundanities. (Even Eugen Schüfftan is name-checked, of all people.) But Sono is not subtle, too often lacking the deft touch needed to make the satire fly; he encourages his actors to scream far too much, and only a few, including Shinishi Tsutsumi as the opposing ganglord in swoony love with the vampy lead actress, bring their own supplies of comic poise and timing.

Even so, the film’s blast of self-mocking overkill can be charming.

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Oran Etkin

Capping off the Israeli Jazz Festival, multireedist Oran Etkin imports a multicultural array of influences gathered on tour in Indonesia, China, Japan, and his native Israel. His latest album, Gathering Light, took its title from the Jewish myth of the primordial light that scattered Babel-style at the beginning of time. Alongside guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Ben Allison, drummer Alvester Garnett, and Israeli cellist Yoed Nir, Etkin has the filaments to radiate some of that magical stuff. Most moving is “Shirim Ad Kan,” a prayer for peace by dovish Israeli poet Natan Yonatan, who lost a son in the Yom Kippur War.

Thu., Nov. 6, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Polygamy in Bali: Power, Violence, and Divorce Explored in Bitter Honey

In the marital hierarchy of Indonesia, where polygamy is still legal and semi-regularly practiced, a man’s second wife is known as his honey. Robert Lemelson’s cleverly titled documentary, which follows three polygamous families in Bali over the course of seven years, doesn’t belabor the latent subservience of these arrangements, nor does it need to — the women speaking about their marriages in a candid, conversational way say plenty.

One man, Darma, can’t remember all his kids’ names off the top of his head; the seventh and 10th wives of Tuaji, who cops to having been involved in his country’s communist purge of the 1960s, are sisters. (Tuaji’s admission makes Bitter Honey something of a cousin to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.)

Lemelson’s interviews can be repetitive in their direct staging, but there’s inspiration in his conceit of using a shadow-puppet performance set to gamelan music as interludes. The segments these brief passages divide are arranged according to different aspects of polygamous marriage: power, violence, divorce.

According to old lore, we’re told in one of these segments, men gain power from having many wives. Yet for all the cultural, even mythical explanations, one passing joke may explain it best: “Men are like cats: Give them a fish and they’ll eat it.”

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Soulful Doc Algorithms Showcases Visually Impaired Indian Teen Champions

Three visually impaired teenage boys from India who play chess at the championship level are the subject of this slow-moving yet soulful documentary.

Anant, age 16, and Darpan, age 15, are totally blind, while the gregarious 12-year-old Sai is partially sighted. Filming in black-and-white, first-time filmmaker Ian McDonald tracks the boys over a three-year period, as they compete first in Blind Chess competitions in India, and, later, in matches in Sweden and Serbia. Algorithms doesn’t have a narrator, which suits the hushed intensity of the chess matches, where the players’ hands dart and dive with exquisite precision among the kings, rooks, and pawns.

Each child has devoted parents who’ve placed great trust in mentor Charudatta Jadhav, who went blind as a teenager, only to become a local chess legend. The depth of his obsession with creating an Indian world champion becomes clear in the film’s final third, when the boys compete in Greece.

Rather abruptly, McDonald lets Jadhav’s viewpoint take over the film, to the detriment of the three boys, whose fates, after the big match, we never learn. That’s frustrating, because the artistry with which they confront everyday life, as well as the chess board, is deeply moving.

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Marguerite Duras Kills Film All Week at Lincoln Center

Among the fascinating
bastards
born when the French New Wave and the nouveau roman swapped precious fluids, the films of novelist Marguerite Duras are beautiful, monstrous sleepwalkers, creeping through modern emptinesses and doped on remembered conversations. In a real sense, they feel like movies made by and about dead people — narrative experiences from limbo.

Already the author of nine relatively conventional novels when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Duras felt the winds blowing, and as her fiction became sparser and more enigmatic alongside fellow rad fictioneer-turned-auteur Alain Robbe-Grillet, she decided to make the move to film, first with versions of her plays La Musica (1967) and Destroy, She Said (1969). Both films were stylishly austere and poised, ballets of zombie-like disattachment, but the latter, included in this selective Walter Reade retro, comes off as her New Wave manifesto, her version of Last Year at Marienbad, with ample Beckettian contradictions, luxury-hotel intimations of doomsday, and a saturated sense of
ennui. For us meat-eaters, it might be the thickest cut on the table.

From there, her cinematic sensibility became even more restrictive, frozen, and radically implacable. Despite the presence of French cinema’s Brahman caste, from Delphine Seyrig to Jeanne Moreau to Bulle Ogier, the characters are petrified figures in the landscape, and around them the films don’t really move — they float like smoke in a sealed room. Nathalie Granger (1972) is Duras’s first out-and-out anti-film, a strangely comic visitation with two nearly mute women (Moreau and Antonioni vet Lucia Bosé) who live with two children (one of them with behavioral problems at school), and whose chilly life of waiting and numbness is interrupted only by news of rampaging homicides in the neighborhood and a call from Gérard Depardieu’s baffled door-to-door salesman.

Shades of Chantal Akerman, Duras
cut the fat until her film silently bled, but it’s practically orthodox compared to the aesthetics that followed. India Song (1975), her most beloved film, is another look-backward tale of romantic disaster and cross-purposes, set almost entirely in the French Embassy in Calcutta (but shot in French estates) and starring Seyrig as the compulsively promiscuous wife of the ambassador (Michael Lonsdale). Duras crafts an opulent frieze of poised intentions and desires so repressed the actors don’t dare move a muscle.

The famously unsignifying Marienbad looks like Noah by comparison. Here is where Duras shifts almost entirely toward narration to relay story, employing multiple voices articulating inner and outer ruminations over the often immobile cast, as if the filmmaker has decided she trusts only language, and not the rest of cinema’s arsenal. (Duras’s general intent, she has said, was to “murder” cinema.) India Song is as haunting and dreamlike as it can be soporific; once Lonsdale’s cuckold begins (and never stops) howling in agony off-screen, it coalesces into a kind of anesthetized horror film.

Le Camion (1977) indulges in synced
dialogue a good deal more, as an aimless truck drive through wintry Parisian suburbs is intercut with Duras and Depardieu sitting in her study talking with little
urgency about a script they never end up filming. Cinema is hung, drawn, and quartered. Le Navire Night (1979) and Agatha et les Lectures Illimitées (1981) both return to India Song‘s voiceover strategy, but even more ascetically — Duras’s camera roams empty landscapes and posh interiors, barely glimpsing immobile actors, while soundtrack personas limn a sometimes complex past history of lost love and
betrayal. (When, in Le Navire Night, we see Dominique Sanda suddenly brush out her enormous blond locks, it has the shock of violence.) Though coming close to
romance-fiction material, the films could hardly be less pulpily satisfying.

In every instance, as in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras’s storytelling obsessively details the fallout of ruined romance — she was the Empress Dowager of Regret. Her films were always rarefied cocktails happily sipped by the cognoscenti, and she was routinely feted at Cannes and Berlin, and nominated for Césars. However forbidding, they pumped her cult, as did the high-profile adaptations, by the likes of Resnais, Peter Brook (1960’s Moderato Cantabile), and Tony Richardson (Mademoiselle, from 1966), all of which are showcased this week as well. The Lincoln Center series also includes several of
Duras’s shorts and, rather quixotically, Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous Every Man for Himself (1980), in which Jacques Dutronc’s character explains to his classroom that Duras is in the next room, though we never see her. Years later,
Godard explained this odd flourish by admitting that Duras was in fact in the next room during filming — such was her enigmatic allure, but also such was Godard’s regal respect for the reality of movies.

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CHINA IN TOWN

Wang Yuanyuan choreographed for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, but her new three-part Wild Grass, opening tonight at the Harvey, could not be further across the political spectrum. Performed by the Beijing Dance Theater on three special floors, it’s inspired by the poetry of Lu Xun (1881-1936), an iconic left-wing writer. Wang, who holds an MFA from CalArts, is that rare creature, a woman director of an internationally acclaimed modern-dance troupe. Returning to the Next Wave Festival after a visit in 2011, she makes dances that wrangle contemporary social issues as well as erotic pieces drawn from banned Chinese texts. Steeped in ballet tradition, she’s worked with contemporary filmmakers and composers; Wild Grass features an original score by Su Cong, whose music for The Last Emperor won an Oscar.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 15. Continues through Oct. 18, 2014

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WATCHING THE SKIES

East meets West at the Modern Sky Festival, an annual Beijing event since 2007 making its United States debut. Divided fairly equally between domestic and Chinese acts, the two-day event kicks off this afternoon with Deserts Chang, a poetic folk experimentalist akin to our own Cat Power, who headlines tomorrow’s lineup. Picks to click include Beijing’s self-critical postpunk funk group Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, Gang of Four devotees who really know from the Gang of Four. Seattle punk refugees and Brooklyn meta-rockers Liars fill out a bill topped by “Atomic Bomb!” The Luaka Bop label’s wonderful tribute to the brilliant Nigerian Afrofunk recluse William Onyeabor features Sinkane and the Mahotella Queens. Art-folkies Omnipotent Youth Society, surf-rockers Queen Sea Big Shark, and Peking-operatic glam fetishists Second Hand Rose open tomorrow’s day-long bill.

Sat., Oct. 4, 5 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 5, 8:30 p.m., 2014