October 24, 2011

The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar's Frankenstein

Pedro Almodovar is the auteur that David Lynch strives to be, but falls abysmally short.  Almodovar  said it best when he described his latest film, The Skin I Live In, as “a horror story without screams or frights.”  In fact, this is the most disconcertingly quiet horror film you’ll ever see, set mostly in an opulent home in Toledo, Spain with a lush musical soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias.

All the Almodovar trademarks are present in this dark tale of tragedy, sex, obsession, madness, violence, and sinister genius.

The story begins in 2012 at the estate of renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas).  The house is also home to the good doctor’s medical laboratory, operating room, prison, and violation of medical ethics.  To say that Dr. Ledgard is Dr. Frankenstein-gone-crazy would be an understatement.

Ledgard has discovered a burn-proof skin that he’s transplanted onto his strikingly beautiful prisoner Vera (Elena Anaya). The woman is dressed head-to-toe in a compression garment that oddly looks haute couture (Jean-Paul Gautier happens to  be the costume designer for the film).  Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard’s housekeeper, also serves as his outspoken prison guard.
Things begin to veer out of Ledgard’s iron-grip, calculated control when Marilia’s son, a burglar on the run dressed as a Carnival tiger, shows up demanding that the doctor perform a face transplant on him.  While waiting for the doctor to arrive home, the tiger-man notices on the many security monitors in the house that the prisoner looks exactly like the doctor’s dead wife.  Intimating a dark past with the doctor and his wife, the tiger-man proceeds to break into the prisoner’s cell and rape her. 

In Almodovar-ian fashion, the plot suddenly goes back six years involving Ledgard’s wife who was burned in a horrific fire and then commits suicide when she sees her deformed reflection, and their teenage daughter’s brief but pivotal involvement with a boy named Vicente. 

How the past and future-present weave together in nonlinear fashion to a disturbing revelation and resolution is the shocking and thrilling payoff that only Almodovar could pull off so seemingly effortlessly.    

October 10, 2011

An Audacious Installation of Warholian Proportions

A friend of mine has a comical and visceral hatred for Andy Warhol's work, and dismisses the notion that it is "art."  Throughout the years I’ve known him, whenever the discussion turns to art and inevitably Warhol, he launches into a rant that’s at once funny, thoughtful, perfectly valid, and contrary to the conventional wisdom of collectors, curators, and critics. 

I hold a slightly less extreme view of Warhol.  While I hardly find anything about it worthy of praise in terms of technique, I appreciate it as insightful and sometimes biting social commentary – consumerism, technology, monotony of modern life, and the worship of crass and vapid tabloid and celebrity culture.  Two decades after Warhol’s death, his art – if you want to call it that – is uncannily prescient. 

As I viewed the Hirshhorn’s Andy Warhol: Shadows exhibit, two thoughts went through my head.  First, my friend’s head would explode if he saw this grandiose and audacious exhibit of 102 variations of the same abstract design that was based on a photograph of a shadow in Warhol’s office – basically it looks like the shadow of a desk lamp. Second, my friend’s head would probably explode a second time for good measure if he read the small text panel at the beginning of the exhibit.  Referring to this gigantic installation, Warhol had commented, “Someone asked me if I thought they were art and I said no. You see, the opening party had a disco. I guess that makes them disco d├ęcor.” 

Even Warhol agreed with my friend!   

Maybe the joke's on all of us.  While curators, collectors, and consumers – or is that “fans,” given our Warholian fixation with celebrities – eat up all things Warhol as High Art, the man himself seemed to admit (perhaps teasingly and facetiously, but who knows for sure?) that his work was superficial and vapid. 

Perhaps therein lies his brilliance and art. 

Andy Warhol: Shadow, now through January 15, 2012, Hirshhorn Museum, DC (...I don't recommend this exhibit to my friend...)

Syd Barrett of the Alternative Generation

Evan Dando, 2011
It was good to see Evan Dando and his current lineup of
The Lemonheads at DC’s Black Cat on October 7 – much in the same way it feels to see an old, wayward friend.  The easy comment would be to note that despite the years of alleged drug use, Dando’s cover-boy looks and goofy slacker charm remain timelessly intact.  What’s more noteworthy is that, with the passage of time and the benefit and luxury of perspective, it’s become apparent that his deceptively simple-sounding songwriting masks a poignancy, fragility, and sheer pop bliss that should put him in the league with other rock eccentrics.  

If Kurt Cobain was supposedly the Voice of the Alternative Generation, then Evan Dando is Syd Barrett of the Alternative Generation - only Dando still makes vital, idiosyncratic music.  

                Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield, 2011 - "Into Your Arms"

Dando flirted with achieving critical mass – even voted as one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People in 1993” – and had a highly acclaimed album and a mainstream follow-up with It’s A Shame About Ray and Come On Feel The Lemonheads, respectively.  Yet at the very moment when the big ol’ jet airliner of super-stardom should’ve skyrocketed The Lemonheads into becoming a household name, Dando instead sputtered into a seemingly permanent self-imposed exile in the fringes.     

Perhaps that’s exactly where Dando’s music deserves to be – on the fringes.  If you want it, you should seek it out.  It shouldn’t be so mainstream in its availability that undeserving consumers will latch onto the one song they’ve heard on the radio, and then move on to the next hit.  I’ve never been a musical elitist.  Yet there’s something so artistically…special…about Dando’s music that you almost want to keep it to yourself and a select group of appreciative friends.      

The Lemonheads’ show was exactly that – a gathering of people who appreciate Dando’s songwriting, and who sought him out.  The few others in the audience were obvious in their obnoxious shouts throughout the show of “Play Into Your Arms!”…even after they played the song.

In addition to playing the entire It’s A Shame About Ray album, the band ran through a number of their other more well-known as well as lesser-known songs.  The band was super-tight in its precision, yet there was just enough of loopiness and sense of “we’re winging it” from Dando that it all felt very spontaneous – as if you were watching them rehearse.  The highlight of the set was Dando playing unaccompanied.  Watching him play solo, you can draw the line from Brian Wilson to Syd Barrett to Gram Parsons to Evan Dando.  It was then that all the aforementioned poignancy, fragility, and special-ness really came front and center.

Despite my earlier comments about wanting to keep The Lemonheads a musical secret, I highly recommend that everyone seek out their shows.  Evan Dando is a unique talent who people should be aware is still playing special music.