The Mecca: Where modernism began (and memories of Mies)

The first time I heard of the Mecca, the grand old apartment building in Bronzeville, was when I read Thomas Dyja’s colorful cultural history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. (The book won the 2013 Heartland Prize for nonfiction.) The current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center—Mecca Flat Blues—tells the story of the Mecca and how that very site became the location of the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology and of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece, S R Crown Hall. I just reviewed the exhibit for Gapers Block. You can read my article here.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Mecca was located on 34th and State streets. Amazing stories swirled around the Mecca itself from its opening in 1892 until its demolition in 1952. Dyja gave a lecture last week on “The Battle for the Mecca” and described how that one square block on 34th Street between State and Dearborn streets inspired so much. Gwendolyn Brooks’ great poem “In the Mecca,” was about the time she spent working there. A blues song from the 1920s, “Mecca Flat Blues,” commemorated the building, which was part of an entertainment district where jazz and blues flourished.  When you check out my review, be sure to play the video of the blues song with audio from the original vinyl recording, played on a very old turntable. The Mecca was demolished and the site scraped clean to provide the site for the new IIT building. Dyja called it a palimpsest: a writing surface scraped clean for new writing on which traces of past writing remain.

The exhibit continues in the Sidney Yates Gallery at the Cultural Center until May 25.  See details at the end of my review.

A note about my Gapers Block article: Chicago Magazine named it one of the “must-read articles of the week.” I was kinda pleased.

Memories of Mies

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

S R Crown Hall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My first visit to Crown Hall was an unforgettable experience for a longtime devotee of architecture and design. It was September 1969 and a major retrospective celebrating 50 years of Bauhaus art and design was on display at Crown Hall. Mies van der Rohe, its architect, was one of the many alumni of the Bauhaus who came to Chicago in the 1930s. Mies had died just the month before—in August 1969. I was living in DeKalb at the time and had never been to the IIT campus, even though I had grown up in Chicago—on the far northwest side. But I was a lover of Bauhaus design and the exhibit was something I could not miss. I started early, so I could spend a whole long day at the exhibit. I had seen small photos of Crown Hall so I knew the building I was looking for on the unfamiliar campus. But as I walked toward it, it took my breath away. The expanse of glass gleaming in the sun and the precision of the steel i-beams were simply stunning. Even though other Mies high-rise buildings are also considered masterpieces, this four-story academic building is much more elegant, because its entirety can be appreciated in one view.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Original catalog from 1969. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The Bauhaus exhibit was very comprehensive and thrilling to see. Paintings, photography, architectural renderings and photographs, furniture, sculpture, pottery, typography by dozens of famous artists and designers. I was on sensory overload by the end of the day. I still have the square 365-page catalog, which I count among my treasures.

See the Farnsworth House

Another beautiful example of Mies’ low-rise designs is his Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois—a museum house that’s open for tours April through November.

Related posts

Walking the Mies staircase at the Arts Club. Scroll down in my October post.

Chicago’s Bauhaus legacy. See my comments on the great 2013 exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

 


Speaking of art: The work is what it is

Some musings on the nature of art and the artist…and letting the artist’s work stand on its own.

Finding Vivian Maier—and viewing her work

Yesterday I saw the new documentary about photographer Vivian Maier: Finding Vivian Maier, directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof is one of the three major owners of Maier’s work and probably holds the greatest number of images (negatives and undeveloped film) and her ephemera. I’ve written about Maier before and her work has had lots of attention in the last two years.

The new film was interesting and well done (although Maloof, who is not a film director, inserted way too much of himself in the film). In deciphering the mystery of Vivian Maier, the filmmakers did some good research, including going to Europe, where she had traveled. They also sought out the now-adult children for whom she cared as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs 50 or 60 years ago. Some of them discussed “Vivian” at length and told stories of her cruelty; others talked about her strange habits and her hoarding.

You know what? I didn’t want to know those things about Vivian Maier because I want to appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity. The fact that her work was never shown when she was alive is a sad story and in fact, she might not even approve of the current Maier-mania.

440px-Rolleicord_Vb

A Rolleicord: My first real camera

But the work is there and it’s magnificent. If you haven’t seen it, get to the Chicago History Museum or check it out online. The work stands on its own.

A technology aside

Maier shot with a Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex camera (my first camera, a college graduation present from my parents, was a Rolleicord, the amateur-photographer model) and that meant she could be more discreet in photographing subjects. With a twin-lens, you hold the camera at chest-level and frame the image by looking down into the viewfinder; you don’t hold the camera up to your face, which may seem more intrusive to the subject.

The art is what it is

Today I went to the Art Institute because I didn’t want to miss the retrospective of Christopher Wool’s work. (More below.) It is fascinating, beautiful and interesting as it has changed over time. I don’t want to know if the artist was going through a bad divorce or drinking too much or living in exile. The work is the work. It stands on its own.

You may be thinking of Woody Allen about now. Some of you may believe that he is a perverted, child-abusing horrible person. And he may be. The evidence about that is confusing and contradictory.

But even if he is all those things, his work is still outstanding. He’s one of the finest American film creators of our time. His work deserves to be viewed on its own merits. His art is what it is.

The abstract expressionism of Christopher Wool

The retrospective of Christopher Wool’s work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 11. It’s in Regenstein Hall in the American modern art wing (not in the new Modern Wing). His early work is probably best known. He used letterforms to create word paintings, using language as image. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)

One of the best-known works of this period is Apocalypse Now, which Christie’s sold at auction in November for many millions. See an interesting discussion of this sale here. My favorite wall in the current exhibit is Untitled (Black Book Drawings), a series of 22 pieces in which negative character types of eight or nine letters are primly stacked.

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In the 21st century, his paintings take on a new expressionistic look in abstract forms of tangles of black lines, shadows, dots and swashes of paint and ink.

His gray paintings in the last rooms of the exhibit are large-scale works in enamel on linen.

Finally or firstly, the bronze Wool sculpture at the entry to the exhibit transforms his two-dimensional creativity into three dimensions. My photo shows the sculpture with the works of Ellsworth Kelly peeping out behind the tangle of metal.

On the horizon

The exhibit titled Mecca Flat Blues at the Cultural Center is not to be missed. I’m writing a feature about it for Gapers Block and will post a link here soon.

Also at the Cultural Center, the exhibit 35 Years of Public Art is just one of many reasons to stop by the building that used to be the Chicago Public Library. It’s a city treasure for many reasons.

 

 

 


Lotsa theater in Chicago: Part 2

A few days ago, I posted an article compiling several plays I’ve seen recently. However, I’ve been busy lately, so here’s another bunch. Don’t miss the trailer below for Arguendo, the March production by Elevator Repair Service at the MCA Stage. It’s gone, but still being staged in other cities. You might want to chase it down after you see this.

Water by the Spoonful at Court Theatre

water-spoonfulQuiara Alegría Hudes’ play tells several stories of lost souls seeking to find themselves, find redemption or simply a cure for a crack habit. Three of the characters are family members: Elliott, an Iraq war veteran; his cousin, Yazmin, who has an adjunct academic job and seems to speak with the author’s voice; and Odessa, his estranged mother. Odessa moderates a global chat room for recovering addicts.

The chat room concept made the play seem very ‘90s although I know chat rooms still exist. When I tried to find some, they all seemed to be about sex, so the chat room vehicle seemed a little weak. But those scenes demonstrate the value for troubled souls being able to reach out and talk to others without recriminations.

Water is directed by Henry Godinez. Scene and projection design is by the very talented John Boesche, whose projections have embellished Chicago productions for many years. But the jagged hole in the front center of the stage was a little too literal in creating the abyss into which characters might fall.

Water by the Spoonful is touching, thought-provoking and beautifully staged. Its run ends April 6.

Russian Transport at Steppenwolf Theatre

russian-transportThe tough comedy/drama Russian Transport is directed by Yasen Peyankov, who has been one of my favorite Chicago theater artists since I first saw him in shows at the late great European Repertory Company in the 1980s and ’90s. I still get chills thinking about their production of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon.

Russian Transport is the story of a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn who work hard to get along and are joined by Boris, a relative who arrives from Russia. Misha, the father, runs a fairly successful car service out of his home office. His wife Diana (Boris’ sister) keeps tight control on the family cash. Alex and Mira are their children; Mira is still in high school; Alex goes to college part-time, and works a couple of part-time jobs, including driving for his father. They think Boris will need help finding a job and getting set up in America, but it turns out Boris already has a thriving business—which involves young women arriving from eastern Europe. He is by turns friendly, charming and menacing to his niece and nephew. Steppenwolf ensemble members Tim Hopper as Boris and Mariann Mayberry as Diana play roles quite different from their usual style. Both are excellent as are the other three actors.

The play has had mixed reviews but my friends and I thought it was excellent and worth your time and thought. It runs through May 11 in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theater.

More on European Rep. As an aside, this 1987 article from the Chicago Reader is a good overview of European Rep as well as an indictment for the lack of funding for theater in Chicago and the US.

 Thinner Than Water at The Gift Theatre

gift-storefrontThe headline for my Gapers Block review of this fine play is “not just another dysfunctional family.” Here’s an excerpt from the opening of my review:

“Is blood thinner than water, rather than, as the proverb would have it, thicker? Gift Theatre’s new play Thinner Than Water by Melissa Ross makes us ponder this question as water washes over the family members metaphorically as well as realistically…. So many opportunities for family dissension. But the recipe for a hyper-dysfunctional family might start like this: Take one distant and unloving father and three mothers–and add one child from each. As Thinner Than Water opens, the three half-siblings are arguing about who will handle details of their father’s terminal illness.”

Thinner Than Water has strong performances from all its cast members and John Gawlik’s direction makes it the high-quality production we have come to expect from Gift Theatre. You can catch it at this Jefferson Park storefront until May 25. See my complete review here.

Brahman/i at Silk Road Rising + About Face Theatre

Brahmani360pxBrahman/i is an unusual production—part standup comedy, part lesson in the history (and mystery) of sexual ambiguity. Its subtitle is “A One- Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show.” As a co-production of Silk Road and About Face, it involves both storytelling from South Asia and questions of sexual identity. Brahman/i, the sole character, is played by Fawzia Mirza, who has performed at many other Chicago theaters. Brahman/i is an hijra or intersex person, who is considered to be both male and female. (I’m working very hard not to use personal pronouns here.) During the performance, the actor changes from male garb to female with sari and jewelry. A guitarist provides occasional accompaniment and comments.

The story told is interesting and complex and tells us bits and pieces of history and mythology as well as stories of Brahman/i’s middle school and her opinionated auntie. We learn lessons from Odysseus and Galileo and see erotic Tantric images from the temples at Khajuraho. The almost-two-hour show is truly a stand-up comedy performance, not a play, although the stories are engaging and humorous; Mirza’s performance is charismatic and energetic. Brahman/i runs until April 27 at Silk Road Rising’s theater in the Chicago Temple on Washington Street.

 Arguendo by Elevator Repair Service

This play was staged at the MCA Stage for just one weekend in March, but the Elevator Repair Service production of Arguendo was one of the best things I’ve seen lately. I suppose not everyone would be attracted by a theatrical performance of a Supreme Court case, but this New York theater company is smart and innovative and made the lines sing. Barnes vs Glen Theatre Inc. was a 1991 Indiana case questioning the constitutionality of the Indiana law requiring performers to wear something—pasties and a g string, shall we say—rather than performing nude. The suit was brought by the Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre, Inc., of South Bend, Indiana. The Barnes in the case title was Michael Barnes, then St. Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney.

The show begins with a reporter scrum outside the SCOTUS building as exotic dancer arrives to observe the trial. Then we move to the courtroom where three justices are seated on a raised area above the stage. Proceedings begin in a dignified manner with opening arguments by petitioner and respondent. Shortly, we realize the justices’ chairs are on casters as they come careening down the ramps on either side of the stage. From then on, the scene changes moment by moment as justices and attorneys wheel around the stage to face each other or the audience. The three actors portraying the justices change voice and physical style to mimic the various justices.

The actor portraying Bruce Ennis, the ACLU attorney for the respondents (the dancers et al) argued on First Amendment grounds that the right to nude dancing was an element of free expression. His energetic arguments began to result in his gradual disrobing—first jacket, then trousers, then shirt, then undershirt and shorts—until he was down to a thong. And soon the thong came off too. He completed his arguments as naked as the day he was born.

Unfortunately, the SCOTUS decision, delivered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, didn’t agree with the First Amendment arguments—and the exotic dancers lost their case.

The 80-minute play was followed by a fascinating discussion and Q&A by director John Collins with Nancy Marder of the Jury Center at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Other experts joined Collins at other performances.

I first saw the great work of Elevator Repair Service in 2008, when they performed a full staged reading of Gatz, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The 8.5-hour production, with meal breaks, was also held at the MCA theater. It was one of those incredible arts experiences that can’t be matched. Except maybe by a terrific rock and roll concert.

 Coming up tonight: Bruce Springsteen on HBO

For fans of Bruce Springsteen and rock and roll: The 30-minute documentary, Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, will premier on HBO at 8:30pm tonight (my DVR is set). The making-of film was edited and directed by Thom Zimny, so it will be well done. The new album, High Hopes, was released in January.

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Quick takes: Local theater + one great movie

Spring is the season when a lot goes on in Chicago theater and other performing arts. (It’s still not as stuffed with events as October, however.) This is part 1 of two posts this week.

Theater

Urinetown

Certainly my favorite theater experience was seeing my 16-year-old grandson perform in his high school’s production of Urinetown yesterday. I’ve seen that play so many times I could recite parts of it by heart. But it’s a smart play and the production was really good. The kid did an excellent job, playing three different parts and successfully mastering the quick offstage costume changes required. The last performance was Saturday night, so I won’t recommend you check it out.

Urinetown was written by Greg Kotis (of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann and opened on Broadway in September 2001; I saw it there a couple of months later. The premise of Urinetown does make you think. It’s set in a period of economic decline and extreme water shortage. If we can privatize highways, bus shelters and parking meters, can “public amenities” be far off? I hope Mayor Emanuel has not seen this play.

Darlin’ at Step Up Productions

GB-DarlinStep Up Productions is staging this brave play that treats domestic abuse as part of its mission to benefit a local nonprofit for each production. Darlin’ deals with Clementine, a woman who leaves husband, home and children and moves into an anonymous motel room, where she meets an assortment of down-on-their-luck souls. One of them is a motel maid who blames her injuries on a box of Brillo pads falling on her from a high shelf. She and Clementine share some strong scenes.

The theater will donate a portion of its proceeds to the House of the Good Shepherd, which serves women and children survivors of domestic violence. Last fall’s production, The Benchmark, benefited the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.

Darlin’ runs until April 13 at the Athenaeum Theatre. See my Gapers Block review. (By the way, you’ll notice that I got in a Bruce Springsteen lyric into my review. Just goes to show that there’s a Springsteen lyric for every occasion–and his fans are obsessively vigilant about using them.)

 Into the Woods at The Hypocrites

intothewoods2The Hypocrites move to the Mercury Theatre on Southport to stage their version of the Sondheim musical, based on classic fairy tale characters. The play is a 1987 show by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Since I have often admitted I hate musicals, you know I’m going into this one with my cynic’s pen in hand. But I do like Sondheim’s music and the lyrics are often thought-provoking.

This show is performed by 10 talented actors and singers and it has received mixed reviews. The setting is designed like a children’s park, suggesting “the playground of a top-notch arts magnet school,” as one reviewer commented. To me, the “into the woods” theme has a dark overtone, and some of the lyrics portend danger. But when the trees are represented by balloons, it’s a clever touch but loses the darkness. I kept wondering if they were going to pop all the balloons to mimic leaves falling off trees. It would be a Hypocrites kind of symbolism.

The Hypocrites do a decent job of this, although I would argue with some of their costume and stage setting choices. The show runs through next weekend, so if you’re a Sondheim fan, you will want to see it.

And one fine movie

Grand Budapest Hotel

grandbudapestIf you’re going to see one film this week, make it this new Wes Anderson charmer. On the surface, it’s the reminiscences of the owner of the now somewhat rundown hotel in the fictional central European country of Dubrowka. He tells of his adventures as a lobby boy for Gustave H, a concierge of multifarious talents, played by Ralph Fiennes. I think of Fiennes as a serious actor and I have admired his work in many classic roles, on stage and film. But here he shows he can be a comic actor of the highest caliber.

The film has an amazing cast including short but inspired performances by Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Jude Law and many others. There are too many convolutions, escapes and chase scenes to describe here. And pastry. Lots of pastry.

The brilliant thing about this film is that it is a panoply of film history and film techniques. Not only is there beautiful cinematography, there are models and stop-motion animation. And to show time changes, the color palette and aspect ratio of the film changes from widescreen to traditional boxy shape and back again. Whimsical? Quirky? Idiosyncratic? Nostalgic? Yes, it’s all of those. And on top of the humor and whimsy, there’s a hint of the World War II tragedy to come as German military officers accost Gustave and the lobby boy on a train.

This phrase appears twice in the film: “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” I think Anderson wants us to remember it.

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Women of Letters: Letter-writing as performance art

If you weren’t at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park last night for an evening with Women of Letters, you missed a profound and theatrically moving event—for writers, performers and for women. Seven Chicago female artists sat at a table and in turn came to the mic to read the letters they had written addressed “to the moment the lights came on.”

GB-WomenofLettersThe letter-writers were:

— Wendy McClure, author, columnist and children’s book editor
— Kate Harding, author of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture
— Kyra Morris, actor, physical theater artist and director
— Claire Zulkey, author and blogger
— Arlene Malinowski, solo artist, writer and instructor
— Kristen Toomey, comedian and actress
— Tavi Gevinson, writer, actress and founder of Rookie Magazine

Women of Letters started as an Australian literary salon focused on celebrating the lost art of letter-writing. This is their second US tour and first appearance in Chicago. The large and enthusiastic audience at the Mayne Stage should ensure a return visit in 2014.

One of the guidelines for Women of Letters is that events are not recorded, so that participants can feel free to write about very personal subjects. Therefore, even though I took notes, I won’t use any quotations. But I will tell you a little about the letter-writers and the event.

The moderator was Marieke Hardy, an Australian writer and co-curator of Women of Letters. She introduced each writer and later conducted a Q&A with the panel on letter-writing.

The letters verged on storytelling; they often had a confessional nature. They were in turn funny, poignant, sad—and always moving. One of the performers wrote about her disastrously disorganized life, while another wrote about disappearing into the dark as a high school drama prop master, and another speculated that people treat each other horribly because they fear scarcity. The readings lasted from a few minutes to more than 10 minutes each.

Tavi Gevinson, a teenaged celebrity who will celebrate her 18th birthday next month, has achieved renown for her blog, which focuses on issues affecting teenage girls and is written mainly by teenage girls. She has appeared on TV, acted in short films and had a role in the 2013 Nicole Holofcener film, Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.

After the readings, Hardy asked each performer to talk about how letters may have been important in her life. They also discussed how the WOL letter-writing process had worked for them. Audience members had a chance to ask questions of the performers.

Each audience member received a stamped WOL postcard and a stamped “aerogramme” to encourage us to do our part in restoring the art of letter-writing.

Women of Letters started with events in Melbourne, co-curated by writer/journalists Hardy and Michaela McGuire. Monthly events brought together five of Melbourne’s “best and brightest writers, musicians, politicians and comedians.” For each event, the participants were asked (in advance) to write a letter on a specific topic. The series has been so successful in Australia that three books of letters have been published as a result.

Women of Letters raises funds for the animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission, a sanctuary for rescued farmed animals set on 60 peaceable acres in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range at Willowmavin, Kilmore, in the state of Victoria, Australia.

The 2014 US tour included performances in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin (during SXSW). Two performances are scheduled for next week in New York, one of which is titled People of Letters and features male and female letter-writers, including Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Hours. The New York topics are “a letter to the thing I wish I’d written” and “a letter to the night I’d rather forget.”

What would you write about?

The letter topics make me think about the letter I might write.
I’d love to know what you would write about ….

♥ The moment the lights came on

♥ The thing I wish I’d written

♥ The night I’d rather forget

——————————————–

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True Detective is over, but I’m still #hookedonTDweirdness

The finale of the HBO crime drama, True Detective, ran Sunday night and I’ve watched it twice so far. I’ve been thinking about TD, its writer/producer and his literary influences–as well as his possible literary compatriots. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Sunday morning, I tweeted this out:

Nancy Bishop @nsbishop

‪@TD_HBO finale tonight. Am I excited? Very–and I’ll be glad
it’s over, so I’ll have one fewer obsession in my life.
‪#hookedonTDweirdness

The long, slow tracking minutes of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart wending their separate ways through the utter spooky weirdness of Carcosa*, with its skulls, bodies and overgrown foliage, were breathtaking. They sought and found the monster who committed the murders and, for a while, it appeared all three were dead. Marty had a hammer plowed into his right lung and Rust had a long knife jabbed into his midsection and still had enough strength to shoot the top of the killer’s head off. But in the epilogue, we learned that the two detectives survived. Another miracle of TV medicine. Since season 2 will feature a different plot and different characters, they could have been left to die. But instead we were treated to a final scene of the two outside the hospital looking up at the stars, with Rust telling how he felt when he almost died. Here’s a link to his final speech.

* What is Carcosa? The unearthly setting for this segment was an old brick military fortress, Fort Macomb, built in 1822 and decommissioned in 1871. You can see some photos of it here. More about Carcosa below.

I thought Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech was gag-making, by the way. I prefer this clever video recap that shows Rustin Cohle eviscerating McConaughey’s thanks-to-god speech. “And it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates,” he said. Really? Scientific? Personally, I’d rather have a beer with Cohle than McConaughey.

* * *

We really are in an amazing era of quality television, as New York Times media columnist (and one of my favorite journalists) David Carr wrote this week, in his article titled “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.”  He said, “The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. And I’m not alone.”

Television recently has blessed us with several astonishingly good series, starting with my favorite, The Sopranos. I still mourn its disappearance (but I loved the ending…. Tony looking up from his French fries as the diner door opens, and then fade to black.). Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were also captivating series.

This year’s True Detective has been called one of the best TV series ever by a number of critics. It’s almost a genre in itself. It’s brilliantly written and manages to create two contentious detective partners. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), on the surface a good old Louisiana boy with many personal complications. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a loner detective from Texas with a dark and troubled past and a propensity for opaquely gloomy comments. I quoted these when I wrote about TD in January.

“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”

“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”

“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”

The eight-part series covered the detectives’ efforts to solve a bizarrely ritualistic murder; clues indicated that it was committed by a serial killer or a weird cult emerging in the swampy Santeria and voodoo culture of bayou Louisiana. The cinematography of the swampland setting was so visually powerful that it became a character in itself.

The show was written and produced by an English teacher turned scriptwriter named Nic Pizzolatto. Future TD seasons apparently will follow a similar eight-part anthology format with one story arc and different sets of characters in each. So we have seen the last of Marty and Rust. I have mixed feelings about that. The combination of story line, writing quality and characters took hold of me with a weirdly obsessive attachment.

One attribute of Pizzolatto’s writing that made it intriguing is his use of symbolism and stories from unrelated fields. Of course, True Detective draws on pulp detective fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the Yellow King and Carcosa and the iconic figures made of sticks and straw are references not only to Louisiana bayou culture but also to the weird supernatural horror writings of Robert W Chambers, Ambrose Bierce and H P Lovecraft, among others. (So deep is my obsession that I’ve downloaded The King in Yellow Omnibus: Tales of the Carcosa Mythos to my e-reader. Believe me, reading horror stories or most any kind of genre fiction is not my taste. I lean toward literary fiction or nonfiction.) Arcadia_book

Drawing connections among manifold fields of science, politics and the arts is a characteristic of two of my favorite writers: Playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist Richard Powers. Stoppard, for instance, combines obscure mathematics, English gardens and emotion vs reason in Arcadia; he creates a Zurich confluence of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) in Travesties. Powers combines DNA discovery, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug in his amazing and complex novel, The Gold Bug Variations; and literature, learning and neural networks in his 1996 novel Galatea 2.2. (I wrote about Powers in my review of the Spike Jonze film, Her—comparing Jonze’s concept with Powers’ Galatea 2.2.)

Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times interviewed Richard Powers a few years ago and asked him what work he wished he had written.

Powers answered, “Tom Stoppard’s [play] Arcadia. I’d trade my soul for it.”

To me, this kind of literature crossed with science, technology and other arts is often more compelling than fiction that is purely plot- and character-driven—just as Stoppard’s plays give you something to chew on later, not just to laugh at in the moment.

I’m not saying that Pizzolatto deserves to be categorized with Stoppard and Powers yet. His resume is still short, but I think he may be heading in that direction.

Now I can go back to watching season 2 of House of Cards, which is a terrific show but I will not obsess over it.


Beauties and beasts: A mixed bag of culture

Kind of a Chinese menu of a post today. A little theater, a little film, a little TV and some fine music.

Jean Cocteau on stage

The Artistic Home has mounted a riproaring family sex story at its venue on Grand Avenue. This Jean Cocteau farce is Les Parents Terribles—it’s two hours-plus of high-speed theater. Very funny, very well acted. My Gapers Block review is here. The play runs until April 13.

In the course of writing the review, I thought about Cocteau’s other work. His 1946 film, La Belle et La Bête, is unforgettable and visually arresting. Here’s the trailer so you can check it out. It happens that the lobby of my apartment building has a giant framed poster of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, so I am reminded of it every day.

Wondrous Japanese animation

thewindrisesAnimated film has not been one of my interests, since I always connected it with dreadful cute animals. But recently I’ve been educated in the beauty and sophistication of animated film and I’ve seen three films lately by the Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki.

My film group had a discussion on Miyazaki this week and it was fascinating because several of the members are anime, animation and Miyazaki experts. His current (and final, he says) film is The Wind Rises, which just opened in local cinemas. His work is always beautiful, rich in hand-drawn detail, and sophisticated in its use of Japanese history and mythology (most of which I probably miss because of my own education gap).

His other films are mostly works that would be of family interest, but The Wind Rises is quite adult in plot and character. The leading character is Jiro, who is enchanted with flight and idolizes an Italian aviation engineer. He grows up wanting to design beautiful airplanes that carry people—but he ultimately designs the planes that are used in World War II, specifically to bomb Pearl Harbor. (There’s kind of an Oppenheimer effect at work here. Oppenhemer and the other Manhattan Project physicists designed the atomic bomb and then were chagrined at the results.)

War is an underlying theme in the film but not the main topic. In addition to Jiro’s engineering work, there’s a love story; his fiancée suffers from tuberculosis. The film is beautiful and gets many four-star reviews. (Seeing the “rising sun” logo on the airplanes was slightly unsettling for me, a child of that wartime period.)

I recommend this film highly and would also recommend Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997) as two of his more typical films. He uses strong female characters and in each case blends in Japanese history and mythological symbols. His films are enchanting and I have a list of four or five more on my list to see.

Women of Letters

The Australian literary salon known as Women of Letters is bringing its project to revive the lost art of letter-writing to Chicago. Women of Letters will be performed with local writers and artists on Friday, March 21, at the Mayne Stage. Here’s my Gapers Block preview. Sounds like good literary fun and I’ll report on it back here.

 Chicagoland: My favorite city on TV

CNN, apparently trying to become something more than just another cable news outlet, has just started an eight-part series called Chicagoland (Thursdays at 9pm CT, with several reruns). The first episode ran last night and so far Mayor Emanuel looks good—perhaps a little too good. However, given the principals involved, I believe the series will be fair and well done—and I hope I’m not wrong. The production has the Sundance/Robert Redford imprint so I’m expecting quality.

The first episode had some great footage of Chicago but the story was depressing. The reporting focused on murders and gang activity (with an emphasis on Fenger High School) and the city’s closing of 50 public grammar schools, almost all of them in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. We saw parents and teachers protesting the closings and CTU president Karen Lewis telling us what she thinks of Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, I’ll watch the other episodes, even though I know the story probably doesn’t have a happy ending. But to make up for that, I have a special Chicago musical treat for you, even though someone who shall be nameless remembers it as a song “I used to listen to in college while stoned.”

The song is “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliota-Haynes-Jeremiah. It was a big hit in 1975 and rereleased on CD in 1998. If you love the song, you can download it on iTunes and put it on your iPod, so it’s always with you, despite what the person quoted above calls “a jarring piano line.” If you’re not a Chicagoan, you may think that the LSD mentioned in the lyrics and shown in the visuals refers to a drug …. but to Chicagoans it refers to the drive that runs along the lakefront from Hollywood Avenue to 66th Street. The Lake Shore Drive Wikipedia page is a nice history of its construction, use and appearances in popular culture.

And now for some related posts….

On the subject of animation: One of the five sort of obscure movies I recommend is Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life, an amazing approach to animation–and philosophy.

For some thoughts on J. Robert Oppenheimer, see my review of the current play being mounted by Saint Sebastian Players.


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