Sunday Salon 2-26-12

As my attention was all over the map this week, it seems like a good idea to break up today’s Salon into three parts: books, music, and films.

Books – I am around 75% done with my review of Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. With luck it will be appearing, supplemented by some images of Van Gogh’s work, in the next day or two. Otherwise I’m in the middle of three books right now. Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen, a birthday gift from last year that I’m finally getting to, documents Hansen’s long trip across the island of Borneo, one of the first such trips by a Westerner. Also, inspired by the Van Gogh biography, I’m reading L’oeuvre (The Masterpiece) by Émile Zola. One of Van Gogh’s favorite authors, Zola was well versed in the world of art, and an early champion of the Impressionists. In L’oeuvre our hero is painter Claude Lantier, who though fictional embodies some of the traits, and lives through some of the events in the life, of artists Zola knew well, like Manet and Cezanne. Lastly, I’m continuing my long project of reading Catherine Russell’s The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, using her work as a guide as I very unsystematically work my way through viewing Naruse’s great films.

Music – Last night I had the rare opportunity to hear a concert featuring all five of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano, performed by two wonderful musicians on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno, Dmitri Atapine and Adela Hyeyeon Park. The works handily encapsulate many of the traits of Beethoven’s three periods of composition. The two sonatas of Op. 5 (apparently the first works for the combination of cello and piano in history), with their impetuosity and surprising, sometimes playful harmonic and tempo changes, already sound distinctively like Beethoven as they take off from the standard musical language of the late eighteenth century. Op. 69, from that amazing burst of creativity in the years 1804 to 1808, is yet another distinctive and perfect product of Beethoven’s middle period. I had always found the two late sonatas of Op. 102 a bit cryptic and elusive. But whether it was the expressivity of Atapine’s and Park’s playing, or maybe just an evolution of my ears, these two actually made the strongest impression last night. The fugal last movement of Op. 102/2 is still puzzling to me, but Atapine’s description in his program notes of how only the “heavy artillery of Baroque control and strict procedures can reconquer the world of order” in the work makes a lot of sense, especially after the adventures of the long preceding slow movement, in which the music often feels like its about to topple over some kind of precipice. Atapine and Park brought an energy and edginess that suited the music perfectly, and though the concert was long, it was gripping throughout.

Film – Along with Naruse’s films, another of my ongoing projects is a chronological viewing of the films of the late Theo Angelopoulos, the outstanding Greek filmmaker who died so tragically and unexpectedly a few weeks ago while working on his new film. Coincidentally, the British company Artificial Eye has been in the process of releasing Angelopoulos’s films in a series of three boxed sets. This week I got started on them with his first three films. A marvelous debut, The Reconstruction (1970) uses the true story of a man who returns to his home village after years away working in Germany, only to be murdered by his wife and her lover, to examine the meaning and impact of the abandonment of many of Greece’s rural communities. The setting is one of the stars of this film, the town in a state of collapse but still visually gorgeous and an impressive and moving stage for the drama. In Days of ’36 (1972) an imprisoned assassin takes a member of parliament hostage. The story in outline is a relatively familiar one, and while many of Angelopoulos’s visual and storytelling trademarks are present, there seems, for me at least, to be a bit of a mismatch between story and telling here. With The Traveling Players (1975), however, we move into the realm of unmitigated masterpiece. Following a theater troupe as it presents its work all over Greece in the years from 1939 to 1952, the film boldly comments on major historical events like the Nazi occupation, the postwar role of the British, the rise of Communism, civil war, and the recovery of democracy. While I’ll admit that some of the details of Greek history went over my head, the film’s three and three-quarter hour length never seemed too long, the shifts of tone and time frame were seamless and beautifully handled, and Angelopoulos’s elliptical manner and long takes fit perfectly here.

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