March 23rd, 2011


Swan + Lumiére

Rather than expound on my latest Vegas adventure (Shortest Form: GTS up) I think I'll noodle on about two experiences, of roughly equal length, from the last couple of weeks.

I saw Lohengrin at the Lyric Opera (with a ticket hookup from bunj) and watched all five Fantômas films in a row (thanks to a Christmas gift of the new DVD set from righteousfist). One was all sound, the other all light.

The Lyric production of Lohengrin had the demented idea of making do without a swan, which for those of you unfamiliar with that opera, is roughly akin to producing the Indy 500 without internal combustion. The set was beyond minimalist -- there were no backdrops or sets of any kind, giving the whole thing a "let's put on an opera and save the teen center!" feeling. ("My dad's got some pagan altars and a skull platform! And Vanessa's dad has some banners and a big hand on a post!" "Nobody has a swan, though." "Don't be such a wet blanket, Ashley.") Finally, our Lohengrin, while singing it up like a champ, had roughly the martial and romantic presence of a ham loaf. (If you'd like a more useful review of the production, bunj's reaction is here.) But Wagner pulled it off! Even the second act, which accomplishes very little dramatically, just zipped by, holding me fascinated as the emotional temperature built and flowed entirely in a language I barely understand one word in twenty of. And this was Wagner's early stuff, before he got really good. The key, like I need to tell you, is to listen, to shut down as much as you can except the sound of the singers and their journey. In this, I suppose, a minimalist stage and sessile Lohengrin are your confederates if you let them be.

Meanwhile, Fantômas was its own sort of minimalist -- a silent film pentalogy, working at the near dawn of the medium (1913-1914), with a constrained cast of ten or a dozen actors, about a French master criminal known to me almost entirely from an English translation of one of the zillion novels and from various nonfictional summaries. Louis Feuillade, perhaps better known as the later auteur of Les Vampires, was essentially inventing the suspense thriller in the course of the five Fantômas serials. During our five-hour viewathon, we could almost explicitly watch the form grow and emerge from the very basic, workaday Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine to the wild Murderous Corpse (the third picture in the series) which combines an intricate stock-shorting scheme with a series of grand guignol murders including gloves made from a dead man's hands. The last two films were missing scenes, but the set piece in the last film (The False Magistrate) in which a dead thief stuffed inside a church bell rains gems and blood down on the haute-bourgeois worshippers below would work -- indeed, would seem shockingly avant-garde -- even in a modern film. Again, the key is to just watch, to shut down everything but the images building the story. We did a little bit of shouted commentary, to be sure, but it came from engagement with the films and from allowing ourselves to be emotionally involved in a piece of low culture from almost a century ago.

In both cases, the ironic and analytical mind has its place either in intermission or in immediate aftermath, but the fundamental experience needs to be honest and direct, if possible. The Romantics have much to answer for, true, but it's not like our current moment suffers from too much open acceptance of sincerity.