Sunday, July 5, 2020

Two Weeks Worth of Media: June 22nd - July 4th


Well it's a bit funny that just after I posted last time that someday I might finally find an opera I enjoyed, I mostly did! I caught The Met's screening of the English-language Doctor Atomic, based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer during the creation of the atomic bomb, and as a "historical-ish" story it hit the sweet spot for me where a lot of the story was focused on the character's inner, emotional lives rather than real-life events where I feel the urge to fact-check every detail. I think I also got a better sense of why opera doesn't work for me, music isn't my thing so I may be using the wrong words here but I think it's the meter of the performance (which is constrained/defined by how the actors breathe) that I consistently find off-putting and unexpected and that just, irritates me. I was also sad when there were a number of actors singing in the first act and I thought one of them was the lead and I thought "oh, he has a different voice than usual, higher than usual (maybe a tenor?) and I like it more" but alas, he was only a background character, so the voices themselves might also just be not my preference!

Doctor Atomic was not the only "historical-ish" story I saw that week, I also caught the theatrical adaptation of Small Island by National Theater (of the UK) which centers around three people living in Jamaica and England around the period of World War II. None of the characters are real people but they're all based on real experiences, from the supplementary reading material it sounds as if Hortense in particular, a self-described light-skinned black woman (maybe Afro-Caribbean?) from Jamaica who comes to England during the Windrush era for a "better" life, is based a lot on the life of original novelist Andrea Levy's mother. I thought the play did a fantastic job balancing the amount of time focusing on each of the main characters and managed to make all of them very sympathetic, both when the action is shown from their own point of view and from others.

I also caught another play with a largely black cast, Pipeline which was streaming for free on BroadwayHD which is the alternating story of a single mother, who is trying to balance the stress of her teaching job with the stress from her high school aged son, and her son's point of view, after just getting expelled from a private school that was supposed to give him "opportunities" after attacking a teacher. It looked like it was staged in a pretty small, intimate theater and I can only imagine how hard this must have hit in that setting, once again the writing let all of the actors give really nuanced performances, even the multiple side characters who didn't have tons of stage time. I did think that the two adult actors who played the teenagers didn't look a ton like teens but vocally and emotionally they made it work fantastically, if I had been in the audience (instead of seeing the play through a series of intimate cameras) I'm not sure I would have even noticed. 

There's actually been a lot of black-focused media available for streaming right now and the timing of it makes me think that it's probably related to the fact that, you know, we in the US are possibly in the middle of our biggest-ever era of public demonstrations in conjunction with the Black Lives matter movement. Unicorn Stencil Doc Films put their film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth up for free streaming until the end of July and it's about the public housing complexes of the same name in St. Louis and if you're unaware about the systemic issues that have largely caused public housing in the US to fail this is a pretty great summation. In short, this documentary shows how a lack of government involvement (providing funding to build the housing but not for upkeep, since come on guys if the tenants are all low-income then the rent won't be that high and it won't be enough to cover all expenses without outside help) lead to a breakdown of upkeep in the buildings, which created opportunities for crimes, and all of that coupled with white flight (and the shrinking of St. Louis' population in general, meaning falling housing prices even outside of the housing projects) just really sunk Pruitt-Igoe and how it didn't have to be that way! The make-up of cities, and all of the small, moving pieces that need to come together to create "successful" neighborhoods, is something that fascinates me in general especially when you have such clear examples here of what went wrong and what, totally doable, things could be done to create a better outcome for all parties involved!

I also caught some ballet during the past two weeks, the first one I saw was the Dance Theater of Harlem's BALAMOUK which was a short work and, like the Bjork Ballet I mentioned last time, got me wondering just where the line between ballet and modern dance lies. I also saw the behind-the-scenes talk with the costume designer and laughed at the male dancer who was discovering just how fun it is to swish around in skirts, that's totally the reason to wear them! I also previously watched the Dance Theater of Harlem's Creole Giselle, my first time seeing any Giselle performance, and I liked it and was shocked at how good the video quality was for being film in the 1980s! I've seen recordings of far more recent performances that looked like they were filmed with a potato and was bracing myself for the same here, it's totally watchable with the same plot as other productions of Giselle but with a scenery/costume change.

I saw another shorter ballet, La Sylphide by the English National Ballet which was alright. The Scottish costumes were neat (apparently, when the ballet was created that was an "exotic" setting) but I was thrown off for the entire first act when I noticed that all of the female cast members were wearing shoes that looked a lot like dancing hard shoes (not sure if that's the term but they reminded me of what we called "hard shoes" in Irish dancing) but were completely silent on stage. Again, it's amazing how one small detail can just really distract you as a viewer, especially if it plays into how you expect something to sound.

And for two, completely unrelated, final notes, I finished up the PBS mini-series Prehistoric Road Trip hosted by Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, a youtube channel I've followed for years and enjoyed. These three episodes were fun and I hadn't realized just how interesting the scenery in the northern Great Plains of the US was, if the areas weren't so remote I'd be very seriously considering a vacation out there! And ending this post with my least-favorite watch of the past couple of weeks, the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC) of DC hosted a free, virtual screening of the anime film Penguin Highway and I just didn't like it very much. I do think it's funny that the other animated film they've done a virtual screening for, The Case of Hana and Alice, is another titled I also didn't like much, especially since the last film I saw there (The Wonderland, back in January) I actually walked out of since I realized I wasn't enjoying it and would rather go home instead of staying out, at least this time I got to watch the movie at home! Penguin Highway just felt too ungrounded for me, there wasn't even an attempt at any kind of fantasy or pseudo-science explanation for everything that happened, it felt like ideas being thrown at a wall more than it felt like an actual story. 

Alright, I think that was everything, let's see if I can do this on a weekly basis going forward but boy howdy do these posts take forever to write, I might be watching too much stuff!