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Review: The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

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Review: <em>The Life and Death of Marina Abramović</em>
Review: <em>The Life and Death of Marina Abramović</em>

The Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition of performance artist Marina Abramović’s life work, five years after the Guggenheim allowed her to “re-perform” seven performances by herself and others, cemented Abramović’s conversion into performance art’s ruling figure, at once parent to the form and gatekeeper of its history, at least in the public imagination. Those who’ve accused her of crossing the thin line from self-sacrificing hero to self-aggrandizing celebrity will likely be further displeased by The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, an impressionistic theatrical biography co-authored and co-starring Abramović, and designed and directed by Robert Wilson. Here we see Abramović as a living saint, already transubstantiated.

The evening is framed as a funeral for Abramović (newspapers are distributed to the audience with the headline, “ARTIST MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ DIES AT 67”), who begins by lying in a white robe on a coffin-shaped table and ends drifting into the air in the same gown. She’s flanked by two women, and in the finale a triptych of black crows peppers the sky. The two-and-a-half-hour work might have been called The Passion of Marina.

Between East and West An Interview with David Henry Hwang

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Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang
Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway play, Chinglish, begins with an American sign manufacturer talking about his experiences in China, offering his insights about doing business in that country. Just how well he has succeeded in understanding his partners and business practices in a foreign culture becomes clear as the play progresses. The insightful and witty comedy, written in both English and Mandarin (translated very effectively with subtitles projected onto the set) is the latest from the author of the 1988 Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play M. Butterfly, and is currently playing at the Longacre Theater. Chinglish offers a lively and thought-provoking look at a cross-cultural exchange that is likely to continue to figure prominently in the first half of this century.

Hwang made his mark as a playwright with FOB (an Asian-American derogative term for new immigrants who arrive in in the U.S. “Fresh Off the Boat” from Asia) which was produced in New York at the Public Theater in 1980. In the intervening years, the California-born playwright, now 54, has become one of the preeminent Asian-American voices in the theater. He achieved international recognition with M. Butterfly, which is loosely based on a true story about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Peking Opera star, who also happened to be a Chinese government spy, allegedly without realizing that “she” was really a man. In addition to his plays, Hwang work includes librettos for music theater works by Philip Glass, several screenplays and the books for the Disney musicals Aida and Tarzan. He was nominated for a Tony in 1998 for his second play on Broadway, Golden Child, which is inspired by stories about his ancestors related to him by his Chinese maternal grandmother. After a decade’s absence, he returned to the New York stage in 2007 with Yellow Face, a comedy in which he examined his own evolving feelings regarding the controversy in the early nineties caused by the casting of a Caucasian actor as the male lead in Miss Saigon. The Obie-winning play, also a finalist that year for the Pulitzer, was staged at the Public Theater under the direction of Leigh Silverman, who also directed Chinglish. Hwang talked recently to The House Next Door about his new work.

The Conversations: Errol Morris

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The Conversations: Errol Morris
The Conversations: Errol Morris

Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.

I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.