Three things I know about watching Alphaville in Taipei

Three things “wrong” with watching ALPHAVILLE at the Taipei Film Festival tonight:

1. Chinese subtitles only. This was actually fine: good to re-activate my French, after a year studying Chinese rendered it rather dormant. But, lots of the film’s sound is sketchily recorded sync sound with so much distortion and background noise that it was hard to make out the dialogue. Godard’s own deep Alpha 60 voice, though, was loud and clear. So was everything Karena said (not coincidentally, I must have been trying harder when she appeared), including those last three words (tears in eyes, not just hers).

2. There’s something eerie and not-quite-right about watching a spanking new digital restoration of the film, all high tech wizardly-enabled, spiffed up, clean, sparkling, and grain-less: isn’t this the kind of fetishization of scientific (un)reason over passion that Alphaville itself attacks? (hint: yes)

3. After watching this or most any other Godard film, where free experimentation is playfully wedded to genre-referencing forms, uncompromising intelligence and mind-boggling culture génerale, I wonder what kind of pleasure I can still manage to eek out of any other films these days. This is slightly exhilarating or depressing, depending upon whether one is watching or has just watched said Godard film.


But enough Beethoven, there is Mozart

BBC radio played the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and, just for a moment, I wondered why we need Beethoven. Just for a stupid little moment. 

(Listen to what Mozart does with the 2nd and 3rd mentions of “desire”– everything’s about to fall apart, but no)

Then there’s the coda, impossibly tender.

And, speaking of Mozart, 

I’d somehow never before heard his great concert aria “Bella mia fiamma, addio”, K. 528. 

It’s the centerpiece of this superb Cecilia Bartoli concert with Concentus Musicus Wien & Nicholas Harnoncourt (see the link below, from 27.00 to 37.00). If you only listen to one part of the concert, listen to that. 

We’re lucky to be concert-going during Bartoli’s career: she’s got a fantastically clear, supple voice, but more important, she’s the greatest dramatic singer we have. She makes every moment, every note feel essential, as if (like no other singer I’ve heard) it’s the only utterly natural way to express the intense emotions behind the words she’s singing. 

And this aria of Mozart’s is deeply, weirdly, shatteringly dramatic… there’s a section that plunges deep into a kind of chromatic terror that doesn’t appear again until Wagner.

Back to the Beethoven piano progression anon, but pieces and performances like this one are the reason I can’t live without western art music.

Beethoven piano sonatas, continued. The Grande Sonate Pathétique, no. 8 in C minor, op.13

[I started working my way through Ronald Brautigam’s complete recordings on fortepiano of the Beethoven piano sonatas as an experiment in chronological listening. The first 7 were posted on twitter, but that’s a bit too short form for what I’m doing, so I’m moving the comments here.]

Time to get back to the Beethoven piano sonatas. Something very big happens with the next one: number 8 in C minor, op. 13. It’s the first sonata with a nickname: “Grande Sonata Pathetique” (from the publisher). Which is apt, since it’s the first sonata in which Beethoven emerges, fully formed. Dramatic pauses, pathos, formal experiments carried off with bravura, pushing the new technology of the fortepiano to its limits, it’s all here. I think that the first movement, while announcing something new, does it by way of a critique/extension of Mozart’s minor mode slow introduction form: it’s almost as if Beethoven sees Mozart’s “Dissonant quartet”  and raises it a few chips. The opening slow material, marked grave, isn’t  destined to be buried, suppressed by the rest of the piece, in Mozart’s manner (as if it were too troubling to bring into the main body of the work). Beethoven brings this troubling, static, anguished material back, three times, subjecting it to sonata form development and elaboration. Mozart’s formal exception becomes Beethoven’s formal development. Beethoven makes musical form expand, he breaks it and then and re-forms it, to encompass a more broadly imagined world. Darkness, horror, formless ambiguity: no longer something to be acknowledged but held at bay (Mozart’s practice): it can now be incorporated into the heart of a musical text. (Brautigam, disappointingly, flubs the opportunity to repeat the first movement’s the opening grave, which changes everything). 


The rest of the piece (which the always brilliant Andras Schiff calls “so unpianistic i can’t describe it”) is smaller: The very singable (dangerously easy to sentimentalize) slow movement is a rondo (A B A C A). I guess we just need to hear that tune three times? It worked: it’s the first tune Beethoven wrote that anyone who knows a bit of Beethoven can hum. 

2013 Top Ten Film List

TOP TEN LIST time: Tentatively, a virtually meaningless (because it’s arbitrary, but less arbitrary, or at least differently arbitrary, than all those published “top ten” lists based on what’s been released theatrically in the USA) best ten films I’ve seen that played in theatres or festivals in 2013:

This is roughly in order, the first five seem to me now to be likely to have lasting importance — and they are beautiful; the next five “merely” the other outstanding films this year that I’ve been able to see.

1. Stray Dogs (郊遊), Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan; feature)

2. ’Til Madness Do Us Part (疯爱), Wang Bing (China/Hong Kong/France; documentary)

3. What now? Remind me (E agora? Lembra-me), Joaqim Pinto (Portugal; documentary / essay)

4. Spring, Nathaniel Dorsky (USA; short)

5. Redemption, Miguel Gomes (Portugal, France, Germany, Italy; short)


6. The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (Norway, Denmark, UK; documentary)

7. The Grandmaster (一代宗師), Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong, China; feature)

8. Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez (USA; documentary)

9. Stranger By The Lake (L’Inconnu du lac), Alain Guiraudie (France; feature)

10. Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach (USA; feature)

– Shelly

I spent the evening at the current Qianlong Emperor exhibition (8.Oct.2013-7.Jan.2014) at Taipei’s treasure house National Palace Museum. The exhibition is awkwardly called, in English, The All Complete Qianlong: in Chinese it’s 十全乾隆.

*In Chinese the title reads more elegantly. The 3rd and 4th characters 乾隆 are “Qianlong”, the reign name of the fourth Qing Dynasty Emperor Gaozhong. 十全 together means perfect, literally it is “ten all”, 十 / ten (which has an extended meaning of perfect, as in “ten out of ten”); quan/全 means whole/all/complete. So I’d perhaps call it The Perfectly Complete Qianlong, which would be a little less awkward?

This was a second visit: the first was a weekend daytime trip, when the hordes of visitors (mostly mainland Chinese tourists) were thankfully mostly pinned down in a three hour lineup to see the Palace Museum’s Mona Lisa equivalent, a  kitschy little Qing jadeite carving of a cabbage with a grasshopper (maybe it’s the grasshopper that makes them line for hours?).  Friday evening is key:  great museums are best at their evening openings, I think (try the Louvre or the Pompidou on nights when the tourists are out eating biftek frites, and suave Parisian art students inhabit the galleries: non pareil): no one is there except you, and a few classical art aficionados quietly visiting the galleries, taking  notes in their elegantly bound sketchbooks. The bused-in masses of mainland visitors have all bused out to Ding Tai Feng or wherever they go to eat “Taiwanese”).

The exhibition is is fascinating: beautifully designed. Palace Museum curators are experts at exquisitely positioning art objects for close viewing (the “other” Palace Museum (Beijing) could learn a few things from their Taiwanese tongbao): their style of “unboxing” and laying the emperor’s treasure collection mini-chest out with its contents makes for superlative display case design (I was put in mind of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise).

The show really constitutes, with its rich texts and label-mini-essays, an immersive seminar in 18th century Chinese art and culture, via the Qianlong Emperor (Gaozong), who had a crazy passion for collecting and cataloging everything beautiful thing he could get his hands on in his China. And he got his hands on a lot of stuff, what with the stunning and comprehensive Forbidden City collection of paintings, calligraphy, objets d’art, some dating back to neolithic times — most of which ended up in Taipei, long story– at his disposal. His impulse to exhaustively categorize the entire aesthetic and literary production of China makes him something of an 18th century aesthetic Aristotle. This kind of idealized — but actually put into practice — totalizing system demonstrates the comprehensiveness of Chinese cultural power just as the power of ancient Greek thought was created, demonstrated, and projected by Aristotle’s totalizing intellectual cataloging project.

The exhibition’s accompanying captions and wall texts seemed amusingly schizophrenic in at least one respect. The general tone is slavishly admiring of the Qianlong Emperor: all positive, highlighting his myriad accomplishments, devotion to the arts, great wisdom, etc. etc. as if, well as if it were produced by post-imperial subjects writing about some contemporary post-emperor of theirs. Perhaps old habits of (post-) imperial address die hard. But once one burrows down to the detailed captions of particular pieces of Gaozong’s calligraphy, the discipline slipped a bit, and the captions were able on occasion to admit that, well when he was younger the calligraphy was not quite up to snuff; when he was older, he had a shakier hand; and when in the prime of middle age, his characters lacked a certain consistent masculine vigour (or words to that effect).

The Qianlong Emperor also wrote obsessively all over his favourite ancient paintings, making them perhaps more valuable in the process. Perhaps. There are two crazy examples of landscape paintings that meant much to him: he went back and wrote all over one 14 separate times, with different poems, impressions, thoughts. Other times he simply painted an utterly elegant “神“ character in his own hand, to indicate the “divine” quality of the work. Here’s one (below) in the middle of the white rock in the lower centre. The surrounding poems are in Gaozong’s hand. Much lovelier this way?



  • a gorgeous Ming dynasty painting by Ding Yunping, Washing the Elephant, (see a dim repro here), and its counterpart, in which the Qianlong Emperor has the bodhisattva replaced with his own imperial visage
  • a perfectly simple, perfectly perfect round Song Dynasty Ru ware dish (I innocently wondered how much such a thing would cost if one were a rich collector of Song celadons, and Google obliged with the information that it would be 27 million dollars)
  • this flamboyant little Han dynasty bear — Han China had an unmatched sculptural genius (well, excepting the Northern Wei) (you can see the white jade hand of Gaozong’s commissioned copy just behind on the right)Image

There may be a lesson in the Qianlong show: it portrays a China at the peak of its power & influence in the mid 18th century: the Qianlong Emperor’s supreme confidence derives from imperial might, worn utterly comfortably. This confidence easily synthesizes foreign influences: it’s at ease, secure, and open to the world, to the pleasures and responsibilities of enjoying power. Imagine that China today, instead of this one.

– Shelly Kraicer, Taipei (7 December 2013)

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Rice

I saw Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s (雲門舞集) new theatre dance performance: RICE (稻禾).  First, the good things: this was my first time seeing Cloud Gate live. Impressively powerful dancers, superbly trained, energizing each other on stage. Who is the woman with long arms who has several key solos? She’s mesmerizing: star quality, incredibly power and expressivity.

Two highlights: the super-charged erotic duet, mostly on or close to the ground, that had Mannerist bodies (Michelangelo-esque, really) in constantly shifting, sometimes almost insect-like twisting embrace, wow. But why was it set at the back of the stage, off in the distance so that it was hard for us to see? The other highlight: about 8 women dancing as slowly as possible (call this the Tsai Ming-liang section of the work), mostly hunched over, to a Richard Strauss operatic aria. Here, individualized, creatively designed movement finally emerged from Lin Hwai-min’s rather stereotyped “modernist” broad gestural style: in this section each body, each gesture, insisted that one look at it carefully; each was precisely judged, and at least implicitly meaningful. Would that the rest of the work had been as strong. I also failed to find the embedded political/social critique that Cloud Gate is known for.

So, is this new dance typical of the group’s style? Overal I was surprised at how conservative Cloud Gate’s modern dance style is, based on a Bausch-esque dance vocabulary and conception that feels a bit dated. As for the music: the Hakka folksongs were haunting; a recording of Callas doing Casta Diva less so (too cliched and insufficiently integrated into the rest of the piece, from this Westerner’s perspective). The overlong self-tribute video at the beginning is better shown in the lobby, before the performance.

Can someone tell me exactly what the Richard Strauss opera excerpt from the end is? I’m pretty sure it’s not Four Last Songs. I can’t place it.

– Shelly Kraicer, at the National Theatre, Taipei, November 29 2013

2013 Taipei Golden Horse Awards, if I were a juror

Just for fun, I’ll pretend I’m on the Golden Horse Award Jury this year, and pick what I would vote for. I think I’ve seen (almost) all of the nominated features and docs.

Best Feature Film
The Grandmaster
(though if pressed, I could happily change my vote to Stray Dogs)

Best Documentary
Pusu Qhuni

Best Director
Tsai Ming-liang / Stray Dogs

Best New Director
Anthony Chen / Ilo Ilo

Best Leading Actor
Lee Kang-sheng (Stray Dogs)

Best Leading Actress
Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster)

Best Supporting Actor
Huang Bo (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons)

Best Supporting Actress
Yeo Yann Yann (Ilo Ilo)

Best New Performer
(what the hell: all the kids: Koh Jia Ler (Ilo Ilo); Yang Liang-yu (A Time in Quchi) ; Huang Shao-yang (Together) … it’s a good year for youthful actors)

Best Original Screenplay
Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, Lee Sheung-ching, Y.Y. Kong (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons)

Best Cinematography
Liao Pen-jung, Shong Woon-chong, Lu Qingxin (Stray Dogs)

Best Visual Effects
Pierre Buffin (The Grandmaster)

Best Art Direction
William Chang Suk-ping, Alfred Yau Wai-ming (The Grandmaster)

Best Makeup & Costume Design
William Chang Suk-ping (The Grandmaster)

Best Action Choreography
Yuen Wo-ping (The Grandmaster)

Best Original Film Score
Lim Giong (A Touch of Sin)

Best Original Film Song
[who cares]

Best Film Editing
David Richardson, Allen Leung (Drug War)

Best Sound Effects
Tu Duu-chih, Kuo Li-chi, Mark Ford (Stray Dogs)

[I’ve only seen 2 of the best short film nominees]

Full list of nominees: