ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York
Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan online
Through May 5, $12 per virtual film, $45 for in-person comedy night
“Everybody has crutches,” multidisciplinary artist and performer Bill Shannon says in Crutch, screening at the thirteenth annual ReelAbilities Film Festival. “Some of them you can see; some of them are invisible.” Founded in 2007 by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, the festival is “dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.” Running through May 5, it opened April 29 with Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli’s Best Summer Ever at the Queens Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science, with appearances by Itzhak Perlman and Lachi, and will be virtual the rest of the way (with one notable exception), consisting of eighteen programs, from panel discussions and Q&As to shorts and full-length films as well as a comedy night. The eight feature documentaries can be streamed throughout the festival; each will also have a live Q&A with the filmmakers and/or subjects. Among the topics explored in the works are disabling injury (Ahead of the Curve), Down syndrome (The Special), blindness (Maricarmen), amputation (Augmented), mental health (The World Is Bright), autism (In a Different Key), and ALS (closing-night selection Not Going Quietly, with Temple Grandin participating in the Q&A).
There will also be a Gamechanger talk about authentic storytelling with Lauren Ridloff and Katherine Croft, “Black Future Month: Legacy, Present & Afro-Futurism” with Keith Jones, CJ Jones, Tameka Citchen-Spruce, Safiya Eshe Gyasi, Diana Elizabeth Jordan, and Trelanda R. Lowe, “Fashion, Beauty, and Disability” with KR Liu, Natalie Trevonne, Dana Zumbo, and Aubrie Lee, an author talk with Jodi Samuels about parenting children with disabilities and her book Chutzpah, Wisdom and Wine: The Journey of an Unstoppable Woman, as well as four collections of shorts. In addition, there will be a live reading of the pilot script for the unproduced television series Disgraced with writers Julie Klausner and Alex Scordelis and star Shannon DeVido along with Amy Sedaris, Larry Wilmore, Jackie Hoffman, Chris Gethard, Sasheer Zamata, and others, and a live, hybrid comedy show with Maysoon Zayid, Tina Friml, Martin Phillips, Jenny Cavallero, and Ryan Haddad, hosted by Pamela Schuller, taking place in person on the JCC Manhattan rooftop ($45) and online ($15).
Who: Claire Danes
What: Shakespeare Hour Live! discussion about Romeo + Juliet
Where: Facebook Live and YouTube Live
When: Friday, April 23, free, 8:00
Why: Twenty-five years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes starred as the title lovers in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, pitting two business empires against each other, the Montagues and the Capulets, while using the the Bard’s original dialogue. On the night that PBS’s Great Performances presentation of the National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet, which was filmed following Covid-19 protocols, is making its US premiere, Danes will talk about the movies and the play in the latest Shakespeare Hour Live!, the ongoing series hosted by DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, whose artistic director, Simon Godwin, directed the National Theatre production. Luhrmann’s 1999 movie features Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles as Romeo’s parents, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora as Juliet’s folks, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Dash Mihok as Benvolio, and Miriam Margolyes as the nurse, while Godwin’s version, which makes full use of the National Theatre space, stars Jessie Buckley as Juliet and Josh O’Connor as Romeo, with Tamsin Greig as Lady Capulet, Lloyd Hutchinson as Lord Capulet, Colin Tierney as Lord Montague, David Judge as Tybalt, Alex Mugnaioni as Paris, Shubham Saraf as Benvolio, Adrian Lester as the prince, Fisayo Akinade as Mercutio, and Deborah Findlay as the nurse.
“I think Traylor is probably the greatest artist you’ve never heard of, but he’s getting heard of more and more,” art critic Roberta Smith says at the beginning of Jeffrey Taylor’s Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, an insightful documentary that runs April 16–22 at Film Forum — both virtually and in person at the West Houston St. theater.
I well remember the first time I truly encountered the scope of Bill Traylor’s art, at a pair of 2013 exhibits at the American Folk Art Museum. I had seen his work before, but these two shows opened my eyes to his immense self-taught skill and his poignant and personal view of the world he had experienced, becoming, in his later years, a unique chronicler of the American South, from slavery and the Civil War through the Great Migration and the Great Depression to Jim Crow and WWII. He passed away in 1949 at the age of ninety-six, leaving behind some 1,500 drawings, all made between 1939 and 1942; it would still be decades until he would be duly recognized him as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.
Director, producer, and editor Taylor and writer-producer Fred Barron tell Traylor’s uniquely American tale through archival photos, commentary from art connoisseurs and historians, members of Traylor’s family, and, most important, images of hundreds of his works. Born into slavery in Benton, Alabama, in 1853, Traylor was a slave on a cotton plantation, a field hand, a tenant farmer, a shoe repairman, and an ill homeless man while fathering nine children with multiple women before spending three years sitting behind a small refrigerated soda case on Monroe St. in Montgomery, Alabama, drawing both from memory and observation of the bustling Black community in front of him. Using anything he could find — torn paper, stained cardboard with logos on one side — Traylor would draw flat, silhouetted objects, primarily in black but with flourishes of blue, red, and occasional yellows, imbued with a musicality that breathes life into them while also exploring race and class; today, his art evokes elements of both Jacob Lawrence and Kara Walker. Taylor often juxtaposes Traylor’s drawings with photographs of places that might have served as inspiration, which offer further understanding of the art and the man.
“There are certain elements in the work — the use of animal spirits and plant spirits, and there’s hybrid people, there’s were-people — that all of these speak to someone operating intentionally with the desire to render the fantastic. So he’s giving us a whole enchanted, magical realm,” writer, musician, and producer Greg Tate says, adding, “The mystery prevails throughout.” Artist Radcliffe Bailey notes, “When I look at Traylor’s work, I see this freedom of expressing, or seeing what’s going on around him but also being very lyrical about it.” Among the others celebrating Traylor with a deep reverence are archivist Dr. Howard O. Robinson II, professor Richard Powell, and curator Leslie Umberger. Taylor includes readings by actors Russell G. Jones and Sharon Washington, songs by Willie King, Lead Belly, Buddy Guy, and Chick Webb, and tap dances by Jason Samuels Smith, along with the words of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes as well as the white painter and teacher Charles Shannon, who championed and represented Traylor.
The film’s latter section focuses on Traylor’s descendants, including his great-grandson Frank L. Harrison, who tears up when talking about his ancestor. Some knew of Traylor, and some didn’t, which is all part of his legacy. Umberger, who curated the major 2018-19 Smithsonian retrospective “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” sums it up when she states, “He put down this entire oral history in the language that was available to him, which was the language of pictures.” What pictures they are, and we now know more about where they came from, thanks to Chasing Ghosts.
In April 2015, New York City–based Satellite Collective launched its unique take on the game of Telephone; instead of people forming a line and whispering phrases to one another to see how much the words change, the project connected more than 300 artists from 42 countries, each developing a new piece based on multiple works they were sent, inspired by the sentence “O god, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Five years later, Telephone is back, bringing together 950 artists from 70 countries and 5 continents during a pandemic that has seen arts venues shuttered and travel decreased significantly. Starting on March 23, 2020, a message was given to one artist; the text of that message has not been revealed. It was passed via multiple art forms — painting, photography, music, film, dance, poetry, sculpture, prose — creating a vast network of artists primarily selected by word-of-mouth. An online grid allows viewers to explore one work, complete with image/video, artist bio and statement, and map placing where they are from. You can then follow the branch in one of two directions to see what each piece inspires or navigate the game by artist, discipline, or location.
“It took me a while to let the message reach me. I listened again and again. But I heard an echo, and the work I created is exactly that: a soft, natural response to what was sent my way. I hope it keeps moving and changing,” explains Elizabeth Schmuhl of Detroit, whose watercolor is connected to artists from Helsinki, Los Angeles, and Ulster County. “Translating another’s work is harder than expected, especially from a field different from the one you practice. I translated a written work into an illustrator after a lot of sketching and reading between the lines, and then, when making my own drawing, I had to make sure with myself between time to time that I’m still on the right track and conveying the message I believed I have been given,” writes Keren-or Radiano of Tel-Aviv, whose black-and-white piece links to Lauren Baines of San Jose and Timothy Ralphs of Vancouver, who in turn says about his song, “I have to admit that my own work can sometimes be a bit dark and brooding, but because I wanted to honor the spirit of the works that were forwarded to me, I knew I’d have to (at least temporarily) put that pessimism aside. As I meditated on the works, I began to see them as not only being about inspiration but as being an inspiration in themselves. There was a real sense of delight in creation in those works, and I felt touched by the artists’ generosity of spirit. I only hope I was able to pass on some of that to those that come after me.”
Poet Rebecca Williams of Fort Collins describes, “Writing this piece was in some ways challenging. Usually, I don’t write given a prompt. I normally avoid it. Having participated in a similar telephone game recently for which I wrote a song, I was eager to participate in this one of a global scale. I participated because creating in the circumstances which we face (a global pandemic) has been challenging. My band has been forced to a complete standstill and it puts you face-to-face with the question of why you are actually creating in the first place. Of course, in the end, it is the love and passion for creation, and without it, I truly feel empty. I think my apprehension comes from a kind of distaste for mediocrity. Something which I have always battled and struggled with. I was given such a beautiful work of art to be inspired by, and while I looked at it, and studied it, I asked myself what it meant to me, then the words came easily. Perfection doesn’t exist. Mediocrity does, but beautiful things are always a bit imperfect.” And writer, musician, and Torah teacher Alicia Jo Rabins of Portland, Oregon, points out, “All art is translation, transcription, and transmission. It was fun to collaborate with a mysterious fellow translator/transcriber/transmitter — at the risk of sounding totally woo, it made me feel more grounded in the source of the great flowing stream of art and consciousness that happens at all times. It’s easy to feel alone and it was nice to have company. I think I got what the previous artist was trying to convey. I hope I get to meet them someday.”
Conceived, developed, designed, edited, directed, engineered, and curated by Kevin Draper, Katelyn Watkins, Matt Diehl, Ben Sarsgard, Kelly Jones, Ramon M. Rodriguez, Jennifer Spriggs, Sergio Rodriguez, Madeline Hoak, Sean Tomas Redmond, and Nathan Langston, Telephone can occupy you for hours on end, looking at different ekphrastic works or visualizing it as one giant multidisciplinary, collaborative canvas that expresses our never-ending deep desire for creativity, inspiration, and connection, especially in times of isolation and doubt.
April 15 - June 30, $24.99 - $29.99
Every spring for more than forty years, the Schubertiade has celebrated the work of Austrian composer Franz Schubert through concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and discussion. Overlapping with the 2021 Schubertiade, which runs April 28 to May 2, is an unusual, immersive hybrid production called The Wandering, available online April 15 through June 30. The multimedia presentation uses film, music, props, postcards, and photography to explore Schubert’s creativity and sexual orientation.
In his 1992 New York Times article “Critic's Notebook: Was Schubert Gay? If He Was, So What? Debate Turns Testy” about a 92nd St. Y symposium on the composer, Edward Rothstein wrote, “As for the issue of homosexuality, Mr. [Maynard] Solomon's case is compellingly argued, but I defer to scholars for a final verdict. The most vexing problems arise in judging the musical importance of the composer’s sexuality. Mr. Solomon asserts, for example, that Schubert’s homosexuality demonstrated a ‘resistance to compulsion’ and that it revealed a ‘heroic region in Schubert’s personality.’ But while Schubert obviously possessed a profound knowledge of suffering and isolation, heroism seems alien to his compositions, imported from some contemporary views of sexual ‘unorthodoxy.’”
Conceived by actor and curator Calista Small, baritone and actor Jeremy Weiss, designer Charlotte McCurdy, theater artist Christine Shaw, filmmaker Lara Panah-Izadi, and animator Zach Bell, The Wandering, which delves into Schubert’s suffering, isolation, heroism, and sexuality in abstract ways, is meant to take place over four days, although you can proceed at your own pace. Each day features a short film starring Weiss as the Wanderer, a curious man traversing a strange landscape, with music by Schubert played by pianist Marika Yasuda and German lyrics sung by Weiss. (English translations by Julian Manresa are available.)
In the Matthew Barney–like films, which can be viewed only once — there’s no going back after you start each one — cinematographer Frank Sun follows the Wanderer as he encounters a series of mysterious characters out on the road, in a forest, in the historic Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, Illinois, and at the landmark Wright in Kankakee home in the Illinois woods: Bambi Banks Couleé as the Performer, Ethan Kirschbaum as the Doppelgänger, Daria Harper as the Crow, Small as the Crystallography Denizen, and Josh Romero as the Gardener Denizen. Directed by Panah-Izadi, the films, ranging between six and ten minutes apiece, are beautifully shot tone poems incorporating music, theater, and dance, with choreography by Craig Black, sound by Jared O’Brien, costumes by Casey Wood (the Doppelgänger outfit is particularly impressive), sets by Rachel Cole, and hair and makeup by Erica Martens.
After watching each individual film, you open a packet you received in the mail (well worth the additional $5 cost) containing an object for you to interact with, poetry, letters, pre-addressed stamped postcards you can fill with drawings and/or words and send, QR codes for augmented reality (by Sahil Gupta), and various prompts surrounding your personal “wunderlich,” which can mean “wondrous,” “queer,” “odd,” “fantastical,” or “whimsical.” Several tasks involve going outside, taking a photo, and posting it to the gallery on the main site, known as the Prism (the web design is by TanTan Wang), which features a perennial meditative soundscape. There’s also a page where you can listen separately to the songs, which include “Wandrers Nachtlied,” “Die Krähe,” “Die Gebüsche,” “Nacht Und Träume,” and “Ganymed.”
Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797 and died there at the age of thirty-one, having produced more than 1,500 works, from orchestral overtures, operas, and symphonies to lieder, cantatas, and song cycles. In an 1822 letter the composer sent to his friend and maybe lover, Austrian actor, poet, and librettist Franz von Schober (and which is excerpted in the show’s packet), he describes a dream he had, explaining, “I wandered into a distant land. . . . For long, long years, I sang songs. When I wanted to sing about love, it turned to pain. When I wanted to sing of pain, it turned to love. Thus, love and pain divided me.”
Weiss responds with his own letter to Schubert, writing, “Your music was the first thing I turned to in a moment of crisis during a pandemic. Thank you for writing of your pain, and of your love. Did you ever learn not to let them divide you? Might we?” It’s a question a lot of us have been asking, especially during this last, tumultuous year.
LOOKING FOR A LADY WITH FANGS AND A MOUSTACHE (Khyentse Norbu, 2019)
Rubin Museum of Art
Thursday, April 8, suggested admission $15, 5:00
Opens virtually Friday, April 9
Every November, my partner travels to Kathmandu in Nepal to study with a meditation teacher, known as a Rinpoche, and I have accompanied her several times. This annual trip became impossible last year because of Covid-19. But writer-director Khyentse Norbu’s latest film, Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache, made us feel like we were there once again, in this mystical, spiritual land.
A Bhutan-born Tibetan Buddhist teacher and filmmaker, Norbu, also known as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the third incarnation of a principal lama, maintains a calm, meditative pace in telling the story of a secular man suddenly staring death in the face. Tenzin (Tsering Tashi Gyalthang) rides his motorcycle through Kathmandu, trying to find a place to open a Western-style coffee shop. He is guided by Rabindra (Rabindra Singh Baniya), who is not happy when Tenzin is drawn to an abandoned monastery that was partially destroyed in the devastating 2015 earthquake. “Are you crazy?” Rabindra says, claiming that the building is “the womb of the goddess.” But Tenzin is a nonbeliever, more concerned that his button-down shirt and tie are properly adjusted and his hair is perfect than offending a would-be divine being.
Tenzin starts having strange dreams involving a young girl skipping barefoot through a field of marigolds, so his friend Jachung (Tulku Kungzang), worried about what the dreams mean, takes him to see a fabulously cool cereal-loving psychic monk (Ngawang Tenzin) who wears shades and headphones and regularly checks his iPad. The monk interprets the dreams to be a signal that Tenzin has only a week to live unless he finds a dakini, a sacred female messenger of wisdom and power. “You don’t have much time left. Better go and see your friends and relatives,” the monk says. “If you have any money, spend it all and have some fun. I heard you’re a modern man, so you won’t offer to monasteries anyway.” Tenzin is told to visit with the Master of Left Hand Lineage (Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche), who will further advise him about dakinis. Meanwhile, Tenzin continues going to a traditional Tibetan music class with Janchung and Kunsel (Tenzin Kunsel), taught by a wise, elderly man (Loten Namling).
Tenzin at first thinks his supposed fate is nonsense until strange things start happening to him and the prospect of his potential impending death finally gets to him. He searches for a dakini, which could be any woman he sees, particularly if they have fangs, a moustache, and three eyes. Meanwhile, the Master instructs, “If everyone believed they only had seven days to live, the world would be peaceful.” As the end of the week approaches, Tenzin must decide what, and whom, to believe as he examines the world he has made for himself.
Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache is a beautifully constructed, deeply contemplative parable about tradition and modernity in a culture that melds the good and the bad, spirituality and practicality, life and death. Norbu, whose previous films include 1999’s much-loved The Cup, in which two boys are desperate to watch the World Cup at a monastery that doesn’t have a working television, and 2003’s extraordinary Travellers and Magicians, a road movie in which the Bhutanese protagonist wants to leave the Himalayas for the prospect of success in America, once again explores the idea of a personal quest in his latest work. Tenzin’s hunt for a dakini represents the pursuit all of us have for something other than what is already within us. The film is gorgeously photographed by famed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing (In the Mood for Love, The Assassin), with reds, yellows, greens, and blues blossoming from the brown, gray ancient city of Kathmandu.
In one nearly four-and-a-half-minute uncut scene shot from a few dozen feet away with a stationary camera, the rock-and-roll monk is seen through an open doorway on the right, sitting cross-legged on a white cushion, relaxed and comfortable as he checks his iPad. Tenzin stands by an open doorway on the left, his arms crossed in stark refusal of what is happening to him. The two men are separated by a window in front of which are three large potted ferns and two smaller plants, life growing gloriously between them. They are not quite as different as they might appear.
Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache is having a special online screening on April 8 at 5:00, kicking off the Rubin Museum’s “Brainwave: Awareness” series, followed by a live Q&A with Norbu and neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson. The film opens virtually on April 9.
Who: Song Ming Ang, Melanie Kress
What: Live online artist talk
Where: The High Line Zoom
When: Tuesday, April 6, free with RSVP, 1:00 (exhibition continues through April 28)
Why: In the 2019 interview “A New Understanding of Place” for the High Line blog, associate curator Melanie Kress explained why video was part of the elevated park’s continuing celebration of site-specific public art. “When we think of public art, most of us think of murals and sculptures. But to fully showcase the range of mediums that artists are working in today, video is indispensable,” she said. “Video also has the ability to cross back and forth between many different worlds and forms at the same time — between advertising, social media, film, documentary, documentation, television, music videos, and more. It provides a really interesting place for artists to play with viewers’ expectations. In a public space, visitors aren’t necessarily expecting to encounter art — especially video art — so those lines can be blurred in all the more challenging and creative ways.”
The latest video art installation to screen on the High Line Channel at Fourteenth St. is Singapore-born artist Song-Ming Ang’s “Piano Magic,” which consists of 2014’s Backwards Bach, in which Ang, who is based in Singapore and Berlin, plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier on the harpsichord both forward and backward, and 2011’s Parts and Labour, in which he fixes a disused piano. On April 6 at 2:00, Ang and Kress will discuss the project, which continues through April 28, in a live Zoom Q&A. Ang is also represented at the Asia Society Triennial with the multimedia site-specific installation True Stories, twelve music stands with text and images that explore the demise of societal norms, which he detailed in the Instagram Live program “Talking Dreams: A Conversation with Artist Song-Ming Ang.”