While I have fully-loaded cable plus Amazon plus Netflix, and generally love having all those thousands & thousands of viewing choices, I do sometimes get nostalgic for the days when we had just four national television networks and everyone would watch the Wizard of Oz or A Charlie Brown Christmas on the same night. There is just something to be said for a shared experience. It’s a large part of what keeps me going to see movies at theaters. Yes, I like a big screen and seeing a movie when it first comes out, but I really like how seeing the movie with a bunch of other people somehow heightens my own reaction to it. That happened when I went to see The Post a few Saturdays ago. It’s a movie based on actual historical events - so I knew the ending - but that did not stop me from being on the edge of my seat as Meryl Streep so convincingly played Kay Graham’s hand-wringing, lip-biting uncertainty over whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers, and it was worth every penny of my $10.25 when the whole theater broke into raucous applause at the ending.
But what’s even better than watching a movie together with others? For me, it’s enjoying live music. That’s when I’m most in the moment and when I most can feel the energy of not only the performance but the crowd reacting to the performance. Director Sam Green has developed a merger of both movie and live performance, a form he calls the “live documentary.”
Last Thursday night, The Wexner Center for the Arts co-premiered A Thousand Thoughts, a live documentary by Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet. (Columbus was supposed to be the “World Premiere” but it actually premiered earlier that week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I guess that was an offer too good to refuse.)
This is how it worked. Green spent weeks combing through the archives of the Kronos Quartet, housed floor to ceiling, room to room. in a second floor San Francisco apartment that doubles as their practice space. He interviewed and filmed current and previous members of the quartet, as well as a handful of the nearly 1,000 composers with whom Kronos has collaborated (including Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, the Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and the Chinese pipa player Wu Man), then fashioned a film which played on a large screen while Green narrated the history of the quartet from its founding in 1973 by violinist David Harrington up to the present, as Harrington and Kronos’ three other current members – violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang - played live on the stage in front of the screen to more than twenty compositions, providing the soundtrack to the movie, while oftentimes also telling parts of the story from within the film.
This is how it felt. Always interesting and entertaining. At times intense. At times powerfully moving. And overwhelmingly immediate and fleeting. I did not see one person look at a cell phone or even whisper to their neighbor. We were hundreds of people in the collective moment from 8:00ish to 9:30ish. (Sam Green told us the exact times to the second at the start and at the finish but since I was in the moment and wasn’t taking notes, I don’t remember.) Unlike a live concert, you could never be complacent in a moment. You could never think to yourself, “Oh, here comes that long [bass][drum][guitar] solo” and mentally check out. There was always a new clip or image hitting the screen, a new part of the story being told.
The story of any group that has been together for 45 years is sure to have its share of comic and tragic moments and both were shared in equal measure, from the quartet's outlandish hair and clothing stylings throughout the years in an effort to break with the stuffy “penguin suits” of traditional string quartets (my favorite were the Star Trek-looking outfits), to the deaths in quick succession of Dutt’s longtime partner, of Harrington’s son and the loss by cellist Joan Jeanrenaud of her baby, who was stillborn.
In one of the most compelling portions of the documentary, Harrington described how following the joyous event of the birth of his first grandchild in early 2003 he felt himself pulled down into a deep depression. He related that the buildup to the invasion of Iran began to trigger flashbacks to his late teens and early 20's and his reaction to the Vietnam War, and he dreaded what the world would be for his grandson. As a consequence of the depression, he lost his inner resonance, and was unable to hear/feel music inside of him. He felt hopeless and on a downward spiral until he realized he needed to talk to someone with a great voice to lift him up, and he thought of Howard Zinn, the American Historian and author of People’s History of the United States (and - by the way - my Professor back in the day at Boston University). Harrington describes how he got Zinn’s telephone number from a friend of his, called him and asked “What can a normal person do in this time?” The film then cuts to Zinn’s answer in a clip from Zinn speaking at a fundraiser for Spare Change street paper and the Homeless Empowerment Project in 2004. (It's at 11:19-12:42 of the video below.)
Then we are back to Harrington saying that after an hour of talking with Zinn, he had confidence and energy and could return to his mission of finding music that can protect people from suffering and children from harm, which is what still drives him after more than four decades.
Although Sherri Geldin, Wex director, mentioned that there are plans for a limited tour of the production, I am not sure where, and as far as I know, it was one show only for Columbus. But if you can see it somewhere else, do! And, in the meantime, go have another shared experience at the Wex. Here’s a few upcoming events on my calendar:
Paris is Burning on Feb. 6th @ 7 PM – winner of a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, looks at the drag ballroom subculture of 1980s Harlem (1990)
In the Intense Now on Feb. 16th @ 7 PM – documentary revisits the revolutions of 1968 in France, Czechoslovakia, Brazil and China (2017)
Dementia 13 and Lick the Star on Feb. 24th @7 PM – a double bill of Francis Ford Coppola and daughter Sofia Coppola movies - or catch Adam O’ Farrill’s Stranger Days, a jazz quartet that took the last Winter Jazzfest in NYC by storm, in the Wex Performance Space at 8 PM
You can find the full calendar of events at www.wexarts.org.
And, if you are looking for a place to eat before or afterwards to continue your communal experience, check out the South Village Grille, a relaxed and yet upscale little grill located next to the Thurman Café in German Village. This place is so good that it inspires love letters rather than reviews on Yelp. The food (American, with especially fantastic seafood & vegetable selections but also steak and many other offerings), craft cocktails, atmosphere and service have been very, very far above par on each of my visits (and there's also plenty of free, on street parking). If you want a fun place for a drink and snack, try Service Bar, the front portion of the distillery at Middle West Spirits, tucked in a street back from High Street in the Short North.
Even though we are finally having a bit of an actual winter, it's definitely worth heading out into it in Cbus!
Anne Marie covers the Wexner Center and other non-KISS related material for Pencilstorm.