“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and the Procession of the Ghouls

Halloween Extravaganza at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Friday, October 29.

Dramatic silent films are easier to appreciate than to love. The exaggerated, stylized acting common before the sound era feels relatively natural in comedies, but in dramas, it’s strange and foreign. Furthermore, the variable frame rates can give the picture a vaguely unserious air, and the intertitle conventions are unfamiliar enough to feel stilted and awkward.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari manages to overcome more contemporary hurdles than other silent films, though. A landmark of German Expressionism, it features freakishly distorted sets, odd angles, and dark, gothy makeup that leap across the decades reasonably well. Lil Dagover’s wide-eyed gesticulations as distressed damsel Jane don’t do much for me, but Conrad Veidt gets under my skin with his delectably creepy performance as Cesare, the murderous somnambulist. The moment when he opens his kohl-lined eyes in extreme close-up actually makes me shiver.


Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five episodes into the second season.

The standard knock on metafiction (storytelling that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, never letting its audience forget the essential fictionness—the falsehood—of the tale) is that it’s empty and insincere, refusing to commit to the emotion or the characters of its story and instead indulging in arch, self-congratulatory naval-gazing, cleverness for its own meaningless sake. That can be true, no doubt—to understand a work as fiction, you always have to take a step or two back, and it’s easy to reach too far a remove—but it’s not necessarily so. The best metafiction finds meaning in the idea that stories are true even in their falsehood, and to me, at least, that’s a tremendously powerful, affirming idea. (I’m the sort of person who cries through much of Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction.) Good metafiction also provides rich ground for humor, mining the nonsense of storytelling even as it embraces the story. (Arrested Development was brilliant at that.) The balancing act is precarious, and it will never be to everyone’s taste, but done well, metafiction can be startling and provocative and downright hilarious.

Community, an under-performing tongue-in-cheek sitcom in its sophomore year, is still fine-tuning its balancing act. It has its glib moments, its cheap gags, but as it discovers who precisely its characters are and refines its voice, it gets funnier and funnier and, at times, surprisingly affecting. I know Modern Family has its partisans, Glee its passionate fans, but Community is the sole comedy now airing guaranteed to set me in a good mood. Its satiric bite is delicious, its sense of the absurd is unrivaled, and its sentiment well leavened with honesty and wit. This is metahumor done right.

The Social Network

In theaters.

The title is misleading—deliberately, ironically so, I suspect—because Facebook, the now ubiquitous social networking site, is not the subject of The Social Network. The network at the heart of the docudrama is much more traditional: the volatile relationships among a small group of bright, privileged young men, none of whom come across particularly well.

Given voice by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, known for his stylized, rapid-fire dialogue, the founders of Facebook and their rivals are articulate and crude, brilliant and oblivious, arrogant and insecure, occasionally charming and nearly always nastily misogynistic. In other words, they are immediately recognizable. Anyone who has ever attended college knows guys like this. I don’t know how accurate the history is, but there’s definitely some kind of truth here.

El Gato Con Botas

The Gotham Chamber Opera at the New Victory Theater on Saturday, October 9.

Not everyone liked the little puppet boy in Anthony Minghella’s 2006 production of Madama Butterfly. The artifice was unapologetically overt: the puppeteers might have been dressed in black, but they were there on stage, right next to Cio-Cio San, manipulating the boy’s head and limbs by hand. You either accepted it or you didn’t.

I did. To my eyes, the puppet fit beautifully into the production’s vividly stylized aesthetic, apiece with the paper-lantern stars and, for that matter, the thirty-something Butterfly. But I can understand (grudgingly) how for other people, puppetry was jarring in a relatively realistic opera and better suited for something like, oh, El Gato Con Botas, in which the lead is not a victimized teenage girl but a wily talking cat.

Those people clearly are no fun at all. The stunningly expressive creations of Blind Summit Theatre (the company responsible for the puppets in Butterfly and El Gato) should not be limited to children’s fairy tales—though they are, I admit, perfect for fairy tales. Xavier Montsalvatge’s slight little opera isn’t much on its own, but with the cat and rabbits and ogre (not to mention a few of the humans) brought to life through Blind Summit Theatre’s artistry, El Gato Con Botas makes for a dazzling hour or so of entertainment.

Chaconne, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and The Magic Flute

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, October 3.

For more than a decade, the New York City Ballet hasn’t performed fall repertory (aside from an opening gala in November before Nutcracker season), which has always been unfortunate for me personally since my mom, who introduced me to ballet, tends to visit in the fall. She and Dad also like to visit in mid-spring, in between the City Ballet’s winter season (January and February) and spring season (May and June). It’s almost as though Dad has been scheming to avoid being subjected to tutus. (Ha! I kid. We would never subject Dad to tutus.)

In any case, I don’t know why City Ballet changed up their schedule, adding a new fall repertory season, but Mom and I were delighted at the opportunity to go to a performance together, and we got lucky: it was a great program, varied but not incoherent, with great music and lovely dancing—and in October! What more could we ask?

Rossini’s Overture to “La gazza ladra,” Orbón’s “Tres versiones sinfónicas,” Bernstein’s “Divertimento for Orchestra,” and Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” and “Boléro”

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, October 2.

The program, led by guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was gleefully, ridiculously, unabashedly populist—endearingly so, but also a bit over the top. There’s something kind of goofy about selecting a Rossini overture AND Ravel’s Boléro AND a collection of Bernstein dances (not the West Side Story suite, to be fair, but so like it that it might as well have been). Part of me wanted something a bit richer and more challenging—something like the Prokofiev symphony Dudamel conducted in his New York Philharmonic debut three years ago. But even in my snobbier moments, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. If one must do a crowd-pleaser-packed program, one might as well do it exquisitely well. It would be easy enough to coast through this stuff—it’s going to get an enthusiastic reaction regardless—but Dudamel and company never rested on the music’s laurels.

Chaos and Classicism

Special exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through January 9.

I think I would have guessed that romanticism is the more dangerous end on the classicism-romanticism continuum. Extreme romanticism has a perverse infatuation with insanity, mania, and death; extreme classicism … well, I probably would have brushed that off as mere cold rigidity about aesthetic formulae. No doubt that’s the casual assumption of one trained in music, where classicism really is that harmless, but after wandering through the Guggenheim’s exhibition on art in France, Italy, and Germany from 1918 to 1936 (alarm bells!), I feel rather stupid.

Not that everything in Chaos and Classicism is fascistic. Some artists were simply reacting to the destruction and horror of the first World War by turning back toward classical order and beauty. The literature associated with the exhibit makes this sound almost cowardly (“Rather than frank confrontation, a self-conscious forgetting determined many of the significant new forms of art”), but I think that’s unfair (and perhaps unintended). Some of Pablo Picasso’s neoclassic paintings, for example, are heartbreakingly lovely, and that kind of beauty holds its own sort of truth—a very different truth from something like Guernica, obviously, but an invaluable truth nonetheless.