Saturday, November 30, 2013

Night Across the Street

An old man is sitting in an office at his desk. The office is a suite of rooms and the high-def video image lets us see through a doorway into another space where a secretary sits, sometimes laughing and sometimes weeping loudly. The colors are chalky pastel lit by diffuse light that seems to proceed from a sunset concealed behind layers and layers of watery dun-colored mist. The old man's boss says: "You have been utterly incoherent recently." The old man, Don Celso, the protagonist in Raul Ruiz' 2012 posthumously released film, says: "I have no ideas. I'm like a port without sea-gulls. The sea gulls have left me." Ruiz filmed "Night Across the Street" in Chile, the nation to which he returned to die of liver cancer after 40 years exile in Paris. The movie is valedictory, Ruiz' attempt to capture his life's great themes in a film structured like a complex, modernist poem, allusions and citations all held together by the picture's obsessively consistent color scheme and decor. Ruiz came from a family of seafarers and his hero, Don Celso, builds ships in bottles and walks with his friend, the French novelist, Jean Giono, through the harbor of his native Santiago. The sun is always setting and the streets are mostly empty and the high-def videography gives an objective, detached, scientific clarity to everything we see -- even though what we are shown is often dream-like and surreal. The camera glides like a ghost through empty rooms; fragments of old movies flicker on a screen. People whisper to one another like voices in your head, soft, insinuating, and motion is pinned against rear-projections that are impossibly clear and luminous --like paintings by Claude Lorrain with the urban landscape illumined by a great, empty glowing void. At the film's beginning, someone reads Proust on the soundtrack (Ruiz is the director of "Time Regained," the famous film version of the last volume of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"), and Celso tells Giono that "time is stumbling along -- time is like marbles," that is, discrete colliding moments of recollection that don't quite cohere into a narrative. As a little boy, Celso named himself "Rhododendron," apparently, because he loved the sound of the word, and because he wasn't sure what it meant, and in his imagination he consorted with Long John Silver from "Treasure Island" (also a film made by Ruiz) and Ludwig von Beethoven. The camera stands like an old friend beside Celso as he encounters these figures and walks for a time beside them through funereal landscapes, the eroded and desolate coastline of Chile battered by the cold-looking green sea always underlying these episodes as a kind of "basso profundo" or counterpoint. "Night across the Street" is a great film and one that repays repeated viewings but it is also very slow, recollections congealed into a glacial mass of memory that scarcely moves and, like all great films, it contailns sequences of stupefying boredom, ennui that mirrors that an aspect of life that must also be allowed into the picture if a film is to be a truly encyclopediac representation of existence, the ambition, I think, of Ruiz' last movie. In this film, there is a hoax-plot involving a femme fatale and her lover's plan to murder the inhabitants of a boarding house where Celso lives, apparently to recover on Celso's insurance coverage -- this story is developed elliptically, like a slow-motion version of "Double Indemnity". Clearly, this sort of plotting is uninteresting to Ruiz, but he dutifully develops this aspect of the film, although so perfunctorily that this part of "Night across the Street" put me to sleep each time that I tried to watch the film -- as a result, I've seen this film four times, but only in fragments. Much of Ruiz' creative life was involved with transmuting the base stuff of popular novels and scandal-sheets into gold -- his great picture, "The Mysteries of Lisbon" is a 4 1/2 hour film of a best-selling Portuguese novel from the 19th century, dusty melodrama converted into something sublime and moving -- and the dull parts of "Night across the Street" seem to me intentionally dimwitted, stalled, even, paralyzed, an incursion of film noir into the most noir of subjects, a man's individual mortality. There is a massacre in the boarding house, a mysterious woman in tight pink pants on a bicycle, a seance, and a sequence set inside the barrel of the murder weapon, the characters moving slowly upward toward a light at the end of the gun-muzzle, radiance that Ruiz rejects when his hero retraces his steps sadly, like Dante or Orpheus without Eurydice, a melancholy pilgrim turning away from heaven to return to the gloomy sepia world of the boarding house, the airless offices where Celso spends his last week awaiting his retirement party, the dim chambers of the hero's memory that are filmed in ancient light stretched across the screen like parchment, The film is noteworthy for its visual aspect: mirrors in corners doubling the space of rooms that seem simultaneously vast, even epic, and confined, burnished interiors with women providing the only color in dim, crepuscular chambers, the movie's twilight color scheme increasingly strange as the film progresses, ending with bronze-tinted pinkish sepia, hues that don't exist in the real world and that become essentially indescribeable as the film draws toward its conclusion. Don Celso has the sense that the end is near. He is losing his grip on reality and living increasingly within memories and those memories, oddly enough for a film, are less pictorial than they are about words -- certain things that were spoken to him, phrases from poetry ineptly translated from Mallarme into Spanish, a seminar in diction, the voice of a crime muttering imprecations from within an unseen drain-pipe, the film ending not with an anticipated extravaganza of light and color -- perhaps,those besieged loess-yellow beaches crumbling under the blows of the sea -- but, instead, a dying note: the retirement party with its lame speeches and false emotion conducted in a 19th century room bathed in eerie metallic light, like reflections cast from old brass instruments.

Beau Travail

A baffling oddity, Claire Denis' "Beau Travail" (1999) translates Melville's "Billy Budd" to the French Foreign Legion. The movie enjoys considerable critical prestige; this is also baffling to me. Certainly, the film is audacious and unusual, but seems so willfully bizarre and perverse that I think it is hard to take this experiment seriously. Denis seems to have set about to make a campy, homosexual joke. But the film's beautiful photography and otherworldly settings conpsire to impart gravitas to the picture and, somewhere in the process, Denis began to take her project seriously; what started out as a SNL skit, it seems, evolved into something lavish, strange, and febrile. The result is a movie that is better in theory than actual practice, a picture that is more interesting to discuss, probably, than to watch since the experience of viewing the film is bewildering. There is something characteristically French, I think, about this adaptation of the Melville novella -- Denis creates a film that misreads Melville's text on every possible level, gets the plot wrong as to who kills whom, and omits the ethical, moral, and metaphysical dimensions of the great writer's parable about rebellion and justice. What's left is fashion, style, a glittering and strange surface, the movie equivalent of outrageous garments displayed as a cubist haute couture parade, gestures and landscapes presented to an audience swift to detect allusion, "hommage," and, of course, irony. It's very beautiful and immensely compelling and completely shallow -- intensely (profoundly) shallow: Melville's fable of the beautiful sailor sacrificed to Empire converted to conflict between the ugly, stubby Master Sergeant Galoup (played by the extraordinary Denis Lavant) and the half-nude beautiful soldier boy, Gilles Sentain. Melville's dimension of goodness and innocence assaulted by perverse Iago-inflected evil is transformed into the story of a rivalry between a handsome man and an ugly one. Denis invokes Melville's queasy homo-eroticism and the film shares the American writer's interest in the group dynamics of warrior males isolated and far from women. From time to time, we see the Foreign Legionaires performing dance-like calisthenics, entranced by the African sunlight, and periodically engaged in duel-like "pas de deux" ballet sequences on the edge of a malevolent-looking sea. Often these antics are choreographed to music sampled from Britten's opera of "Billy Budd." (Denis also scores the film to Neil Young's "Safeway Cart" and bubbly, sweet-sounding Afro-pop music.) Levant's Sergeant Galoup seems less a soldier than some kind of demented scout-master -- he leads his troops on dance-excursions into the lava wasteland around the men's remote camp where they are building a road through immense fields of scarcely congealed magma. Denis' point seems to be that the men's activities are heavily feminine -- they are constantly ironing their clothes, doing laundry, making their cots, and, instead of practicing for combat, their exercises increasingly seem to be preparations for some kind of ballet -- the men bump into one another repeatedly like performers in a Pina Bausch dance and, as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the incessant training is not for battle but for performance with Alvin Ailey or an all-male version of Swan Lake. There is no enemy. The commander chews khat leaves and is intoxicated most of the time. The men have girlfriends, apparently prostitutes in a Djibouti bar, and there are many shots of the women, bored and languorous, half-dancing in the big city discoteque -- in fact, the film begins with a dance sequence in a disco that is indelibly scored and cut, a dream-like montage of fantastically beautiful and exotic women swaying back and forth with stoned, mask-like faces on a glittering and dark dance-floor. Mostly, the women dance alone although sometimes the Legionaires in their funny, tall hats join them Once the film departs the city and the blandishments of the somnambulent prostitutes, the movie retreats into a spectacularly barren hermitage, the little legionaire's encampment on a barren plateau above a sea studded with carbuncle-like volcanoes in glistening turquoise water, wind roaring off the basalt cliffs and the men engaged in Sisyphean activity of chopping and cutting and sorting and painting boulders. We see fire burning on the emerald-turquoise water after a helicopter crashes and the beautiful soldier is sent to his death carrying a bad compass, perishing on a gleaming expanse of salt crystals like shards of broken glass. Afflicted by guilt over his role in murdering the beautiful soldier, Galoup who has fled to Marseilles, writes his memoirs in balcony shaded by a strangely scabrous tree, and, at last, commits suicide, baring his torso on which is tattooed the words "Serve the Good Cause and Die." In the famous final shot, Galoup is alone in a discoteque: music plays and he dances a serpentine, fantastically swift and athletic dance. Denis seems to have wanted to make a "queer-inflected" version of old French Foreign Legion chestnuts like "Beau Geste" -- and she seems also to have been influenced by Leos Carax operatically romantic films (and it is interesting that Carax "Pola X", also an adaptation of a Melville novel was also releaed in the same year). Denis' picture in turn seems to have influenced the deliriously homo-erotic imagery in Sokurov's 2003 "Father and Son" -- also a picture about warrior males with little or no access to women. But, to a skeptical eye, the film, however, suggests nothing more than "Footloose", the Kevin Bacon picture about a kid exiled to a rural community where dancing is forbidden...I mean the dude just has to dance!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Where is the Friend's House?

Abbas Kiastorami directed this Iranian film in 1987, apparently producing the picture with government money from Ministry of Children's Affairs. The film may have had a didactic "pitch" -- the Ministry would invest money in a picture demonstrating, in a quietly inoffensive way, the routine mistreatment that children suffer. Perhaps, the film has a subtext on another issue: the movie is set in two rural communities in northern Iran and the children are subject to the whimsical cruelty of their elders and their education, as is the case for all farm kids, is compromised by labor in the fields and with animals -- agricultural chores; presumably, kids in Tehran don't suffer this sort of abuse and, maybe, the picture was promoted under auspices that urban folks are more enlightened than their country cousins. Whatever the Iranian Ministry of Children's Affairs thought it was purchasing, the government sponsors ended up with an unassuming cinema masterpieces, a picture that established Kiastorami's reputation world-wide and that became the launching pad for two other film by the director set in the same region and featuring the same people -- the devastating chronicle of a deadly earthquake that occurred three years later, "And Life goes on" and a love story, "Through the Olive Trees." "Where is the Friend's House?" is an example of ostensibly minimalist, scrupulously realistic cinema that expands in the imagination and, in fact,does what only movies can accomplish -- that is, the film embeds complex metaphysical and ethical ideas in landscapes, faces, and images made by a camera moving with subtle penetration through a series of environments that manage to be both hyper-real and, also, dreamlike and symbolic. An eight-year old boy. Achmad, sits in a shabby schoolroom next to a hapless tow-headed kid named Nematzedah. Nematzedah can't seem to bring his homework notebook to class and is mercilessly bullied by the exhausted-looking and harried school-teacher. The little kid cries and Achmad is obviously close to tears himself with sympathy for his friend. After school, when the kids are playing with chickens, donkeys and goats tethered near the school, Nematzedah falls down, hurts his knee, and, somehow, Achmad ends up with the other little boy's notebook. Discovering this back at home -- where he is bossed around by his pregnant mother and a nasty old grandmother -- Achmad decides that he has to find Netmatzedah's home and deliver the notebook to him so that the kid will not suffer the consequences of yet another day reporting to school without his notebook and homework (the teacher has made the threat to expell Nematzedah if he comes to school again unprepared, a threat casually made that doesn't seem plausible, but which terrorizes the small boys in the class. (This being Iran, there are no girls anywhere in sight -- in fact, this is true of the whole film: we see some old ladies and the ungainly pregnant mother, but no other women or girls are in the film.) The movie captures brilliantly the way that small children take adult threats literally and the way that grown-ups simply ignore little kids if they are engaged in some other activity -- throughout the film, Achmad tries to explain himself to adults who pay no attention to him at all. Achmad knows that Nematzedah lives in the next valley, across a barren mountain ridge, probably about ten minutes walk away -- the action in the film shifts between two little villages, Koker and Poshteh. So on the pretence that he is going to buy bread for the family, Achmad runs as fast as he can over the ridge, through a valley with ancient olive trees around a dry river-bed to the other village. But he can't find his friend's house. The film has no action other than the little boy searching for Nematzedah's house. There are no professional actors in the movie and the film is shot entirely on location in the two ancient-looking mud and brick villages, both of them vertical with narrow alleyways full of crumbling steps, fissures between houses where you might encounter an oxen stumbling down the terraces toward you, barren walls and tiny eroded courtyards, these places inhabited by strange adults doing inscrutable things -- one wizened old man is throwing big boulders from inside a house into the narrow alley; an old woman with a masked face who says she is sick terrorizes Achmad with her slow Mummy-like gait, her midsection and belly wrapped in some sort of ribbon-like garment. One man pesters a group of elderly guys sitting on a stoop and drinking tea about buying new doors and windows. We are like the child -- we can't figure out exactly what the men are talking about although it seems weirdly consequential and, yet, trivial at the same time. When the door salesman departs, Achmad follows him, running as fast as he can behind the man's donkey. The sequence of shots showing Achmad hurling himself down the slopes and through the valleys is repeated in exact reverse order. The door salesman turns out to be a different Nematzaeh -- it's apparently a common name -- and Achmad ends up in the alien village after dark, the wind howling in a fearsome way on the mountaintops, and dogs threatening him. With a kindly old man, they look for the friend's house, but the old fellow can barely walk and the endless up and down flights of irregular stairs confounds him so that time seems to move in slow motion and, as the clock ticks, the little boy is becoming increasingly panicked since it is now dark and the lights are lit in the houses and he still has to cross the night-time valley and the barren ridge to get to his home. Kiarostami uses no establishing shots -- in the alien village, everything seems strange and threatening, although objectively both Poshteh and Koker are identical in appearance. The soundtrack is a melange of howling dogs, clucking chickens, bleating sheep and strange pounding and knocking noises. The film's color-scheme is an austere, institutional blue and green, the color of an old elementary school cafeteria, and Kiastorami uses the bizarre technique (a method that David Bordwell has called "parametric film-making) of unifying the film's pictorial aspect by focusing his camera on doors and thresholds and window frames -- the only adult we see is a door salesman and the film begins with an extended shot of a closed door and there are innumerable images in the picture that foreground doors and windows. We see the world through the eyes of the small boy, but without any condescension -- there are no low-angle shots, nothing to make the adults loom over the little kids, no pictorial devices emphazing a child's point of view. The adults aren't giants; they aren't even people; they're just obstacles to be evaded, as stony as the mountain villages, like a kind of harsh meteorology that must be endured. (At the end of the film, the teacher's whose bullying has triggered all the film's action doesn't seem to even know the names of the two kids who are the principals in the story.) The camera never departs from the child's viewpoint -- hence, we simply don't see beyond the Achmad's horizon: for this reason the film's pictorial grammar is, at once, radically impoverished -- no establishing shots, no camera arias, no ethnography (we don't really have a sense for how these village look or how they fit into the landscape) and the scenes of the boy traversing the landscape always follow the same shot-for-shot pattern -- and, yet, simultaneously, we get a miraculous sense of how the child perceives this world, how it is dangerous and casually cruel to him, how he manages to survive in the face of the great and howling indifference that all of us experience when we go out alone into the world.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Frances Ha

In the middle of Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," the title character, a 27-year old mostly unemployed dancer, is down on her luck. It's not that things are going badly for her -- the film is far too even-tempered and mild for anything approaching hardship or tragedy or, even, conflict; she's just at loose ends and doesn't know what to do with herself. At a dinner party, a man boasts about having an apartment in Paris and, on a whim, Frances flies there for the weekend, staying alone in his house. She also goes to Sacramento, her home-town, and we see her walking the family dog, a small white ball of fur, a generic suburban pet: you've seen a thousand dogs like this and really never noticed them. The film is presented in black and white and the little dog is rim-lit like Jean Harlow or Veronica Lake -- the light behind the small pooch outlines the dog with a luminous halo. This is a point of interest, a "punctum" and the dog features in the next several scenes, held against someone's chest at center frame or occupying a corner of the picture, a graceful editing effect that ties the sequence together. The image of the radiant dog epitomizes the film: Baumbach's movie is fantastically realistic and precise -- I didn't detect anything approaching a false note at any point in the picture. "Frances Ha" concerns mundane events in a young woman's life -- meetings with friends, minor disappointments, dance rehearsels, difficulty paying the rent and problems with roommates. These things are shown with complete fidelity. Everything seems magically true and believable. But Baumbach films this quotidian subject matter in luminous, high contrast black and white, the metier of film noir and Hollywood glamor and the contrast between the velvety beauty of the movie's imagery and the common place events depicted accounts for much of the film's charm. (The film is already on a Criterion disk and, from some supplemental material, I understand that the picture was shot with digital camcorder that recorded everything in color and, then, printed in black and white.) The things that we see are not dramatic -- there's no sex, no drug use or bad behavior although in once scene a girl gets sick from drinking, people act in a decent way and don't abuse one another, conflict is muted, no one is angry at anyone: scometimes,people are just mildly disappointed with each other, travels don't result in any sort of epiphany and there are no grand emotions and no operatic love affairs. It's just every day life -- but isn't every day life worthy of being shown as beautiful, edited with precision and care, back-lit so that a woman's hair (or a dog's fur) gleams with supernatural radiance? Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances, gives one of the greatest performances that I have ever seen -- she has a fantastically expressive face, although Frances also is like the little dog: she seems completely average, the girl next door, someone you might not even notice on a busy street. But we can see her think. This is very rare in films -- sometimes in Ozu, you glimpse people thinking, deliberating on something, making a decision before they act. Greta Gerwig has the placid serenity of an Ozu heroine even when she is a little bit sad or agitated and we can see the way her mind works -- she is an open book to us and, as is the case in great acting, seems more real and present than some people that we have known all of our lives. Baumbach's trust in the truth, his uncompromising realism, is evident in the sequence in which Frances goes to Paris. We see her uncomfortable ride on the airplane to the City of Light. We see her on the bus departing the airport. In the man's apartment, we are shown a montage of Frances sleeping or not sleeping -- she is jet-lagged and the digital clock seems to be persecuting her: first she can't sleep and, then, she can do nothing but sleep, and since we know she can only stay in Paris for the weekend, we fear that she will spend the whole time in bed. But she does go out and wanders around aimlessly and we see the Eifel Tower, of course, with its rotating beam of light in the background: she sits alone in a cafe and, then, we see her at the airport in New York again. Nothing has happened. She hasn't met anyone new. There is no love affair with a romantic stranger and the trip to Paris hasn't changed her in the slightest. Isn't this a model for real life, the way that life happens to us unawares, the way that something happens without really making an point on us although in retrospect, we might regard the event as decisive. Frances has to return to Vassar where she went to college and works as a Resident Assistant. She comes in one night and finds a disconsolate girl sitting on the floor next to the door to her bedroom. Frances looks tired, but she knows her duty so she sits down on the floor across from the girl. At that point, Baumbach cuts away from the scene -- presumably, the girl has suffered something that she thinks is tragic and, probably, is about to shed tears and bemoan her plight. But this would be too dramatic for the film and it would be a tactless invasion of this minor character's privacy to show the conversatin so Baumbach doesn't depict any more of the encounter. "Frances Ha" sometimes invokes Woody Allen's great "Manhattan", also a film shot in lustrous black and white -- but "Manhattan" was about love and the fear of death, about the middle-aged hero's anxieties and about the beautiful, mask-like face of Mariel Hemingway, the hero's great love. The film was resplendent with the music of Gershwin and melodramatic. "Francis Ha," also a great film but of a different sort, doesn't have these qualities -- it's about a young woman's day-to-day life and dares you to find her mild adventures inconsequential. The art work that it most reminds me of is Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education" in which we are shown the exact texture of an every day life in which nothing much seems to be happening -- but, of course, everything is happening and a whole world is presented to us for our analysis and contemplation.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Something in the Air


“Apres Mai” is the title of the Olivier Assayas film shown in this country under the name “Something in the Air.” The French title refers to the student riots that convulsed Paris in May 1968 and Assayas’ movie is a portrait of young people living in the aftermath of that upheaval -- the story takes place in 1971. The movie is bright, agile, very pretty in an understated way, and populated by radiant young people. Everyone in the picture is between the ages of 15 and 25 -- we see a couple of scenes with the father of one of the young men central to the film, a high school boy named Gilles, but those episodes pass quickly, without much emphasis, and are basically inconsequential. The movie is the portrait of a world unfettered by any kind of authority. The kids are in revolt, but their revolution proceeds in a kind of weightless vacuum -- there is really no valid or oppressive authority against which they are revolting. The few adults that we see in the picture -- and we merely glimpse them obliquely, as if from the corner of our eye -- are ineffectual, embarrassed by their position of alleged dominance, and have lost all self-confidence: they don’t seem to know what they stand for any more than the kids rioting in the streets. Assayas starts the film with some quick and vicious street-fighting, lots of children darting through the alleyways pursued by other children, a free-for-all in which people are being beaten and gassed that is, nonetheless, a kind of sporting event, a lark for those involved. Three young men are the focus of the film, Gilles, Alain, and Jean-Pierre -- we see them initially in their High School, studying Pascal, and Assayas suggests that Pascal’s vision of life as an oasis between abstract eternities, an existential wager in the here and now, somehow animates and underlies the chaos that we see. The movie proceeds in a series of brief vignettes, little chapters that are two or three or four minutes long -- the kids debate politics in a callow and pointless way, scrawl anarchist graffiti on their High school walls and skirmish with security guards. At one point, the skirmishing gets out of control and Molotov cocktails are hurled; a security guard is badly injured resulting in some kind of lawsuit against Jean-Pierre, probably not even the boy who hurled the bag of concrete that wounded the security guard who is, himself, just another kid. Gilles and Alain aspire to be painters. Gilles’ girlfriend, the beautiful Laure, goes to London and later Ibiza with her hippie parents. Angry at her departure, Gilles goes to Italy to support some workers on strike at a factory. Alain accompanies him and meets an American girl. With the American girl, Alain goes to Kabul -- he is on his way to Nepal, but the kids only get as far as Afghanistan. Gilles has a brief romance with a girl, but doesn’t love her. She joins a troupe of radical film makers and, after a trip to sketch at Pompeii, Gilles returns to Paris. Everyone in the picture is radical in some way -- involved in incomprehensible political squabbling, either a Maoist or a Trotskyite, or an avant-garde film maker or musician: the sound track is vibrant with Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream. No one has to work and money seems magically plentiful; I think Assayas is imagining a world in which money is essential non-existent, a beautiful fantasy but a fantasy nonetheless. People have brief love-affairs and the picture is beautifully shot -- the scenes involving the young people at parties, particularly an episode involving a house-party where the beautiful Laure is apparently killed in a fire, are voluptuous and magical, lit with a gorgeous radiance that suggests nostalgic memories, recollection enhanced by psychedelic Technicolor. The people are all fabulously attractive and articulate and they seem to be completely free. Assayas films this all without any hypocritical remorse or condemnation, without passing any judgment on the characters and their milieu; the director is not interested in demonstrating the irresponsible stupidity of most of what we see -- instead, the picture glories in the fresh young faces, the enthusiasm of these children, their optimism and hope. The movie ends with Gilles in London working on exploitation films at Pinehurst Studios -- Gilles is obviously a surrogate for Assayas. Gilles is a gofer on a film improbably involving half-naked big-breasted girls, Nazis, and a dinosaur like the fire-breathing dragon in Fritz Lang’s “Siegfried.” After work, Gilles goes to a cinema, watches some short experimental films, and the movie concludes with a vision of the sylph-like Laure, impossibly beautiful, but a wraith, gliding toward the camera. Wordsworth in his great “Prelude” wrote about his own youthful adventures in Paris during the Revolution and said “Bliss was it to be alive in those days” -- a sentiment that Assayas conveys in this ambitious, complex, and ultimately unsatisfying film. The director’s point-of-view is observant, ostensibly objective, but fundamentally nostalgic -- the movie gestures toward politics but is really about the joy of being young, handsome and in love. There isn’t much to this picture but it is very beautiful and I enjoyed it a great deal, although, in the end, I can’t quite identify any reason that I would recommend the picture to anyone -- it’s a Utopian fantasy that doesn’t seem to know how untrue it is. Ultimately, a world without adults is no kind of world at all.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arabella

Richard Strauss asked his long-suffering librettist, the Austrian playwrite and poet, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, for a script that would reprise their success with the opera, "Der Rosenkavelier". The result is "Arabella," an opera premiered in Dresden in 1933, vexed from its outset by political misfortunes -- the Nazis were acceding to power and commencing their persecution of Jewish artists and musicians -- as well as a tragic backstory: Hoffmanstahl had sent a finished draft of Act I of the three Act libretto to Strauss, but, before he could open the composer's laudatory thank-you letter, Hoffmanstahl's son committed suicide and the writer, himself, died two days later from apoplexy. Strauss didn't revise Hoffmanstahl's drafts of Acts II and III as a memorial to his librettist, a fact, that some critics say, accounts for weaknesses in the opera's second half. (I read the libretto in the original language, unaware of this background, and didn't detect any noticeable flagging of inspiration or ingenuity in the second half of the play -- that is, the shorter two acts that exist only in Hoffmanstahl's rough draft form. But I should observe that the play reads better than it performs and there are some longeurs and repetitious passages in the latter half of the opera that, perhaps, Strauss and Hoffmanstahl would have eliminated under happier circumstances.) The finished opera, if it can be properly called complete under these circumstances, is not so much "Der Rosenkavalier" as the "anti-Rosenkavalier" -- the glittering and aristocratic milieu of the earlier success is not replicated in "Arabella"; rather, the play involves the family of a shabby genteel "Rittmeister", a former military officer who has lost his fortune gambling and his sordid plan to sell his beautiful daughter Arabella to an elderly roue to salvage the family's finances. Instead of the lavish balls and spectacular waltzes featured in "Der Rosenkavalier", Hoffmanstahl's story revolves around the "Fiaker-Ball" -- that is, a taxi-cab driver's ball (hansom-driver, I think is the proper translation), a seedy affair featuring a jodhpur-wearing dominatrix wielding a whip and various denizens of the debauched and impoverished Austro-hungarian nobility. The plot involves a "bed trick" (that is, one woman substituted for another in the bed of her lover), lots of drinking, cross-dressing, and a squalid family squabble that takes up all of the Third Act. All of this sounds more interesting than it plays on stage. Strauss is not a great inventor of melodies and the orchestral music, although always very intricate and "busy" is not particularly beautiful -- one expects that it is better and more ingeniously written than it sounds. There are no lavish choruses, no dance scenes, and most of the singing is declamatory, brusquely delivered at lightning speed to keep things from dragging too much. The "pant's" role of Zdenka, a young woman dressed as a boy because her parents don't have the resources to launch two debutantes into Viennese high-society clearly fascinates Strauss and affords him an opportunity to score several luscious duets between high soprano voices, a kind of music that seems to have some kind of sexual import for the composer -- there are several measures in the First Act that sound a bit like Strauss' heartbreaking and voluptuous "Four Last Songs" and so are very beautiful; unfortunately, these passages are short, seem abbreviated, and don't really develop. The opera ends with a long quasi-Wagnerian reconciliation and love duet between Arabella and her Serbian lover, Mandryka, and this climactic music is certainly imposing and majestic --the voices float on great surges of orchestral music with a strange, heavy, sometimes discordant bass-line striking emphatic notes below, underlining the words which sail above the opulent sound that the orchestra is making in the pit. It's impressive and reminds me of some of the love duets in Wagner's"Ring", an orgy of shame, humiliation, and anguished love that verges on the ridiculous and the tedious, but doesn't quite tip over into bathos. Arabella, who is cold, coquettish, and imperious, in the first Act inexplicably softens in the second half of the opera and, although at first she doesn't seem a prize worth all the "Sturm und Drang" becomes more and more convincing as a heroine as the show proceeds. The apparent moral of the work, which is cynical, very Viennese, and somewhat repugnant, seems to be that truel love requires infinite reserves of gullibility (or faith) and a seemingly infinite capacity to forgive since the object of one's affection is likely to humiliate or betray the other partner, probably within hours of plighting troth. The Minnesota Opera Company's production of this show on November 16, 2013, was willfully ugly. The sets, following an anti-Rosenkavalier design, were architectural fragments, more or less the color of soap or cheese that has gone off-quality. The heroine, sung by Jacqueline Wagner, was certainly beautiful, chilly, and graceful -- I think she sang well and the audience gave her a standing ovation. As always in Grand Opera, there were inexplicable lapses. In the final scene, a big family fight on the steps leading down from Arabella's bedroom (the place where the crossdressing Zdenka has just copulated with Matteo, Arabella's disappointed suitor), a group of kibbutzers stood outside the bedroom door in deshabille, night-shirts and trousers with suspenders loosened -- this gave the impression that this gang of men had just come from Zdenka/Arabella's bedroom, imparting a rather more lascivious tone to the already risque proceedings than I think was intended. (Rick Herreid who with his wife, Karen, attended the opera with us made this observation, an acute one.) How exactly little Zdenko persuaded Matteo that he was Arabella in bed is not clear -- the prima donna playing Arabella was exceedingly tall and willowy (she dwarfed the unfortunate Elemer, played by a very tiny man, an effect that seems to have been intended as comical) and was, at least, twice as tall as her sister, Zdenka. But in opera loves conquers all, including it seems biomechanical geometry.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Man of Aran

Eking out an existence in circumstances that are comically wretched, Michael Flaherty's "Man of Aran" often resembles a Monty Python skit. The documentary seems self-parody, a distillation of hoary man versus nature imagery that Flaherty perfected in "Nanook of the North" and, in this 1931 film, amplifies to the point of absurdity. The documentary shows stark, barren headlands battered by towering waves. Inexplicably, three fishermen are paddling a canoe on the turbulent sea -- the ocean is so violent that it seems impossible for the tiny corach to survive. The men make it ashore, observed by a woman and small boy, sheltering in the lea of one of the sea-side boulders. The men drag the little canoe ashore against a backdrop of waves detonating like car-bombs against the cliffs. Two of the seafarers vanish -- Flaherty's formula is to show a small family-group wrestling with nature -- not a team or a village or a community. The man has dropped his nets in the surf and the waves threaten to haul the tackle out to sea. So the fisherman, his wife and son venture out into the pounding waves and are buffeted by them spectacularly, each blow seeming to drag them toward the deadly waters. At one point, a huge wave topples over the family and they vanish into the chaos of white water. When the wave recedes, the man grabs the woman by the hair and hauls her out of the surf. Their nets retrieved, the family makes their way homeward, choosing a sea-side path so close to the waves that they are periodically inundanted and knocked down onto the sharp lava-rock beach. Flaherty films the fisherman's village as some saw-tooth gables, thatched with turf, and half-buried in a landscape that looks somewhat less inviting than the surface of the moon. The film shows the small family attempting to farm the stones on the flat-topped cliffs pounded by the sea. The woman goes down to the shore, gets drenched again by the waves, and, then, carries huge bundles of sea-weed up onto the cliffs to manure tiny plots of land walled in by heaps of shattered rock. Her husband swings a sledge-hammer against the boulders and, at one point, lays on his belly to wrest a handful of dirt from a deep crevasse where a thorn plant is growing. The man carries the precious handful of soil to his basement-sized garden and puts it down among the windrows of sea-weed that his wife is dragging, like a mule from the wild waters below. Sometimes, the fishermen go out to sea to hunt huge basking sharks, submarine-sized beasts that they murder with harpoons and drag out of the murderous water to render in big buckets suspended on the rocky shore. The last twenty minutes of the film features the tiny canoe battling 80 foot high waves to regain the shore while the boy and woman cling to one another atop the wind-lashed cliff in desperate panic -- the sea is so huge and deadly and the canoe looks so tiny and fragile that the effect is inadvertently humorous, particularly since the fishermen wear identical tam-o-shanter hats with little ball-shaped tassels atop their berets. The film is completely pure, a poetic depiction of people struggling against impossible conditions -- there is no notion of community, religion, nor is there any explanation for why these people put out to sea in deadly conditions, the nature of their economy or how anyone can possibly survive on a diet of potatoes grown in webs of stinking sea-weed. The film resembles Leni Riefenstahl's work -- ostensibly documentary, it is, in fact, a form of film-poetry of a particularly concentrated form, a sort "Blut und Boden" ("blood and soil") tribute to heroic, if brutish, peasants, and the titanic forces of nature. A documentary made in 1977, and showing some of the people featured in the film as they are today, shows that the movie is a fraud in every possible respect. In one sequence, the 1977 documentary imitates a panning motion in Flaherty's film that shows the desolate lunar landscape of the island with the houses huddled, as if in terror in the center of the frame. But, if Flaherty, had continued his pan for another two or three seconds, the image would have shown lush-looking pastures and gardens with many grazing cattle. Flaherty filmed the sea-sequences on the north headlands of the island, an area where, in real life, no one ever went because of the dangerous wind and waves. Many of the villagers are still bitter about him importuning them to venture out into those waters for his cameras. In a village meeting, a man and a woman quarrel violently about whether women, "in the old days", were used as beasts of burden. Both people are old and their memories poor and the man's sense of chivalry is outraged by the images of the woman hauling seaweed on her back from the rocky beach -- present-day images show this being done with mules and shetland ponies. Flaherty completely neglected the religious conflicts on the island, a struggle between the Catholics and Protestants that was still raging in 1977 when the second documentary was made. Apparently, Flaherty had to forge harpoons and teach the islanders to hunt basking sharks, a practice that they had abandoned as too dangerous and pointless a hundred years earlier. Werner Herzog observes that the greatest documentaries eschew literal accuracy in favor of "ecstatic truth" and Flaherty certainly was a pioneer with respect to this view of film-making (pronounced by the Aran Islanders as "fillum-making). In "Man of Aran," the deceit is so thorough-going and complete that the movie will always be, I think, intensely controversial. But the images of the tiny canoe battered by colossal waves, once seen, are unforgettable.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hello Ladies & Eastbound and Down

Stephen Merchant’s “Hello Ladies” is a sit-com in the original sense of the genre. The show represents a series of variations on a single situation -- a tall, awkward and gangly Englishman is searching for sex in Hollywood. He sets his sights improbably high, hoping to date only super-models and starlets. These women are completely uninterested in the skinny Englishman’s sexual overtures and he suffers one humiliating rejection after another. This kind of comedy is the province of Merchant’s partner, Rickie Gervais, and “Hello Ladies” subjects Merchant to all sorts of cringe-worthy abuse -- indeed, the viewer’s dominant response to this material is less laughter than a kind of embarrassed shudder. Merchant’s character gets what he deserves -- he is startlingly crass and heartless in his single-minded erotic quest -- but the cruelty with which he is treated is sometimes unnerving. Cringe-comedy as the raison d’etre for an entire sit-com is a new development in TV-land. To keep the embarrassment from being overwhelming and unpleasant, the script must present the hero as fully deserving the shame and disgrace heaped upon him. TV comedy, often, functioned in this way for a moral purpose -- on “Andy Griffith,” Barney Fife repeatedly suffered indignities based on his overweening hubris and, from time to time, Ted Baxter or a buffoon on “The Bob Newhart Show” might get his comeuppance to exhibit for us what happens to those puffed-up with foolish pride. But those old TV series were primarily didactic and the embarrassment inflicted upon secondary characters was designed to show-off and highlight the virtues of a major character -- Andy Griffith’s patience and humble wisdom or Mary Tyler Moore’s spunky loyal kindness or Bob Newhart’s unassuming wit. In a show like “Hello Ladies,” the level of cynicism is much higher -- although the show satirizes the relentless and self-defeating horniness of Merchant’s character, his cringe-inducing travails don’t dramatize any moral except the post-Seinfeld proposition that people are cruel and egotistical and self-centered. Everyone acts poorly in “Hello Ladies”, the women are superficial and reject Merchant on the basis of his Ichabod Crane appearance; the handsome people sleep with other handsome people, but don’t much like their paramours -- everyone is cynically using everyone else. As the show has progressed, Merchant’s behavior seems to have become slightly less obnoxious with each episode and, it seems, that the narrative arc is aiming toward some sort of romance between his character and an attractive, professionally thwarted female roommate with whom he lives (and with whom he has chastely shared a bed in a couple of scenes.) Merchant’s horn-dog, for some inexplicable reason, can’t see the attractions of his lady room-mate (herself involved in an emotionally unsatisfying “fuck-buddy” affair with her callous agent). But, it appears, that his misfortunes may be gradually educating him for a relationship with this woman, a character, who is, after all, his friend. The show is populated with a many grotesque nerds, all of them hoping to get laid -- as it happens. the only sexually successful figure among these folks is a paraplegic who boasts that he can have sex but is unable to feel anything due to his spinal injury (this seems to sexually arouse the women that Merchant lusts after but so that the paraplegic can seduce them -- in one episode, Merchant carries the paralyzed man up flight after flight of steps so that he can bed a girl in which our hero was interested). If Merchant were a nicer fellow, his miseries would be unbearable -- but his nasty temperament and rage (he is a Barney Fife with his teeth always bared to bite) make the humiliation heaped upon seem merited and, therefore, something we can stand to watch. “Hello Ladies” follows “Eastbound and Down” with Danny McBride on HBO on Sunday nights. “Eastbound and Down” has perfected the idea that a sit-com can feature a morally repugnant and despicable hero and still be entertaining, indeed, even, sometimes quite affecting. in a weird, brutish way. McBride’s character is completely detestable but the brilliance of the show is that we always are rooting for him to succeed -- even though Mc Bride’s happiness is generally at the expense of some other character whom he mercilessly abuses. There is a crazy grandeur to McBride’s monstrous self-aggrandizing ex-baseball player turned drug addicted √©migr√© to Mexico turned, in this year’s episodes, ESPN media super-star. McBride raises self-absorption to truly heroic levels -- he is completely blind to everyone else in his world -- but, at least, he’s not a hypocrite like the rest of characters in “Eastbound and Down” and there’s something exhilarating about watching him get his way -- he’s like Henry Miller in the opening of “Tropic of Cancer” bragging that he’s the happiest man alive. You are impressed by his chutzpah and hope the boast is true.

Nanook of the North

In the state of nature, apparently, there is much tugging and pulling. Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” features extended sequences of an Eskimo family struggling to haul a 2000 pound walrus harpooned in the icy surf from an undertow that threatens to suck the carcass back into the sea. Later, the Eskimos drag their sled over a purgatorial landscape of jagged ice turrets and trenches. Again and again, the sled gets stuck in the white badlands, dogs and men tugging as hard as they can to little or no avail. Then, Nanook spears an invisible seal through the animal’s funnel-shaped breathing hole -- as other family members rush to assist him, the hidden seal repeatedly drags Nanook down onto the ice, tossing him this way and that at the end of a tether the drops through the ice to the enraged animal. The effect is at once dire, and vaguely comical -- like a Buster Keaton routine endlessly protracted in a vast, indifferent wasteland of ice. For a long time, we can’t see the seal and so the Eskimo hunter seems engaged in a weird combat with some force threatening to drag him under the ice. Later, when the huge turd-shaped seal is extracted f through the tiny cavity hacked through the ice, we see that the animal is as big as an oxen -- again, there is much tugging, yanking, and pulling to get the carcass up into the light of day. Flaherty’s film features a repeated motif of things coming through improbably small holes -- at times, the picture seems a fantasia on constriction and birth motifs, most notably in the opening sequence, a sort of clown-car gag in which one Eskimo after another emerges from a small orifice in the tiny kayak that Nanook has just paddled across the bay up to the boulder-strewn shore where the camera is located. (This gag is improbable and, certainly, presents a spatial impossibility -- there is no way that the entire family of Eskimos with a couple of their dogs could be concealed within the little seal-skin bladder of the kayak; accordingly, this famous documentary starts off with an image that seems overtly false, faked, and, even, some kind of surrealist joke -- but the sense of constriction and confinement, the notion of hiding from brutal weather in a womblike cavity is integral to the movie and very disturbing.) When Nanook and his wife aren’t trying to haul huge corpses from the sea, they are butchering things and eating walrus or salmon or seal sashimi. Nanook and his wife clearly enjoy being photographed and they grin with delight at the camera even when their circumstances suggest that they should be desperate with panic. The Criterion disk supplements the famous silent (1922 ) documentary with an austere early TV era interview with Flaherty’s widow -- she is fantastically articulate, a Victorian figure in a long, archaic dress and she argues that “Nanook” is important because it was the first time that the cinema depicted real people, not acting, but simply “being themselves.” This commentary doesn’t ring true. The scenes showing the Eskimos bedding down in their small, improvised igloo are clearly staged. Obviously, the light in the igloo -- even with the pane of pack-ice Nanook excavates from the sea for a window -- would be completely insufficient for photography. Accordingly, it is evident that Flaherty has bisected an igloo, slicing it in half, like a museum diorama, to show the family huddled together, women bare-breasted with infants clinging to them and, at the center, the mighty hunter, Nanook, in the middle of a gamy-looking sandwich of animal furs. It’s remarkable to see Nanook fashion the igloo, sculpting it nonchalantly from snow, and, then, pausing to carve a couple of snow-drift effigies of wolves and caribou for his small son to practice hunting with a tiny bow and arrow. Nanook wields his walrus-tusk knife like a conductor’s baton, periodically polishing his bone tools with a glittering edge of saliva frozen to ice. Everything looks impeccably real, but the final scene, contrasting Nanook’s little family cozily ensconced in their igloo while a blizzard buries their long-suffering sled dogs in snow gives away the game -- the dogs and the Eskimos are contrasted, but the two packs (one human and one half-wolf) occupy a similarly straitened and brutish plane of existence. Flaherty’s Eskimos have no culture, no mythology, no social structure nor religion -- they are wandering nomads, staggering across the improbably desolate wasteland, a wholly isolated family surviving by its wits in the terrifying environment. Surely, real Eskimo are nothing like this and, indeed, we now know this to be true as a result of the great Inuit film, “The Fast Runner,” a movie that uses the same diorama-style bisected igloos (although for the purpose of showing incestuous sex scenes) and that depicts a complex mythology involving elaborate rituals and curses and a doom that pursues clan members through the generations something like a Aeschylus’ house of Atreus or Euripides’ Medea. Flaherty’s Eskimos are without culture, only a step or so above the animals that they hunt. They are scarcely more differentiated than their sled dogs, animals that seem to be forever slavering and viciously attacking one another. This impoverished view of life in the state of nature is genuinely nightmarish in some scenes -- in particular, there is one episode where the half-feral sled dogs fighting one another have tangled the reins of the family’s sled and Nanook has to untie the knot of seal-gut cords from the squirming animals while a blizzard approaches from the north. This is the stuff of bad dreams.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gold Diggers of 1933

Four brassy showgirls conspire to marry wealthy men. The women are brash, gorgeous, and self-confident, but the Great Depression has brought them to their knees. In the film's second sequence, we see three of them huddled in bed together, apparently weakened by starvation (later, we learn that they have been reduced to stealing food) and too despondent to get up to face the gloomy world. A show in which they have chorus-girl parts has been closed for non-payment of debts -- goons waving a writ of execution appear in the middle of a splashy dance number. As it happens, the crooner across the air-shaft at their flat is the scion of a wealthy Boston family. Although his staid brother wants him to become a banker, he yearns for the bright lights of the Great White Way. With family money,the crooner finances a spectacular Broadway musical. When his brother and his plump bald lawyer appear in New York to bring the crooner to his senses, romance ensues and three of the showgirls end up married to millionaires or their retainers: the crooner, the bald, secretly romantic lawyer, and the sober, ferocious brother who has come to redeem the family honor all get lucky: the women are Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Aline McMahon; Dick Powell plays the crooner. (The women are unbelievably beautiful in the archaic silent film manner -- they have milk-white skin and enormous eyes and they act with their eyes -- this is evident in the opening shots of Ginger Rogers who rolls her eyes and darts them back and forth avariciously; she makes her eyes quiver and dance just as much as body.) The film is justly famous for the indescribeably strange and surreal Busby Berkeley dance numbers, lavish spectacles that seem to begin as transcripts of Broadway choreography but end at the very outer limits of cinema itself -- these sequences deploy hundreds of dancers across an apparently infinite space through which the camera swoops and glides and ascends overhead to show geometric patterns of undulating women. The comedy plot in the movie is filmed theatrically, against shallow Art Deco sets, and, although conventional, is sufficiently ingenious and well-acted to maintain the audience's attention between the episodes of surreal erotic fantasmagoria that Berkely designs. The interpretive difficulty that the movie poses, a problem as severe and baffling as anything in the avant-garde cinema, is the connection between the lavish and bizarre dance numbers that comprise about a third of the film and the brassy, screwball comedy plot appended to those sequences. The notion of sex and the Depression and wish-fulfillment may be cited, I suppose, to bridge the gap between the brittle comedy of manners that comprises the film's plot, overtly theatrical material that is almost Brechtian in its bitterness and sardonicism, and the choreographed spectacle that periodically erupts into the film -- but the connection is tenuous, at best, and the viewer should probably simply accept the fact that the movie fuses two styles and visual vocabularies that can't be reconciled. It is like Freud's notion of the unconscious coexisting with our egos -- the two systems of meaning are completely detached from one another and, in fact, mostly mutually inaccessible. "Gold Diggers of 1933" shows a velvety, orgasmic fantasy world that exists in parallel with our reality -- the two universes intersect in our imagination but don't necessarily comment on one another. The film begins with Ginger Rogers' platinum face hidden behind a huge coin. When the camera tracks backward, we see that she is naked except for strings of gold coins strategically placed on her shimmying body. She sings "We're in the Money," inexplicably performing one stanza and chorus in pig-Latin. The equation between sex and gold is established initially, but, then, the film retracts onto a stage-set where themes of poverty and desperation are dramatized. "Petting in the Park" is a pre-Code dance number that is explicitly about sex -- it is the best dance in the show because it features the manic Billy Barty, a dwarf playing a malevolent baby. The baby, who seems to represent the risks of sex, affords a "punctum" -- that is, a weirdly destabilizing point of interest among Berkeley's labyrinths of interlocked lovers and like Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" seems to stage-manage the sexual fantasy. The next dance number features columns of half-naked girls with neon-lit violins swaying and prancing on a huge Moebius-shaped stairway -- these images are almost completely abstract, vast close-ups poised against a velvet-black void. The musical concludes with the curiously proto-Fascist "The Forgotten Man", a dark number featuring legions of men marching in rain and fog, wounded soldiers limping from the battlefield and, finally, a series of huge concentric arches in which troops march and posture while the entire cast moves toward the camera, arms raised as if in a Roman salute. It's an image straight from the choreographed battles of labor and management in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and concludes the film on a curiously distraught note.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Les Revenants

“Les Revenants” is a stylish and beautifully staged French ghost story, shot for TV and, apparently, comprising eight or nine episodes, each about an hour long. The series looks like the Swedish vampire movie, “Let the Right One In” -- it’s locations exude an aura of wintry isolation and scenes shot at night are filmed with extraordinarily deep focus: we seem to be peering far into the corridors of the darkness, gazing down long autumnal passageways toward remote pools of light. The opening sequences is poetic and indelible: the camera tracks toward a case in which butterfly specimens are pinned to a white background. Suddenly, one of the butterfly corpses comes to life, flaps its wings, and, then, breaks through the glass, gliding with eerie balletic motion through the funereal landscape. A series of elliptically designed scenes shows us that a mountain village, high in the French Alps, has suffered a terrible tragedy -- a school bus full of High School students has plunged off a winding road into a gorge in front of an elegantly curvaceous and towering dam. A huge lake is impounded behind the dam and there are high peaks, draped in snow, looming over the still water. The scenes showing the dam and the lake are similar to images in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter”, a Canadian film also involving a fatal bus accident, and, also, look like images in Bill Forsythe’s great “Housekeeping.” We see a group of grief-stricken parents, counseled by a bright-eyed doctor, working together on a post-modern and ugly monument to their dead children. And, then, suddenly, the dead come back to life, at least, some of them. A teenage girl, Camille, clambers out of the fatal ravine and hikes down the switchbacks to town. In a matter-of-fact way, she goes to her parents’ house, encounters her mother, who is half-paralyzed with astonishment and joy, and, then, after ravenously, eating something, takes a bath. Parallel cutting shows us other apparitions -- a small boy with lemur-eyes named Victor, an angry young man, and a man in a hooded sweat-suit who viciously murders a woman in a tunnel under a busy roadway, a location similar to an ominour pedestrian subway in the Swedish vampire film. The teenage girl who has returned from the dead knocks on the door to summon her much older sister. But, with a shock of recognition, we realize that the two girls are twins; the reason one looks much older than the other is because the surviving child -- she feigned illness to spend the morning with her boyfriend -- has aged normally, while the ghost girl remains as she was when the bus accident killed her. The first episode of the series establishes mysteries that, presumably, the program will solve, or elucidate as the series proceeds: who is the strange little boy? Why does an old man try to burn a ghost-woman to death before committing suicide from the parapet of the huge dam? Who is the assailant of the girl eviscerated in the pedestrian tunnel? The second episode of the show invokes “Twin Peaks” and seems to me somewhat more conventional -- in fact, I fear that a staple of Cable TV, the serial killer plot, may erode some of uncanny strangeness in this show. The imagery is surrealist and sometimes witty -- a big dog trots down a flight of stairs to sniff at the disemboweled girl; a diner is improbably located at the foot of a sheer basalt cliff and houses are perched in remote hanging valleys among the peaks. The set decoration is extraordinarily clear and precise: glacial Le Corbusier-style homes tastefully decorated with abstract art and collages of polaroids and the landscapes have a numb, icy beauty like paintings by Magritte. A little girl seems to summon black water up from a drain and it swirls around filling a sink with inky fluid. Meanwhile, above the dam, workers worry that the water levels in the reservoir are mysteriously declining. At the edge of the city, there are desolate tracts of project housing and everyone, it seems, is concealing some kind of sinister secret. Camille wonders if she is some sort of zombie and, in one funny, but poignant scene, a bereaved woman who has remarried since the accident, encouraged by her priest to believe her fiancee's resurrection is merely a fantasy, tells the baffled ghost that she has "permission" to think about him, "permission" even to desire and embrace him. The ghost is puzzled because he doesn't know that he's dead. A religiously inclined psychiatrist thinks the revenants are a miracle. But others believe that this fleshy resurrection -- "the resurrection of the body," to be sure -- is some kind of grim and grotesque mistake. The series is languidly paced, employing long takes, and there are many ominous puddles and reflective surfaces and grim mountain landscapes. The people in the series look like real folks -- their faces are not particularly glamorous or handsome and they have pockmarked complexions but, almost all, are distinguished by radiant, huge, and gleaming eyes. This seems to be an excellent TV series and can be seen on Thursday nights at 8:00 pm on the Sundance Channel.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jimi Hendrix on American Masters

The PBS documentary, "Jimi Hendrix" part of "The American Masters" series, is cautious hagiography so wholly uninteresting as to induce a weird fascination in the viewer. There is no paucity of footage showing Hendrix mauling his guitar and the man was completely beautiful and uniquely photogenic. But the film is a collage of Hendrix' greatest hits fused together by talking heads who have almost nothing to say. I count a documentary as useful if it tells me one thing that I didn't know before watching the film. By this criterion, the film succeeds: the mythology about Hendrix is that he was a wild man whose inherent Dioynsian frenzy was fueled by his experience of the savagery of combat in Vietnam. Unable to cope with his furies, Hendrix, I always believed, became a heroin addict and overdosed. None of this is even remotely true. Hendrix served briefly in the military, enlisting in the Air Force for a paratrooper training when he was 17. But he was hurt during practice jumps and honorably discharged, probably around 1959 0r 1960 -- before the Vietnam war entered the picture. Second, Hendrix doesn't seem to have been anything more than a casual recreational drug user. He had trouble sleeping, probably due to the unusual hours that he kept, and customarily employed sleeping pills. Apparently, a British girlfriend let him use her pills, far stronger than their American counterparts with which Hendrix was acquainted and he overdosed. The overdose seems to have been a pure, freakish accident. Hendrix had been an unsung back-up musician in the US where his brand of gimmicky guitar virtuosity is a staple of half the kids playing in garage bands in the suburbs. But in England, Hendrix's antics astounded the public and he became famous very quickly. After conquering England in the scope of a year or so, Hendrix returned to the US as a hero. He alarmed and amazed everyone at the Monterrey Pop Festival and was a darling of documentary film makers from the very start -- his performances at Woodstock in the Michael Wadleigh film and at Monterrey in D. A. Pennebaker's picture contributed to his celebrity and made him famous world-wide. The witnesses testifying about Hendrix in this picture seem to be under some kind of a gag order. They have nothing scandalous to say about him and nothing even remotely interesting. His ex-girlfriends are reticient, as if signatories to confidentiality agreements, and don't reveal anything interesting. Hendrix seems to have been a person of austere tastes and a complete cipher. He didn't read anything, scarcely glanced at the newspapers, and carried a guitar with him everywhere. He was modest, articulate, but very quiet. We see him shrinking physically in an interview with that glittering mannequin, Dick Cavett -- he is polite, well-spoken, but doesn't have anything to say. Hendrix lived for his music, and improving his art, which became increasingly experimental with each month, was his only passion. He seems to have had thousands of encounters with groupies, and Keith Richards' ex-girlfriend, still attractive on the brink of her dotage, praises his "immaculate sexuality" but we don't really get much a sense for what this means -- he seems to have regarded women as a hygenic necessity, like recourse to the toilet. Hendrix's music remains, at least for me, a matter of taste. It's impressive to see him torturing his guitar; he paws the poor thing with his elbows, plays it with his tongue and teeth, turns the axe upside-down and plays it behind his head, and, in one spectacular scene, butts the guitar into his amplifiers creating howling feedback while ramming his pelvis against the instrument to scrape it across the speakers -- I presume that Hendrix's girlfriends were treated to interesting displays of phallus-playing as well since this is the inevitable direction that his art seemed to take. But was the man really so wholly uninteresting, apolitical, and opinion-less. We have to recall, I suppose, that he was very young, that he died before he was 30, and some of the talking head material -- discussing Hendrix's changes in style "as he became older" -- is simply ludicrous; he didn't become older and this is his Grecian urn appeal: Hendrix died young and beautiful, without an extra pound on his frame, without a grey hair on his head and so will be forever young in our imagination. In Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai", there is a swordsman who wishes only to perfect his art -- he scarcely speaks to the others and we see him practicing alone in a chilly looking forest. But there is a village in the picture and six other warriors to maintain our interest. We have no such luck in this film.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cyrano de Bergerac

Answer this question quickly and without recourse to your cell-phone: when was Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" first performed? If you are like me, you will imagine that the play is the product of the 17th century or, perhaps, the age of Mozart. In fact, Rostand's show opened in 1897 and is a product of the Belle Epoque. Thus, it is more kin to Puccini, Chekhov, and Ibsen than to Moliere and Racine. Sprawling and a bit shapeless, "Cyrano de Bergerac" meanders aimlessly during its first half and, then, amps up the romantic spectacle and sentimentality after the intermission, ending with a tear-jerking death scene that is shamelessly protracted, and, I'm afraid, ridiculously effective -- cousin to the death of Mimi in "La Boheme" or Little Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop." Constructed in five acts, the play contains a mix of humor and melodrama that seems clearly derived from Shakespeare although "Cyrano de Bergerac," an ode to nobility and honor, is, ultimately, anti-Shakespearian in paying homage to a value about which the Bard of Avon was intensely skeptical -- consider, for instance, Falstaff's mordant catechism to honor in "Henry IV, Part One". The character of Cyrano is an example of a larger-than-life figure, someone like King Lear or Hamlet, that no single actor can effectively impersonate on stage. The actor always seems too puny for the role and this was certainly true in the Chicago Shakespeare Company's production of the play that I saw on the Navy Pier on November 2, 2013. In this show, the part was played by Harry Groener and, during the rather haphazard first half, he seemed too conversational and casual, a bit too nonchalant. The famous balcony scene in which Cyrano speaks in his voice to Roxanne is the play's watershed and the beginning of its turn from Brechtian epic comedy toward sentiment and tragedy and, from that point forward, I thought Groener improved and seemed to grow into the role. Groener's make-up was not grotesque and he cuts a handsome figure on the stage with the result that Cyrano's inferiority complex about his appearance (and his concomitant over-compensation with rhetoric and sword-play) seems puzzling and ill-motivated. But this is, perhaps, not too much of a flaw -- all of us know handsome, even beautiful, people who are somehow persuaded that they are ugly. Roxanne, as the object of Cyrano's love, also poses difficulties. Rostand is not effective at writing for female characters -- they are all stereotyped duennas and wenches -- and the part of Roxanne seems undeveloped. She is a prize that doesn't seem worth the effort of winning her and doesn't possess the charm and gravitas of a Shakepearian heroine. The melancholy last act is, as always, wildly effective and leaves the audience in helpless tears. The whole thing is a more than a bit manipulative. Cyrano's slavish commitment to honor, something that we are met to applaud, viewed objectively, is self-centered and destructive to everyone around him. But applaud audiences do, rising to their feet to cheer and wipe the tears from their eyes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Trevor

"Naked...lawless...with no one to applaud their tricks..." this is how Trevor characterizes the condition of chimpanzees in the wild. This somber assessment is spoken by the title character in Nick Jones' new play, a chimpanzee himself, formerly successful in show business, but, now, entombed in suburban Connecticut far from the bright lights. Trevor lives with Sandra, a middle-aged woman who claims to have purchased him from the trunk of a car at a local Walmart. Sandra is a widow; her husband, Jerome,formerly "the dominant male in the household," as Trevor ominously remarks, has died, although the chimp thinks that he has just gone away temporarily. Full-grown, weighing over 200 pounds, and increasingly agitated about this failed career in the entertainment industry, Trevor is an accident waiting to happen and the audience watches the spectacle of his enraged deterioration with mingled terror and pity. Ostensibly a comedy, "Trevor" packs a menacing punch. The actor playing the chimp is lanky and hops about the set acrobatically and we sense that he is powerful, disgruntled and a slow-burning fuse. And, of course, in the back of our mind lurks the story on which "Trevor" is based -- the tragedy of the trained chimp, Travis, also formerly a star of TV commercials, who ripped a woman's face off before being gunned down by local gendarmes, cops who had formerly stood in line to have their pictures taken with the charismatic primate. Jones' play is short, only about ninety minutes, and much of it is very funny. Trevor imagines himself a great Thespian, longs to be re-united with Morgan Fairchild with whom he once filmed a commercial, and grouses about contracts, his SAG dues, the sorry state of the TV and film industry that can't accomodate a talented primate of his kind and yearns to increase his acting range with some really serious parts. Sandra completely misunderstands the chimp as he misunderstands her -- in effect, the play consists of two monologues that don't really address one another: Sandra's perverse attempt, presumably based on loneliness, to turn the dangerous chimp into a human child, and Trevor's increasing rage at what he views as the collapse of his acting career. I presume that Jones' script is a sly joke on the acting profession, an argument that actors are self-absorbed monkeys, imitating one another, egotistical, self-absorbed, and, more or less, without a clue. This satirical vein in the play derives from a recent novel in which Cheetah, Tarzan's side-kick, narrates in the first-person a show-biz autobiography, "Me Cheeta, My Life in Hollywood. In "Trevor," the business about TV and film gives the chimp something to talk about, an intelligible, even, tragic backstory, and imparts to his final, fatal outburst of rage a thematic meaning -- the horrible stuff at the end is not just a primate outburst but an explosion of ferocity by an actor who feels unjustly ignored, insulted, and injured. Although this seems contrived, "Trevor's" plot mechanism actually works quite well and allows the animal to express himself in increasingly angry monologues. Of course, Trevor doesn't really understand what is happening -- when an animal control officer arrives and samples his blood, for instance, Trevor thinks that the man is a talent agent scouting him for a TV role. Although Trevor speaks fluent, Hollywood-inflected lingo, we see, as the play progresses, that he doesn't really understand anything being said about him -- to his ear, the human dialogue is nonsense words ("Chadda-chadda-chadda") in which are interspersed a few phrases, really just noises that he understands -- words like "No" and "good boy" and "eat." The play is a comedy of miscommunication and misunderstanding until the inevitable catastrophe at its end. Trevor's mentor is another renowned Chimp named Oliver, a part played by Colm O'Reilly. (O'Reilly played the role of the hunchback in "The Hunchback Variations" by the Theater Oobleck; that show was one of the greatest plays that I have ever seen and I was thrilled that he is in this piece.) Oliver is suave and wears a white tuxedo -- although like Trevor he's barefoot. He claims to have a human wife and half-human children and, even, a three-quarter human grandchild. He's an old industry pro who reminds Trevor that the first rule of animal acting is to not "poop yourself," an injunction that poor Trevor violates in the gruesome climax of the play (although in his delirium, he blames the offending turd on a trained seal that he imagines hovering nearby to thwart him). Oliver knows that show-biz has its ups and downs -- at one point, we learn that his human wife has divorced him and that his half-human children are being vivisected for medical research: "easy come, easy go" seems to be Oliver's attitude toward these reversals of fortune, an attitude that he can't persuade Trevor to adopt. Like most actors, Trevor is spoiled and narcissistic, as well as hyper-sensitive and neurasthenic -- the crying of a neighbor's baby drives him to madness -- and he doesn't accept Oliver's advice with ensuing dire consequences. More a situation than a play, "Trevor" doesn't really have a satisfactory ending -- but almost all of show is intense, funny, and terrifying. "Trevor" is a production of A Red Orchid Theater at 1531 N. Wells in Chicago, a block to the south of Second City. A Red Orchid Theater was the nest from which Michael Shannon hatched -- he is featured in the Theater's ads as its most famous alumnus. The theater itself is tiny -- "intimate" suggests too much space. The audience is seated in a cellar-like chamber the size of living room, forty seats all within 15 feet of the back of the set. There is no stage. The actors occupy the same terrain where the audience is seated -- in this case, everyone is edged up around a squalid kitchen and living room filled with mementos of Trevor's acting career and various primate toys. The acting space is very narrow and this creates some problems with blocking -- some of the action takes placed at the extreme edges of the acting space and, paradoxically, for such a minute theater, some of the play is hard to see. The audience walks in and out of the theater across the set where the monkey and his mistress cavort during the play and, as the show progresses, it's hot and we can see every bead of sweat on the actors, sometimes only four or five feet away. The space is ideal for this show -- it enhances the sense of menace, of being in a cage with a dangerous and wild animal.