Thursday, February 27, 2014

FRONTLINE: Secrets of the Vatican

Produced for “Frontline” on “PBS,” the documentary “Secrets of the Vatican” is a potpourri of scandal that is curiously inconsistent in its allegations and completely inept as narrative. Yet the show takes such a lurid delight in its muckraking that the documentary is a weird guilty pleasure. The Vatican and its “curia” stand accused of a myriad of crimes, most of them unrelated, and so the film leaps from one tawdry scandal to another without much rhyme or reason. But it’s perversely entertaining and, certainly, infuriating in a kind of mindless way -- hypocritical abuse of power always gets your dander up. In the documentary, institutional Roman Catholicism is accused of child sexual abuse, cover-up, bank fraud, thuggish intimidation, mafia infiltration, narcissism of various kinds, rampant homosexuality and a culture of predatory sexual practices that would have shamed Caligula. It is implied that the Curia plots murders, smuggles money in briefcases to the tune of 20 million euros, and protects monsters in its clergy if they are sufficiently effective in their fundraising to warrant the Pope’s blessing. Pope Benedict is darkly implied to have resigned in horror and disgust as a result of an official investigation itemizing the Curia’s misdeeds -- we see the elderly man hauled away from the Vatican by helicopter to sinister music. Someone says that when Benedict was touring the Stations of the Cross, he paused at one of those images of Christ’s passion and cried out that the church was under attack from “filth” -- "filth from within." This indictment is picturesquely filmed -- we see children in reenacted sequences summoned down gloomy corridors by priests who are like sybaritic fiends from a book by the Marquis de Sade; votive candles gutter as we are regaled with tales of child rape involving spurting semen and blood drizzling from lacerated genitalia. One Mexican priest, renowned for his fundraising abilities and, therefore, a special favorite of John Paul, is alleged to have conceived children solely for the purpose of buggering them half to death. We see this monster locking lips with John Paul who is withered by age and disease into the semblance of a malevolent mummy. There are weird rites: footwashing and crowds of young priests lying on their bellies, supine, before the Pope’s throne in St. Peter’s, the action filmed from an aerial vantage to emphasize the sheer, bizarre spectacle. The Vatican towers over Rome, the dome of St. Peter swollen under forboding skies like a giant, cancerous tumor and music signals doom, panic, and horror, cues derived, it seems, from third-rate slasher pictures. We see the locked Vatican archives, acres of sinister filng cabinets behind cyclone fence partitions, an image that evokes the end of Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and the more paranoiac shots of government records displayed in “The X Files.” One showy sequence feaures a camera tracking backward as a stately Swiss Guard advances toward the camera, caparisoned like Harlequin, to pull shut towering doors, thus barring us forever from access to “the secrets of the Vatican.” Parts of the film are inadvertently risible: one priest leaves the ministry tempted by a beautiful young woman -- one look at the girl and you can see why he was renounced celibacy. But the episode goes nowhere --”due to Vatican bullying,” the narrator intones, “the couple are no longer together” although the image shows them strolling hand-in-hand in some luscious-looking Roman park. Another sequence is like something from Monty Python -- hidden cameras record priests at an orgiastic party: the men are gyrating with “escorts”, hunky-looking lads who are like figures from a Tom of Finland cartoon, all bare-torso and leathern menace,their faces blurred and disco-lights flashing with music ominously throbbing like an outtake from Bill Friedkin’s “Cruising.” After the party, the priests adjourn to a nearby apartment to enjoy “a night of having sex”. The next morning the scandalized narrator tells us that the men celebrated Mass and we see them donning their vestments and kissing the host -- a clock shows us that, horror of horrors! it’s not even morning but about 3:30 in the afternoon, apparently the hour that homosexual priests arise from their beds of lust to intone their hypocritical Masses. At this point, the film threatens to collapse into incoherence: is homosexuality evil or just another sexual inclination or is the crime supposed to be hypocrisy or what exactly? (It’s as if the sequence was shot a decade ago when homosexuality was still regarded as criminal -- how quickly mores have changed!) In fact, the images of weary-looking priests donning their clerical costumes and, with all sincerity it seems, touching the lunar-white host to their lips seem rather touching to me -- after all, we’re sinners each and everyone of us and that doesn’t excuse us from doing our priestly duties if that is our vocation. There’s another notable sequence, infuriating in its own way: one after another victims of child sexual abuse approach a microphone and, sobbing and gibbering, heap abuse on a bureaucratic-looking priest flanked by an absolutely callous harridan, presumably a lawyer, who is chewing gum with great bovine motions of her jaws. The show even has a plot of a kind, the gentle saintly Marxist, Pope Frances cast into this den of vipers and money-changers, threatened, it seems, with assassination, and, his face goofy with a mild, beatific grin, blessing his flock as he naively promotes reform. You hope that the new kid in town will transform this savage institution and its awful curia. But its an uphill struggle and what can one man, no matter how virtuous, do against this nightmarish and entrenched ancient corruption. It’s righteous hokum, Capra-esque, a little bit like “Mr. Smith goes to Washington" but wonderfully entertaining.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Girls and True Detective: HBO and the Zeitgeist

TV, even flat body,wide-screen plasma TV, isn't an escapist medium. After all, the signal is broadcast into the familiar environs of your living room. For better or worse, your TV set is part of your household furniture. How can you effectively escape when you are at home, with your children and pets, surrounded by your stuff? For this reason, TV succeeds best when it serves one of two purposes: establishing a stay-at-home familiarity with the viewers or, in the alternative, tellng the truth in a quasi-documentary style, or, at least, seeming to tell the truth. In the first mode, a TV show establishes a formula that is wholly predictable, a narrative terrain that is as well-known to you as the path between your kitchen and your living room and toilet -- this is how sit-coms work and cop shows and most of prime-time dramatic TV. The formula was old even in the early sixties when "Perry Mason," for instance, embodied a four act structure articulated by commercial breaks: murder in the first ten minutes, the accused man consulting with the great lawyer before the second commercial break, a serious set-back and complication in the third act, and, then, Perry Mason extracting the truth on the witness stand from the true murderer as the denouement -- a thousand shows were configured in this way and, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, they were all the same and they were all good. In this mode, the TV show's very predictability guarantees its success -- there isn't anything escapist about the show: it just another member of the household, with familiar characteristics and quirks. The second mode is that of producing a life-like representation of reality -- indeed, a representation of reality that is all the more powerful for being broadcast on the medium of the nightly news, a picture of the truth that is as lifelike and substantial as your easy chair or the lamp beside that chair or your dog resting at your feet. HBO specializes in this kind of hyper-reality: shows like "The Sopranos" or "Veep" function as representations to us of an exotic kind of reality, a glimpse into a world that is fascinating because it seems completely plausible and real: this is how New Jersey mobster live their lives, this is how they speak and this is what a gangland assassination looks like; or, with respect to "Veep" (or shows like "Boss" or "House of Cards"): this is how politicians really behave when they don't think their constituents are watching, this is the truth behind the glossy political ads and all the specious, partisan rhetoric.

The word "true" appears in the title of the HBO show "True Detective" and, of course, that program is characteristic in its pretense that it is delivering the "goods" -- that is, the actual unvarnished "truth" about crime and poverty in Louisiana, the emotionally ravaged lives of homicide cops, the appearance of crime-scenes left in the wake of a serial killer's rampage. On the basis of the series' extraordinary acting by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the viewer is almost convinced that the show's narrative is authentic and plausible. But, of course, it's not TV, as the slogan goes, but HBO and an HBO series requires certain things which completely undermine the viewer's sense that the show is true to life. Most obviously, HBO shows seem built to a specification that requires a "Hard R" sex scene every two episodes - the sex scenes must involve beautiful and shapely women and typically feature a female-superior sexual position so that the woman's breasts are exposed to their maximum effect. These sex scenes are generally filmed in bright light so as not to interfere with the audience's voyeuristic enjoyment of the scene. If the actress is sufficiently well-established that she is not contractually required to show full-frontal nudity, the hero will roger the damsel by slipping off her panties and bending her over a conveniently placed kitchen counter. All of this occurs with a maximum of (staged) spontaneity with lots of hard-breathing and moaning. In the sixth episode of "True Detective", the show finally reaches a scene that it has been telegraphing to the audience for five weeks -- Matthew McConaughey has sex with Woody Harrelson's comely, and neglected wife, thus precipitating a colossal fist-fight between our two protagonists at the police station. McConnaughy's tormented Schopenhauer-citing hero lives alone in a stark monastic flat decorated by booze bottles and hundreds of pictures of murdered women taped to the walls -- he likes to squat there alone shining his flashlight this way and that at his gallery of bloated, greenish corpses. Harrelson's wife comes to his door carrying a bottle of booze, enters McConaughey's morbid den precipitating a brief but rambunctious sex scene of the kitchen counter variety. The viewer is immediately struck by the sheer and utter implausibility of the episode: most women are not particularly excited by pictures of sex-murder victims, gory photogrpahs plastered all over the walls and, I presume, that those images themselves would be, as they say, "a deal breaker". The swift and violent sex involving rear penetration and the kitchen counter looks uncomfortable and occurs without any foreplay. Bluntly put, this is someone in Hollywood's fantasy of what sex should look like, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to anything that two people would ever do. Furthermore, after McConaughey's hero has finished with his partner's wife, an encounter involving mutual and simultaneous orgasms, he then calls her a bunch of names and throws her out of his murder-mansion. This is also completely ridiculous -- the lady deserves, at least, a firm handshake in recompense for her services. Then, the wife goes to her husband and,in the most vulgar terms imaginable, taunts him by saying that she has had sex with his partner. Would anyone in their right mind do this? Again the show has slipped into some kind of warped Hollywood-land fantasy. So the aggrieved husband, Woody Harrelson assaults McConaughey at the cop shop and they have a titanic fist-fight. I know cops and have represented them and their departments for 30 years and this sort of infidelity certainly occurs from time to time, although not in the way depicted in the show. Someone slips up and the truth is exposed and, then, the aggrieved husband sulks and cries and there is usually a divorce filing that ensues but the two men don't battle in their workplace like a pair of rutting stags. Finally, heaping insult on injury the head cop suspends the two combatants on the spot -- ignoring conveniently the fact that police are among the most heavily unionized workers in this country, protected not only by contract and arbitration but, also, by police civil service commissions and a panoply of statutes that makes it functionally impossible to ever fire (or even discipline) a cop. Police investigate and contest grievances through their union with a fortitude and determination that they never show in their actual homicide or other criminal investigations. So, once again, the show, despite its gritty surface and clever dialogue and highly realistic sets and locations, is completely fantastic. Since fidelity to truth, and authenticity, are the aesthetic criteria that the show advances as integral to its success, "True Detective" fails according to its own critical canons of excellence -- either it is true to life or it is nothing. I don't want to bad-mouth "True Detective" because, in fact, it is one of the best programs on TV and has some of the most impressive and dramatic dialogue that I have seen and the acting by the two principals is exemplary. But the HBO format ultimately defeats the show --it's too long and the material (a standard issue mad-murderer plot) isn't complex enough for eight hours -- this results in a wholly extraneous episode involving a gang of feral meth-manufacturing bikers that is a compound of the most obvious and stupid cliches and quasi-racism -- there's a fire-fight in a ghetto -- as to almost discredit the show entirely. Fortunately, it's obvious to experienced HBO-viewers that the gunfight in the ghetto involving the angry African-Americans and meth-head bikers is merely a placeholder, an episode that is killing time to fill out the eight shows ordered. The TV show doesn't "jump the shark" because the meth-dealer episode goes nowhere and is completely forgotten when the program reverts to its main themes and primary characters in the fifth episode. With the sex eliminated or filmed discretely in the old Hollywood style -- a clinch and a kiss standing in for penetrative sex and howling orgasms -- and reduced to five hours as opposed to eight, "True Detective" would have been one of the best shows ever broadcast on TV. But, at its full length, and with the salacious sex scenes obstructing the plot, the show is merely very good.

At one point in "True Detective," Matthew McConnaughy describes his theory of space and time. It's gibberish but poetic. He says that viewed from a place outside our four dimensions, all action takes on a sculptural quality, events occupying the space in which they occurred and creating a "flat circle". This monologue is some sort of hybrid between Nietzsche's concept of the "eternal return of the same" and half-baked quantum mechanics. McConnaughy asserts that all times are eternally present and that there is a mystical point of view from which all events can be perceived as occupying positions in space-time that are simultaneous. Curiously, in the fourth or fifth episode of Lena Dunham's sit-com "Girls," a minor character dies unexpectedly. Everyone expects that Lena's character, Hannah, will have some kind of reaction to the man's demise. But she doesn't really respond in any way except self-interest -- the man was her publisher and she's concerned about the fate of a book that the dead man was editing. In other words, Hannah's reaction is completely realistic and authentic -- the man was not a close friend, and, indeed, was a rather irritating fellow and Hannah's response is a polite expression of grief that she doesn't really feel at all. This outrages her friends who want her to proclaim feelings of sorrow of which she is incapable. I mention this episode of "Girls" for two reasons -- first, "Girls," in my view is an HBO show that succeeds according to the criterion of truthfulness, and, second, to make a point about the "Zeitgeist." One of Hannah's friends, the debauched young woman, Jessa, played by Jemima Kirk, says that there is no such thing as time and that all events occur simultaneously and are, forever, occurring or not-occurring: we are always being born, always dead, always not present because not yet born. In other words, on the same night on the same station (HBO) and within a half-hour of programming, the same metaphysics of time is expressed by two characters, a depraved, if attractive and highly intelligent cocaine addict, in "Girls" and a tormented cop in "True Detective." There must be something, as they say, in the Zeitgeist.

"Girls" seems completely true to life and totally authentic. The characters behave exactly the way that real people behave, although they have slightly better lines than we can contrive in real life. (For all I know, people in New York City are sufficiently witty to pull-off the clever dialogue in "Girls".) "Girls" succeeds in making itself seem completely truthful through the simplest, but most profound, of all devices: the show makes no attempt to flatter its heroine played by Lena Dunham and, in fact, she is continuously shot in the most unflattering clothing or nudity possible. Since Lena Dunham looks like a real woman, the show seems completely authentic -- it is "naked" in the most obvious and ordinary way: we are seeing the "naked truth" because its heroine is willing to appear before us without any artifice of any kind, no artful lighting to make her look seductive or, even, attractive, no disguise, nothing to hide her plump body as she waddles from scene to scene. This technique may seem like a superficial way to establish the program's veracity but it works, and, indeed, works remarkably well. "Girls" seems so truthful to certain aspects of female behavior (and female anatomy) that a male writer really can't describe the show without running the risk of being accused of all sorts of awful forms of politically incorrect "gaze" and misogynistic chauvinism. (My wife, who despises the show and its heroine, has no such concerns -- she calls the heroine "the piglet" and regards her displays of nudity as an example of almost hallucinatory narcissism.) An illustration of the show's weird truthfulness is an episode involving a week-end beach-house party hosted by one of the girls who is something of a socialite, Marnie, the character played by Allison Williams, who is conventionally beautiful. Hannah resents having to spend her weekend at the beach-house somewhere on Long Island, a place that is more elite than the Hamptons. She is skeptical about the agenda which involves the female activity of "healing" by mutual conversation with lots of drinking -- the girls, who have been a bit estranged for awhile, want to patch up rifts that have developed between them and engage in mutual commiseration about professional and romantic set-backs. Hannah, who is often the voice of common sense, distrusts this agenda and, in fact, subverts it by inviting five gay men that she knows to the dinner party, an invitation that essentially thwarts the raison d'etre for the entire weekend. Hannah signifies her discontent with the whole affair by wearing the tiniest and most revealing (and most hideous) lime-green bikini imaginable. Her friends comment on the fact that she is wearing this awful attire when everyone else, includng the beautiful Marnie and Jessa, are discretely covered-up. In one scene, Hannah is stooping over something on the sidewalk outside a frozen yogurt place when the five gay men walk up, and without recognizing her, proceed to make rude, if accurate, remarks about her pear-shaped lower body. Hannah is a little offended but not really -- in fact, she intends her attire to be offensive. Later, we see the women lounging on the beach -- all of them are wearing discrete swim-wear except for Hannah. Her little pallid pot-belly, her elephantine hips, and her inconsequential breasts are all on full display. It's naive and, even, somewhat embarrassing to say this -- but presenting the show's star in this light is a warrant of the show's authenticity, an authenticity that is successfully embodied, as well, in the entire episode. Needless to say, the dinner party goes badly wrong and the women are at each other's throats after an hour or so of alcohol-induced exhilaration -- the imagery of the next morning with the cups and bottles scattered all over the beach house and the gay men snoring is disorderly heaps in the corners of the rooms is startlingly real and indelible. And the silence of the girls as they make their morning coffee, brushing past one another, sulking, their faces swollen by their night of drinking, completely plain and unaffected in appearance, real people just like you and me. I suppose this show is on the way to becoming "Sex in the City" but, at this stage, toward the end of its third season, the show still seems fresh and, most important, true to life.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes” (1948) aspires to the impersonal inaccesssibility of high art. Whether the film succeeds in its ambitions remains, I think, controversial. The film is so thoroughly designed and stylized that it has always seemed to me somewhat airless and emotionally impenetrable, a great classical work of art that occupies a pinnacle that mere mortals can not ascend. ”The Red Shoes” is operatic, but without the emotional force carried by great music. (Perversely, the film relies upon a score comprised mostly of music composed for the movie -- this music is undistinguished and forgettable, mostly domesticated variants on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka”, but without the Russian’s ferocity and rhythmic boldness. When we see a scene staged to great music -- for instance, part of “Swan Lake”, the movie achieves emotional resonance that it lacks otherwise.) For many viewers, the picture will feel remote and curiously dispassionate because the art form celebrated in the film is ballet and the aesthetics of ballet are unfamiliar to most people. Oddly enough, the least abstract of all arts, dance, somehow seems highly rarefied and abstruse, even elitist, in ballet -- the genre requires “muscle memory,” I think to appreciate: that is, ideally you must have danced ballet to appreciate ballet and, for better or worse, most modern Americans don’t have this experience. Powell compensates for the distance that the ballet setting enforces between the film’s subject and its audience by employing the full panoply of movie magic to impress on the audience the film’s themes and story -- there are whip pans, elaborate superimpositions, slow-motion effects, and gorgeously complex expressionistic lighting. The editing compresses the action, but in a curious way that sometimes seems to paralyze the story, freezing it in prismatically interlocking tableaux that, while furiously in motion, often don’t seem to move at all. Many individual shots are among the most beautiful ever captured on film and Powell is unafraid to insert giant close-ups as punctuation to the action -- huge silent movie style portraits exquisitely lit, with the actors glaring directly into the camera, wide-eyed and fiercely emotional. Roughly speaking, the film divides into three panels. In the first part of the movie, we are introduced to the prima ballerina, Victoria Page, a young woman of wealth and refinement, who wants to be a great dancer. The film’s rather schematic triangle is established: Victoria Page is the protégé of Lermontov, a ballet impresario, played by Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is the film’s Satan, the figure that tempts the ballerina to abandon ordinary life for the demanding, and, ultimately, fatal discipline of dance. Walbrook doesn’t feel like a leading man and this is to his credit -- he’s simply too strange, a figure too allegorical to fit in with the ordinary fabric of human life. In the penultimate scene, when he urges the ballerina to desert her husband for his ballet, he is pale, bloodless, an image of death itself, debonair, suave, and lethal -- “life,” he proclaims, “is so insignificant,”at least compared with great art and as Walbrook pronounces those words, we are ready to suspend our disbelief and agree with him. The third corner of the triangle is a young composer. He looks a bit like Benjamin Britten with gunfighter-eyes of the most startling blue -- in the final scene, the robin’s egg blue of his eyes is used to determine costume and décor, for instance, the ballerina’s blue scarf. The young man has swept back hair after the fashion of German silent film heroes -- he looks a bit like the hero in “Metropolis” or the young “Siegfried” in “The Nibelungen”. (And, indeed, Fritz Lang’s staging of melodramatic confrontations in his silent films -- huge close-ups looming over symbolic landscapes, sudden histrionic gestures that seem too large for figures making them -- is evident in the climactic sequence pitting the two men against one another with the doomed ballerina as their prize.) The composer, the author of the ballet “The Red Shoes”, falls in love with the ballerina -- this love affair, which results in a marriage, is presented in an efficient shorthand, a couple cursory shots, and, certainly, not the subject of the film. We don’t see the wedding between the composer and the ballerina and, after they are married, Powell stages scenes with the husband and wife lying apart in separate beds -- there is no doubt that the film’s sympathies (and its passion) lie with the Mephistophelean impresario, Walbrook’s obsessed Lermontov, the man who believes that ordinary life must be sacrificed on the altar of great art. The deck is stacked in favor of art: Walbrook is more fascinating and compelling on screen than the handsome, and stiff, composer hero: love is weighed in the balance with art and loses -- it is a far finer thing to create a majestic work of art than to be married and in love and the film’s delirious mise-en-scene, its exhaustion of all of the resources of film art drives this message home with a vengeance. The second panel in the movie is an extended dance sequence, the performance of the “Red Shoes” ballet which presents the plot conflict in an allegorical form, art as symbolized by the red shoes and the demonic cobbler who has made them (self-evidently an image of Lermontov) versus ordinary life. The dance sequences are fantastically beautiful, poised against spectacular sets and filmed with great swooping motions of the camera. The notion that we are watching a performance in a Monte Carlo theater is abandoned after a few minutes and for ten minutes or so we are immersed in an expressionistic fantasmagoria -- it’s the same effect used in great American musicals like “The Band Wagon” and “Singing in the Rain” with the same emotional impact: we have a film within a film that is like a fever dream, a surreal cascade of images staged in an endlessly complex and deep space opening into an infinity of lush, womb-like locations, a sequence that is simultaneously completely closed off from reality and enormously expansive in its sweep and imaginative staging. The third part of the film seems a bit perfunctory -- it is the working-out of the conflict between life and great art, a delirium that would be more effective, I think, if the film were silent and if the dialogue were suppressed in favor of music. Like Anna Karenina, the ballerina plunges under a train -- and, as in the novel, there are harbingers of that climax presented as foreshadowing throughout the film. The problem with the movie’s last thirty minutes is that the conflict feels completely contrived. We don’t have any sense for why Lermontov thinks that being married with a husband is inimical to being a great dancer. Of course, Powell suggests that Lermontov is acting in bad faith, that it is really jealousy and sexual envy that drives him: he wants the woman for himself. But the greatness of the film lies in Anton Walbrook’s splendid and immensely stylized performance which renders this prosaic motivation implausible -- Lermontov, as played by Walbrook, is simply too pure, too cerebral, too completely committed to his art to succumb to mere lust. In fact, the character is imagined as entirely asexual, without any apparent desire except to achieve excellence in the ballets that he presents. But this aspect of the film undercuts the climax -- we can’t figure out why the prima ballerina can’t be married to the composer and still dance. Powell’s concept is that the woman is somehow the muse of both men and that their competition for her is sacred, an indication of their commitment to their art. But this gets confusing because Lermontov is not an artist but only a talented impresario. The composer makes the same demand on the heroine, namely that she be true to him only -- but, again, this doesn’t make any sense. Is it impossible for a man to compose music if his wife, to whom he is happily married, is engaged as a dancer on the stage in Monte Carlo? Why should this be a matter of life and death importance? It is a tribute to the film’s dream-like power that these cavils occur to us only after the movie is finished. When Lermontov and the composer make the ballerina choose between them we have a sense that this is overdetermined, unrealistic, and, even, emotionally untrue -- but the film is staged with such force and power and the imagery is so expressive that we are swept up by the emotions dramatized, even though, after the film is finished we are apt to feel a bit embarrassed by our assent to what is, after all, a completely fabricated and unreal conflict. One sequence in this film stands out as particularly effective in its fusion of plot, symbolism, and theme. The heroine is called to dine with Lermontov and she goes to her assignation wearing a gorgeous blue ballroom gown and a tiara, something like a cartoon princess in a Disney movie (she looks like Snow White). The camera shows the heroine traveling along the supernaturally beautiful coast of Monte Carlo and, then, arriving at a mountaintop castle. The castle is ruinous, reached by a huge marble stairway overgrown with weeds and vines. We hear operatic music somewhere on the heights above and the heroine climbs the weed-overgrown stairs which seem to rise up and up and up forever -- the scene combines the sinister and the fabulous in such a way as to yield an effect that is uncanny and well-nigh indescribable -- this is the beginning of the heroine’s seduction by Lermontov and the sequence takes place in an enchanted castle. It is a remarkable passage in the film,something that once seen you will never forget.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

“Deceptive Practice” is pretty much pure pleasure if you are interested in magic or vaudeville or, perhaps, the psychology of deception. The famous magician, card-shark, and vaudeville archivist/historian Ricky Jay talks to the camera for a 100 minutes, an extended digressive, and ruminative monologue illustrated with footage of astounding “effects” -- the term that Jay uses for magic tricks. (The film is directed by Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein.) Jay was born Richard Potash, a Jewish kid from Elizabeth, New Jersey. His grandfather, Max Katz, was a Viennese immigrant, a self-taught accountant, and amateur magician. Katz learned various skills by hiring famous practitioners of the arts to teach him their techniques -- or, at least, those techniques that they were willing to divulge. (As an example, Katz hired a checkers wizard to teach him that game as well as various sleight-of-hand practitioners to tutor him in magic and card tricks) Katz was close to his grandson and passed on his skills to the young boy and, as an adult, Ricky Jay portrays magic and card sleight of hand as disciplines passed on from master to pupil, crafts taught by example and long, arduous discipline, Zen-like study with a “Sensei” to use a term promoted by the film. Jay describes the peculiar sociology of magic in terms of the relationship between teacher and disciple and much of the film is devoted to magicians that Jay regarded as his mentors. These men were elderly when Jay knew them, old vaudevillians, and the film preserves their artistry in the form of archival footage of the old wizards performing their stunts. This also gives Jay (and the film) a chance to highlight the magician's world-famous collection of vintage sideshow posters and memorabilia. Jay's mentors were odd-looking ducks, squint-eyed with thick horn-rimmed goggles, often Jewish or Italian, with heavy ethnic accents and strange boxy suits. One of them had huge ears and was only five feet tall. Another is a hulking fat man, another a sort of bargain-basement Clark Gable with a pencil-thin moustache and a great fan of cards held like a bouquet at his chest. None of them made much money; Jay's grandfather, Stan Katz, prepared tax returns for masters of the trade such as Slydini and the Grest Flosso and he warned Jay to stay away from the business. Jay is generous in his praise for his forebears and describes their work in terms approaching poetry. We see old footage of Jay skewering a watermelon with cards that he hurls like razor blades and there are jaw-dropping images of him boomeranging cards -- that is, throwing them out so that they curve back in mid-air and return to his hand. The card tricks and other stunts that the film documents are, of course, amazing and uncanny. Along the way, we learn about armless wonders and midget magicians and there is an account of a trick that Jay performed on one hot day in Los Angeles that, recalled, twenty years later, still causes the woman who witnessed the stunt -- it was done just for her -- to come close to bursting into tears at the lyrical beauty and sheer improbability of the “effect” -- it involved a big slab of ice. Another informant, a hard-boiled martial arts teacher, recalls a trick that Jay did naked, in the shower at his karate dojo, a bit of magic that leaves the man gaping in astonishment even now. Jay, who is by all accounts a cantankerous and difficult man, seems humble, grateful, and, even, kindly in this film. He embodies the ethic of magic by passing his artistry on to a younger disciple, his partner with whom he has been working for close to thirty years now. Jay has a curious assortment of warts on his noble forehead and is dumpy-looking, with a grating high-pitched voice and Jersey shore accent that is the opposite of the mysterious baritone that most magicians affect, but he has an imposing presence. He has been in many films directed by David Mamet (Mamet appears in this documentary as one of the “talking heads” interviewed) and, on screen, he is never less than fascinating, both compelling and strangely charismatic, the kind of figure that you can’t take your eyes off. This documentary, produced by Public Radio’s Terry Gross, is formless and contains material that is beside the point, although fascinating -- did you know that when a magician dies, the mourners break his magic wand? -- and, except for the amazing tricks, it’s visually uninteresting. But the film is not intended to be cinema, not designed as art, but rather as a portrait of a great performer and it is never less than fascinating.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Elena and her Men

Jean Renoir worked with Ingrid Bergman in 1956 and "Elena and her Men" was a film designed to restore the actress to the status of international star, a role somewhat tarnished by her ten-year long failed relationship with Roberto Rosselini. Bergman is luminous in "Elena," but the film is a tedious costume comedy that seems to me a parody of Renoir's best work. The story is complex with several subplots and involves a popular general scheming to seize power by a coup d'etat. Bergman plays a Polish countess, something of a courtesan, who is manipulated in order to manipulate, in turn, the general who has fallen for her. (She is about to be married for purely venal purposes to an elderly shoe manager.) The story seems conceived as a meditation on the relationship between the political and personal and there are Brechtian interludes involving a street-singer that seek to establish, somewhat ineffectively, a broader context for the farcical intrigue. Bergman wears fantastically beautiful gowns and she is lushly voluptuous, perhaps, at the height of her mature beauty. All of the men in the film are comically enamoured with her. Yet, she isn't on screen as much as we desire and, often, she is filmed in medium to long shot with other remarkably beautiful actresses who distract us from her -- Renoir was his father's son and he has an exquisite eye for female beauty. There is lots of satyr-like romping -- men engaged in madcap pursuit of giggling and luscious women -- staged between scenes in which unattractive men (they are like the midget-professors and eccentrics in Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire") plot and connive. The action is staged theatrically against obviously painted sets with a couple of exceptions -- there is a balloon ride that triggers an international incident and some hunting and horse-riding scenes staged plein-air. The painted sets contribute to the air of Brechtian detachment and they are crammed to overflowing with extras representing the "polis", I suppose, or the mob. Some of this is effective and, even, diverting, but, in the end, the film doesn't amount too much and, as is often the case with a great filmmaker directing a bad movie, some of the scenes are patched-together in such a perfunctory fashion that they are embarassing, half-baked, it seemed, and surprisingly bad. A hack film maker can always summon his professionalism to create yeoman work, smooth and fluent if meaningless. Renoir seems so disengaged from this film that entire episodes fizzle on screen -- the actors look stranded and some of them mouth their lines as if performing in an amateur home movie. Bergman is good as are her "men" -- played by Mel Ferrer and Jean Marais -- but, among all the mugging and hamming, their relatively naturalistic performances seem out-of-place. Renoir has a characteristically humane view of this material. In one view two men quarrel over Bergman but mask their true motives in political slogans. They fight a duel, which Renoir doesn't stage, resulting in one man suffering a scratch. His opponent compliments him -- "I respect you more knowing that you were fighting for a woman rather than a political cause." At the end of the movie, one of the principals says that the Parisian crowd will always prefer the personal -- that is, a melodramatic love story - to the political --also intended as a compliment to the Parisians, and, for that matter, to the film audience. Claude Renoir shot the film in an astounding array of Belle Epoque textures and colors -- this stuff is hideous to my eye, and I think intentionally so: a clash of alabaster and velvet and silk saturated in deep mauves and salmon-pinks. Renoir admits in supplementary material on the Criterion disk that the film went awry -- he wanted to make the picture more explicitly about the Boulanger scandal but members of that family protested and so Renoir had to improvise the film on the fly. It didn't work as he admits and the problem for many viewers will be that the movie often seems to revisit themes and incidents much more effectively represented in "The Rules of the Game".

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Act of Killing (Director's Cut)

Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," as released on DVD, comes equipped with various special features. There is a short clip showing Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, each separately praising the film. (Age has not been kind to either man: Herzog now looks like my Grandma Zeilinger with dour pinched lips and Errol Morris has a wall-eye and the appearance of a goblin or orc in "The Hobbit.") Morris wrote a 40 page pamphlet that comes with the DVD indciting and, then, convicting the US State Department for complicity in the 1965 Indonesia mass killings -- it is fascinating, lawyerly, and brilliantly forensic writing but a bit beside the point. Most importantly, the DVD set includes Oppenheimer's 159 minute Director's Cut; the film as released theatrically is 122 minutes long. The Director's Cut has a commentary track in which Werner Herzog struggles to find words to express his awe at the film and, sometimes, bickers with Oppenheimer about what we are seeing on screen. The Director's Cut confirms my first impression that this film is a masterpiece and one of the greatest documentaries ever made. The longer version is more Shakespearian in the sense that it develops in more depth secondary characters in the film; there is a parallel comedy plot mostly omitted in the 122 minute version that features Anwar Congo's sidekick, the fat and sloppy-looking Herman, running for a seat in the Indonesian parliament. We see more of Herman and his endearing daughter -- she looks to be about eight years old. There is a terrifying scene in which Congo pretends to torture Herman by mutilating his daughter, ripping a teddy bear to pieces with a stiletto. Herman shrieks and screams and acts even more effectively than Congo in this reenactment and the imagery is made more powerful by the fact that we have previously scene Herman playing with his little girl. The current political situation is developed more thoroughly and is even more spectacularly loathsome than as revealed in the 122 minute cut. Some shots are longer -- for instance, the shocking first scene atop the paramilitary headquarters in which Congo demonstrates his garrotting technique; on the commentary track, Oppenheimer notes that his intentions in that scene were evidentiary -- he wanted to create a pictorial record as to the exact details of these killings, aiming for a continuous, unbroken filmed confession. We see more details of Congo's nightmare and some of the imagery is even more Grand Guignol than the stuff shown in the shorter sequence. The commentary clarifies the film's structure, pointing out that a still shot of Congo in his rumpled bed at night signifies the beginning of the fever dream, the nightmare that comprises the last half of the picture. On the commentary, we are told that "free men" is, in fact, a translation of the Dutch word for gangster that the criminals and thugs continuously use throughout the film. We learn that Oppenheimer spent eight years making this movie, that when it is shown in Indonesia there are threats of violence but that the movie has changed the entire political discourse in that unfortunate country -- now, for the first time, it is permissible to speak publicly about the massacres committed in the mid-sixties. Oppenheimer notes that Mr. Congo was the 41st perpetrator that he interviewed on film. The famous scene with the dancing girls and the huge fish -- it looks like the monster-fish vomiting out little fish in Brueghel's woodcut ("Big Fish eat little fish") -- is staged on the rim of a volcanic lake. When this Sumatran volcano erupted fifty thousand years ago, the world's climate changed and hominids were reduced to one or two African bands -- the source of all of our DNA today. (Herzog and Oppenheimer, who both have egos as big as Texas, get into a quarrel over the details of this episode in human history on the commentary track.) The huge ramshackle fish is, as you might expect, the ruins of an upscale seafood restaurant. On second and third viewing,innumerable tiny details emerge -- you can see Congo's foot tapping frantically when the rest of his body is still; the faces of the Chinese shop owners paying protection to the mobsters display rueful and humiliating grins frozen in place as they are intimidated. In the musical number scored to "Born Free," two tattered Communist ghosts with garrotting wire still tangled around their bony necks rise from the dead and present Anwar Congo with a medal that the light catchs and make shine with a supernatural brilliance. The huge waterfall throbs behind them as the dead Communists praise Congo for "sending us to heaven." This is a huge movie in all respects and it dwarfs almost all other films that you will see this year.

The Act of Killing

If I tell you that Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" is 'astounding', 'baffling' and 'incomprehensible', I am minimizing the film's actual impact. In fact, the thing beggars description. The 2013 documentary concerns the extermination of between one and 2.5 million Communists in Indonesia, murders committed by paramilitary death squads in 1965. At the very outset, three factors confound understanding. First, the film is about events occurring in Sumatra, an Indonesian island, and, to use Neville Chamberlain's phrase: "a country about which we know nothing." The historical context of the killing is never explained and remains indecipherable throughout the film. (Not merely Communists were killed but, ultimately, ethnic Chinese and any one who defied, or, otherwise, caught the eye of the death squads -- one guy boasts about his killing his own father-in-law who happened to be of Chinese origin.) Second, the murderers show no signs of remorse. Throughout most of the film, the killers, now wealthy suburbanites, discuss the torture and murder in which they were involved with positive merriment and glee -- they are like sports fans recalling particularly exciting football games. In one scene, a thuggish paramilitary commander plays golf with his much younger girlfriend acting as a caddy, all the while chatting about exterminating the Communists -- it's like playing golf with a cheerful Heinrich Himmler. Later another killer, perhaps the same man, goes shopping in an up-scale mall with his wife and daugher. While ambling through the Indonesian equivalent of Neiman-Marcus, he reminisces about killing people by sticking wooden stakes up their rectums. The third factor is the most disorienting: Oppenheimer depicts a topsy-turvy world in which the bad guys have not only won but flourished. The editor of the island's principal newspaper recounts how he "beat Communists to pulp" in his offices and, then, tried to turn the battered victims over to the military --"they wouldn't take them," he says, "and so we just threw them in the river." Everyone appears to approve of the massacre of the Communists -- at least, we don't hear a single word in dissent from anyone in the entire movie. The thugs are surrounded by armies of middle-aged storm troopers in bizarre uniforms, orange and brown camouflage patterned fatigues, who roar approval every time any one mentions killing Communists. In this world, there have been no bad consequences suffered by any of the murderers and, indeed, they are prosperous and admired by all. On several occasions, the killers remark with mingled amusement and surprise that not even the victims of their murders, the children of the people that they tortured and killed dare to complain. In an earlier scene in the film, two of most prominent murderers recruit extras for a movie about this holocaust from a slum that is reputed to be filled with Communists. With absolute impunity, they bully and insult people and manhandle them into re-enacting their panic at the burning of their houses, and no one in the crowd protests -- in fact, many of children of the victims register a feeble sort of amusement at the childish brutality of these aging storm troopers. It's against this perverse context, however, that the truly weird and bizarre events documented by the film occur. While interviewing an elderly, rail-thin, and white-haired Anwar Congo, a man reputed to have personally killed a thousand people, Oppenheimer persuades the old man to re-enact for the camera his trademark method of murder -- it's particularly horrific and involves a wire hooked to a supporting column of a building with a two-by-four tied to its other end. Congo, who is graceful and charismatic (he's a little like an Indonesian Fred Astaire) demonstrates his dancing technique and, when he yanks on the garrot, one of his toadies kneeling on the floor with the wire aound his throat, you're afraid that he will become too enthusiastic and accidentally rip off the man's head. "We killed them...cheerfully," Congo says, doing a soft-shoe routine and, then, we see him with his cronies singing blue-grass and country-and-western songs. (His favorite films were Elvis Presley musicals.) Since Congo seems to show a certain zest in acting out his crimes for the camera, Oppenheimer begins to stage other atrocity scenes, each of them larger and more expensively mounted. Curiously, as the film progresses, Congo shows more interest in acting the part of his victims than in playing the role of torturer. The exact logistics involving the re-enacted atrocities is unclear -- it seems as if the major paramilitary organiztion is somehow involved and, ultimately, representatives of the Indonesian government appear on location to rally the troops and encourage them to greater blood-thirsty zeal in their staged massacres. (In one scene, a government minister encourages the paramilitary to violence and, then, when the sequence is shot becomes concerned that things are getting a little out-of-hand; the man's brow is furrowed and, speaking through a loudspeaker, he says that he doesn't want the world to get the impression that the paramilitaries are barbaric and so "sadistic as to drink the blood of the Communists". But, as he speaks, he becomes aroused again -- it's the power of the loudspeaker and the cameras filming him -- and he goes "off message" ending by exhorting his men again to "exterminate" the enemy.) Mr. Congo was a "movie theater gangster," apparently a street criminal earning his living by scalping tickets to American pictures, and he seems to have become embroiled in the anti-Communist cause when the Leftists proposed banning Hollywood movies. Accordingly, Mr. Congo invokes a repertoire of classic Hollywood films in the murder re-enactments that he stages -- many of the scenes have garish, bloody make-up and a distinct film noir appearance and he directs other sequences as western, and musical films. As the project advances, Congo and his friends become more and more ambitious -- they stage peculiar dance sequences, including an already famous scene involving four or five dancers in bright satin costumes who emerge from the mouth of a giant, ruinous structure shaped like a fish. The fish ruin overlooks a huge bay where a thunderstorm is sweeping across the grey-blue background. By this point, Congo has dyed his white-hair so as to better impersonate his younger self. By this point, the filmed sequences have strayed from simple re-staging of torture and killing to elaborate song and dance numbers concluding with scene in a which the murderers cavort in front of an enormous waterfall, Congo's side-kick incongruously wearing a strapless velvet evening gown, gesturing balletically to the tune of "Born Free" -- every thug, at one point or another, repeats an etymology asserting that the word "gangster" means "free men," always pronouncing that phrase in English. By this point, the film has blurred the boundaries between re-enactment and reality so extensively that we can't tell whether we're watching the characters acting a part or behaving as they do in real life. Indeed, the film makes the distinction between real life and filmed extravaganza meaningless. In the episode involving a restaging of a massacre in a village -- the scene shot in an eerie forest of truncated, mutilated trees -- we can't tell whether the footage shows us men acting the part of killers or real brutality. Certainly, the children press-ganged into the violent action don't know the difference -- they shriek and writhe in terror as if actually threatened and, when the cameras are withdrawn, remain panicked and tearful. A thug slouched in a hut brags about raping and torturing a fourteen year-old girl: "For me this will be paradise," he says he told the little girl, "for you hell on earth." There's no way to know whether the man is acting the part of a vicious and sadistic brute or simply reminiscing about the good old days completely unaware that his words are a horrific indictment. One sequence showing a television show with Mr. Congo gleefully recounting how he killed Communists to questions posed by a suitably cute and perky girl-interviewer, at first blush, seems to be documentary -- that is, in this film's terms, a representation of the real. But as the scene progesses with elaborate intercutting between studio technicians wondering whether Congo is afflicted by nightmares, we get the sense that this sequence is also staged, also a fiction, a "movie within the movie," an impression that is verified by a final enigmatic shot that shows a group of orange and brown khaki-clad paramilitary men sitting in a bright yellow jeep that, somehow, seems parked in a corner of the studio. Oppenheimer's film suggests that the violence and death afflicting Indonesia, the "act of killing" has induced a mass delirium, a febrile structure of increasing hallucinatory fantasies -- Kongo isn't crazy; rather, the whole nation seems to have gone mad. At the epi-center of the elaborate and kitschy fantasies of torture and assassination is a little concrete shack in the city, a place where people now sell cheap plastic bags, children's luggage wrapped in plastic sacks like small body-bags. This unassuming structure is where Congo tortured and killed his victims on the flat concrete roof of the house. This is the squalid reality behind the elaboate and operatic re-enactment fantasies. Congo has become increasingly obsessed with showing himself the victim of mutilation and torture and insists on watching these scenes on his TV with his grandchildren. Suddenly, he grasps that he has inflicted hideous suffering on other human beings -- something that he seems not to have understood until his sees an image of himself as a Communist being beaten with a board and slashed with a knife. Something snaps in him and he becomes terribly agitated. (But is he merely acting the part? Is he really remorseful or is he just acting remorseful?) He goes to the shop in the slums where he killed his victims and there the film ends in a sequencs described by Werner Herzog (he co-produced the film with Errol Morris) in these words: "There has never been anything like this scene in film history. This film will outlive me. If you think about this film fifty years from today, you will have never watched anything like this last scene in those fifty years either." And this seems to me be a fair characterization of the film's ending. This is one of those rare films that seems completely necessary.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Amish: Shunned

Halfway through the two-hour documentary, “Amish: Shunned,” my daughter asked me this question: “Why does anyone leave the Amish?” I responded: “The better question is this: Why does anyone stay?” “Amish: Shunned” is an attempt to exploit popular interest in the Amish spawned by reality shows about the cult. Produced for PBS, however, the documentary is the opposite of the trashy TV reality shows on this subject -- this documentary is so fair and balanced and decorous that it is almost lifeless. The film features four Amish people who have escaped from the rigid discipline and intolerant bigotry of their sect. One young man is almost illiterate (it is painful to hear him read from his mother’s letter imploring him to return to the cult). He’s dimwitted and seems surprised that he can earn a living in construction work in the “English world”. This boy has fallen into the clutches of a self-righteous former Amish man who lives in a grim-looking and wintry Mansfield, Ohio. This fellow, who left the Amish seven times before staying away for good, is a religious fanatic, a man who sees himself as a missionary to his benighted kinfolk -- he has an apartment in the cellar and runs a kind of underground railway station for refugees from the suffocating Amish world. He is clearly half-crazy himself and views the Amish as misguided -- they are, in his view, trapped in the old covenant of law and rule and sin, unable to grasp that faith in Jesus alone is all that is required for salvation. A nice-looking blonde girl comes from a liberal Amish family -- they let her fly to Florida to visit relatives living there (amazingly, there are Amish snow-birds). She ends up leaving the community and gets a college degree in nursing, but is able to maintain some ties with her family. Another young woman is pathetically ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. Homely and fat, the young woman is 23, apparently spurned by eligible Amish bachelors and regarded as an “old maid” in the community. The poor woman can barely speak in intelligible English; she has a peculiar, strangled German accent. An older woman who left the Amish community many years earlier tries to rehabilitate her. But this effort is unsuccessful and, not surprisingly, the film ends with the young woman donning her bulky, uncomfortable Amish clothes and returning to the hovel where she was raised with seven or ten or 14 siblings -- I don’t recall which. Before leaving the half-way house in the English world, she mourns the fact that she will no longer be able to listen to music or go to the movies or watch TV or wear light and comfortable modern clothing. (There is a baffling and bizarre fifth story explored by the documentary -- an account of some hippies who became Amish wannabes, raised their children in the church, and, then, when they departed for the outside world were shunned by their eldest son and his family, even though the man is not really even Amish. We see this idiot plowing with primitive horse and coulter, seemingly more Amish than his real Amish neighbors who seem to be quite comfortable with weed-whackers and roto-tillers and power washing machines as well as elaborate automated milking equipment. Sad-eyed, the man tells us he’s caught between two cultures, not really Amish and not English either. It’s a weird story and more, I think, about the damage that sixties hippies did to their hapless children than about the Amish and their culture.) The Amish side to this story is not fairly presented. This is an inequity, however, based upon their ridiculous, rigid, and completely inconsistent dogma -- they will not allow themselves to be filmed, didn’t cooperate with the documentary, and so appear only as silhouettes in covertly staged long-shots or as a voice-over proclaiming variations on the theme that their ignorance is truly invincible: the chief voice gloats that one Amish young man gave up on his college education (he was studying mechanical engineering) upon returning home for a holiday by the time he had reached the end of the family farm’s driveway. The making of the film is acknowledged as an integral aspect in the nurse’s rejection of her religion; she says that when the people in her family saw that she was being filmed for the documentary, they realized for the first time that she was not coming back to the fold. The film is fantastically beautiful in a cold, distanced, and incommunicative way. Since there is really little or nothing to film, the camera lingers on gorgeous rural landscapes, Amish farm workers backlit against green horizons and lowering skies. The interiors are shot in warm, honey-colored Vermeer light and there a many shots of doorways and corridors, empty frames such as those in Ozu’s films -- still-life photography of drowsing animals, pots of jam, kitchen tables, all of this made poetic by a plaintive violin, something like the ”Ashokan Farewell” in Ken Burns’ execrable films about the Civil War. The documentary’s austere and formal beauty doesn’t really tell us anything about the Amish -- old farmhouses and sleeping dogs and cats and horse-drawn buggies and plows are inherently photogenic. The Amish are a kind of American Taliban, less vicious, I suppose, than their Muslim relatives because they seem more ignorant and inflexible. They preserve their vicious culture, based on child-labor and the subjugation of women, by refusing to properly educate their children -- in this way, they resemble the Taliban thugs who throw acid in the faces of young girls who have the courage to attend school. There is nothing ennobling or honorable or praise-worthy in ignorance preserved by bullying tactics

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Macbeth (Verdi)

Verdi's fidelity to Shakespeare weakens the dramatic structure of his opera. Shakespeare wrote the "Scottish Play" to curry favor with James I, applying the brakes to his narrative's frenetic pace to present a pageant of Scottish kings, a dumb-show of royalty dramatizing the noble pedigree of the new monarch. This sycophantic masque could probably be eliminated from the play without damaging its impact on modern audiences. And, yet, Verdi inexplicably stages that bit of special pleading, an advertisement for Shakespeare's availability for royal patronage. Verdi follows Shakespeare closely throughout the production and this results in some minor defects in the last half-hour of the show. The climax of Shakespeare's Macbeth is a verbal aria, one of the most stunning in literature, Macbeth's soliloquy upon learning that his wife has died -- "a tale of sound and fury told by idiot and signifying nothing" as we all remember. This spectacular peroration provides the play's emotional high-point and, for English speakers, is an unforgettable bi of poetry that justifies the rather cursory, and lackluster, battle scene that follows. Verdi, of course, doesn't have the resources of Shakespeare's English at his command, although, of course, his musical genius, perhaps, rivals the Elizabethan's verbal proficiency. Verdi has Macbeth atonally roar out the most famous line of the great soliloquy just before some sword-play. In the production of Macbeth that I saw on Saturday, February 1, 2014 (Minnesota Opera Company), Macduff appears, flashes his sword, and Macbeth, in a rather unimaginative bit of stagecraft, simply turns tail and runs off stage. It's an underwhelming sort of climax, true to Shakespeare, I think, but unsatisfying in a production that is sung in Italian and, therefore, stripped of the Bard's language. (A similar problem exists with Lady Macbeth's mad scene -- she paces in circles carrying a candle while a couple of servants speculate as to what is wrong with her -- then, exeunt. We are not shown what happens to her -- again, an instance of rather slavish fidelity to Shakespeare but, perhaps, ill-advised in Grand Opera where the audience, pays (and, indeed, has paid rather well) to see the villains crucified on-stage. In general, however, the Minnesota Opera Company's version of the opera was well-staged and, even, had a few mild shocks. In the banquet scene, servants bring out food on covered trays, and sure enough Banquo's severed head, eerily pale, shows up on the table -- it's an interesting way to manage the apparition scene and quite effective. Verdi doesn't use three weird sisters but a whole chorus of them, odd pullulating creatures dressed in black and wearing masks over their noses to suggest the beaks of crows. The crow-witches were directed to use curious bird-like motions, bobbing their heads like ravens and hissing like snakes. In the opening scene, they form a black writhing mass over a heap of dead soldiers and, as they depart, they reanimate the corpses who spring to semi-life as staggering, stumbling zombies -- some of them wear gas masks, an incongruous effect, that I didn't particularly like. The battle scenes at the end of the play are staged in typical Guthrie theater slow-motion, the characters pretending to gouge and stab at one another as if in a Peckinpah blood-bath shot 72 frames per second, an approach to the carnage that is unexciting in the theater and ineffective as well. (Theater has the benefit of real presence; it seems pointless to me to stage violence committed in the theater in a way as to suggest that the audience is watching a rather bad Peckinpah film -- why not make the violence seem quick, real, unexpected, even, undramatic, capitalizing on the fact that this is all happening to real people in a real space not fractured by montage?) The battle scene was also marred by this production's emphasis on stiletto-like daggers. Just before the big attack on Macbeth's castle, Macduff's shock troops draw their weapons, waving a bunch of stubby-looking knives -- it looks like they are about to storm the walls armed with steak-knives -- and the effect is unwittingly comical. Verdi also interpolates a completely meaningless ballet in the last third of the opera -- something about spirits of the air reviving Macbeth who has implausibly fainted. The ballet music is gorgeous and it would be a great loss to cut this part of the score, but surely something better can be done with this scene than having a few jackdaw-witches squat over Macbeth's supine body. The sets were gratuitously ugly -- it seemed as if the action was being staged in a suburb of Sarajevo particularly afflicted with horrible-looking prestressed concrete walls, stairs, and terraces. (This kind of set is also a cliche -- half of the Minnesota Opera company productions feature a couple battered-looking walls of something approximating concrete, usually scuffed and scarred as if a firing squad had used the wall for its work, some crooked-looking steps to nowhere, and a few shadowy doorways crudely hacked in the alleged cement.) This Minnesota Opera Company production was noteworthy for the participation of the swashbuckling Greer Grimsley, fresh from performing Wotan with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Grimsley has an extraordinary baritone and is a world-class singer. He has the capability of singing his lines in a brusque, if eloquent, bark and, then, suddenly in the midst of a high, long note modulating in a sweet,yearning melancholy -- he used this effect a number of times, and, always to my delight and the delight of the rest of the audience. The opera is crammed with wonderful melodies, none of them exactly memorable, but all of them gorgeous and perfectly suited to the action and if the singing is your reason attending the show (which it should be) this Macbeth was wonderful.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Paris je T'aime

Here is the concept: 16 short films about Parisian neighborhoods, each by a different director. Each section in the anthology is five minutes long and set in a different arrondissement in the city. -- there are apparently 16 of them. The results are mixed: some of the films are embarrassingly bad, others perfunctory, and a couple very good. As a neighborhood by neighborhood survey of Paris, the film seems unsatisfactory -- at least to me, all of Paris looks pretty much the same: glamorous, charming, unified by vistas of the Eifel Tower; local distinctions that someone deemed important in designing this film -- a sort of Oulipo approach to cinema, it seems -- are blurry to this viewer in the American Midwest. Alexander Payne’s sketch of a female letter carrier from Denver doggedly touring Paris in her sweat suit and fanny-pouch is funny and sad and generous at the same time -- far and away the most memorable episode in this omnibus film. Payne’s heroine is played by the redoubtable Margot Martindale, the best thing in “August: Osage County” and the best thing in this movie as well. Martindale narrates her travelogue in stammered High School French that is, at once, earnest, courageous, and peculiarly melancholy. (She misreads Sartre’s grave and thinks that the Frenchman is buried with Simon Bolivar.) When she speaks French to the Parisians, they immediately and contemptuously answer her in English. She is lonely and a bit clueless and the experience of her lifetime turns out to be not as wonderful as she had hoped, and, yet, the City works its magic on her -- Payne has a light touch and he is never condescending and his little segment is a gem. The worst and most embarrassing (and morbidly unpleasant) episode involves Gena Rowland and Ben Gazzara meeting in a bistro managed by an unctuous Gerard Depardieu. Gazzara’s role is horribly misconceived -- he plays an aging Lothario, a character of the sort that Woody Allen used to impersonate before his dotage -- but the poor man seems to be half-dead from some kind of emaciating cancer. He can barely move his mouth and one has the terrible sense that his lower face is a prosthesis. Gena Rowland is florid and loud, but she can’t convincingly act in the company of the cadaver-like Gazzara and the episode is a calamitous failure. Tom Tykwer’s whirlwind account of a love-affair between a blind youth and a beautiful young actress is stylish and gripping; the director crams novelistic detail into his frenetic five minutes and his episode is moderately exciting. Two politically correct sequences, one about a Muslim girl and hooligan, the other about a Latin-American nanny, manage to be both annoying and dull -- they seem longer than their allotted five minutes. Wes Craven’s segment involving a couple quarreling at the lipstick-smeared grave of Oscar Wilde has some of the best dialogue in the film, but it turns out to be merely whimisical. The Coen brothers contribution, a film set in a subway station under the Tuileries, stars Steve Buscemi and is joky and flippant, but well-directed. Oliver Assayas offers an episode involving an American movie star, played by Maggie Gyllenhal, interacting with her drug-dealer -- it’s just okay. Alphonso Cuaron directs Nick Nolte in a single extended take, a long tracking shot that seems a precursor to the bravura tracking shots in “Children of Men” and “Gravity” -- technically accomplished, the episode is shallow, a one-trick pony. Gus Van Sant’s episode is a gay pick-up scene complicated by the fact that the target of the seduction, an American kid, doesn’t know French. (Marianne Faithful is briefly visible in the background.) A scary-looking Barbet Schroeder stars as a hair products salesman in an episode by Christopher Doyle that is stylish but really just a music video -- it’s set in Chinatown and involves lots of graceful and exotic-looking Oriental models. Willem Defoe and Juliette Binoche appear in a maudlin segment about a grieving mother. Equally sentimental is an episode about a woman dying of leukemia. Someone named Oliver Schmitz directs a segment involving an African immigrant who is bleeding to death after a street fight -- Schmitz has a real narrative flair and his episode is one of the best: the story is surprisingly complex and nuanced for five minutes and wonderfully designed. Elijah Wood bats his huge eyes at the camera in a ridiculously stylized vampire sequence full of lurid neon-red blood -- it’s pretty to look at but vacuous. Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardent play an old married couple trying to revive their passion by sex games in Place Pigalle, but there’s not much there. The opening sequence set in Montmartre is pretty but so slight that you can’t recall the episode at all by the end of the film. Five minutes is a bad length for a short film -- ”Lumiere and Company”, another portmanteau film, required that the directors compress their contributions into a single ninety second take (they were shooting with Lumieres original camera); this task was so daunting that the film makers had to be both innovative and adventurous at the same time. By contrast, five minutes is an intermediate length -- in these films, it always seems either too short or too long and, with the exception of Payne, Tykwer, and Schmitz’ episodes, the rest of the films either drag or feel too short for their subject matter.