Tuesday, July 31, 2012

If 2001 were being marketed today . . .

A friend just sent me the following pastiche of 2001:A Space Odyssey, re-cut as if it were being marketed as a summer blockbuster.  In its bone-dumb acceleration into a meaningless welter of thrills and scares, this "wild ride"of a trailer seemed to wittily reflect my comments on Prometheus, while offering a kind of testament to a style of contemplative speculative cinema that is now a thing of the past.  Enjoy.  And mourn!


Prometheus bored

Michael Fassbender plays at omnipotence in Prometheus.

You know, I keep going to the cinema, and it keeps reminding me of why I go to the theatre instead.  My latest foray to the multiplex was to take in Prometheus, Ridley Scott's pre-boot (re-quel?) of the venerable Alien franchise, the SF dread-fest he kick-started with such nightmarish inspiration way back in 1979.  I was a fan of both Alien and James Cameron's sequel (and I even have a soft spot for much of  David Fincher's Alien-Cubed), so I was hoping after the series' recent failures (and devolution into the Abbot-and-Costello-like Alien Meets Predator series), Scott could muster the mojo to actually resurrect Alien one more time.

But alas, no.  Indeed, Prometheus plays like a walking tour of Scott's weaknesses as a director, as well as the things one should never do if one is trying to conjure feelings of genuine awe or terror in SF.

The first of these cardinal rules, btw, is: never fully explain yourself; always leave something mysterious.  And yet the second, superficially-contradictory law is: you must clearly ask the big questions nonetheless - only never discuss them as if you were sitting around your favorite bong back at the frat house.  Note that the most resonantly mysterious SF movie ever made, 2001, has almost no dialogue, and explains almost nothing about itself.  And yet people are still debating it fifty years later.  (Shakespeare knew the same trick, btw; he deliberately deletes from the soliloquies of his tragic heroes the answers to the questions we're dying to ask them.)

Alien was no 2001, of course (much less Shakespeare); the only thing on its one-track mind was an eek!-fest (in fact its initial pitch was simply "Jaws in space").  But the banal material was transformed by H.R. Giger's design for the alien itself, coupled with Scott's creeping, dream-like direction.  Giger's creature seemed like a multi-foliate metaphor for the sexual scourge we all subconsciously dreaded was percolating beneath the frolics of the 70's (and which would in fact erupt from the gay population only two years after the film's debut).  Of course in purely visual terms, the film's "xenomorph" was a critter unlike any seen in any movie before; it was conjured with utterly convincing biomorphic panache, and hence exuded intense sexual subtexts.  Indeed, at maturity its gigantic head resembled nothing less than a huge phallus dentatus - a dick with teeth that opened to reveal a second dick with teeth, which penetrated its victims with a ferocious punch.  Scott and Giger even deleted the eyes from their design to re-inforce the sexual nausea the creature induced, and then coated it with K-Y jelly, just in case anybody missed their metaphor.  (And they famously stripped Sigourney Weaver down to a thong for her final encounter with its toothy tumescence.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Don Pasquale truly sings at Boston Midsummer Opera

Leslie Ann Bradley and Ricardo Lugo make beautiful music in Don Pasquale.
Okay, the short review of Boston Midsummer Opera's Don Pasquale is: go.

And you have to go soon, as tomorrow is the last performance.

But why should you go? (The question any review must answer.)

In two words, the voices.

Actually, three more words: and the conducting.

Yes, in purely musical terms, this take on Donizetti's late-career commedia romp is almost always enchanting. Ricardo Lugo brings a warmly resonant bass to the lead, Donizetti's version of the elderly "Pantalone" who is determined to keep his nephew from marrying, but of course is duped into blessing the nuptials himself.

And he's flanked by local star David Kravitz - the praises of whose baritone I must sing whenever he sings - and Canadian newcomer Leslie Ann Bradley, whose soprano perhaps didn't have the nimble bloom I yearn for in bel canto,  but whose upper registers are utterly clean and secure, with their own pure glow.  Filling out the cast was young tenor Alex Richardson, who certainly showed promise but who tended to thin out at his high end.

The news was just as good - perhaps even better - down in the pit: BMO artistic director Susan Davenny Wyner conducted with sensitive brio throughout.   She was working with a reduced string section (perhaps due to the limits of the Tsai Performance Center?), but drew wonderful detail and color from her cellist and winds, and always kept the ensemble lively and on point.  It would be very nice to hear more from Ms. Wyner during the regular concert season - perhaps at the helm of some other local group (hint, hint)?

The production did have its dramatic (and comedic) shortcomings, however.  The aging Donizetti clearly intended to marble his commedia dell'arte antics with a genuine sympathy for their prime target - but here we seemed to get all the sympathy for Pantalone, but comparatively little of the baggy-pants fun at his expense.   Director Austin Pendleton did deliver the big moments, but he was rarely inventive elsewhere - Lugo, Bradley, and (of course) Kravitz clearly all had comic chops to burn, but little chance to shine in this strangely chaste rendering.  Indeed, this version's most powerful and distinctive moment came with the humiliating slap from his "bride" that Don Pasquale eventually endures - I wouldn't have wanted to lose the depth of that climax, but it would have been even more striking if it had drawn us up short from more sparkling action.  The production had other quirks - the set was stylish, but oddly austere, and the costumes ranged pointlessly from the Victorian to the modern and back.  Still, if you closed your eyes, all was well, and for many opera lovers that's enough.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Young Person's Guide to Wes Anderson, Part 2

Suzy (Kara Hayward) on the lookout in Moonrise Kingdom.

Some artists have to stumble on their great subjects; but Wes Anderson (as I discussed in the first part of this critical diptych) always seemed to have at least a rough idea of his ideal canvas - or rather his  two ideal canvases. He has always been drawn both to the miniature, and the rambling fable - an odd combination, frankly, and one that has usually led to ungainly movies.

But in Moonrise Kingdom, I'd argue Anderson has balanced these two impulses at last, and found the perfect scale - and frame - in which to work his magic.  I think Moonrise will quickly be seen as a landmark in his oeuvre; but whether it will actually open up new horizons for this rather self-satisfied filmmaker - well, I'm less sure of that.

But first, why Moonrise marks an artistic apogee for him; it has to do with his love of the miniature, and his constant flirtations with faux-naïf artifice.  Anderson likes to remind us that we are always watching a movie in his movies, and what's more, that its sensibility is limited - the way a prep schooler's evocation of life would be.  He does this, I think, to remind us that beneath the faux-naïf is a real naïf; he himself lacks the experience or wisdom to draw human beings as they actually are.

Such stances, however, lead to trouble when they seed their own twee self-satisfaction - when a movie self-consciously avoids truths that the audience itself is mature enough to guess. Thus the edge of smugness that presses against the surface of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; we have a pretty good idea what's wrong with the people in these movies, even if a twelve-year-old wouldn't - and we have a pretty good idea that Wes Anderson has a pretty good idea, too.

But the pen-pal protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, Sam and Suzy, are only twelve or thirteen themselves, and so the film's innocence feels real, and its central idyll - when they escape to an enchanted isle to conjure what they imagine is romance - casts a spell over the whole picture.  Their evocations of adulthood can only go as far as Anderson's own; suddenly, in this miniature landscape, everything they do resonates with everything their director wants to do, too.

Sam and Suzy play at romantic sophistication in Moonrise Kingdom.

They're too young for actual sex, of course (indeed, when they cuddle poor Sam warns Suzy he has been known to wet the bed).  But they have their ideas of what love should be like; Sam (Jared Gilman), in his Davy Crockett hat and corn-cob pipe, sees himself as the pioneer type; meanwhile Suzy (Kara Hayward) styles herself a knowing, wounded sphinx.  Thus she introduces Sam to the mournfully whispered Gallic pop of Françoise Hardy, and they spend their afternoons dancing with hilarious beatnik solemnity (above) to her favorite 45's (on a record player with seemingly endless battery power).  That is when they aren't gazing into each other's eyes with pen-pal ardor, or Sam isn't piercing Suzy's ears with fish-hooks (yow!).  They're not aware of their own blankness, of course - nor of the fact that they're probably mis-matched.  The brief congruence of their very different, but self-aware, sensibilities is enough.

There's another level of resonance to this encounter, of course - it occurs in '65 or so, après le déluge, before the pop innocence of the 60's toppled into the druggy squalor of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. Thus the world around Sam and Suzy is still very much ordered in the manner of the 50's (and even the 40's), and quite sure of its own benevolence, and of course it comes looking for them.  Sam has escaped from Camp Ivanhoe, a "khaki scout" enclave (yet another variant on Anderson's prep schools) run by another perplexed innocent - in shorts, no less - Edward Norton, who spends his days diligently optimizing everything, even the flush of the camp latrines (until he encounters our own Marianna Bassham, who has a charming repeat cameo in the movie).

And again as usual in Anderson, the innocence of this virtual boarding-school is balanced by the darker world of the damaged people who send their kids there: Suzy's parents, for instance (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) are two lawyers so romantically alienated they call each other "Counselor" in bed - and the movie hints that Suzy's rebellious melancholy has been sparked by her knowledge that McDormand has taken up with the local policeman, Captain Sparks (Bruce Willis).

Here lies the rambling side of Anderson's fable, often rendered with an awkward mobile camera - but still tinged with storybook magic (and accompanied, with perhaps a nudge from the director, by Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"). For dysfunctional as these folks may be, they hang onto their flawed humanity - unlike the super-competent child welfare authority (Tilda Swinton) who is outraged by error of any kind, swoops in to take charge of Sam (who is, as fairy tales demand, an orphan).  With her pale beak and predatory eyes, Ms. Swinton is quite a frightening administrative matriarch, and apparently shorn of all empathy (she's actually named "Social Services," and speaks calmly of "shock treatments - if necessary!"). Obviously, she's Anderson's version of that other fairy tale perennial - the evil stepmother.

Lost and found - Edward Norton and his scouts get a glimpse of romance.

Fear not, Sam is saved from her clutches (although he winds up getting shock therapy from a lightning-strike), and he eventually finds his natural home at the quirky hearth of Captain Sparks, an obvious father-in-waiting.  Indeed, as sometimes happens in Anderson's fairy tales, local society is set to rights at the end of Moonrise Kingdom - but only after a literal déluge, a flood also accompanied on the soundtrack by Benjamin Britten (whose charming Noye's Fludde is heard throughout  the movie - particularly its choruses for children, appropriately enough).

To be honest, it seems to me that Anderson loses control of his film a bit toward the finish - there are almost too many chases, and witty as they may be, the film begins to feel cluttered and rushed.  But it really doesn't matter, because by then the movie has a quality which is rare in millennial film: resonance.  This used to be one of the hallmarks of great dramatic or cinematic art - and yet resonance is all but extinct today (so I'm not actually sure whether what we're getting out of the millennials is really art at all, or something else).

Part of the reason for this collapse lies in the millennial love of genre - which can seem resonant at its birth, but which by definition is quickly defined and broken down into constituent parts.  But resonance depends on submerged connections and symbology - as soon as its connections become explicit, they're no longer resonant.  And perhaps it depends on something else, too - the materials of actual life.  Wes Anderson is a highly self-conscious filmmaker - and yet his work is generally sourced in his own experience, which perforce, like any life, has its own mystery.  Indeed, as a child Anderson performed in a production of Noye's Fludde, and of course all his films are littered with the touchstones of his actual adolescence.  He has been working and re-working this material for years - and sometimes, as in Moonrise Kingdom, when his children's theatre comes into alignment with actual children's theatre, something magical happens.  But this is what makes me think of Moonrise as more of a culmination than a new beginning.  Its pitch is sometimes perfect, but its tune is quite familiar.  To reach this kind of peak again, Anderson may have to mine his life for something new - maybe even something that happened after prep school.

Children's theatre within children's theatre - the cast of Noye's Fludde in Moonrise Kingdom.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

High-flying Birdie

The famous "Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie.
This is just a quick post-mortem on Reagle Music Theatre's Bye Bye Birdie, which closed last weekend.  It was an enjoyable version of this sturdy perennial, even if in the end this production proved rather a strange bird.  The show was packed with talent, which kept the whole thing rolling along - but bizarrely, almost the entire cast was mis-cast, which meant the performers were often spinning their wheels, and it took the show almost its entire first act to get airborne.

It's tempting to blame director Larry Sousa for this - but perhaps he was simply playing the casting hand he was dealt. After all, everyone could do everything they were required to do - just their presences and attitudes were slightly wrong.  Ryan Overberg, for instance (who last rolled through town in SpeakEasy's Xanadu) was just as confidently appealing and eager-to-please here as he was there, but as the eponymous Conrad Birdie is supposed to evince the dark, bad-boy "sincerity" that has thrilled the female teen-aged heart since Elvis, he mostly flailed dramatically.  Indeed, as the all-American girl he was supposed to be seducing, newcomer Gillian Gordon projected such smart self-awareness that she unconsciously undermined the rest of what was left of the pretext of the show.

And then there was the talented Carman Napier, who was playing the Latina firecracker Rosie Alvarez, but who seemed about as Latina as Abie's Irish Rose.  But this mattered less than you'd imagine, as she was playing against young Jacob Sherburne, who was supposed to be channeling an aging mama's-boy, but who seemed much more like a friendly jock who had just wandered in from Boston College - which, I read in the program, was exactly where he had just wandered in from.  Don't get me wrong - I liked all these performers, and they all had talent to burn; but their ensemble was simply too weird for words; no one was relating, and the basic conflicts of the show had gone missing - we were just taking the whole thing on faith.  Director Sousa only really nailed a single lead - TV star Anita Gillette knew just what to do, and how to do it, as that mama's boy's overbearing, prejudiced mama.  But you can't hang a whole musical on what's basically its biggest cameo.

So what do you get with a cast of talented but miscast actors?  Well, for most of Birdie, we got a high-energy (and over-loud) mess; scene after scene slightly misfired, and director Sousa seemed unable to control or shape the dramatic build of the script.  But oddly, things came together in the show's latter half - where as narrative it all but collapses into a series of dance numbers; but as Sousa was originally a choreographer (and apparently a clever, talented one), the weakness of  Birdie's second act actually played to his strengths, as it were, and the show finally took off.  Numbers like "A Lot of Livin' to Do" (below) and "The Shriner's Ballet" proved cleverly conceived, and had a high-spirited kick  (like the clever staging of "The Telephone Hour," above) thanks to Reagle's energetic dancers (and some punchy playing from the orchestra).  I left this Birdie eager to see all these folks take flight again - only in roles, and a show, that better matched their talents.

Gillian Gordon, Ryan Overberg, and dancers in "a Lot of Livin' to Do"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Carnival of lost souls

As the trusting Lili, Victoria Thornsbury only finds love at one remove.
I'm torn over Gloucester Stage's current production of Carnival (which closes this weekend).  On the one hand, this intriguing but problematic musical is rarely done, despite its ravishing score - so simply seeing it in any form is to be reminded of how sophisticated and beautiful pop culture was once allowed to be.  And this production is certainly powerfully sung - indeed, some of the vocal performances here border on the terrific.

So I'm glad I saw the Gloucester version, even though it stumbles repeatedly over this show's tricky mood and the harshness of its action.  Carnival , which follows the misadventures of a waif named Lili who has basically run away to the circus, aims to simultaneously conjure the magic of the big top and side show while simultaneously revealing the cruelty lurking behind their gaudy spell.  At a deeper level, of course, it's actually about the deceitful magic of romance itself - as you might guess from its signature hit, "Love Makes the World Go Round" - or even, perhaps, about the seductive dishonesty of men (or rather Men with a capital M).

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Young Person's Guide to Wes Anderson, Part 1

Let's take a good look at Wes Anderson, shall we?  (A scene from Moonrise Kingdom.)

Wes Anderson went to prep school in my hometown, Houston, and sometimes it seems that, at least in artistic terms, he never left.

Indeed, Anderson all but admitted as much in Rushmore, his breakout film - which was partly shot at St. John's, the River Oaks prep school he attended, and which climaxed with "Heaven and Hell," (below) a stage production by Anderson's avatar in the film, "Max Fischer" (played by Jason Schwartzman).

In "Heaven and Hell," this budding director attempted to conjure the Vietnam War on the stage of a high school auditorium, with Anderson positing actual flamethrowers erupting amid papier-mâché palms as young Max mashed up Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Stone (Platoon) along with all the other pop sources familiar to a smart prep schooler utterly innocent of anything like actual battle.

The sequence was highly amusing, but what was truly striking about it was how clearly "Heaven and Hell" operated the way Psycho did for Hitchcock, or 81/2 did for Fellini - it was an act of self-criticism more trenchant than anything yet written about its creator.  Indeed, everything about Anderson's later oeuvre was apparent in Max's production in embryo: the sweet, if arch, artificiality, the adolescent masculine bravado, the nutty conflation of classroom references ("Semper fi, buddy.""Yeah, sic gloria transit."), the "diversified" white-upper-class milieu - all of it marinated in an obnoxiously privileged political cluelessness, and all of it watched by a dysfunctional cadre of wealthy, sympathetic adults.

But what's particularly striking about "Heaven and Hell" is that Anderson posted it not as a talisman of hard-earned self-knowledge, but rather as a kind of manifesto. This is what I loved to do when I was 17, he essentially declared at the climax of Rushmore, and this is what I'm going to keep on doing, only on a larger and larger scale.

And so he has - even with budgets in the millions, his movies cling tenaciously to the stagey artifice of "Heaven and Hell."  Luckily for Anderson, his brand of sweet, immature self-consciousness touched a deep chord in the millennial audience.  The self-aware distance, the cultural well deeper than any contact with actual life, the ability to construct a private simulacrum of reality - these would prove perhaps the keystones of millennial experience, and Anderson only rarely strayed from them; even as he has edged toward middle age, he has remained a determined faux-naïf.

Indeed, again and again - in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and especially Fantastic Mr. Fox - Anderson has returned to more or less the same formula, conjuring yet another variation on the boarding school, with unhappy, inscrutable grown-ups and their damaged children wandering through an idealistic (sometimes even paradisal) environment that is beset by an absurd - but pervasive - militarism.  The main characters - i.e., the kids - have yet to begin to deal with, or even process, their own flawed natures; and their parents, though accurately, even acidly, rendered, are likewise internally blank, and accepted without judgment.  Indeed, if anything, they're pitied by the young, who are still pure of heart (and whose innocence often serves as balm to the adults' broken souls).  And thus the battle that would normally ensue between adolescents and parents in most similar scenarios can never actually get off the ground in Anderson, because the combatants have been separated into different, uncomprehending camps, and actual emotional intimacy (even with one's self) is all but impossible.  The kids can't quite penetrate their parents, as they're hidden behind a benignly regimented screen; and while bad things sometimes happen to Anderson's young heroes, they are generally spared the pain of authentic self-discovery, as the director is always careful to hold his young charges back from the shadows in their own souls.

Fantastic Mr. Fox - for once, the dollhouse was populated by actual dolls.
These precepts, rigid as they may be, have reliably yielded quirky comedies of manners in which everyone seems to be dreaming with their eyes open - hence the familiar surrealism of Andersen's imagery, in which settings float between the real and the fake (like the jungles of "Heaven and Hell," they're imaginary gardens with real flamethrowers in them), and where the cinematography swings between the self-consciously symmetric (above) and the self-consciously skewed.  Some critics have begun to bristle at Anderson's prep school puppet shows, it's true - but I'm increasingly struck by a deep cultural problem that his work quietly, but persistently, states, which might be summed up as - "If my audience is in a state of permanently arrested development, shouldn't my movies be, too?"

In other words, are Anderson's twee dollhouse dramas actually the genuine article, given who's watching?  Are they the best this generation can do?  Or to ponder these questions even more deeply - is the culture in which we live now operating as a kind of giant, virtual boarding school?  Have we been separated from our own upbringings (in our dual-career households), and doomed to basically play with ourselves rootlessly, growing ever older while never quite attaining adulthood?

This is a very weird and troubling question, frankly, and one that I think will always cling to Anderson's work - but as it is a question for his audience as much as this artist, I doubt it will ever be articulated by the mainstream critics.  And at any rate, under some circumstances the troubling dimensions of Anderson's art can all but be elided.  Fantastic Mr. Fox was one such instance, because its dollhouse universe was peopled by actual dolls (above).  And now we have the charming Moonrise Kingdom, which may be the most delicately rendered (and highly detailed) of all Anderson's works.  Poised somewhere between The Catcher in the Rye and The Little Prince, it casts a bemusing and lingering spell - I don't think it's too much to call it truly haunting; like Mr. Fox, it could well prove a minor classic.

But we'll ponder its virtues (and occasional flaws) more fully in the second half of this critique.  To be continued.

Friday, July 13, 2012

And now, what Ian Thal calls a crude piece of anti-Semitic agitprop

This time seemed like a good one to revisit Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which I first posted at its premiere, but which Ian Thal has recently called "crude anti-Semitic agitprop" which "invokes the blood libel" (in various articles on other sites and in our ongoing debate a few posts down).

Given that passions run high around these issues, I thought readers of the Hub Review should be able to judge the text for themselves.  I'm a fan of Churchill - and even a fan of this play (that's why I posted it), even though, needless to say, I am far from anti-Semitic (in fact I adore Jewish culture).

I wouldn't rate it among Churchill's very best, it's true - it was clearly written in haste and passion - but it has an urgency, obviously, that some of her more polished works lack.  And it not only posits a stern critique of Israeli policy - implying that consciousness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has begun to infect Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians - but also convincingly evokes a a panoply of Jewish voices in conflict.  In fact rather obviously the play makes no monolithic anti-Jewish statement, but instead develops from a rush of panicked instructions to an argument between Jewish factions as to what the legacy of their shared experience is going to be; is it going to be about love, or is it going to be about fear?  The script also taps into Churchill's deep belief that culture and humanism are linked to the feminine rather than the masculine; the seven Jewish children seem to all be girls, and the text refers most warmly to female ancestors - while we feel angry, masculine voices are generally raised in an atmosphere of ironic critique.  All this, I think, makes the script valuable - however discomfiting its portrait of some intolerant Israeli voices may be - which is why I hope someday Boston sees it staged.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The fringe transformed

Kiki Samko, Michael Caminiti, Michael Underhill, Luke Murtha and Elizabeth Battey in Polaroid Stories.

Sorry for much of the radio silence of late - and my sincere thanks to the six hundred dedicated souls who have been checking the blog faithfully, every day, despite my absence. I appreciate your loyalty, and will be blogging more regularly!

First up is a remarkable production of Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories, which plays through this weekend at the BCA Black Box.  It's a joint production of three fringe mainstays - Happy Medium Theatre, Boston Actors Theater, and Heart & Dagger - though it feels largely like a Heart and Dagger show, frankly, probably because it has been directed by HD's artistic core, Joey Pelletier and Elise Weiner Wulff, and also because its dark mix of sex, drugs and glamour/squalor has long been the signature of H&D.  As I'm a friendly acquaintance of Joey Pelletier's, I've seen quite a few H&D shows, and I'd say that Polaroid Stories may prove a watershed for them - it's certainly the first time their vision has cohered in so strong and subtle a way.

Part of this success is attributable to the script, which is both more polished and more accessible than some recent Heart & Dagger fare; Iizuka is particularly successful at conjuring in her dialogue the cadences of life on the street, where all her young characters live, almost love, and sometimes die (she drew on interviews with Minneapolis runaways for inspiration).  The playwright's big conceptual gambit, however - she attempts to limn these broken lives through the lens of Ovid's Metamorphoses - slowly proves less convincing, even if at first it seems intriguing and apt; after all, Ovid's odes to change and transformation definitely have their parallels in the rootless environment of the street, where nothing is permanent or dependable.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It's countdown time over at the Theater Mirror

Boston's theatrical blogosphere is about to witness a landmark of sorts.  Larry Stark's Theater Mirror, which I believe was the first website devoted to local theatre in Boston (its earliest reviews date from 1995), is set to welcome its millionth visitor within the next day or two (the ticker passed the 999,000 mark earlier today).  It's a wonderful milestone for the site, and of course a great tribute to Larry's own indomitability and perseverance.  So congratulations are in order to Mr. Stark - and you should be sure to check out the Theater Mirror - who knows, your visit might be the one that nudges the ticker over the big number!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just btw . . . my comment on Ian's article

I did post a comment on Ian Thal's Clyde Fitch article some time ago - I believe last Friday. It doesn't seem to have worked it way through "moderation" yet, which has me a little worried; I hope Clyde Fitch hasn't morphed into a thought-control site like Parabasis.

 So just in case the comment never appears over there, here's the text:

Ian, I realize you and I will never see eye-to-eye on Israel; I don’t see concerted political pressure on the West Bank settlements, or on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in general, as inherently anti-Semitic, and I think at bottom you do. Perhaps if I was Jewish I would agree with you – and I admit of course that actual anti-Semites can, and do, operate under the cover of legitimate protest of Israeli policy. So the situation is very fraught and complex, and almost every action in this arena casts a complicated moral shadow. 

Still, I think your piece would be stronger if you could consider, or even mention, at least two points that come to mind in regards to this whole imbroglio. The first is that (legitimate) political pressure like this is often brought to bear more on democracies than autocracies (which tend to shrug off charges in the court of public opinion). Thus Israel may be being targeted not (or not only) because of an anti-Semitic agenda, but also because to its great credit, the country has a civil discourse in which protest can have an impact. 

The second point goes right to the heart of the “nexus of art and politics” that the new Clyde Fitch Report targets – and that is the deep political irony of a Jewish state staging one of the reifying documents of Jewish oppression at a political moment in which it itself is accused of oppressing a minority (well, actually a majority) of the residents under its control. In short, has The Merchant of Venice now been effectively converted by Habima into a new validation of oppression, this time by the Jews themselves? I find it troubling that you would elide this issue – particularly given your obvious hostility to Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” which makes a similarly ironic point, i.e. that consciousness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in turn serves as unspoken justification for the oppression of the Palestinians. 

I don’t think a technical discussion of this or that territory, or this or that application of the Oslo Accords, can really answer this question. But I’d like to hear you give it a shot. 

Thanks, Tom

[Update - And whaddya know, the comment just appeared on the Clyde Fitch Report!  They've got more cojones than Isaac Butler after all!]

Is The Merchant of Venice now a tool of the Israel lobby?

Shylock prepares to take his pound of flesh in Habima's Merchant of Venice.
That's the intriguing question that Boston's own Ian Thal raises (I think unconsciously) in a post on the new Clyde Fitch Report, in which he details the recent protests in London over a production of The Merchant of Venice (in Hebrew) by Habima, Israel's national theatre, at the ongoing "Globe to Globe Festival." (From the photo above, btw, the production looks to have been a bravely complex and gripping affair, with a shockingly dark view of Shylock.)

Various British theatrical eminences (including Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson) signed letters deploring Habima's appearances at the festival, and due to threats and fears of violence, high security was required at the performances - but protest still found its way into the theatre, as Ian details:

Though the most vocal protestors were kept out, Habima’s performances were repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israeli activists, who were photographed waving Palestinian flags, and unfurling banners with anti-Israeli slogans, only to be escorted out by security. Reports describe a group standing silently with their mouths covered by either tape or adhesive bandages apparently in protest of the “censorship” of the more disruptive activists. Several sources [reported] that during the trial scene in Act IV, a protester shouted “hath not a Palestinian eyes?”echoing signs seen outside the theatre as well as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the original text (Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech is from Act III, Scene 3.)

Now Ian - a reader and frequent commenter on the Hub Review - is, I think you could say, a staunch supporter of Israel.  My own view of Israel is more complicated only in regards to its treatment of the Palestinians - many of whom, I know, are bent on Israel's destruction, but whose rights to a viable state are nonetheless not so easily ignored.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

I went to see Channing Tatum's butt, but I also got this lousy movie

From the opening scene of Magic Mike.  I think I just saved you $10.

I haven't been to a movie in a queen's age, but this weekend I had a free evening, so I thought - why not?  I've been meaning to catch Moonrise Kingdom, which people have told me is charming, and which includes a turn by our very own Marianna Bassham. Or so I've heard - I haven't seen it yet; for the partner unit hadn't heard of Moonrise, but had definitely heard of Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's ode to Channing Tatum's short-lived career as a Florida stripper.  So off we went - with seemingly three or four hundred giggly young women, traveling in packs - to take in what turned out to be a kind of "moonrise kingdom" in its own way.

For Soderbergh blithely cuts to the chase - or rather its target - in his very first scene (above), which reveals - in a tone of deadpan appreciation - precisely what his star, and his movie, are selling. Not that I'm complaining. Indeed, as this is one of those areas in which I can truly claim to be a connoisseur, I am duty bound to report that Mr. Tatum's derrière is among the best of its kind to ever grace the silver screen. I won't bore you (as Charles Isherwood might) with the full plethora of responses it inspired in my critical faculties - I think it's enough to say that by turns, its performance is insouciant, commanding, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and yet somehow haunting - along with a whole lot more good stuff.

Mostly, though, Channing's cheeks are just hot. And he knows it. He also knows that his moves are likewise sizzling - indeed, Magic Mike only comes together during its strip-club sojourns. Don't worry, in the end, as it were, these all prove chaste - Chippendales-style strippers never go "the full Monty;" the ladies in the crowd can have their beefcake, but they can't eat it, too (although reportedly at some European clubs, this line is being crossed with regularity). Still, when Mr. Tatum thrashes his way across, and against, the floor - or spins through the air like a phallic power drill - Magic Mike suddenly throbs with orgasmic abandon. This guy is all but a one-man sexual band.  No wonder he wanted every lady in America - along with every gay man - to see him strut his stuff.

Beyond this, however, there's little magic, I'm afraid, to Mike. Indeed there isn't much else, period; the movie is built around one facet of human anatomy in a way we haven't seen since the glory days of Raquel Welch and Jane Russell (at left, in The Outlaw, cantilevered in the bra Howard Hughes himself engineered for her). In fact without its precisely-placed phases of the moon, Magic Mike would fall apart completely; there's nothing holding it together but thongs. And even I grew slightly tired of the way Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin used Mr. Tatum's assets - oh, hell, his ass - to paste together an incompetent retread of just about every lost-innocence potboiler ever made.

Did I say "screenplay"? Sorry, I meant "round of flash cards." There is a plot to Magic Mike, but it is communicated - if that's the word - so ineptly that it's almost distracting from the flesh on display. Tatum's "Mike" plays mentor to a rookie dancer (literally "the Kid," Alex Pettyfer) who spirals down the drain of drug addiction even as Mike struggles to get his personal act - as opposed to his Act - together.  I know, who would have guessed?? All I can say is, it's a good thing the story is so familiar, because the mumbled repartee somehow never gets around to explicating key plot points, even if it's often wittily knowing - as is Soderbergh's direction and camerawork (which coats the Tampa landscape in a glow that's like a sweet, sunny syrup).

So everyone knows precisely what they're doing - they're just too cool to do much. For the record, Mr. Tatum comes off as a friendly, good-natured exhibitionist - which is precisely what you want in a stripper - although it's hard not to notice that he is a far more talented dancer than actor. Still, Tatum has begun to master the technique male stars like Brad Pitt long ago perfected, in which the core of a performance becomes the actor's witty escape from his own lack of range; so I certainly wouldn't bet against his rising star. The other actors are all quite likable in their low-key way (and they're certainly hot, even the amusingly dissolute Matthew McConaughey, who at 42 still has buns that deserve, and get, their own bow). Only the presence of Mr. Soderbergh - or rather the waste of his talent on this project - began to grate on my nerves.  He doesn't seem to realize that his flip, shot-with-one-hand-tied-behind-his-back technique is basically predicated on a string of micro-shocks, which perforce require some sort of viable content as a launch pad. Without an unspoken, earnest, slow-witted core to fuel the flight of his blithe contempt, Soderbergh's style quickly goes flaccid. Which is why in the end Magic Mike is only worth a rental - and even then only if the fast-forward button on your remote is in working order.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sure, Twitter sparked the Arab Spring, but can it bring free speech to the Theatre Communications Group?

Blogger and frequent Hub Review commenter Ian Thal has an amusing series of posts on his battle to be heard - despite his status as a volunteer - at the national Theatre Communications Group conference held in Boston recently.  Seems TCG - which I've long considered a little creepy - was hoping to keep a lid on the opinions of those members of the 99% who were volunteering at the conference, even while giving them ample lip service at the sessions.  Be sure to RTWT (there are two posts).  And stay tuned for the impending name change of TCG to TMG (Theatre Miscommunications Group)!