Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Receptionist, Reconsidered

An early draft of my review of Trinity Rep's The Receptionist began conditionally--you may or may not like the show, I thought, depending on what you think theater is best at, or good for--but a friend of mine discouraged me from equivocating. "You didn't like it," she said. "Don't try to be nice." She was right that a reviewer shouldn't try to be nice, but I was wrong, I believe, to retreat from this position, as feeble and impractical as it may seem. I didn't like the show because it was not exciting to watch; it didn't use dramatic form or language to advance a perspective, a concern. But I have thought about it nearly constantly since last week, and if you think that theater--or any art--works better as nourishment than emetic, then it may be that this thinking, that goes on for days after a show, justifies it.

Also, what I wrote? It was wrong. Kind of.

Adam Bock was not suggesting that theater contorts language and theatrical language obscures real problems, but that people who fail to think theatrically--who do not converse in textured, supple language with themselves--
will also fail to make moral decisions. The rigorous consideration that is a part of serious theater, that is, the tortured inquiry of the monologue, is also a part of being a moral human. The one character in Bock's play who is given a monologue, Mr. Raymond, is also the closest to distinguishing between the simulacrum and the real--this monologue, which I thought that the play undermined, is actually its own scene and honored by preeminence. Unlike any other character in the show, Mr. Raymond can communicate with himself; he demonstrates what Hannah Arendt called "a root-striking process of thinking." Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil," itself rendered a limp, if not evil, banality by time and overuse, has already been invoked by critics to describe, and inadvertently simplify, The Receptionist's theme; but none has talked about her notion of solitude, thinking, and speaking: To be with myself and to judge by myself is articulated and actualized in the processes of thought, and every thought process is an activity in which I speak to myself about whatever happens to concern me. Thinking is the conversation between the talker and the talked-to; thinking is a monologue. This thinking, which is, after all, only speaking, proscribes extreme evil. There are no other monologues in The Receptionist because there are no other thinking characters. They have no relationship, no conversation, with the people their actions have turned them into, or the people they once were.

One can fault Bock for failing to find the dramatic in his schematic--it addresses the brain rather than the heart, or, better still, the body. Theater can make us tremble; it ought to be tectonic. The Receptionist is a drama in retrospect--it's like finding out from the news that the vague unease you felt the night before was because of a mild earthquake. That phenomenon is explained, but the problem of having a home on a fault line remains unexamined.

One can also, incidentally, fault Bock for giving the male character this heroic insight and for writing the receptionist, Bev, as the quintessential work-drone. Mr. Raymond's crisis may find him unrepentant, but at least he suffers a crisis at all: it is better, Arendt quotes, to suffer wrong than to do wrong. The worst thing about Bev is that she has no sense of what "wrong" or "suffering" are; she is blissfully oblivious to her own responsibility for her fate.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trinity Rep's The Receptionist

The Receptionist is a new play by Adam Bock, and Trinity Rep should be commended for performing its New England premier—they have taken a chance with an unfamiliar playwright's untested play, and it has been directed creatively and performed adroitly. I only wish I liked it more. The show gleams with novelty and timeliness, and has the gloss of relevance, but one wonders if it is really a jewel or just carefully polished glass. This turns out to be the central question of the play itself: after all, don’t we prefer the fake when the price of the real is too high? I don't want to give away the nature of the awful reality concealed by the brisk professionalism of receptionist Beverly Wilkins (Janice DuClos) and the vapid temporizing of office-worker Lorraine Taylor (Angela Brazil); suffice it to say, the business conducted by the Northeast Office, darkly adumbrated by Edward Raymond (Timothy Crowe) in his opening monologue, is repugnant. This monologue, addressed to an unseen character onstage but directed towards the audience, ends with his ambiguous and sinister professional courtesy, "Let's get you set up." He seems to speak for Bock himself, who has structured his play as a prolonged, elaborate, and occasionally very funny set-up; the problem is that it is also dramatically inert. If satire is an instrument for revealing truth, The Receptionist's mild humor is a crucible with no flame. Only in the second half does Bock apply heat, but by then it may be too late.

The strength of the play is Bock’s language, which splices the theatrical to the vernacular. He has obviously read David Mamet and has most likely enjoyed his share of Monty Python sketches—like them, his writing exaggerates the absurdity of most of our conversations—but his subject doesn't seem worthy of these antecedents or his own formidable talent; it is too easy. Bev chats on the phone with her profligate friend Cheryl Lynn while putting professional calls indifferently through to her bosses' voicemail; Lorraine races in late, a story about her bus spilling preemptively and guiltily out of her; they talk about Lorraine's unenviable love life, which has stalled with Glen, a certified narcissist; handsome Martin Dart (Timothy John Smith) arrives from the Central Office, hoping to meet with Mr. Raymond, who is, unusually, running late as well; Lorraine is smitten by Mr. Dart and finds, to her surprise, that her feelings are—or appear to be—reciprocated; Dart accosts Mr. Raymond when he finally arrives, and tells him he’s needed at the Central Office—a visit, we understand, that is to be censorious rather than congratulatory.

Ricocheting across this banal surface are some terrific (and some inane) jokes and arch observations about office life, all angled playfully and expertly by the cast. Janice DuClos, one of the bright stars of Providence theater, is, as always, powerful. She can be funny, officious, affectionate, and wounded; she always seems so alive on the stage, sensitive to the melody of language and, though she is sitting for most of the show, vulnerable to the force of the world’s pleasures and frustrations. Timothy John Smith, who glowered magnificently as the hulking boxer Le Mec in last spring’s Paris By Night, is given a chance to prove he also knows how to speak. His Dart isn’t nearly so pointed as the name suggests; although he is cunning, he is more lubricious than sharp. I cannot help feeling that Angela Brazil is being used reductively by Trinity these days: for the third consecutive show, she is asked to convulse like a box of jumping beans, and by the end, you wonder which of you is more exhausted. I suppose her hysterics are actually the worm of anxiety shifting inside her—that is, they are effect rather than mere affect, and proof of actorly commitment, but the performance left me reeling. Timothy Crowe, as the boss of the office, also left me unsettled, but because his performance is so quiet, so faltering. His Mr. Raymond sees through the artifice of his life but lacks the temerity to finally renounce it; he stands uncertainly at the intersection of bleak disappointment and pragmatic self-deception.

And so we come back to the problem of the play, which is that it’s a scam, a diversion. The show’s punch is of the sucker variety, not the emotional—though it will knock the breath out of you just the same, because it is delivered suddenly and subtly by Ms. DucClos and Ms. Brazil (whose second-half performance is much more interesting than her first). This punch comes in the form of a revelation that suggests depths to the world of the play that are not tested, or even suggested, by what comes before it. What’s missing from this world is conflict. What’s missing is discovery, which is not the same as shock. What’s missing is the sense that character and language and gesture are tools, or weapons, in the negotiation of principles; that theater is emissary; that drama is revanchist; that words are to be are fought over, persuaded, recruited, and deployed; and something, be it power, or love, or dignity, is to be won back. In The Receptionist’s clever language, there is no plot being forwarded, no loss being measured, no triumph being planned. To Bock, language is merely fun: it is not part of the problem or the solution. So the idiom, the indiscriminate likes and I was all and he was alls, the jokes about Flom, Minnesota--are these all just to show how trivial we become when the alternative is to face hell? Speech, like theater itself, is brought into the public arena and shown to be comically impotent, or at least distracting; the play is about acting, and acting, to Bock, is avoidance. This may, indeed, be true—Bock’s play posits a problem beyond language, although language is certainly contorted to accommodate it—but it cheapens the theater-going experience. We have spent the night laughing with characters whom we are meant to recognize from our own lives and who, it turns out, are merely actors themselves. Theater, then, is all about the audience: Look at what you are, Bock says. He is silent on why we prefer the ersatz to the authentic, or what it is like to choose the one over the other, or what it does to the soul to live with this decision; he sends us out into the world, clutching a bauble--a jewel, or cut glass?--of indeterminate value and vague purpose.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Week That Will Be...

Trinity Rep finished previews of Adam Bock's The Receptionist last night and opens the show officially this evening. By the puckered look on audience-members' faces after the show, one suspects that it is an antidote to the plague of holiday cheer that threatens to lift our spirits and distract our thoughts from the sourness of life. I have looked at the script--briefly and superficially--and can't wait to hear Trinity's actors interpret its rich, repetitious language. (At Trinity Repertory Theater through January 11th.)

In the same neighborhood, the Brown/Trinity Consortium is performing Charles Mee's Full Circle, a re-imagining of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, which itself re-imagined an interpretation of the 14th-century Chinese play Circle of Chalk, by Li Xingdao. Mee contributes this economy of ideas by making all of his scripts available, for pleasure and for plunder, on his website. Take a look, and then see the show (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 2:00 & 7:30; Sunday at 2:00 and 7:30; Monday at 6:00).

2nd Story Theatre had intended to wrap The Miracle Worker this weekend but, one hopes because of universally positive reviews, has instead extended its run through next weekend.

For something less cerebral, I suspect, but provocative in its own way, try the Gamm Theatre, where Casey Seymour Kim, savage in last season's Boston Marriage and irrepressible in the recent An Ideal Husband, stars in Miss Pixie's Cable Access Extravaganza!!, an original one-woman play. Interestingly, Miss Pixie's Cable Access Extravaganza!! is not based on Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Disposable Men" at Perishable Theatre

Disposable Men (at Perishable Theatre through Sunday), created by, written by, and starring James Scruggs, is a one-man show, but it is inhabited by multitudes. Dedicated to the dozens of black men shot by police in New York City since 1989 and given context by the hundreds of horror movie clips projected on screens behind Scruggs, the show sings with the voice of a ghostly chorus. Through Scruggs himself, soloists emerge: the "audience nigger," a live video feed on a television draped in a prophet's burlap and dreadlock wig, who comments acerbically on images of black characters being bloodily dispatched in movies projected on-stage; the "lynch nigger" at Supremacy, a hot new theme restaurant where patrons pay to enact racist fantasies, and for the ribs, which look excellent; Cleophus Washington, who has the "bad blood" but, thank goodness, a diligent and good-hearted doctor to take care of him and his afflicted wife; Eddie the Watch, the innovative Bar Mitzvah dancer now keeping time in prison; a recruiter for a prison fraternity called Con Kappa Con (or is that Kan Kappa Kan?); and, finally, terribly, Amadou Diallo, the young, unarmed immigrant shot 41 times by New York City police officers in the winter of 1999. Like Frankenstein, like the Wolf Man, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, like Dracula, no ordinary means sufficed to take him down; it took, as it always does in the old movies, a village.

The play is immersive and disturbing, in part because its tone is so varied; its shifts in time and space and attitude shake us awake. Sometimes, however, its sense of adventure threatens to steer it towards obscurity. That there is a connection between the film clips and Scruggs's characters is clear, but it borders on the academic: is the play about film, or are the films about the play? That is, is the play about representation, or do filmic representations of monsters create an apt metaphor for the play's characters? And what about horror movie monsters is "disposable?" There are moments of sublime correspondence between film and stage, but just as often their relationship is nebulous and elusive. (I admit that I was distracted by trying to identify the various clips, many of which were taken from my favorite movies.) What makes Disposable Men work so well is not its digital media, but the human medium of Scrugg's voice--both authorial and oratorical--which is ironic, irreverent, reflective, baffled, and angry. Above all it is persuasive, and we follow it everywhere: to Supremacy, to a street corner where a mother sells her son for a sandwich or three, to a battle royal staged for the entertainment of prison guards. The play is kaleidoscopic rather than panoptic: through a single instrument we see distinct and vivid arrangements of the same elements. Even as Scruggs himself splinters and fragments, the play loses neither intensity nor purpose. Maybe atomization is the wrong analogy for this show; maybe, for all of its messy inquiry and bloody deconstruction, the play is actually about restoration. Scruggs isn't breaking himself down into discrete parts; he's documenting the making of an indivisible man.

Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" at the Gamm

In the world according to Oscar Wilde, life is a catalogue of afflictions: power corrupts, education curdles, wealth distracts, charm spoils, marriage entraps, facts disappoint, politics bore. In short, all the world’s a plague. This position, ostensibly harrowing, is actually comic, in the sense that misfortune distributed universally and indiscriminately loses its ability to shock or injure; tragedy is what happens when your life is worse than your neighbor’s. This worldview may also feel a little Socialist—which Wilde was, and which was anyway a less scurrilous thing to be accused of in the 1890s than it is today—in its faith that only a level playing field will allow for the most artful exercise of an individual’s freedom. Appropriately, in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband there is no calamity worse than privilege. The best that can be said about the show (at the Gamm Theatre through December 7th) is that, through it, Wilde was able to develop one of his favorite themes—the resilience of authenticity in a world clotted with fraudulence. The worst is that the play can feel not just rigged but contrived, even authoritarian—which is the antithesis of Wilde’s personal and political ideals--because it is about moral decision but plotted to circumvent moments of real consequence. The challenge for any cast performing it is to somehow communicate the very moral seriousness that Wilde ironizes, and to make Wilde’s irony seem not just freshly discovered but appropriate to the moment; his characters have to come by it honestly and express it provisionally, or the audience will feel not so much like co-conspirators in a clever subversion as subjects to an ideologue. We must sense the play’s dark undercurrent of grief and disillusionment even as we revel in the froth and babble of its humor.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Jim O’Brien) seems to have it made—he’s in parliament and pegged for great success, admired and influential beyond his dreams, and married to the loving Lady Chiltern (Casey Seymour Kim)—but there’s a problem with his ideal life: it’s built on a lie. More than twenty years before the start of the play, he had sold a state secret to a speculator; the fortune he made from this deal is the fragile foundation of his entire political career since. The funny thing about the past is that, though it never disappears, neither does it stay the same. For Chiltern, the callow behavior of his early years in politics has been justified and mollified by the good he has done since then: it has been transformed from a pitfall to a step up. An Ideal Husband begins with Chiltern being shown the quick way back down. Mrs. Cheveley (the long-limbed and caramel-voiced Jeanine Kane), a socialite-cum-adventuress living in Vienna, has returned to London with only a hook and some bait. She wants Chiltern to suppress a Cabinet report on the poor prospects of an Argentine canal so that the government will buy shares in it and her heavy investment will turn into considerable profit; should he refuse, she explains, she is prepared to go public with a note proving his involvement in the scheme of two decades before. Chiltern cannot suppress the canal report—his career in Parliament has been a model of probity and honor—but he cannot issue it either: to do so would invite public disgrace and private collapse. He would lose the public’s trust, and, even worse, his wife’s adoration. What’s an ideal husband to do?

In this case, he turns to Lord Goring (Tony Estrella), his unemployed and unambitious friend. Thank goodness for the idle rich, who, untroubled by the demands of real jobs, are available for freelance work. Goring is good-hearted and eloquent, so we don’t hold his aimlessness against him; in fact, his indifference to the blandishments of professional or societal advancement seems to have preserved his moral sensitivity. He advises Lord Chiltern to confess his indiscretion to his wife before she finds out about it from Mrs. Cheveley, and admonishes Lady Chiltern to forgive her husband’s fallibility; she must surrender her claim to an ideal and learn to love the real. (Goring, it has been noted, bears a striking resemblance to Wilde himself: both men had accomplished fathers; both had a sartorial obsession; both claimed to be two years younger than they really were; and both believed that the only virtue worth practicing is honesty. That Goring is the show’s hero, then, should not come as a surprise.) Meanwhile, Goring devises a plan to get the damning letter from Mrs. Cheveley, which would obviate the need for confession and forgiveness. There are a number of misunderstandings and a long scene in which Goring must prevent guests in his house from discovering each other behind closed doors, but in the end, and with true comedic pessimism, one marriage is restored and another begun.

An Ideal Husband is a pessimistic comedy, after all, because it concludes that the world is unchangeable; the only way to survive it is to change ourselves. For Wilde, the apotheosis of human development is the ironist, who engages in the world but recognizes the ridiculousness of his or her own commitments and pursuits. This is what both Sir and Lady Chiltern become: by the end of the play they are sadder and wiser, thus happier and more reckless. The triumph of this production is that, in spite of Wilde’s conclusion, the play does not feel detached or aloof; indeed, the performers, particularly Casey Seymour Kim as Lady Chiltern, ensure that the show is alive to, and in touch with, the real world. Kim navigates its difficult moral and emotional landscape nimbly; with her open face and a body that wheels orbitlessly about the stage—she is a tireless physical actor—she is, as she ought to be, simultaneously tragic and comic. Her performance continually reminds us that, in another play, the Chilterns’ dilemma would end very differently. What I mean is that, in some way, her performance exemplifies the very humanist irony that is Wilde’s prescription for the world’s maladies. Tony Estrella and Jim O’Brien are funny—Estrella, in particular, has a great time playing Goring’s loving and exasperated relationship with his father—but their performances are not selfless and utterly knowing, as I think Kim’s is. It does not pretend that the world is not a serious place; but it also does not pretend that we can do anything about it other than laugh.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Black Rep: Bitten by the Economic Bug

The Black Rep has cut five jobs and suspended the two plays planned for Winter and Spring '09. Don't worry: the Xxodus Café will remain open, educational programs will still be offered, and the Providence Sound Session is expected to go on as scheduled. Read it here at the ProJo and here on the Black Rep homepage.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Round Two

Now that the theatrics of the election season are over--or at least the dignified, ennobling part; the sordid coda, a dull comedy played out by a shadowy chorus of McCain aids and the spurned Sarah Palin, continues--it's time to get ready for round two of Providence's stage season.

The Gamm Theatre ends previews of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband tonight and opens the show officially Thursday night at 8:00 PM.

That same night, at 7:30, the Brown/Trinity Consortium opens Hamlet at the Pell Chaffee Theater on Empire Street. The show runs through the weekend.

And next Friday, 2nd Story Theatre begins previews of The Miracle Worker,
William Gibson's dramatization of Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life. It opens officially on Thursday, November 20th at 8:00...

...the night before Trinity Rep's A Christmas Carol begins. From November 21st through New Year's Eve, there will be a Christmas Carol starting every 52 minutes. In three years of attending Trinity Shows I haven't seen this mainstay; this could be the year.

Inspired by Hilton Als's review of Peter Brook's production of The Grand Inquisitor in the Nov. 10th New Yorker and my own chance encounter with the theories of Antonin Artaud in the Brown Bookstore this weekend, I'm watching the Royal Shakespeare Company film of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade on YouTube today. Fun!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Greetings from the Other Side of the World

Autumn in New England is beautiful; autumn in Sri Lanka is pretty neat, too, though for brilliant foliage you're better off in Vermont. I'll be back next week, in time to admire the artistry of some of the greatest distance runners in the world competing in the New York City Marathon, and in time, of course, to vote for eloquence, sincerity, prudence, and--what's that word? oh, right--change.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bug at the Black Rep

This weekend is your last opportunity to see Tracy Letts’s Bug at the Black Rep. Of the seasoning-opening plays I’ve seen this fall, Bug is the most auspicious, because it is the bloodiest, the most profane, the funniest, and the most unsettling; topping it will be a great challenge for the theater. Bug is about what happens to us when the stories we tell ourselves about out lives stop making sense: its main characters, having each come to the end of an unknotted narrative thread, begin weaving something new from whatever strands they can grasp. If this sounds theoretical and arcane, it isn’t; for Letts, reinvention is a kind of violence. The show ends with a literal bang that feels more like a figurative whimper, but it otherwise communicates a sense of displaced emergency and furtive, misspent energy with millennial zeal.

In a motel room in small-town Oklahoma, R.C. introduces her friend Agnes to Peter, a nervous, recessive intellectual. Agnes has just received word that her abusive husband Jerry has been released from prison, so when she grudgingly falls for Peter it is with the implicit and feeble hope that he can provide some protection for her. But Peter is no better for Agnes than Jerry was; his volatility—he is a paranoid Gulf War veteran who believes that aphids have been planted under his skin by Army doctors—is simply more insidious. The play is about narcotics and has the feel of a worsening trip. Forget Rodgers and Hammerstein; this is Oklahoma, OD’ed.

The performances are all terrific, especially from the male leads. Raidge plays Jerry Goss with almost painful perfection; he is a combination of horrible menace and childlike charm. And Cedric Lilly somehow make’s Peter’s concavity not a vacuum but a physical presence. It must be difficult to act out looking in, but Lilly makes us believe that something is happening there. Jackie Davis, as Agnes, is smart and sympathetic, but her southern/western accent, while not distracting in itself, is sometimes so disaffected that it becomes robotic and unemotional. Agnes spends much of the play not talking, however, and Davis, stooped and scared, carries it on her quiet shoulders.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Relevance of Antigone

Bill Rodriguez, in the Providence Phoenix, begins his panegyric to Antigone with this indefensible and contradictory paragraph:
The problem with Greek tragedies is that they tend to be Greek to us. Losing too much in translation isn't a problem with the intelligent and relevant The Dreams of Antigone, now in its world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company (through October 26).
I have nothing against presumption--indeed, criticism is considered presumption--but I resent being implicated, as a fellow theater-goer and as a reader, in Rodriguez's vapid generality. I don't know that this is "the problem" with Greek tragedy. I didn't know Greek tragedy had a problem in the first place. And actually, I'm not sure now that I know what he means. Does he mean that many of us don't speak ancient Greek? Or that clumsy translation confuses us (which would mean, paradoxically, that translated Greek is Greek to us)? Or that we don't know much about the ancient Greeks themselves, so we fail to detect the dynamic range and the music in their tragedies? I don't get it. Perhaps the problem with Greek tragedy is that we assume it has a problem: we're all doctors prescribing pills and recommending surgery to an aged but perfectly healthy patient. Being old is not a disorder, we know, and youth is not synonymous with vitality; last season's Blithe Spirit was written during World War II, and in English, but it felt brittle and barbed, like broken bone. Maybe if critics and artistic directors stopped insisting that the old is also the onerous, the rest of us would stop believing it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

More Antigone

A phone message from a friend:
I saw the show [The Dreams of Antigone, at Trinity Rep] this afternoon, and I don’t think I share your opinion of it…I think that I agree with you if I go at it from the perspective of, “This is Antigone,” but I think that I like it better if I say, “This is not Antigone, this is just a different show with a variation on the same theme.” I walked into the show wanting to be bitter...about it, and when I left I actually felt like it was a really great show, and that kind of says a lot.
My friend is far from alone in this opinion; I'm in a position to hear some of the near-unanimous praise that The Dreams of Antigone is receiving from its audience, who seem to leave the theater at once exhilarated and troubled. The reviews have been quite good, too. Channing Gray, in the ProJo, called it "both old and fresh," and thought that the set was, actually, one of the nicest things about the evening. The BoGlo's Louise Kennedy noted that, though the writing doesn't have Sophocles's economy, the show's ideas are seriously considered and well developed. Chris Verleger, writing for EDGE Providence, summarizes the show briskly and recognizes the accomplishments of all the actors--especially, and deservedly, Rachel Warren as Antigone, Stephen Thorne as her husband, Haemon, and Fred Sullivan, Jr., as Creon.

The conversation, started at Trinity, continues outside of it. I'm still thinking about the show and hoping, if they'll let me, to see it again this week.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Trinity Rep's "The Dreams of Antigone"

In 1981, during the long, gray evening of the Leonid Brezhnev years, Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze began writing a movie about the death of a small-town dictator named Varlam Aravidze. The problem is that Varlam doesn't stay buried: the daughter of an artist whom he had persecuted exhumes his body and props it up against a nearby wall. When authorities re-bury him, she digs him up again and leans him against his own family’s house. She knows her dissent is illegal and she welcomes the trouble that follows; she chooses a proper reckoning over intentional forgetting. With her defiance, Abuladze was making a case for iconoclasm and confrontation in a society conditioned by years of totalitarianism to idolatry and meek acquiescence. He was also calling on ancient tragedy; Repentance, as the film was called when it was finally released in the Soviet political thaw of the late 1980s, inverts Sophocles's Antigone, in which the act of burial is a statement of principled rebellion. Repentance evokes Greek tragedy without naming it, so, if it endures, it will endure not only as a reflection on the timelessness of the conflict between the prerogative of the state and the moral responsibilities of the individual but also as a record of its specific time and place. Curt Columbus and his collaborators, the cast of Trinity Repertory Theater, have taken on Antigone as well; the result of their revision, The Dreams of Antigone, is an interpretation, a modernization, and a meditation, and, unsurprisingly, its effect is diffuse. They have maintained the plot (more or less) and the setting of Sophocles's tragedy, but they have ceded the territory of the Greek mind without convincingly charting the landscape of our own modern paranoia, anger, and hope. The show feels neither as foreign and transportive as a traditional performance, nor as immediate and urgent—as dangerous, really—as a more radical revision. It is, in the words of another great tragedian, to double business bound: too committed to Sophocles’s framework to shock us, and too intent on proving its relevance to challenge our imaginations.

itself is an elegant and spare play, distinguished from its predecessors in the so-called Theban trilogy by its brisk determinism: it dispenses with the self-discovery of Oedipus the King, and abandons the philosophical paradoxes that animate Oedipus at Colonus. Antigone is about people who have already discovered themselves and who have settled their moral and existential questions. Creon, ruler of Thebes after a civil war and the simultaneous killing, each by the other’s hand, of the two sons of Oedipus and rightful heirs to the throne, decrees that one son, Eteocles, will receive a hero’s funeral, while the other, Polyneices, who had tried to take over the city himself, will be left unburied and dishonored. Anyone who buries the treacherous Polyneices will himself be killed. Antigone, his sister and Creon’s niece, defies the order and her own sister’s admonition and buries Polyneices; Creon, determined to restore order after years of bloody battle, insists that she must suffer the established penalty. He condemns her to death in a sealed cave, but is persuaded to spare her by Haemon, his son and Antigone’s wife. His clemency comes too late: a messenger—Greek tragedies bustle with the comings and goings of messengers—brings news that Antigone has hanged herself in her cell. In his grief, Haemon kills himself; to complete the cosmic punishment, Creon’s wife Eurydice kills herself as well. The violence and chaos that was supposed to be curtailed by the restoration of legal order has simply been forced inward. As much as Aristotle, Sophocles understood that establishing peace within a city’s walls is more difficult than defeating the enemies outside of them.

Antigone is not merely a study in civics, of course, and Sophocles was not only a philosopher or moralist; he wanted his audiences to feel the tremors that emanate from the collision of strong wills. Indeed, Antigone and Creon appear to be will alone, removed from a sense of caution or contingency, which accounts for the austerity, the glacial impenetrability, of their drama. Still, there is terrible beauty and frightening resolve in their lines. When Antigone’s sister, Ismene, confesses in the play’s first scene that she is not interested in following Antigone’s terminal path, Antigone retorts, “I wouldn’t urge it. And now if you wished to act, you wouldn’t please me as a partner.” The scene goes on:

ISMENE: I shall do no dishonor. But to act against the citizens. I cannot.
ANTIGONE: That’s your protection. Now I go, to pile the burial-mound for him, my dearest brother.
ISMENE: Oh, my poor sister! How I fear for you!
ANTIGONE: For me, don’t borrow trouble. Clear your fate.

ISMENE: At least give no one warning of this act; you keep it hidden, and I’ll do the same.
ANTIGONE: Dear God! Denounce me. I shall hate you more if silent, not proclaiming this to all.
Antigone is as single-minded and intractable as Creon; even if we find ourselves sympathetic to her notion of compassion, we must concede that her sense of justice is as arbitrary and remorseless as his. As a dramatic motive, Antigone’s conviction is so strong as to be alien to most of us: Sophocles has given us a model as impossible to resist as she is to understand or to emulate.

This is where Dreams of Antigone departs from its source material. Columbus’s Antigone is sensitive, empathetic—she apologies to her servants for not honoring their husbands and sons killed in the war—and insistently human. In Sophocles, Antigone’s life may be cursed and wretched, but it is, at the last, hers. Her victory, and her tragedy, is in renouncing the Theban community; she is, she boasts, “not ashamed to think alone.” This is independence but it is also foolish obduracy. It is also not entirely true, for she believes that, by burying Polyneices, she is doing what the gods wish. But Columbus has exorcised the gods from his version, as though their disapprobation or advocacy were purely metaphorical to Sophocles and thus incidental to the play. (The gods are not jealous and meddling characters in Antigone, but a solemn and severe presence.) If we understand that their vigilance was more real to Creon than his subjects’ and their judgment more important to Antigone than her sister’s—that the gods represent universal order in a way that abstract talk about “the rules” cannot—then we realize that their exile from Dreams of Antigone mollifies the play’s despair and foreshortens its tragic dimensions. Antigone, in presuming to know the gods’ wishes, aspires to godliness herself: without the gods, there is no measure of Antigone’s hubris; without her hubris, there is no tragedy. Dreams of Antigone is so fascinated by its own central, intellectual conceit—that, to this day, well-meaning individuals clash fatally with self-justified governments—that it neglects the existential thrill of Sophocles’s particular vision: there is real terror not only in Creon’s intransigence but also in Antigone’s presumption. The show abrogates one of the theater’s unique responsibilities: to force an audience to imagine, if only briefly, the world as it appears to someone else. Instead, Dreams of Antigone tells us that we understand the past only as much as it can be made to resemble the present.

So gone are the gods, gone is Tierisias, the blind seer whose counsel Creon brashly ignores in Antigone, and gone is the Chorus—or, rather, gone is the Chorus as a poetic, metaphorical entity. Here, the Chorus explicates and demystifies; it is didactic when it could be suggestive, and obvious when it should be oblique. The Dreams of Antigone opens with an antiphonal recital of the preamble to the U.S. constitution, and is interrupted halfway through by a meditation on the nature of heroism. But this is what the play is about! Antigone is performed because it addresses, better than an essay and as acidly as any play since, the isolation of the moral individual and the perilously sharp edge of hubristic heroism; the story gains nothing by the addition of ruminative diversions. If Antigone is a straight line between points, direct and irreducible, The Dreams of Antigone is curved, tentative and provisional. The Dreams of Antigone must not be confused with Antigone, I am sure to be reminded—then what is it for? As a remark on contemporary anxiety it is elliptical, and as a performance of Sophocles it is timid. It appeals when it ought to offend; flatters when it should scold; and, at the very end, folds, when by rights it should burst. Antigone, I think, would have liked that.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday Arts Spectacular

This afternoon, José Rafael Moneo, the architect of the new Chace Center--which will serve as gallery, storage, classroom, administrative, and commercial space for RISD--spoke, with his associate, to RISD students in the Metcalf Auditorium. The house was packed; and Moneo did not disappoint. I didn't take notes so I have no documentation of his brilliance, which is generous and exacting at the same time. The building, which opens officially in an all-day celebration on Saturday, is evidence enough.

I just got back home from seeing the Gamm Theatre's Don Carlos, which, as everyone who pays attention to local theater knows by now, is a loosely adapted and severely abridged version of Friedrich Schiller's six-hour call to revolution. The play is not subtle--one doesn't think of "subtle" and Schiller in the same room--but it is surprisingly swift, and its two and a half hours pass, if not quite nimbly, than at least determinedly. That dogged adverb is appropriate, and signifies the play's only real problem: its plot is all plot and I found myself, too often, untangling its strands instead of enjoying its artistry. Credit must go to artistic director Tony Estrella for having the vision to imagine Don Carlos onstage and for respecting Schiller and his audience enough to leave its relevance to our own era implied, and to the actors for weaving something so fine and precise from material that is, for all of its processing, still rough.

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On Sunday I saw a preview of Trinity Rep's Dreams of Antigone, in several ways the sibling project of Gamm's Don Carlos. Like D.C., it is a liberally interpreted version of a formidable classic with surprising parallels to our contemporary political scene; but Dreams of Antigone (abbreviated, unfortunately, D.O.A.) has been made longer and less incisive than its source material, and the lines that connect its political reality to our own have been traced over with a dark pen. I left feeling that I had been subjected to a book report rather than a tragedy. I'll have a longer review posted soon.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Seeing Stars

Last night the Canadian indie-pop band Stars played at Lupo's. I went to the show more out of curiosity than conviction: I enjoyed 2004's Set Yourself on Fire, but not enough to call myself a fan or to buy their full-length follow-up, In Our Bedroom After the War, and I wanted to see if I was missing anything. (Plus, I was invited.) The short answer is "sort of." I still enjoyed the songs from Set Yourself, and I liked the newer material enough, but I'm not sure what it adds up to. What is Stars' music about? This would be an unfair and ridiculous question if lead singer Torquil Campbell weren't so serious and if many of Stars' songs didn't feel so portentous--but he is, and they do, so it's only reasonable to ask why.

Campbell seems to have a political conscience--he repeatedly reminded his audience that there was a sort of important election coming up in our country--but his lyrics tend to skirt, or merely suggest, his political sentiments; the sentiments he is best at expressing are the sentimental, the untestable, ones. "What can't be decided--/In the morning it will bring itself to you," he sings in a really beautiful duet with Amy Millan; "Calendar Girl, who's in love with the world, stay alive," he sings later. These are perfectly fine lines for the brooding melancholia that is Stars' specialty, but they shouldn't be confused with poetry, politics, or with anything to feel much about. Where does Campbell's political energy go when he sits down to write songs? Filtered and diffused, it becomes a soft gray glow--pleasant but unilluminating. The abstraction of his lyrics makes the histrionics of his performance wonderfully surreal: when he sings, he looks like he's finding the notes stuck like something between his molars, and you wonder what all the effort is for. It's as though the song that Campbell thinks he wrote is much more profound and trenchant than the one he's actually singing: he thinks it's blood back there but it's really just grape seeds. Actually, it's really Morrisey--Campbell's voice, when he rears back and tenses up, takes on that familiar throaty warble. (Stars covered "This Charming Man" on Nightsongs (2001) but Campbell whisper-sang his way through Set Yourself and you would never know from that album's restraint that he had such a big voice.)

Which reminds me that the music itself remains very good. Drummer Patrick McGee, who loomed like Roger Rabbit's Judge Doom and kept time with the mechanical proficiency of T-1000, hit snappy 16th beats throughout the show; Evan Cranley played a terrific bass, and proved that Stars' rhythm section keeps the inflated songs from simply floating away. Singer/guitarist Amy Millan has a delicate, fragile voice that seems perched on the uneasy edge of whatever key she's in. Her best song, "Window Bird," was one of the highlights of the night. Keyboardist Chris Seligman made a lot of noise. It seems like half of every Stars song is noise--distorted strings, mostly, scratched and tremulous--and I'm not sure if it's a tool or a crutch. Whatever it is, it fills in for the catharsis missing in Campbell's lyrics; it reifies the symbolic quality of his anger or resentment or regret and it makes your stomach shake. It's this reverbration that I took out into the night when the concert was over. "Take Me to the Riot" exemplifies Stars' technique of alternating confidential intimacy with obliterating noise, and it worked beautifully, as did "Soft Revolution," for the same reason. That song ends with a koan-like coda: "After changing everything, they couldn't tell, we couldn't sing." Does this mean more or less the longer you think about it? To answer this question is, I think, to gauge how much you'll ever be able to really like Stars.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

IndieArts Fest: Amazing

Tim O'Keefe (IndieArts Fest organizer) prepares his set.

Triangle Forest plays music.

The Agenda avidly endorsed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

2nd Story Theatre's "The Beaux' Stratagem"

We went to George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem at 2nd Story Theatre this past weekend looking for a restful evening of theater; we left two hours later, breathless and dazed. Farquhar wrote the play towards the end of his short life (he died when was just thirty years old) and by the crepuscular light of the artistically permissive English Restoration: appropriately, the show has a sort of terminal urgency. It is, as the title suggests, all plot, and is as chaotic as a footrace and as brazen as any last, desperate gesture. Disenfranchised rogues Aimwell and Archer, masquerading as a lord and his footman, arrive in a small English town hoping to marry a wealthy woman before being discovered. Archer flirts with the experienced but unsatisfied Mrs. Sullen, whose boorish husband neglects her, while Aimwell deviates from the plan by actually falling in love with Sullen’s naïve sister-in-law, Dorinda. It is hardly worthwhile, by which I mean exceedingly difficult, to summarize the play any further; it is madcap and desultory, and Farquhar deploys his plots with a hustler’s avidity rather than a magician’s elegance. The Beaux’ Stratagem is about speed, not grace. How much, we wonder, will Aimwell and Archer get away with before their ruse is exposed?

The challenge for any cast is finding the sense in the play’s speed and silliness, and, for the most part, 2nd Story’s is up to the task. After a rough start—Farquhar’s language seemed to intimidate the actors; they rushed through their lines as though racing the words themselves—the show settled into a coherent, even rhythm. Tom Bentley and Ara Boghigian, as Aimwell and Archer, portray their characters’ camaraderie as a partnership forged by necessity and intensified by rivalry; their scenes have a terrific push and pull, though Boghigian appeared relieved to make it, uninjured, through some of Archer’s rockier lines. The show’s meter is set by Joanne Fayan, whose Mrs. Sullen is alternately impulsive and recessive. Mrs. Sullen has the play’s few overtly political lines, so her character has traction; but she also has the play’s only moral conflict, so she has real substance, too. Fayan is a graceful actress: she commits unreservedly to her character’s lusts but never resorts to caricature, and interprets Farquhar’s political commentary with as little didacticism as possible. In other words, she finds what makes Mrs. Sullen human: her imagination, bridled by realism and restraint. Ryan Maxwell, as her gap-toothed servant-of-all-duties Scrub, throws restraint to the wind and then delivers his lines as though the squall is still blowing. It’s a manic performance that reminds us that masters and servants live not only in different parts of the house but in different worlds altogether. Maxwell’s dynamism is a startling contrast to Fayan’s composure, and it works; we believe that a paranoid like this, having dispatched his day’s duties, could find some quiet place in the house to stew in his own utterly unbridled imagination. Thank goodness for plots like this; without them, Scrub might simply explode. Mark Gentsch’s splenetic Squire Sullen, on the other hand, is more likely to nod off than to blow up; he despises his wife, but he also enjoys her wealth and can’t summon the will, or spare enough time from his drinking, to get a divorce. Gentsch is dry, understated, and perfect in the role.

In an epilogue appended to some versions of the play, Farquhar’s contemporary, the poet Edmund Smith, asked for the audience’s understanding on behalf of the dying playwright; “Forbear, you Fair, on his last Scene to frown; / but his true Exit with a Plaudit crown.” The play was written under duress, he says, and might be noticeably worse for it; but the life lived under duress, and ended nevertheless in triumph, deserves our praise. It seems unlikely that The Beaux’ Stratagem is about mortality per se, but it is about finitude: by the end of the show, the characters find their plots concluded and their illusions dispelled. Lives, like plots, can only last so long; we trust, like Aimwell and Archer, that we have planned well enough to accomplish all that we intended and that, when the ruse is up, we can take our leave with joy. We can only hope that Farquhar’s “true Exit”—the one that concluded all of his plotting and dispelled all of his illusions—was as satisfying, and perhaps as mirthful, as his characters’ final scene.

(The Beaux' Stratagem is at Warren's 2nd Story Theatre through Saturday, July 26th. Performances are at 8:00 PM, Wednesday through Saturday.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Film Review: Mongol

Mongol reminds us that it is possible for a movie to be big and slight at the same time. Like the thunder and lightening that constitute its symbolic and narrative pivot, Mongol is all portent; if the title forecasts an apocalyptic storm, the film delivers only scattered showers. (Indeed, the final scenes are humid with the threat of a sequel.) The problem, I think, is that director Sergei Bodrov has little feeling for his main character, which is not surprising, given that his main character is Genghis Khan (née Temudgin) the charismatic leader of the nomadic tribes that would, ultimately, conquer nearly all of Eurasia. Telling his story is like narrating the destruction of Pompeii from the volcano’s point of view: it’s hard to imagine the inner life of a force of nature. Of course, Genghis Khan was a human being—though not, as one reviewer has suggested, one subject to typical standards of plausibility, which is what makes him most compelling and enigmatic: in the process of our approach, we have no purchase. There are no firsthand accounts of his life, and the paradox of his nascent empire—it was broadened through ruthless violence but sustained with relative tolerance—meant that life, for many of his subjects, continued as it had been before their subjugation. Genghis Khan himself was a mystery to them, and has remained so to us; the centuries since his death have only clouded our perception, as successive generations have scratched their fears and aspirations on the palimpsest of his legacy. Think of Bodrov’s work, then, not as a daring revision—Genghis Khan’s life has been under constant revision since his death—but as a modernization. In the process of making him accessible to contemporary audiences, however, Bodrov has domesticated and diminished him: if the final subtitles didn’t insist on it, we might not recognize our stoic hero as Ghengis Khan at all.

The film stutters to a start and never really rights itself. Temudgin, the soft-cheeked child of a stern nomadic leader, goes with his father to choose a bride for himself. The girl who ends up choosing him instead is Borte; we know from her preternatural self-assurance, and from the precocious nature of their conversation, that she and Temudgin will be a good match. This match—the film’s only propitious event not aided by Tengri, the god who seems particularly invested in Temudgin’s survival and success—will have to wait several years for its consummation. In the meantime, Temudgin witnesses his father’s ignominious murder, survives the disintegration of his clan and the murderous intentions of its new leaders, flees captivity, falls into and is rescued from a frozen-over lake, sanctifies his relationship with his blood-brother Jamukha, is re-captured by the pretenders to power from his old clan, and escapes again. The film’s epigraph about the young cub growing into the brutal tiger has prepared us for this story of nine lives, but it nonetheless feels preposterous, and, worse, arrhythmic. After forty minutes, the movie has re-started three times and we know no more about Temudgin than we did at the opening credits.

Indeed, the entire movie feels like exposition, and not just because the first half or so is a flashback; Bodrov is an obdurate director, and he cuts away from important scenes when more sustained attention might give us real insight. Instead of palpable hardship, suffering, or moral stubbornness, we get plot. Why show us Temudgin’s two escapes from his rivals’ camp when neither one demonstrates his ruthlessness or endurance? We see him escape, but not with any particular difficulty. When we see him again a new day has dawned. His hands are still bound at neck level, but his composure is implacable, his body unscarred: Did he spend his night breathing through reeds at the bottom of a creek-bed, or in a motel? All we need to know is that he made it and he’s angry. Bodrov’s narrative is artless, and reflects his deterministic view of history: to him, Genghis Khan’s life is a tapestry—static, two-dimensional, and fixed. The camera takes it in simply by panning to the right. Bodrov is faithful to sequence but indifferent towards causation; events happen, but they seem linked only by their order. There’s no urgency or irony here, no sense that things could have turned out differently. The possibility of departure and the acknowledgement of contingency are what make historical fiction exciting, but Bodrov isn’t interested in what might have been. Mongol has plenty of blood, but no life of its own.

It’s this fundamental conservatism that gives Mongol the pallid taste of propaganda. Aided by Tengri, Temudgin’s growth and his empire’s metastasis are inevitable. We never see the arduous and mysterious work of coalition-building, which might answer the question, What could Temudgin offer the Mongols that no one else could? Whatever this is, it’s the keystone of the world’s largest empire and would give this movie the density that it needs. But Mongol is all surface and no center. The prolific Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano gives Temudgin a credible cunning and resolve—his eyes shine like a card sharp’s from behind his beard and heavy fur hat—but not a voice or a vision. Bodrov himself is fascinated by violence—when blood is shed it tumbles like rubies from an overturned chest—but confounded by war and utterly unaroused by statesmanship. He casually adumbrates Temudgin’s politics, as though worried that viewers, still traumatized by too-long games of Risk years ago, might begin to twitch anxiously, and rushes us to another gruesome battlefield. Battles are shot in graphic close-up, which only emphasizes the irrelevance of their political justification—and the incoherence of their choreography. Still, audience members gasped appreciatively when one of Temudgin’s unfortunate victims was thrown backwards by the spear that perforated him and then stuck him, like a note, to a tree. All in a day’s work for a nation-builder. But what about for a film director? Mongol’s romance is tepid, its action vivid but pedestrian. One concludes that the only reason for its existence is to suggest that the central Asian autocracies enjoying a modern-day political revival have a terrifying historical precedent. They may be the real tigers-to-be of the film's epigraph.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Revisiting the Lost Ark

Last night, we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (not Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) on Westminster Street. Along with Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Jaws, and The Muppet Movie, all of which my dad had taped on Betamax from the TV--often with entire commercial blocks intact--Raiders was one of the cinematic staples of my childhood. Sick days home from school consisted of eating toast with strawberry jam, drinking ginger ale, and watching one of those movies. Naturally, after the depredations of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which left me feeling more enervated than any flu, I took in Raiders like a panacea.

On the whole, I found its remedial powers to be intact--diminished, perhaps, by time and successful imitation, but not effaced. I still reveled in the scene in which the two government officials--from the Department of Laurel and Hardy Look-Alikes--meet with Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody to recruit them to go after the Ark. The meeting, which is, we understand, to be in the strictest confidence, is held in what might be the most reverberative room on the campus; amid the sibilant echoes of the gothic revival architecture, the characters churn through layers and layers of exposition, but the scene never gets bogged down in it. There are more words in this single scene than in all of Crystal Skull, but they feel necessary and interesting in their own right; dialogue in Crystal Skull merely describes, like captions, what is already apparent on screen. "I thought it was closer," Jones mutters to no one after falling just short of a jeep he had leaped towards; "Throw me the skull!" shouts another character, later, during a frenetic scene involving the throwing of a skull. "Get me the hell out of here!" sulks one theater-goer to his date.

If language in Raiders has a reality outside of the film's visuals--if it has an echo that suggests its physicality--action does too. That is, we spend much of the movie straining, along with the camera, to catch moments of extreme and brisk confrontation. When Indy slides beneath the Nazi jeep, comes out the other side, and then pulls himself up from the back, we wince sympathetically with the pain of road-burn. It's not real, but it feels real: the camera shakes and bounces and suggests that the reason we're seeing this at all is that we're on a jeep a few feet away. Compare this with the digital effects of Crytal Skull, which exist solely because the camera shows them: nothing, really, is happening. This ethereal quality makes the movie less fun, not more, because it lowers the stakes.

Still, Raiders has aged. It's not nearly as funny as I thought it was, but it is much more racist. Natives of a country are always inscrutable, malleable, and disposable, and they live loud lives that end bloodily. Indeed, Indiana Jones is as good at creating carnage as he is at exhuming its aftermath. Future archeologists, digging up the remains of a strange city called "Cairo," will wonder what war took place circa 1936 that left a small army of Egyptians dead, next to their scimitars and fruit stalls.

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I took the photo at the top of this post last night with my new digital camera, which was a wonderful birthday present. Wonderful for me, that is; incredibly irritating for everybody else.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the New Indiana Jones Movie

There is a moment about halfway through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that unwittingly characterizes the entire movie: Jones, strapped to a chair in a Peruvian jungle, is forced to stare into the deeply concave eye sockets of the titular skull, through which, apparently, ancient forces communicate. Jones, old and getting older, meets the vacant gaze of his--and our--future; the Communists who have ensnared him wait eagerly; the skull glows like a convection burner; a motionless wind begins to howl; it is the sound of the movie talking, and we feel nothing. For Steven Spielberg, sentiment and spectacle are inseparable: his movies, big and broad-stroked, are perfectly engineered to match the scope and to focus the ambition of his ideas, which tend to be deeply felt if dimly outlined. His best movies, like brass instruments, turn bluster into music. Crystal Skull lacks the artistry of precision—the miniature detailing—that governs Spielberg’s other efforts and makes them sing: the film's energy is tempestuous but its interior is so empty—and its landscape so arid—that nothing is stirred up. The movie, like the skull, is shiny but dumb. When Spielberg blows, all we hear is a breeze.

Spielberg was lucky to have an actor as dexterous and game as Harrison Ford in the first three Indiana Jones movies, because they were as complicated and inscrutably rigged as the temples who are their inevitable stars. Ford admirably handled the Jones-esque challenge of navigating the tenuous structure of these films: by making the right moves, and, primarily, by being limber enough to straddle the chasm between Spielberg’s irony and sincerity, he ensured that they did not crumble. But we sense in Crystal Skull that age has finally caught up to him, and that he has lost the ability, or the inspiration, to cling to both sides of a widening fissure. He looks rather resigned to falling. Indeed, for most of the movie, he appears retracted and dazed, as though awaiting a clearer directive from the gnomic skull, or, better still, from Spielberg himself. His face expresses the weariness of asking When will I be blown up? again and again, and then actually being blown up, or at least having the tar beaten out of him by a Russian heavy.

These moments, violent and lurid and incoherent, are supposed to be among the movie’s pleasures, and it skips from one to the next like a child fording a stream on raised rocks. Everything in between is perfunctory and nervously efficient. Crystal Skull begins with an atomic blast and ends with the apocalyptic destruction of an Amazonian temple by a whirling spacecraft. So much for lyricism. Jones escapes from the nuclear test but not from the scrutiny of the FBI, who have linked him to known Communist George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone). He is forced out of his position, Professor of Whatever—so much for tenure—at a prestigious “New Britain” university, but is stopped from leaving town by young “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), who claims to be the son of recently-vanished archeologist Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt). For those inclined to keep track, that makes four improbable nicknames, three of them utterly gratuitous, which is not only a dubious distinction for a movie not exclusively about the military but also further evidence of George Lucas’s shortcomings as a writer. In Crystal Skull, the nickname is a dependable substitute for character, exposition, and the barest pretense of recognizable human interaction. But who needs human interaction when there are computer animations that can do nearly the same thing, and twice as loudly?

“Ox,” it turns out, has been kidnapped while searching the Amazon for a crystal skull that has something to do with El Dorado, the city of gold, and something to do with power. It has also made him insane. Already a little crazy is Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Soviet military archeologist whose specialty is psychological warfare: she scours the globe looking for artifacts possessed of the sorts of powers that will enable the Soviets to control the world. It is never clear just what the power of the crystal skull is; worse, the movie never posits a theory, so the film’s architecture feels just as ersatz as its effects. What gave the previous Indiana Jones movies their parlous fun was Jones’s moral ambiguity; his adventures were more than a little self-interested and had a sinister edge. Here, he doesn’t seem so much corruptible as vacuous. We never sense that the reason he wants to beat the Commies to the crystal skull is that he wants it for himself: he just wants to do the right thing.

In fact, doing the right thing is the movie’s real guiding principle; if it hadn’t already been taken, it would have made an apt title. Crystal Skull is about atonement, commitment, maturation, family, education (but not too much knowledge—that’s a bad thing), following one’s real calling, and carnivorous red ants devouring an unconscious Soviet thug in their underground tunnels. (I’m not sure if this counts as irony, but it sure was nifty.) The movie is as dull and tendentious as it sounds, and all the swordfights, explosions, and trips down waterfalls in the computer-generated Amazon can’t change it. In the end, our impulse to care about what happens next is thwarted; nothing is at stake in a world of digital effects and the gauzy edges of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s soft focus. The movie has exchanged Spielberg’s sense of wonder and humor for Lucas’s sense of grandeur. Their next movie, I suspect, will be one long chase, unpunctuated until the final exclamation point. So much for story.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You will leap to name it

Yesterday, in Warren, we sat in chairs outside the Coffee Depot and read. M. had the New York Times; I had Mary Oliver's American Primitive. I had forgotten about Mary Oliver until I saw her entire oeuvre on the bookshelf of one of our friends in central Massachusetts; I am glad to have been reminded. There is something miraculous about her writing--about its depths and density, belied by the slimness of the volume itself. In her poems we go down, down, down: from the clouds to the ground; from the branches of trees; from our own eyes. No poet I can think of has made me so aware of the earthward course of poetry, its down-turned gaze and its rooted, gnarled ecstasy. "Moles" is a two sentence poem, the first a line-by-line excavation of itself: we descend with Oliver and with her moles through the earth's strata, and turn over each layer in our mouths, carefully.
Under the leaves, under
the first loose
levels of earth
they're there--quick
as beetles, blind
as bats, shy
as hares but seen
less than these--
among the pale girders
of appleroot,
rockshelf, nests
of insects and black
pastures of bulbs
peppery and packed full
of the sweetest food:
spring flowers.
Oliver's alliteration not only moves us through geologic layers, but also helps us feel the earth in our mouths. So when the second sentence--and the poem--ends with the word "delicious" we almost have to agree. We have tasted it, too.

The poems in American Primitive make me think of my own experience of Ohio, though Oliver's Ohio is rougher, provisional, and always nearly swallowed by the land around it. Still, they evoke vernal pools and voluble toads and the coming to life of a liminal town in the spring; they give us a way to watch that we don't have in the city.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Film Review: Then She Found Me

Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me is a modest, innocuous movie; indeed, it has already been formatted to fit your TV screen. This really is not such a terrible criticism: there is plenty on television that is worth watching, and some of it is even better than what comes out in theaters. But it is, for the most part, scaled differently than film, and designed to meet audiences in their family rooms; it tends to be polite, even deferential, like any houseguest. Then She Found Me has been conceived with this same sense of decorum, and what we notice as we watch is that it makes few demands on us, other than our time. Its scenes are short, rhythmic, and conservatively choreographed, as if to keep from confusing us; it is more interested in action than in introspection, in the spectacle of crisis than in its traumas and resolutions; it is also heavily self-mediated. The film is ostensibly about faith, but we come away distrusting anything not verified on a screen. It is a movie that not only meets us where we live but tells us what a great place we’ve got.

Helen Hunt, who directed—from a screenplay that she co-wrote, and re-co-wrote for about ten years, based on Elinor Lipman’s debut novel—stars as April Epner, a 39-year old teacher jilted by her neotenic husband, Ben, played by Matthew Broderick. Imagine if Ferris Bueller had not been impossibly precocious and supremely confident—in other words, if he had been anything like an actual teenager—and you might picture someone like Ben; at thirty-something, he’s much more adolescent than Bueller ever was. He is, anyway, a poor match for April, who is not only ready for marriage but desperate to have a child. Her story—she was given up for adoption when she was a baby and was raised, albeit lovingly, by the Epners—must explain some of her avidity; the rest is genetic, or instinctive. A weaker woman might, in these same circumstances, question the whole idea of motherhood, but April’s conviction is unshakable, even axiomatic: she really, really wants to have a baby. Does her fierce desire come from an impulse to atone for her birth-mother’s sin, or to redeem her? Is it a form of vengeance? Then She Found Me doesn’t address these thorny questions; what’s worse is that it doesn’t even acknowledge their legitimacy. It reflexively ridicules questions about April’s maternal delinquency, but this—the question of her growth—strikes me as the movie’s real penumbra. Instead we get a primer on faith. Indeed, the movie’s philosophical curiosity begins and ends, it seems, as the movie itself begins and ends: with a “Jewish story” (we are told) about a boy on the stairs and the father who tells him to jump. If the story is meant to consider whether God’s unconditional gift is a safety net or our own resilience, the movie itself seems to have no trouble concluding, feebly, that God is actually just “difficult.” We get it: all parents are the same, complex and unknowable. This is very nice to believe but its facileness—or its sophistry: we don’t understand God, therefore God is difficult—is symptomatic of the entire movie.

The problem with Then She Found Me is of conviction: it doesn’t know what it is, or it doesn’t believe it is what it says it is. Lacking faith in its own intentions, it’s either naïve or calculating. It’s not only about April’s Pentateuchal long-suffering; it’s also about her nascent romantic relationship with Frank (Colin Firth), the divorced father of one of her students; and Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), her birth-mother and a morning TV talk show host, who decides, for no discernible reason, to contact her. Then She Found Me is an issue movie, a romantic comedy, and an indie drama (Complete with zany mother!) but none of it coheres, or sticks with us. Frank’s courtship is charming and rumpled in the way that only Colin Firth can make it, but it’s also pretty dull—or would be, if April didn’t routinely go out of her way, and out of character, I think, to make him look foolish. It’s a plot sustained willfully and complicated gratuitously. Too uncomplicated, on the other hand, is Bernice Graves, her name shortened and reduced from the book’s more literary and inauspicious “Graverman” and her character, we imagine, purged similarly. Bernice lies to April with a pathological eagerness, but the movie never confirms what we sense: that, her own life a catalogue of near-successes and half-accomplishments, she lies to reinvent herself. It appears that her life really is, as April puts it, “fabulous”; it needs no justification or biographical revisionism. We want Bernice to be as duplicitous and disingenuous as she seems to be—the latest in an enduring literary tradition of gleefully treacherous parent-figures—but it turns out that she’s not so awfully bad. Then She Found Me, like Firth’s Frank when he’s seized by shame or fury, turns and walks away when it should boil over.

But confrontation is not really in Helen Hunt’s repertoire. Perhaps flummoxed by the weird dynamics and utter absence of melody in two early scenes of rupture and reconciliation—Ben’s explanation that he wants a separation is a single, pallid shot, and, later, Bernice’s supplication for April’s forgiveness is played, clumsily, for laughs—Hunt cops out and has what ought to be the film’s two most powerful revelations shown on a screen. The first, a picture of a fetus on a sonogram, gives credence to the second, Bernice confessing a secret on her TV show. It’s not even live: April rewinds the videotape again and again as if to saturate herself with it, which in this movie passes for dramatic action. In its blatant self-justification, this scene reads like one of Bernice’s own tall tales. Really, who insists these days that something is true because she saw it on TV? But Then She Found Me, as though afraid of the rough and unruly lives that people muddle through, with or without a difficult God, reduces its characters, its conflicts, and its own scope, to the size of a small screen. Forget that pesky still and soft voice: only TV has the answers.

(Then She Found Me may still be in theaters somewhere. But you may only be able to catch it on TV, where it will strike you as being several rungs above whatever show preceded it and whatever show comes after.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thursday Notes

at 5:00 at Cable Car. It's part of the geographically expanded Newport Film Festival. (Not yet consumed by Dunkin Donuts and its rapacious, protean font.) Here's an article from the NYT about the film's unorthodox release schedule.

Outdoor movies on Westminster start this evening with Breakfast at Tiffany's. The show begins at dusk, weather permitting.

Also, music on the hill at 7:00 at the First Baptist Church. Tickets are $15.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Two ways of looking at a blockbuster

One. It never happened.

Two. Or did it? Explain.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Film Review: The Visitor

In Iron Man, Tony Stark prepares himself for battle against the world’s dark armies by forging an industrial-strength metal suit; the trade-off for his heroic near-invincibility is the forfeiture of his humanity. The Visitor charts an inverted course to heroism: its main character, self-contained economics professor Walter Vale, becomes more heroic as he becomes more human—more vulnerable to the world’s meanness, more awed by its luster. But that’s how these stories have always gone, right? Either you take up the sword and fight like a god or you take a deep breath and die on a cross. Walter’s story lacks the awesome spectacle of sacrifice and the grim satisfaction of material victory—Thomas McCarthy’s script is too grounded to permit these airy, allusive extravagances—but it offers the smaller, subtler pleasure of watching a man learn how to live.

Despite obvious, if unexceptional, success in the respiratory and cardiovascular departments, Walter (Richard Jenkins) hardly registers as sentient; he’s more like a machine adequately programmed. He haltingly performs his rote professorial functions—and even these just barely—and his eyes show neither sympathy nor comprehension when a student explains that his paper is late because of “personal issues.” No matter what you may think of the mettle of today’s college students—and I’m glad that this wasn’t the issue for McCarthy—you would expect at least a flicker of recognition or regret to cross Walter’s eyes. But there’s nothing. Jenkins has a great face for the part: craterous and indifferent, it’s a mask that suggests how far away Walter is from the rest of the world. It isn’t just at school that he feels like an interloper; he putters around his own house, two stories in suburbia, with a stranger’s exaggerated fastidiousness, and plays his grand piano like it’s the control panel for a nuclear reactor. Quiet desperation may not go far enough to describe Walter: try spiritual asphyxiation.

When his colleague Charles requests that he go down to a New York City conference to present a paper of which he is a putative co-author, we can read Walter’s revulsion on his taut lips and in his unqualified refusal: the prospect of visiting the pungent world really is that unsavory. But Charles prevails; Walter resignedly concedes, and drives down to the East Village where he has kept a small apartment for two decades. It turns out that the place hasn’t just been gathering dust: two immigrants, believing that the apartment belonged to someone named Ivan, have been living there for the past several months. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal, have made the place their home, and Walter, after initially throwing them out, relents, and invites them to stay while they look for another place. Tarek and Zainab accept, and then Tarek reciprocates: he invites Walter to re-enter the world. Slowly, through lessons on the djembe, evenings out at jazz clubs, and performances in drum circles, Tarek introduces Walter to the rhythms of an articulated life; he reminds Walter of the sturdy pulse of his own heart, and of the gathering complexity—like the drums’ polyrhythmic patterns—of who he is.

This resuscitation is wonderful to watch but we know that the good times can’t go on indefinitely. One evening, after an ebullient session with a Washington Park drum circle, Tarek is arrested for sneaking through a subway turnstile. We know he didn’t do it, and Walter knows he didn’t do it, but the officers who caught him are determined: from their perspective, he looks like a criminal. Even so, the fear we see in Tarek’s eyes as he is taken into custody seems disproportionate; our system guarantees that an innocent man with a witness can make his case. When Walter returns to the apartment to explain Tarek’s bad luck to Zainab, we learn the reason for his terror: they are both illegals, and Tarek, she confirms, will surely be sent to a detention center. The movie doesn’t exactly pick up speed here, but it acquires something like inertia. The veil removed from his eyes, the carapace of self-pity shed, the name-tag from the academic conference (now almost forgotten) discarded, Walter is ready to act--to defend and free his new friend, no matter the cost. In a beautiful reversal, Charles, the university colleague, calls Walter to ask him where he is; Walter assures him that he will explain everything as soon as he returns to campus. He doesn’t say as much, but we know what he’s talking about: personal issues. Personal issues are not the stuff of pyrotechnic conflict or even extrusive, demonstrative acting, and Jenkins and Sleiman, during Walter’s visits to the windowless detention center, play against each other with terrific restraint and sensitively modulated understatement: if they are strengthened by their certitude about the justice of their case, they are both overwhelmed by a system callously uninterested in things like perspicuity, equal representation, and human dignity.

When Tarek’s mother Mouna (Haim Abbas, with incredible posture and conviction) arrives in town, stricken because she hasn’t heard from her son in almost a week, the movie doesn’t feel overburdened or implausible; it feels necessarily expanded. The film, in a sense, has been building to this encounter: Walter, newly dropped in the current of living, is helpless to stop its onrush. What began as an inexplicable and irrational gesture of hospitality brings Walter into close, even intimate, contact with strangers and awakens his own sense of love and responsibility. One might take issue with the low-burning romance that seems to flare up between Walter and Mouna (Even though it is never, crassly speaking, consummated, its tensions strain our credulity; and why are movies so obsessed with a certain kind of love, anyway?) and with the film’s de facto exoticism of Tarek, whose dignified self-actualization is yet more evidence from Hollywood that the surest path to enlightenment is the one that leads farthest away from the American university system, but there’s no denying the plain power of these relationships. And anyway, the movie doesn’t promise to make things right—it’s too honest for such blandishments—just to help us see things anew.

(The Visitor is at the Avon on Thayer St. through Thursday evening.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Monday Sundries

I saw Then She Found Me at the Avon last week; I'll have a review posted soon.

Last night, we went to see The Visitor, also at the Avon. Like Then She Found Me, it's a small movie; but where TSFM feels cloistered and insular, The Visitor is capacious and reverberative. Adoption, in The Visitor, isn't a consolation and a last scene in a long drama, the way it seems to be in TSFM, but a privilege: it's a way to connect with one other person in an exploding world, and a means to one's own revival.

Also, the film's last shot is one of my favorites from any movie not by Ang Lee.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thursday Sundries

My brother thinks I overstate the daring of Trinity's Paris By Night. He says our popular culture has moved beyond the tragic era of homosexual life and love, or at least that our movies and TV shows are no longer governed by its expectations. I think he's mostly right. Perhaps it's PBN's modesty that I find so powerful, and that I think represents a real contribution to the work of opening the popular arts to more sexualities and broader audiences. Just as we're never really made to fear that Sam and Buck's lives are destined for tragedy, we're never asked to rally around them in heart-warming celebration. There is no scene in which all the straight characters smile gregariously and congratulate the recently coupled Sam and Buck (and, of course, themselves, for just being so incredibly supportive), even though this scene would also reward its (straight) audience. Indeed, the only time a character pleads for acceptance it's Buck, early in the show, hoping that Sam will be his friend even though he himself is not "that way": there is no sanctimonious straight world to which Sam appeals for validation. In a sense, straight audience members are never invited to the party; Columbus has assumed that they don't need to be invited, that they don't need the blandishments of ceremony and struggle, that his show's decency and innocence are engaging enough. The object of the play's inquiry is not political but existential; it is concerned not with justice, per se, but with doing right; its tone, then, is not strident but sincere.

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We went to Cable Car last night for the last Magic Lantern of the season. It was the "India Show." Even though I really didn't understand a lot of what I saw--not only were the shorts typically abstruse but the DVD on which they were compiled was damaged and played stutteringly--I enjoyed the evening. What I appreciate about everything I've seen at Magic Lantern shows is that the works are specifically, exclusively, stubbornly filmic: they are not theatrical, and they are never literary. Which is not to say that they're illiterate; just that they are untranslatable to any other medium. It's really refreshing to see film being used for things that only film can do.