Friday, February 29, 2008

Some Things Are Private

Perhaps the title of Deborah Salem Smith’s and Laura Kepley’s new verbatim piece (a show about a real event using excerpts from the public record as its script) Some Things Are Private is intended to be arch irony; perhaps gentle reminder; perhaps, considering the battered state of whatever wall once separated public from private, simply wishful thinking. Whatever was intended—and intent, we come to understand during the play, is everything—the effect is to prepare us for an evening of principled declamation. Principled declamation is a useful tool in any writer’s box—“Attention must be paid” has both the subtlety and the utility of a hammer—but it’s most successful when used for a specific job; when it is the default voice of an entire show, the audience quickly tires of its clamorous and clumsy demands. We need changes of pitch and timbre to indicate shifts of mood, sincerity, and even, simply, character. It’s not entirely clear why Some Things Are Private appears to have no mood at all, no disposition other than sincerity, and very little in the way of character. Is it because the script calls incessantly for the principled declamation that ultimately drowns character out? Or is principled declamation simply the awkward register in which it is appropriate to pitch the play's ideas? The co-creators' seriousness of purpose is admirable, but it makes one wish that someone other than artists could make art about artists—there’s too much conflict of interest for a genuine reckoning.

Anne Scurria plays Sally Mann, a Virginia photographer who achieved renown and notoriety for her 1990 book, Immediate Family, which featured photos of her children in scenes that might reflect a pastoral equilibrium or the menace of molestation. We are introduced to her by three benevolent, unnamed ciphers (Richard Donnely, Janice Duclos, and Rachel Warren)—my girlfriend thought that they were cousins to Dickens’s ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—who declaim headlines and excerpts from real news articles charting Mann’s unprecedented success. Our guides—ghosts or Virgils or musketeers—shout “Fact!” or “Headline!” before dramatically reading their headline or letter or article. This technique, used later in the show, comes to feel like CPR: each exclamation is a stiff-armed thrust to the sternum of a quietly suffering script. The tension here is false: if the “facts” of photographs are subjective, why not the “facts” of other media; and if the “facts” of all media are subjective, why the barked assertion of facthood? It excites without meaning anything.

Anyway, after this greatest hits roll-call describes a hazy outline of Ms. Mann’s career, the three muses (or whatever) conjure up a man named Thomas Kramer (Stephen Thorne). Kramer is a fictional character, a lawyer whose wife has died a year after buying one of Mann’s landscape photographs. Hoping to revisit a time in his life when he was happy, Kramer goes to a New York City museum to look at Mann’s other landscape photographs. Only he doesn’t find landscapes. He sees a picture of Mann’s young daughter’s face, looking savagely beaten; he sees Mann’s young son’s naked torso, covered in some dark, viscous substance; he sees the daughter again, naked, caught in the big hands and between the large dark legs of an older man. The photographs disgust him not because he’s a reactionary or a naïf, but because they challenge his instinctive, absolute ideas of propriety, protection, and privacy. What follows is a series of intermittently exciting dialogues between Kramer and Scurria about Art and Interpretation, mediated by the three amigos and interrupted occasionally by monologues from other more or less relevant figures: an AP editor, the advertising photographer responsible for the infamous Brooke Shields jeans ad, a woman caught up in a child pornography investigation because of a report from the photo lab where she had dropped off nude prints of her young children playing.

Any of these stories would make a better play than the one we find ourselves watching; but as we know, we go to the theater with the drama we have, not the drama we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The problem with Some Things Are Private is not with the performances. Anne Scurria really is wonderful as Mann. The script has her reading lines culled from interviews, but she invests the mannered speech of guarded personal disclosure with a sense of urgency and discovery. Her performance is fresh and full with revelation. Stephen Thorne is a pleasure to watch, but, as always, his slightly muppetish ebullience undermines the threat of real feeling. When his performances come to a boil they force his long arms and fingers out and away from his body. Although expansive, this gesturing feels less expressive than simply theatrical; we wonder what would happen if he contained that energy and let it build up steam. Still, his performance allows us to understand how a single father addresses, sadly and stridently, a world that he fears is full of meanness. The other actors all read their lines with vigor, but they have no characters to animate. Donnely, Duclos, and Warren do their best and they have their moments, but they run around a lot and seem to get nowhere.

The problems with Some Things Are Private are in its structure and its biases. First, as I have already suggested, the story that focuses the play isn’t nearly as compelling as either Mann’s own ruminations on the nature of art or the short anecdotes used illustratively throughout the show. Boots on the Ground, Salem Smith’s and Kepley’s verbatim piece about the Iraq War, succeeded because we got to know all of the characters; their struggles to endure the war as soldiers in the thick of battle or spouses at home provided insight and drama. There was no need for theatrical intervention: although the characters rarely explicitly addressed each other, their monologues overlapped and engaged one another. With them a time and a place were woven into existence. Some Things Are Private spans decades, I think, or at least several years (it's impossible to tell), and relies on short, if punchy, letters to the editor of major newspapers for much of its intellectual inertia. No wonder the three witches create Thomas Kramer. The sprawl of the piece, and its reliance on desultory and near-anonymous newspaper clippings, diffuses its own relevance, but not even Kramer can restore it.

Then there’s the problem of bias. Here we have artists—playwrights and actors—defending the freedom, even the sanctity, of artistic expression: they are, in effect, advocating for their own usefulness and unimpeachability. Bravo! So while Kramer flails his arms around and sputteringly accuses Mann of provocation and dissemblance, Mann is privileged with a script that gives her the benevolent patience and Socratic cunning of Jesus countering Pontius Pilate: you say I am a provocateur, not I. She is also provided a soundtrack, even if it is a cheesy exercise in Americana, that blesses her mission with the unction of innocence, of inviolability; in the play’s battle for hearts and minds, only our hearts are engaged. Of course, Kramer has no angelic folk-trio underscoring his points; he is on is own.

Some Things Are Private shows at Trinity Rep. through March 23.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hipster Heaven

I can't help posting about this: making pizza (sauce recipe based on suggestions from Claire's Corner Copia Cookbook by Claire Criscuolo, crust recipe from Al Forno: Oven-Baked Dishes from Italy by Maxine Clark) while listening to The New Pornographers' classic debut Mass Romantic. Sick. Abolutely sick.

Saw Trinity Rep's Some Things Are Private last night. There are real successes--Anne Scurria is close to perfect as photographer Sally Mann, and Stephen Thorne is, as always, totally engaged and engaging--and there are problems, particularly with the histrionic contrivances of the so-called verbatim piece. I'll have a review posted tomorrow sometime.

In the meantime, "Visualize success but don't believe your eyes." You know.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Books I Have Loved (But Never Finished)

I'm not going to lie: I haven't read Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I have read enough, and am happy enough about my inclinations and biases, that I rarely find myself simply inventing a familiarity with an author or a book. I'm not embarrassed by my complete ignorance of Austen, Eliot, or Hardy--though perhaps I should be--so it never pains me to admit it even to extremely literary friends.

What does sometimes hurt is recommending a book to a friend when I haven't finished it. I don't mean a book that I haven't finished yet; I mean a book that, after repeated serious attempts, I have never finished and may never finish. Perhaps this discomfort is telling me something, but I find that I simply can't help it; I'm an inveterate recommender. Plus, I have read far enough into these books, and enjoyed them enough to that point, that I have no real qualms about suggesting them to other people.

Here are a few:

Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller (yes, that Henry Miller)
Dalva, Jim Harrison
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

If I've recommended these books to you with an evangelist's zeal, well, keep in mind that most evangelists haven't finished the Bible, either. It's pretty tough going in the middle.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Nue Propriété (Private Property)

What exactly is the private property of Joachim Lafosse's troubling movie of the same name (Nue Propriété, last Saturday and Sunday at the Cable Car as part of the Providence French Film Festival)? Is it simply the remote house over which beleaguered divorcée Pascale struggles with her grown sons, twins Thierry and François? Is it the inhospitable landscape of their uneasy relationships, which both mother and sons defend vigilantly? Or is it Pascale herself, whose mid-life claims to her own destiny and desire would deprive her neotenic sons of food, shelter, and an object of their inchoate lust? Lafosse, who wrote and directed, assiduously avoids answering these questions; he is interested not in resolution but in tensility. The real question for him is not What is private property?, but What is it worth?

The house at the center of the movie is a sprawling rural chateau (the full expanse of which we glimpse only in the film’s final scene). Ten years after “winning” the estate and the responsibility for the children in her divorce from porcine and prosperous Luc (Patrick Descamps), Pascale, underemployed and listless, is ready to sell the property to raise money for a b & b she hopes to open with her chef boyfriend, Jan. When she announces her intentions at one of her small family's many shared meals, Thierry (Jérémie Renier) wolfishly dismantles not only his mother's plans to start a business but also her already-fragile self-confidence while weak-willed older brother François (Yannick Renier) mutely watches. Chastened, Pascale quietly repudiates her idea; things remain as they have always been. This scene plays out repeatedly during the movie: when Pascale gets a haircut, Thierry calls her whorish; when she meets guiltily with an appraiser, Thierry intimidates her; when she invites Jan for dinner to help her convince the boys that it’s time for them to move on, Thierry seems prepared to attack him until she restores peace by renouncing her intentions and urging everyone to simply eat. Eventually, we know, something will have to happen.

Cinematographer Hichame Alaouie captures these episodes in dark single-take shots that persist long past the point of discomfort, embarrassment, or guilt; he knows that nothing defuses eroticism like showing too much. Here, the camera documents, never emotes. Even when the action, such as it is, reaches its climactic pitch, Alaouie is an implacable observer. His patience, like Lafosse’s, is almost clinical: how long, he asks, can a scene stretch before it breaks?

Given such charismatic actors, the answer must be very long indeed. Jérémie Renier is terrific as the pyretic younger brother Thierry. He is a handsome kid with a cold, hard glint in his eye. Renier’s real-life brother Yannick plays brooding mama’s boy François; he finds the sinister in François’s loyalty to his mother. Isabelle Huppert, wan but still lovely, conveys Pascale’s stunted yearnings without resorting to bathos. There’s nothing sentimental, nothing maudlin, in Pascale’s dilemma: she’s still very much a child, too.

It’s hard not to look at Nue Propriété as a broad indictment of capitalism, and it’s harder still to imagine a movie this saturnine—a tragedy about home ownership!—being made in the U.S. Pascale isn’t galvanized by the contest over property the way a spunky American heroine might be; she’s paralyzed by it. Her only capital is this house, bought with her husband’s wealth; her job, we suspect, is far away and unfulfilling; and her duties at home go unrecognized and uncompensated. She is severed from any urban center; cut off from the dignifying and validating relationship of marriage to a powerful earner; and imprisoned in her refuge. Capitalism, Lafosse suggests, is really no better than serfdom. And the price of participation is always too high.

* House of Sand and Fog is a tragedy around a house, but it's really more about dispossession than ownership. In Nue Propriété, ownership is dispossession: our claims to places and people demand only the surrender of our sovereignty.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saturday Night Life

Tonight's options, for all of us here in snowy, gray Providence:

The Pillowman, at Pawtucket's Gamm Theater (final weekend);

The French Film Festival hosted by the Cable Car;

Richard III, at Trinity Rep;

Some Things Are Private, an original play also at Trinity Rep;

and, if you really wanted to, an all-day, multi-media triple-header (that's food, fun, and rocktasmagoria) at AS220.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Home is where the art is

Saw Persepolis tonight at the Avon on Providence's East Side. What a beautiful movie. I hope to have something more to say about it tomorrow. For now all I can think about is artistic creativity, personal integrity, and the home. (I guess I've got home on the brain as I get my affairs in order here at the Villa Borghese.) Poverty is easy to invoke as an excuse for artistic impotence: how can one write (or paint, or sing), after all, when one has nothing? Osip Mandelstam, quoted by his wife Nadezhda in her memoir, Hope Against Hope, rejects this reasoning: "'Why aren't you writing now?' he asked [fellow author Sergei Borisovich Rudakov]. 'If someone has something to say, he will always say it.'" Indeed, for Mandelstam, the illusions of independence and agency associated with material ownership stifle true freedom of spirit; deracination is a prerequisite for creativity. And creativity, not incidentally, is the real invigorating spirit of resistance--hence the violent oppression of the arts under all totalitarian regimes.

Persepolis is also very much about integrity, which here is not meant as the specific and subjective distinction of right from wrong but rather the broader distinction of choice from compulsion. In an echo of Mandelstam, the heroine's grandmother admonishes her after an indefensible perfidy that one always has a choice. Marjane eventually chooses to leave her husband, and finally to leave Iran for France. This right, this obligation, to choose is an existential imperative; it intimidates us; and so we stay home.

Finding Richard

One of my primary reasons for starting this blog was to generate a forum for serious and substantive thinking about Providence's arts scene. For whatever reason--the city's small size and relative intimacy; a peculiar aversion to intellectualism or an admirable distaste for pretension; an established, historical collegiality among local performative and critical organs--Providence's reviewers are remarkably gentle. What I mean is not that our reviewers always give "good" reviews, though they nearly always do, but that they rarely engage in the provocative and important work of critical rough-housing. It's not that I would have Bill Rodriguez, Michael Janusonis, or Channing Gray betray their honest impressions or their natures to give us gratuitously scathing reviews. But I would love for them to challenge us, and the productions they review (be they culinary, theatrical, or cinematic), with a vigorous intellectual curiosity.

Take, for example, Channing Gray's review of Trinity Repertory Theater's Richard III. After describing the "in-your-face" lighting and "gun-toting soldiers" (breathlessly hyphenated descriptions being the lingua franca of Providence arts writers) he informs us that this is "free-wheeling" and "muscular" Shakespeare. And what should follow these compelling descriptors but...a summary of Richard III. I understand the importance of summary in a review; and if I had not visited Wikipedia's Richard III article before seeing the show I would surely have been entirely shut out from it. But by summarizing the show--that is, by focusing on what Shakespeare wrote rather than what Trinity Rep gives us--Gray does a real disservice to this particular performance and to the people of Providence. We never learn what makes this show "free-wheeling" and we never learn if the show is "muscular" because of its moral conviction, its violent barbarity, or its rhetorical audacity. A serious review, in other words, would at least try to explain what Kevin Moriarty and the actors of Trinity Rep tell us about Richard III or our own elected officials or powerful public officials anywhere or simply power, wherever and by whomever it is held. On these questions, Gray is mute.

I was no fan of the show myself; it was unmoored from any place or time, and thus from any real character or consequence. Channing Gray notes that the characters carry "guns, not swords," and are dressed in "modern military getups." These cosmetic decisions, I guess, transmit existential truths; for Gray, they help make the play's "political message seem all the more relevant." And what "political message" is that? How does setting the play in an unnamed place in an indeterminate time reify its "political message"? These are the sorts of questions that matter; these are the questions that need to be asked to challenge audience members and troupe members alike. The glib bromide about Shakespeare's relevance getting a boost from guns and getup means nothing and provokes nothing.

Still, the show has real strengths. Brian McEleney's Richard III is more snake (or serpent) than wolf: his sibilant feints and manipulations work because he knows that they are all he has. In a world governed by natural law his physical deformities are a liability, so he must create a parallel world--a play, even, of which he is both star and director. Early in the evening I doubted this Richard's menace and his conviction--he seemed almost too theatrical to survive real slings and arrows--but by the time that Lord Hastings, confident in his standing with Richard, whispers to a fellow lord "I think there's never a man in Christendom/That can less hide his love or hate than he;/For by his face straight shall you know his heart" I had come to see his power to invent and to act as his only weapon. Jonathan Bate, in an essay for Harper's (April, 2007), suggests that "Shakespeare's most successful characters are the best actors"; McEleney, clearly, was thinking the same thing.

The beaches of RI


I can't summon the spirit of ironic vitriol or apocalyptic zeal that animated Henry Miller when he welcomed reader-guests to his Villa Borghese in the first, short, blistering paragraph of The Tropic of Cancer:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.

Indeed, my life in Providence, Rhode Island is antithetical to Miller's in Paris. His was itinerant, frustrated, periodically exultant, and lice-infested; mine is domestic, predictable, and, except for the occasional cat-related (and possibly imagined) flea problem, hygienically sound. I invoke Miller, then, not as a kindred spirit but as a model--of urgency, voracity, and authenticity.

Miller finishes his long introduction to Tropic, an introduction that has indulged in the most bitter (or juvenile?) despair ("There is no escape."), with a strident affirmation:

To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.

The Tropic of Cancer is about various "conquering worms"--time, war, illness, ennui, resignation--but it is, and is also about, the wild song we sing to sustain and inspire us as we go.

I hope that my virtual Villa Borghese will provide the right acoustics for whatever song it is I'm singing.

Thanks for visiting.