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.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trinity Rep's Paris By Night

In his program notes, writer Curt Columbus explains that Paris By Night (at Trinity Rep through June 1st) is the realization of two dreams: an old dream, of writing a musical set in Paris; and a more recent dream, of writing a musical about two men falling in love. Even in a pop culture replete with examples of gay characters and ever-more comfortable with gay romance, this project still has something adventurous about it. The familiar love story, in which a man falls in love with a women, or vice versa, is still prevalent, though it has been supplemented, and even buttressed, by a new one—a man might fall in love with another man, but he will most likely die from it. In other words, sexuality is destiny: heterosexuality promises abundance and satisfaction; homosexuality is a sentence. What makes Paris By Night exciting and resonant is that it dares to show two men not only falling in love but living, we are encouraged to imagine, happily ever after. The terminal trajectory of gay life, its tragic arc as traced by countless movies, novels, and plays, is inverted: in Curt Columbus’s Paris, it tends upward and opens outward.

For all of its sanguinity and approachability, Paris By Night has at its center a disquieting question: Can we ever become anyone other than who we think we are? Or, to put it another way, is who we think we are who we really are? Sam (Joe Wilson, Jr.), an expatriate tattoo artist living in Paris, thinks he is a rose: most dangerous because he is treacherous. Having attracted and betrayed a lover in San Francisco, he has fled to Paris to live quietly in his self-abnegation. He practices his craft—a craft, after all, of the arm’s length and the skin-deep—and lives in a sort of suspended maturation, knowing that he can never go back to San Francisco but too wary of his own perfidy to move on. Into his studio, which, we understand, is also his refuge, stammers Buck (James Royce Edwards), an America G.I. stationed in Germany and on leave in France. Buck is inveterately open to the world: his guileless wonder is an antidote to Sam’s weary, practiced cynicism. For Sam, the world is dark with occluded possibilities, the OPEN sign of his parlor the brightest thing in it. Buck believes that somewhere on his life’s periphery glow the warm lights of a home; he just doesn’t know what home looks like, or which road will lead him there. He explains to Sam that boxing will be his path to self-hood—he has come for a tattoo that will identify him in the ring—but his innate sweetness would seem to undercut the toughness needed for that sport. Indeed, Columbus has given him a charm as powerful as a left hook, and for which Sam has no defense. He reluctantly agrees to house him and show him around town during his short stay.

Perhaps a show as strenuously apolitical as this feels a particular obligation to demonstrate its awareness of bigotry and irrational distrust. In that corner stands Frank (Mauro Hantman), one of Buck’s fellow G.I.s. His intention is not to savor Paris but to conquer it: having already won the heart of good-natured chanteuse Marie (Rachael Warren, whose voice has a new confidence and luster), he nevertheless indulges his appetites with the many ladies who linger around the sleazy hotel where he and the other G.I.s—like romantic underdog, Patrick (the rubbery and winning Stephen Thorne)—are staying. Aside from casual misogyny, Frank displays an overt homophobia and a thinly veiled racism: he is this show’s ugly American. Hantman plays him with a slow swagger and an unkempt accent—vowels settle only gradually into place, and all of his sentences have a downward cadence—so his menace takes on the quality of shorthand: we know what these symbols are supposed to mean. I don’t mean to say that Frank is a weak character, but that his role in the show feels dimly realized. When Sam and Frank finally do confront each other, their collision is both inevitable and enervated. Sam gets to demonstrate his formidable power, but over what?

The real power of this show is in its evocation of different kinds of love. The friendship between Sam and Buck that blossoms into a vibrant love; the long-standing, unspeakably close bond between Sam and his old mentor and benefactor, Harry (beautifully played by Stephen Berenson); the unnourished, wasted romance between Frank and Marie; and Patrick’s febrile infatuation with Marie that may, with time, be reciprocated. People may not be immutably flowers or thorns, but love is, by nature, aculeate. Without belaboring the point, Paris By Night reminds us that love has always been a hazardous enterprise, and that neither the sexual revolution nor HIV/AIDS despoiled an erotic Eden. The only mention of sexually transmittable disease is Patrick’s comic rejection of a prostitute’s come-on: “Je ne veux pas…le syphillus!” He blurts. No orientation has a monopoly on love’s potential to scar. Paris By Night is studiously not about gay love in a straight world, or straight love as an oppressive, otiose institution; it is about the risk that all of us take when we acknowledge who we are and who we want to be ourselves with.

Anchoring the play to this serious uncertainty are Joe Wilson, Jr. and James Royce Edwards. Wilson gives Sam’s resignation a realistic willfulness; like anyone stuck in a torpor, he is alert to the possibility of being jarred from it. The performance, then, has a terrific dynamism. Wilson can convey gravity and impishness in sequential gestures—though, when asked to express wonder or awe, he occasionally confuses his gifts and offers us something more like impartial judgment. (It is strange being told that Paris is beautiful in a way that suggests that disagreement would be imprudent.) Just as sensitive and enthralling as Wilson is Edwards, who was brought to Trinity specifically for this role. His Buck is full of yearning and confusion, but steadied by an inarticulate moral sense, a basic decency. Columbus’s writing has a tendency towards exposition but Edwards finds the energy that animates it; the words come out of him like dammed-up waters released. In fact, the grace of release is at the heart of Paris By Night. Tattoos, though permanent, can take on new meanings; roads home thought straight can swerve.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My Blueberry Ni--oh, forget about it

You have two more evenings to see Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights at the Cable Car. But if you can just hold out long enough, it'll go away and you'll miss it; Canvas, starring Joe Pantoliano and Marcia Gay Harden, starts on Friday. I had never heard of Canvas before checking out Cable Car's website and I can't quite put a face to either of its two stars' names, but I'm sure that as a statement on the human condition and as the product of actual vision and discernible effort, it represents a significant improvement over the film currently gracing Cable Car's screen. (At least at 9:00--the 7:00 show, Under the Same Moon, looks touching and sincere.) I'm not even sure I can justify a review of Blueberry Nights: it's a garish and cheap-looking movie, with garish and cheap performances and a story so lazily sketched that calling it cheap would be doubling its value. It's not an ode to loneliness: loneliness has weight; it's not a song of America: in Blueberry Nights, there is no there anywhere; it's not a meditation on the passing of time and space: without any real ache or change, we don't believe that anything has happened. Maybe the film's strangeness--its weird inhumanity and its seemingly arbitrary technique--is the traumatic result of the many cuts made after its indifferent debut at Cannes. If so, it would seem these cuts were not simply cosmetic but extirpative: something vital was removed in the process. It's easier to believe that the movie was made without a heart, or wherever conscience and sympathy originate, in the first place.

Norah Jones plays Elizabeth, who discovers through café-owner Jeremy (Jude Law) that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. She decides she has to get away--New York City being famous for its suffocating intimacy--and ends up working at a bar in Memphis, Tennessee. We are told, at least, that it is Memphis; neither the accents of its alcoholic policeman and his ex-wife (David Strathiarn and Rachael Weisz), nor the blurry outside shots by cinematographer Darius Khondji, suggest as much. She leaves Memphis--for no other reason than that the movie makes her--and meets a cocky gambler (Natalie Portman) in a small casino town in Texas. They drive to Las Vegas together, and then Elizabeth ends up driving all--the--way--back--to--New--York--City. And, still, there's Jeremy, the pie-baking Penelope, staying open late, turning away all advances, and saving a plate and a fork for the prodigal pastry-eater.

The movie sounds trivial because it is. It has no agenda or interests, no eloquence or insight. It respects neither the particular natures of its characters, nor the generalizable myths of travel and redemption in the American West.
My Blueberry Nights suggests no hierarchy of emotions or values, so the story is not so much Picaresque as clumsily democratic: all plots and philosophies are created equal. There's no menace, and there's no promise of transcendence. Elizabeth, we learn, discovers who she is during the course of her travels, but Wong Kar Wai doesn't trust her enough to truly test her: she is too brittle a creation, too feeble a character, to sustain a real existential confrontation. When she returns to New York City, she informs Jeremy that she's changed. And though we've been with her through most of her adventure, it comes as news to us as well.

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5-08-08. Elizabeth isn't brittle; she's vaporous. When confronted by the world's hardness she disperses and immediately reassembles. The point, I guess, is that her boyfriend's betrayal has reduced her to spectral transparency: having defined herself through him, she disappears when he does. But the film's plot is so indiscriminate, its script so aphoristic, its acting so gestural, and its cinematography so vitiating, that we simply don't care. We can't wait to return to the world we know--complex, manic, and colorful.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Paris by Night Review Round-Up

Sandy MacDonald's astringent review for is unapologetically negative. PBN is a "watery pastiche," its musical mode "reductive," and its characters "hackneyed." It wears its musical and narrative influences too obviously on its sleeve and is "a tedious, if earnest, slog." Her writing is bracingly saline.

Louise Kennedy at the Boston Globe recognizes the same influences but evaluates the show on its own merits. It's "an old song in a new key." Her review is lively and admiring.

James Merolla at the Sun Chronicle gushes but can't quite get over the gay love story. He calls it "controversial" (there's no better way to provoke controversy) and asserts, broadly and blandly, that one's response to the show "depends completely on [one's] liberal or conservative bent." Me
rolla is so liberal that he can't contain himself: his review is a wonderful collage of extravagant adjectives.

Channing Gray rebuts Louise Kennedy: PBN is an old song in an old key. His is a dull-edged piece with some legitimate questions--what does the lovely and urbane singer Marie see in the troglodytic and duplicitous Frank?--but, as always, it's strangely vacant. Gray seems to have no interest in human nature or in expressive language; reading him is like reading joyless notes, carelessly scrawled, casually disposed.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Channing Gray: This is Not the Show You're Looking For

Channing Gray is back with a review of Trinity Rep's Paris By Night that is as inoffensive as it is indifferent. That is, until the penultimate paragraph, when he unwraps this jewel of a reassurance. It glitters with tactlessness and curiosity:
And for those who are not big on guy-on-guy relations, not to worry. This is not a racy show. There’s very little face-to-face contact, and nothing like simulated sex or hard-core leather-bar action.
(Thank God, the doyens of the East Side exhale; if I have to sit through one more hard-core leather-bar musical at Trinity I'm just gonna puke.)

I love how this paragraph builds to an erotic climax, gratuitous and trivial. Don't worry about this show, he says; I'll give you something to get all bunched up about. From "guy-on-guy relations" to "leather-bar action," the paragraph swells with its own heated concupiscence. There are so many honest, discrete ways to say what he's trying to say, but Gray has an irrepressibly carbonated imagination. So it's not enough to write--as though even this were necessary--that the show is basically PG-rated; he has to vividly describe the salacious show from which Providence would have to be protected by his warning. But in the process of approving the show's character he actually impugns its provenance and genre: he limits the show by association. I suspect Gray was trying to allay theater-goers' concerns, but his effort is leering and disingenuous.

Therefore, as a service to the people of Providence, I offer a comprehensive, alphabatized list of all the other things that are not in this show: avacados, bears, cars, data, everything not related to the love story between Sam and Buck, flocks of geese, Gary Hart, Heart, imprisonment (except for the metaphysical, symbolic kind), Jell-O, karate, lassos, maps indicating Paris's numerous leather-bars, narcotics, origami, parakeets, quintuplets, Reaganomics, severed heads (!!!), terrorists, underpants, verandas, whipping of hot hot men with a cat o' nine tails and then tying them to a bed and going CRAZY on them all night, xeroxing of data, yogurt, zebras (duh).

These things were also not in such plays as Antigone, Much Ado About Nothing, and Death of a Salesman. (Oklahoma! did have lassos and, possibly, underpants, so it's not on this list.) Now you can decide if Paris By Night is really the show for you.