Thursday, January 31, 2019

Annette Insdorf: Cinematic Overtures

One of the most distinctive film openings in the history of American movies is that of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).  Released towards the end of the American New Wave period, it violates so many traditional cinematic norms that it would have been shocking and, literally, unthinkable to previous generations of film-makers and possibly even film-goers.  Its transgressions are many.  First, Allen looks directly into the camera and addresses us, completely shattering the fourth wall.  He will do this repeatedly in the film.  Second, he is overtly ethnic, in his case, Jewish.  For decades Hollywood hid/hides ethnicity and race, but Allen embraces it.  And one of the major themes of the film is what it means to be Jewish.  Third, he gives away the ending, namely, that he and Annie have broken up.  So this is a boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl story.  The old studio heads  - and their successors - wouldn't be fond of that.  And finally, the very look of the shot (Gordon Willis is the cinematographer) sends a message.  Full of tans and browns - even the red in Allen's shirt is muted - it tell us that, yes, this is a comedy, but it's been put together with a level of care and thought normally reserved for important drama.  In other words, the whole movie is right there in its opening scene.  The way a great novelist or composer will take extra effort on the beginning of their works, so too do great film-makers.

And that’s the subject of Annette Insdorf’s intelligent new book Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes.  “Overtures” is the right word.  Just as the overture to a musical or opera sets the tone for the rest of the piece, so, too, does the opening scene of a film.  She doesn’t mention it but some films (Gone With the Wind, Laurence of Arabia, etc.) begin with an actual musical overture playing while a title card “Overture” (how convenient) is shown on screen.  Although that practice has been largely abandoned today, Insdorf notes that some films still use their opening credits sequence to create a literal cinematic overture.  As two powerful examples of this she cites Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as well as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull featuring a robed Robert DeNiro slow-motion shadow-boxing in the ring while the lush “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana plays in the background.  (Is it perhaps relevant that both these directors, as well as Allen, are from New York City?)

Insdorf breaks down opening scenes into various types.  There are “Narrative Within the Frame” - think of the single long-shot opening of Touch of Evil or The Player.  Or the first shot and the entire first scene of The Godfather.  There’s also “Narrative Between Frames” - films such as Spielberg’s Schindler List which use editing or montage to start the story or set a tone.  There are films that establish a single point, usually of the protagonist (The Graduate, Taxi Driver), and others which have a collective protagonist (Magnolia, Day for Night).  Another category is “Voice-Over Narration/Flashback” (Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty).  And probably the most interesting of all: “Misdirection” - films whose beginnings deceive us (The Truman Show, for instance).  These categories are of course fluid.  Insdorf puts Truffaut’s Day for Night in the category of films with a collective protagonist but its long opening shot could easily place it among the “Narrative Within a Frame” group.  

But there’s no need to quibble.  Insdorf loves movies, and if her enthusiasm leads her astray from time to time on the cinematic taxonomy, one really doesn’t mind.  This is less a “how to” book and more like listening to a really smart friend go off on the films she loves.  There are insights on practically every page.  For instance, she notes that Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a journey from verticality to circularity (a.k.a. pointlessness).  The film opens with a dizzying shot of Spanish conquistadors scaling precipitous mountain paths; it ends with a shot of Aguirre on his raft - insane, doomed, and alone except for dozens of monkeys - while the camera circles him repeatedly (both scenes are below).  She goes on to observe that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse, Now (which resembles Aguirre in many ways) borrows that circularity by having a song named “The End” start the film.  Beginnings, endings - what’s the difference? the film-makers seem to be saying; the imperial adventure always winds up in failure and futility. 

Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties from 1975 (another film Insdorf examines) is not only still a criminally under-appreciated film but it also has one of the most unique openings you’ll ever see.  It’s made up entirely of documentary footage of World War II - Hitler and Mussolini shaking hands, buildings exploding, bombs falling from planes - while a voice recites a poem punctuated with the phrase “Oh, yeah.”  In the background a cheesy jazz score plays a popular Italian song.  The poem was written by Enzo Janacci, a singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian, and cardiologist.  This opening scene perfectly encapsulates the irony, anger, and irreverence with which Wertmüller will treat her subject.  It also captures the insanity of World War II.  This is the kind of film opening you would expect from Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Günter Grass if they were accomplished film-makers.  Only about four minutes into the film does its protagonist (Giancarlo Giannini) show up - interlaced, at first in black and white, with the documentary footage until his presence takes over and the story begins - and the film transitions to color, too.

Insdorf’s tastes are eclectic; she examines Hollywood hits and art house rarities.  Smartly, she spends the time explaining the movies most of us haven’t seen so we can follow along with her argument.  Many new titles were added to my Netflix list.  Also, she intentionally ignores films from the silent as well as from the classic Hollywood epoch (mid-1930s to mid-1950s).  Her interest is almost entirely in the period of about 1958 to the present.  Prior to then only a few film-makers (Welles, Ford, Hitchcock) had the latitude to begin their films in unique ways.  She and I have similar tastes.  Citing the widely shared belief that 1939 was “the pinnacle of American film history,” she offers the brave dissent that 1974 was a year of equal significance in Hollywood film.  Her evidence: The Godfather, Part 2, Chinatown, The Conversation, Harry and Tonto, Lenny, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Thieves Like Us, and Young Frankenstein (among others).  Uncited on her list: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Sugarland Express, Blazing Saddles, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Towering Inferno, Fritz the Cat, and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three.  It was a good year for low-brows, too.

And this brings me to my one complaint with her book.  There aren't many contemporary films which she examines.  Although the book was published in 2017, she seems to be, as am I (and certainly as is this blog post!), a little trapped in the past.  She has interesting observations about films from the 1990s such as The Piano, American Beauty, Fight Club, etc. (though, strangely, she has nothing to say about the incredible opening scene of Scorsese's Goodfellas), but she doesn't comment about many movies from the millennium on.  And that's a shame.  I would love to know what she thinks of the openings scenes of, say, Children of Men, or Birdman, or any of the works of Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson.  Still, this is a minor complaint.  Cinematic Overtures is a thoughtful and outstanding book.  And here's a video - from the now sadly defunct FilmStruck - in which she discusses it.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Seattle Rep: Last of the Boys

On Friday night I went to see Last of the Boys at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.  So bad.  Written by Steven Dietz and set at the beginning of the millennium, Last of the Boys tells the story of Ben, a former Vietnam vet living alone in a trailer in the California desert.  He is visited there by his friend Jeeter, a fellow Vietnam vet.  Jeeter is something of a hippie - long-haired, obsessed with music, always eager to protest, etc.  During Jeeter’s last road trip he picked up a young girl named Salyer and fell in love with her.  She soon joins the pair.  And in hot pursuit of Salyer is her mom, Lorraine, eager to take her daughter away from these two weirdos and get her safely home.  The final character in the play is The Young Soldier, a ghost or a mirage or a figment of Ben’s imagination.  Ben, you see, has a problem.  He keeps having recurrent fantasies in which he believes that he is in fact Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and the chief architect of US military escalation in Vietnam.  When The Young Soldier enters, the lights change, and Ben puts on a white shirt, tie, and jacket.  Then, as McNamara, he takes questions from the press or reads statements about troop levels, etc.

This play is a mess.  It certainly has nothing to tell us about Vietnam.  If Dietz finds McNamara an intriguing figure then he should have written a play about McNamara and not a play about a vet who occasionally thinks he’s McNamara.  That doesn’t really get us anywhere.  It’s a truism that many of the boys who served in Vietnam came home with severe psychological problems; putting that onstage in 2004 (which is when Last of the Boys premiered) is hardly original.  In an interview in the program notes Dietz comments that “this play is not ‘about’ Vietnam”; that war is just something he uses “to pressurize the friendships and relationships inside the play,” whatever that means.  But even as a chronicle of pressurized relationships the play disappoints.  The friendship between Ben and Jeeter feels forced.  Aside from the war, they don’t seem to have much in common.  They don't even seem to like each other. Over the course of the play they fight but they make up in the end because, dammit, they’re bros.  And the two women seem to be added for the sole purpose of making this a full-length play rather than a one-act one (which probably would have been better).  All during this play I kept asking myself (as so Americans did during the actual Vietnam War) “What’s the point of all this?” and I too never got an answer.

Sadly, most of the actors also lack conviction.  They seemed to be phoning it in (at least I hope they were).  Reginald André Jackson seemed much too well-adjusted for a vet suffering from PTSD.  Kate Wisniewski was also not believable as the boozy, tough Lorraine.  When Lorraine talks about the life-altering moment when she opened the frig one morning and grabbed a beer rather than the orange juice, it completely lacked authenticity to me - a healthy fruit smoothie would be more her style.  Kevin Anderson gave it his best but lacks the unpredictability and mania to be convincing as Jeeter (and, yes, the character is a bit of a cliché).  Emily Chisholm was a serviceable Salyer.  The only person who really pulled off his role was Josh Kenji as The Young Soldier.  Every time he entered in his crisp and shiny uniform he oozed believability; it was a welcome relief.  Last of the Boys was directed by Braden Abraham.

If, after all I've written, you still want to see this play, you have until February 10th to do so. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Medieval Monsters

Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders by Sherry C. M. Lindquist and Asa Simon Mittman is an informative, well-written, and well-illustrated book about what people in the Middle Ages thought about monsters and how the artists of the period depicted them (the monsters, that is, not the people).  It’s the companion volume to the exhibition held at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City last year and is based almost entirely on their extensive collection of medieval maps, tapestries, and books.  Especially books.  And specifically “books of hours”, which were devotional volumes containing prayers, psalms, and other liturgical texts for believers to use during the course of the day.  These texts were also beautifully and lavishly illustrated. 

Humans love monsters.  There’s never been an era or a people that don’t have them. Even in our own rationalistic society millions of people are fascinated with zombies, vampires, aliens, and critters like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  Lindquist and Mittman cite the work of Peter Dendle who observed in 2012 that even today “the need for monsters is acute.”  That need has probably never been more acute than in the Middle Ages and that era’s creative use of them puts us to shame.  Monsters were real to people in medieval era in a way that they could never be to us.  For us, monsters are mostly a guilty pleasure.  

Mark the lion
But in that deeply religious time, monsters were not only evil and scary, they were also signs of the divine.  Augustine explicitly states that God creates monsters to show how powerful he is, to demonstrate to everyone that only he has the capacity to transcend the laws of nature (which, they believed, he created in the first place).  Thus the gargoyles atop a cathedral were symbols of the power which protected it.  Bishops had dragons engraved or sculpted into their croziers.  There are numerous legends of Christian proselytizers who got skinned alive or who had their head cut off and still went on preaching, sometimes even walking the town with their head in their hands and sermonizing.  This book contains several of those gory illustrations.  Of the four gospel writers, three were commonly depicted as animals: Luke as an ox, John as an eagle, and Mark as a lion.  Matthew was a human, but with wings.  The visuals could get quite freaky, too, as with the green-winged lion-human hybrid of Mark (above).  We don’t do anything like this today.  We don’t depict our presidents or prime ministers as animals or give them wings.  The phrase “lion of the Senate” is entirely metaphorical; if you painted one of them as an actual lion it would look silly. 

God’s power could make anything monstrous, even something as mundane as hair.  Mary Magdalene, for instance, was one of Christ’s followers, present at both his crucifixion and resurrection.  During the Middle Ages she was conflated with the nameless sinful female (a prostitute, actually) who, according to the Gospel of Luke the ox, wiped tears from Christ’s foot with her hair.  “The Magdalene’s body,” our authors note, “thus became a contested site of corruption and holiness, sin and redemption.”  And she became material for legend too.  According to one of them the penitent Magdalene moved to the desert “where her clothes disintegrated and her modesty was preserved only by her luxurious hair” which, being itself touched by holiness, grew to monstrous proportions.  In medieval art loose hair usually meant loose morals.  In the picture below Mary is entirely covered head to knee in hair and accompanied by angels.  Other artists weren’t so decorous, in some depictions a breast or two was allowed to peek out. 

A hairy Magdalene
Another female whose holiness was marked by unusual hair was Wilgefortis, a popular female saint from the late Medieval period.  She also went by the names Virgefortis, Liberata, Uncumber, among others.  These names translate respectively as “strong virgin,” “liberated,” “unencumbered.”  When her father, the King of Portugal, insisted that she marry, the pious Wilgefortis refused, telling him that she had “chosen God for her bridegroom.”  Wrong answer.  Dad was furious.  So she prayed to God to disfigure her, to “take all beauty from her in order to make her resemble him.”  And, lo and behold, the young girl soon sprouted a full beard.  This so enraged her father that he had her nailed to the cross just like Christ.  The painters depicting Wilgefortis’s crucifixion used the same iconography as they did for Christ’s: the cross dominated the picture, Wilgefortis’s head was bowed and haloed in gold, at the top of the picture the heavens opened and God looked down on her, etc.  However, the image below significantly departs from the legend.  Wilgefortis is not nailed to the cross but rather her hands and feet are merely tied to it.  She was the patron saint of, among other things, prisoners and women in labor.  In other words, she was the patron saint for women who didn't like being ruled by men or who regarded marriage as entrapment although, obviously, that could never be openly stated. 

As its title indicates, this book is in three sections: terrors, aliens, and wonders.  Despite its beautiful illustrations, those hoping for an awesome book of kick-ass monster pictures may be a little disappointed.  Lindquist and Mittman are much more interested in showing the full and deep range of medieval thinking about the monstrous.  Yes, there are wonderful pictures of demons and giants, and this book, like a medieval one, is full of strange little critters loitering in the margins, but the authors scope is much broader than the merely terrifying.  In the section on aliens, for example, they document how over time women, Jews, and Muslims were depicted as demons and monsters.  And the section on wonders focuses on the ordinary and extraordinary things which the medieval mind saw as imbued with divine presence.

For instance, a bestiary is a book, almost always illustrated, which collects together information about animals.  They were very popular in the middle ages.  Many of the animals they contain are legendary, and among the most popular of them with illustrators was the unicorn.  According to the "facts" contained in the breviaries, to catch a unicorn one needed to use a female virgin as bait.  Unicorns were apparently attracted by “the sweet smell of maidenhood.”  (Who isn’t?)  Once the beast placed his head in the virgin's lap, he would fall asleep.  At which point the hunters would attack and kill him.  This legend clearly shares many similarities to the Christ story (i.e. virgins, sacrificial death, etc.).  

A licking dragon
Legends surrounded real animals as well. Elephants, for example, were exotic animals during the medieval era but appear frequently in bestiaries.  One common belief about them was that the females give birth to their young in water.  Why?  One thirteenth-century source explains: “…because the dragon is of such an ardent nature that it cannot tolerate water, and if the dragon happened upon the young elephants, it would lick them and poison them.”  (Left)  In fact, there was something of a war on between dragons and elephants in the medieval imagination.  Another belief about elephants was that they were distinctly unlustful creatures.  The males were uninterested in sex unless a female elephant fed them a mandrake root (itself a object of legendary qualities).  This belief, obviously, is a retelling of the Adam and Eve story.  It was believed that dragons, once again obviously, must hate elephants because of their natural chasteness and incorruptibility.  Just as the serpent corrupted Adam and Eve, so too dragons must seek to destroy the virtuous elephant - which is exactly what we see in the picture below (though the dragon doesn't seem to be having much success).
A dragon attacking an elephant

Medieval Monsters, as you can see, is full of fascinating information about what people in medieval Europe thought about God, the natural world, and their own place in it.  A brief review can barely do justice to this outstanding volume.  And finally, because I know that many of you came to this post only because you wanted to see awesome pictures of demons and dragons, and instead all I gave you are illustrations of elephants and women with hair disorders, here are images of some random monstrosities from the book.  Enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2019


I saw the movie Panique this weekend.  It's an exceptionally good and powerful depiction of evil and mob violence.  Originally released in 1946, this was the first film which director Julien Duvivier made on his return to France after the end of World War II.  Few filmmakers were as good at creating lush and arresting images as Duvivier was, and Panique doesn’t disappoint in this regard.  This DVD is a recent release from The Criterion Collection so the visual quality was of the highest.  Although this film was a commercial and critical failure when it first came out, it’s been rediscovered and is now rightly regarded as one of Duvivier’s best films, if not his masterpiece.

The story concerns Monsieur Hire (played by Michel Simon), a reclusive and stand-offish single man living in a town outside of Paris.  One day a murdered woman’s corpse is discovered in an abandoned lot.  Soon the police are on the trail but they hit a dead end.  We film viewers, though, have learned that the killer is Alfred (Paul Bernard), one of the town’s slicker and more wily inhabitants.  We discover this one night when he admits to the murder to his girlfriend, Alice (the lovely and aptly named Viviane Romance).  This confession doesn’t disturb Alice at all.  She loves Alfred madly, and her biggest concern is making sure that he doesn’t get caught.  At the same time who else lays eyes on the lovely Alice but Monsieur Hire, and he immediately falls head over heels for her.  She doesn’t care for him in the least, but soon she and Alfred realize that they can pin the murder on the gullible Mr. Hire.  Alice needs only to convince the lonely fellow that she loves him in return so he’ll let his guard down.  And he does - to his doom.

This film is based on a 1933 novel Les fiançailles de M Hire by Georges Simenon (published in English by New York Review of Books Classics as The Engagement), and if you’ve read the novel you’re in for a surprise.  The film’s credits say that it was “inspired” by Simenon’s novel and that’s a better word than “adapted.”  Duvivier and co-screenwriter Charles Spaak have kept the plot of the original but almost entirely changed the character of M. Hire.  In Simenon, Hire is a fat, seedy, ex-con who earns a living by running mail order schemes.  He’s a low-level slime ball, a nobody, the kind of guy for whom becoming Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man” would be a major step up in life.  But in Duvivier and Spaak’s version Hire is a clean cut, up-standing citizen; there’s nothing sleazy about him.  He earns his living as a professional astrologer.  He has a mansion in the countryside and earlier in his life he practiced law and was even a judge.  

The two men do, though, share some characteristics.  Both are outsiders.  Both are voyeurs, Peeping Toms.  Duvivier’s Hire stands at his apartment window and stares into Alice’s hotel room while she undresses.  And both men are Jewish, although each version handles that very differently.  In Simenon’s novel, it’s overt.  Once folks in the neighborhood wrongly believe Monsieur Hire is the killer, their anti-semitism comes out.  Part of the shock of reading the novel is Simenon’s unflinching depiction of the ugliness of anti-semitism.  In the film, though, M. Hire’s Jewishness is only alluded to.  It’s never stated directly.  Panique is one of those films made in that era which wants to address issues of anti-semitism but is squeamish about referring to Jews.  (Gentlemen’s Agreement from 1947 had a similar annoying and cowardly evasiveness.)  

Michel Simon
Panique, like Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), powerfully captures the evil of mob violence.  This film is an indictment of the French people for their spontaneous murder of Jews before and during the war, as well as for their extra-legal killings of suspected collaborators after it.  No wonder this film bombed when it was first released.  No one in France wanted to hear this in 1946.  To be fair, Duvivier had spent the entire war safe in Hollywood; the people who had endured the Nazi occupation were in no mood to receive moral lectures from him.  Fortunately, seventy years later, we don’t carry that baggage.  

The acting in this film is very good.  The ursine Michel Simon puts in an excellent performance as Monsieur Hire.  Although quiet and subdued Hire is always different, he always sticks out, he’s eccentric.  With his soft lips and beard Simon depicts Hire as a gentle, almost scholarly soul, yet with a deep reservoir of misanthropy.  But sadly, not of suspicion.  Hire’s cynicism is that of a disillusioned idealist - as was Duvivier’s, by the way.  Given a chance to believe in others, Hire does so fatally.  And speaking of fatal, is there a femme more fatale than Viviane Romance’s Alice?  Like a good film noir heroine, she is rotten to the core.  As she pretends to love Hire we keep hoping that at some level she'll respond to his adoration, but she doesn’t.  It’s all an act.  She’s toying with him to destroy him.  She’s not just a cat playing with a mouse, she’s a cat convincing the needy little mouse to come closer because she loves him.  It’s much more evil.  Toward the end of the film, Duvivier tries to imply that she has some remorse for her actions, but I didn’t believe it.  Not for a second.

Viviane Romance and Paul Bernard

As usual The Criterion Collection has included many wonderful extras with this DVD.  Film scholars James Quandt and Lenny Borger have each contributed an essay.  Then there’s a  short documentary by Bruce Goldstein called The Art of Subtitles.  And there's a fascinating interview with Georges Simenon’s son, Pierre.  But the best is a discussion of this film and its place in Duvivier’s career by French film critics Eric Libiot and Guillemette Odicino.  They are a winsome pair.  Watching them you understand why if Paris is not the center of film-making it's most definitely the center of film appreciation. 

Monsieur Hire confronts the mob

After viewing the DVD supplements, one of the things that comes through about Panique is its possibly close relation to Alfred Hitchcock and his movies.  Although it’s not known if Hitchcock ever saw Panique, Libiot notices a lot of connections between it and Hitchock’s later works.  For instance, Monsieur Hire’s voyeurism is echoed by Jimmy Stewart’s in Rear Window (1954).  There’s a carnival in town in Panique (it’s not there in Simenon, though), and at the end we see people madly leaving the rides to join the crowd which will attack Monsieur Hire.  The climax of Strangers on a Train (1951) will similarly involve a carnival and its rides.  Finally - and most convincingly - the rooftop chase scene in Vertigo (1961) is very similar to the ending in Panique.  Fleeing the angry mob, Monsieur Hire winds up on the rooftop of a building with police in pursuit.  Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, he slips on the tiles and finds himself hanging onto a weak drain pipe for life.  Unlike Stewart, though, he doesn't make it.  The similarities are intriguing.  “And Uncle Alfred was no great fan of humanity either,” Odicino insouciantly throws in. 

Hitchcock also shows up in Pierre Simenon’s interview too.  Georges Simenon was  a famously productive writer, capable of cranking out a whole novel within six or seven days.  Ultimately he churned out over 300 titles.  According to Pierre, one day the phone rang and it was Alfred Hitchcock on the line.  He wanted to talk to Simenon.  “I’m so sorry, Mr. Hitchcock,” Simenon’s secretary said, “he just started writing a novel.”  “No problem,” Hitch responded, “I’ll wait.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Washington Ensemble Theatre: B

Saw Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production of Guillermo Calderón’s B last Sunday at the 12th Ave. Arts playhouse.  It was bad.  Set in a Latin American country (possibly the author’s native Chile), it tells the story of Alejandra and Marcela, two young woman committed to performing acts of terrorism.  Into their apartment comes Jose Miguel, also a terrorist, and bearing a package containing a bomb.  The girls soon discover, though, that the bomb is much more deadly than they expected.  They wanted a noise-bomb which would mostly break windows, but this one is packed with nails, ball bearings and feces.  It’s designed to kill as many bystanders as possible.  Jose Miguel insists that they use the deadlier one, but the girls balk at that.  Strife ensues, punctuated by occasional visits from Carmen, the girls’ loud and chipper non-terrorist next door neighbor who brings them baked goods. 

The main problem with this play is that none of these people are convincing as terrorists.  We never discover why they are terrorists; the reasons given are too vague or silly to be taken seriously.  We never find out what their cause is.  They’re certainly not fired with any revolutionary or religious zeal.  They all seem like normal middle-class 20-somethings who in their heart would prefer to just go to the mall.  A spa day is more their style.  In fact, get rid of the bomb and this is a new show on the CW.  Now maybe that’s Calderón’s point - that terrorists are a bunch of bourgeois phonies.  If so, it’s not a particularly interesting one and neither, it should be noted, is it true.  In short, it’s not clear that Calderón really has anything significant to say about this topic, so he just winds up falling back on hackneyed theatrical devices.  This is terrorism as a successful contemporary playwright imagines it, full of monologues and Pinteresque pauses and overly obvious awkward moments and clichéd comic characters and then more monologues…  Jay O’Leary directed and even though she's not responsible for the script a note from her in the program perfectly captures this play’s annoying theatrical twee-ness: “What is joy?” she asks, “Can you define it? Do you have it right now?  What happens when your joy is imprisoned?  Who is responsible for your joy's liberation?” etc.  Oy vey.

If, though, you need to see this play there are one or two good things you can look forward to.  The set by Lex Marcos is magnificent.  It’s a stark all-white apartment; it radiates Scandinavian cosiness.  In fact, if they had cancelled the play and let those of us in the audience lounge around on that set for a while - just ten minutes or so per person, hanging out, living the dream - that would have been much more satisfying than the actual play.  Ricky German did an excellent job with the costumes.  When Jose Miguel enters the apartment he’s wearing a large blocky bright red jacket.  Underneath he’s all in black, and on his face he wears a black and white mask.  It’s quite striking.  The minute he walked on stage I thought “Damn!  Somebody raided Grace Jones’s closet!”  The lighting design by Tristan Roberson is also very effective.  Sometimes when the bomb is handled or threatens to go off, the lights begin to dim and flickering wildly or the stage turns red.  And the finale is a wonderful chance for Roberson to display his chops.  As for the cast - Sophie Franco as Alejandra, Clarissa Marie Robles as Marcela, Craig Peterson as Jose Miguel, and Shermona Mitchell as Carmen - they gave it their all, but couldn't redeem the mediocrity of the script.

B will run at 12th Ave. Arts until January 28th.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Seattle Opera: Il Trovatore

Is there a sillier story in opera than Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore?  I don’t think so.  And the competition for that honor is intense: The Magic Flute, Tales of Hoffman, almost everything by Wagner, etc.  But at least those stories work on the level of myth or fairy tale.  Il Trovatore doesn’t have that excuse.  It’s set in the everyday world of common reality.  And yet the story is such a jumble of the improbable, the over-wrought, and the just plain ridiculous that it’s a wonder that it has never been laughed off the stage entirely (and since its premiere in 1853 many a critic has tried to do so).  By comparison the stories of Verdi’s other works of this period - La Traviata and Rigoletto - are realistic and believable (as opera, of course).  They’re about real people doing relatively real things.  But that doesn’t matter.  Despite its story, Il Trovatore is as much a masterpiece as the other two.  It’s a work of genius.  And I mean that literally.  Sometimes there are works of art (Gone With the Wind and Hamlet come to mind) whose story is so poor, whose source material is so meager that it’s entirely by the pure talent of their creator that they rise to the highest level of art. Il Trovatore is such a piece.

And if you have any doubt about that go see the Seattle Opera’s current excellent production of Il Trovatore and it will put your mind at rest on this point.  I greatly enjoyed it, but in all honesty it’s a strange production.  Some parts of it were poor but others were outstanding.  It does right what needs to be done right, although it tends to fall short in other aspects.   The evening got off to an unusual start when Seattle Opera’s General Director Aidan Lang came out before the performance to tell us that Adam Lau, who was singing the role of Ferrando, wanted us to know that his (Lau’s) voice wasn’t quite 100% but that he would soldier through the role nonetheless.  He just wanted us to know that he could do better.  OK.  Good to know.  When Lau came onstage in the first scene, which is dominated by Ferrando, you could feel the strain in his voice but he managed to pull it off.  

There were two stars in this show.  The first was the orchestra under conductor Carlo Montanaro (I’ll get to the second one in a moment).  They were magnificent.  You’re not likely to hear a better performance from the pit for Il Trovatore.  Montanaro and his musicians seemed to treat Verdi's score as if it were a symphony.  Every nuance, every subtlety of orchestration was given its due.  It was like hearing the music afresh.  In many performances of Verdi’s operas the orchestra takes second place to the singers, but not in this one.

Before I get to the singers, though, I’m going to have to delve into the fakakta story so you’ll know who’s who.  It’s medieval Spain and Leonora, a noblewoman, has fallen in love with Manrico, the troubadour of the title.  He loves her too, but so does the noble Count di Luna.  Sadly for the Count, Leonora doesn’t love him at all.  When Manrico and the Count meet they swear eternal and murderous operatic hatred towards each other.  So far, so good.  Manrico’s mother is Azucena, a crazy gypsy woman.  Her mother was also a gypsy woman and many years before the start of the play's action the Count di Luna’s father (try to keep up) accused her of being a witch.  Suspecting that she cast a spell on one of his children, he had Azucena’s mom burned at the stake.  As the flames engulfed her she called out to li’l Azucena to avenge her, who immediately did so by taking the Count di Luna’s dad’s ill child and throwing it onto the fire - although there are reasons to believe that the bones recovered from the ashes were not those of the noble child.  It shouldn’t require a degree in Convoluted Bullshit, to figure out that Manrico is actually the Count di Luna’s long lost brother.  But this won’t be made clear until the end of the opera.  

But until then it is the music which makes Il Trovatore irresistibly appealing and it’s the singers who make this performance so good.  The second star of the evening - and really the main one - was Leah Crocetto in the role of Leonora.  The night belonged to her.  From the moment of her entrance she dominated the show.  She has a voice of unique beauty, warmth, and fullness.  It easily reached the back rows (where I was sitting) and in its quieter moments it takes on a gentleness and expressiveness which one doesn’t normally get from a singer with that kind of power.  Sadly on opening night she missed the high C in the aria Tacea la notte placida but soon recovered, and the rest of her performance went off without a hitch.  She’s so good I even thought about buying another ticket just so I could hear her hit that high C.  Lester Lynch also shone as the Count di Luna.  The Count is a dreary fellow and hard to like, but Lynch made him human and understandable, which is a greater accomplishment than making him likeable.  He also brought a sense of vulnerability to the role.  At one point he softly sings Leonora’s name with such longing and tenderness it’ll break your heart.  Manrico was sung by Arnold Rawls and his performance was a little uneven.  There were times when his voice had difficulty rising about the orchestra.  He succeeded wonderfully with Ah si, ben mio, coll’essere, one of Il Trovatore’s least appealing arias, and yet for the show-stopping Di quella pira his voice seemed small and distant, almost as if he were singing it in a room next door.  I also had problems with Elena Gabouri’s Azucena.  She didn’t seem to have much range; for awhile I wondered if whatever was hindering Adam Lau’s voice was also effecting hers.  Still, Rawls and Gabouri got better as the night went on.  Their duet Ai nostri monti was beautifully performed and ended touchingly with Manrico giving his mother a goodnight kiss as she drifts off to sleep.

The problem I had with this production were the scene changes.  Il Trovatore has a lot of shorts scenes and making the smooth transitions between them can be a challenge. Experimental or adventurous productions can often get around these difficulties with great ingenuity but this production is a very traditional, even staid, one.  When the curtain comes down after a scene, it stays down.  And for a while, too.  Three or four minutes (yes, I counted).  This completely destroys the rhythm of the show.  We all sit there quietly in the darkness of the opera hall, waiting and waiting.  Coughs and sneezes echo through the cavernous space.  People check their cellphones.  There is much shuffling in seats.  Conversations start up.  At one point, someone in the second tier seats called out to the curtain “Need some help?” and got a round of applause and laughter.  I’m not saying that we took out a beach ball and began bouncing it around the audience like folks do at the ball game, but it was getting close.  These delays also had an alienating effect on the audience.  While waiting for one scene to start, the title card announced the upcoming location: “Outside the Torture Chamber.”  That one got a good laugh.  And when the curtain did come up it was basically the same set as before but with different props.  I anticipate that this problem will be fixed for future performances.

Il Trovatore will play at the Seattle Opera until January 26th.

Friday, January 11, 2019


Mary McCarthy
Though she [Alice Brayton] claimed off and on to be a Quaker I think she had no particular religion.  She was a natural rebel (that was the great thing about her), naturally independent in her views, and what she worshipped was a kind of intelligence that, given her self-imposed limitations, had to be visual and aesthetic.  Once I heard her enunciate almost fiercely the principle she lived for, standing by her mantelpiece, chin out, like one willing to be counted.  “Taste!” she cried, virtually shouting.  “T-A-S-T-E.”  She spelled it out as if we might fail to understand her and then struck her small chest.  “I have it.  T-A-S-T-E.”  She stared at us all belligerently.  “Yes, Miss Brayton.  Of course you have”  We laughed.  “Obviously you have.”  The proof was all around us, in the flames leaping in the fireplace, in the shaker of unbeatable martinis, in the sandwiches of thin-cut soft white bread, thick white meat of chicken, and Bertha’s [her cook's] mayonnaise.  But it was tasteless of her to say so.
     - Mary McCarthy, “The Very Unforgettable Miss Brayton” (1983)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

NWFF: Seattle Arabian Nights Film Festival

Last Saturday I went to the Northwest Film Forum to see the Seattle Arabian Nights Film Festival - a dozen short films spanning the range of the Arab (as well as Persian and Uzbek) world or dealing with the Arab experience.  As with most film festivals there were one or two clunkers, but the overall quality was quite good.  A few titles, though, stuck out. 

Two of the best films in the festival were also the briefest.  From Australia came He’s Isis, written, produced, directed, and starring Mansoor Noor.  At only seven minutes it’s a very funny story about an actor, Omar (Noor), hired to play an ISIS terrorist on TV.  However, to the non-Arab director and film crew Omar just isn’t Arab enough to be convincing.  But when a real Arab ISIS terrorist suddenly shows up and takes over the studio, there’s total confusion among everyone about who’s the real Arab and/or terrorist.  A title card before the film says that this is a “tru-ish” story and the movie hilariously conveys the frustrations which Western-born-and-raised performers such as Noor have no doubt encountered over the years. 

Trapped, from the US, was written, directed, and shot by Mohamed Maged and it’s even briefer - a mere two minutes.  A man walking down the street finds himself suddenly trapped in one immobile shot.  Every time he walks out of one side of the frame he re-enters on another (as you can see in the trailer below).  He can’t escape.  Why?  What has he done to deserve this?  How will he break out?  I’m not telling.  I don’t want to ruin it.  Suffice to say that this award-winning film manages to be funnier, wiser, and more memorable than most full-length feature films you’ll ever see.  In fact, this is the kind of film you would get if Samuel Beckett and Nora Ephron collaborated together. 

When it comes to awards Iran’s Are You Volleyball?! seems to have won just about every single one out there.  In a nameless country Arab refugees live in a detention camp.  On the other side of the barb-wire fence is the American army.  There are daily altercations between the US soldiers and their prisoners, but the story soon focuses on the kids in the refugee camp.  Despite their living conditions they are a rambunctious lot.  One day they find a volleyball.  They start kicking it around the camp and a stray kick sends it over the fence to the Americans.  The Americans throw it back.  One of the kids gets an idea and challenges the Americans to a volleyball match; “Are you volleyball?!” he asks in broken English.  Hell, yeah, they are.  And so the volleyball game between captors and captives is on.  If this sounds familiar, it's because it is; the popular Indian film Lagaan (2001) had a similar premise (Brits vs. Indians in cricket matches during the Raj).  But director and writer Mohammad Bakhshi has wisely boiled this trope down to its essentials - the powerful vs. the powerless, and sports as a substitute for war.  And he pulls it off.  This is an engaging and enjoyable film.  One gets the impression that it's a shortened version of a full-length script.  For a fifteen minute film there’s a substantial amount of character development on both sides of the fence.  And the kids, of course, steal the show.  I will not tell you how it ends, except to say that it seems to me that Bakhshi himself was a little uncertain about how to end it.  This film's success and popularity may very well come down to the fact that it evades making a political statement.  Bakhshi takes refuge finally in the idea that through sports people from different walks of life can come together and recognize each other’s common humanity.   Which is, of course, either a hopeful or delusional position, depending on your outlook.  Nonetheless, this is a very good movie.

Two films that don’t envisage the Middle East’s problem being solved by good sportsmanship are The Last Breaths (written and directed by Mohamad Al-Sodani) and The Violet (written and directed by Baqer Al-Rubaie).  Both films are from Iraq.  Both are set in the wasteland of bombed out cities (the former in Mosul, the city in the latter is unnamed).  In The Last Breaths a woman enlists a soldier to help her find her lost son. They wander through a Children of Men-esque hellscape.  In the end she finds not her son but rather a roomful of boys.  In The Violet a young boy, the sole survivor of an attack on his family, wanders a ruined city looking for help.  Soon he meets a strange girl who gives him a magical tunic that allows both of them to wander the city unseen.  They look at snipers and watch TV in an abandoned hospital, all unobserved. Both of these excellent films convey the sense of trauma and dislocation which Iraqi society has endured for the past fifteen years.

My favorite film in the festival was White House, an Iranian drama written and directed by Arastoo Mafakheri.  A young muslim cleric, played by Bakhtiar Khalili, moves to a small and desolate Kurdish village where he falls in love with one of the local girls, even though the two of them only ever exchange glances.  But the hope of winning her inspires him.  Soon he's nesting, putting a fresh coat of whitewash on the dingy clay house in which he lives.  Meanwhile he continues to fulfill his religious duties.  One day, though, he's called upon to perform a marriage for one of the middle-aged men in the village who's taking a second wife.  That wife is the woman he loves.  He performs the marriage but soon leaves the village and, we're led to believe, his career.  Mafakheri directs with a sure hand.  Although much in this film is minimal and stark, he manages to suffuse everything with a richness and fullness.  The cinematography is outstanding, as is Khalili's performance.  This is the story of heartbreak, of a heartbreak so deep that it changes the course of one's life.  Mafakheri has created a moving and powerful film out of the slightest and most mundane matter.

And finally, from Uzbekistan, there was Tea, a tale about an old, bed-ridden Uzbek man who wants some tea.  The teapot next to his bed has run out.  He rings for help but the girl who responds doesn't understand his gestures (Is he mute?  Is there a language barrier?  We're never told). Then he notices a jar on a window sill.  In the jar - tea.  The rest of the film is taken up with his herculean efforts to get to that jar. Director Shokir Kholikov sets a maddeningly slow pace to this film - I cursed him for most of this film's ten minute running time.  But I was wrong.  The slow pace deepens the film.  We're mesmerized, entranced, by the old man's efforts to get that jar.  His perseverance becomes mythic.  It's not just tea; it's about human striving and desire, it's one of those human condition things.  If the end was a little too sweet for my taste (spoiler-when the old man finally gets the tea he gives it to a young boy - his grandson? - who was also reaching for it), that's no matter; the journey was worth it.  

Monday, January 07, 2019

Art Review: Ivy Jacobsen/Andrew Wapinski

Ivy Jacobsen, Peace Within (2018)
Enter “Nature’s Poems,” the new show of Ivy Jacobsen paintings at the Patricia Rozvar Gallery in downtown Seattle, and you are immediately struck by their beauty and vividness.  Plant life is her subject, but these are not still lifes.  Neither are they landscapes.  The backgrounds are of various striking but muted colors.  They’re misty, cloudy, dreamlike.  There’s a haze in the air.  And from the edges of the canvas in creep various vines, flowers, tree boughs, leaves, etc.  “Creep” is the right word; they seem to have the vitality - and sometimes even the consciousness - of moving creatures.  

As you look at the paintings you notice even more plants in the distance.  These paintings are layered.  The more you look, the more they reveal.  They visually unfold before you.  That layering is not just metaphorical either.  By using a combination of oils and resin, mostly on wood panels, Jacobsen creates various degrees of translucency and opaqueness.  On a few of the paintings, such as Peace Within (above), she actually places translucent painted layers on top of each other, thus creating real depth of vision.  I found the effect compelling, even hypnotic.  No reproduction, by the way, can do these works justice.  They must be seen directly to get the full effect.  For example, the small, colorful buds/leaves which adorn some of the flowers are in reality bright, thick daubs of paint which stick out from the surface.  When first seen they are an explosion of vibrancy and color.

Ivy Jacobsen, Vespertine (2018)

Jacobsen has admitted to being influenced by Japanese wood-block prints, and at first glance one would think that a Japanese or Chinese poem would be right at home in the lower left corner of Peace Within, but it would not.  It would clutter the painting.  The poem, or statement, if you prefer, is the painting itself.  I love these works.  I could get lost in the them for a long time.  Rest your eye anywhere on the vegetation of the haunting Vespertine (above) and soon your gaze is wandering along the tree limbs and clusters of leaves.  Things change.  Look at the foliage and your eyes are drawn to the empty space; look at the empty space and they're drawn back to the foliage.  The diminishing limbs become vein-like, some of them don’t behave like real tree limbs at all.  These aren’t really plants.  But no matter.  One keeps looking, exploring, drifting (what’s with that ominous darkness in the upper left?).  I said that these paintings are not landscapes, but there is something “scape”-like about them; one wanders through them, one inhabits them.  If the words weren’t so clumsy perhaps “reverie-scape” or “meditation-scape” would be the best way to describe them.  But whatever word you choose, viewing them is a memorable experience.  The show runs to January 31st.

Andrew Wapinski, Untitled XIV (2018)
Foster/White Gallery has new works by Andrew Wapinski - large, stark black and white paintings such as Untitled XIV (right).  Made using pigmented ice, acrylic, ink, and graphite on mounted linen panels these paintings are monumental studies in texture and technique.  As best one can tell, a linen-mounted canvas is laid on the ground and a layer of white gesso (a plaster) is applied to it.  Then the pigmented ice is placed on top.  As it melts, the pigment soaks into the gesso and linen forming the dark globule shape in the center.  The artist then scrapes off portions of the gesso to create the rough texture.  This process may be repeated several times to enrich the appearance of the pigment.  

Frankly, these paintings do nothing for me.  I think the artist was more taken by the technique of creating them than was warranted by the actual outcome.  Although there are several different paintings, they all look the same.  It’s monotonous.  If there were a video of the artist at work on these I would’ve watched that with eager interest, but the paintings themselves leave me cold (joke unintended).  Still, if getting lost in these sorts of paintings is your cup of tea you have until January 26th to drink your fill.