Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom, in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that would propel Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons the same poker face of her clients, but it's a visage that reveals even less than the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Aaron Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mala: Less Is Less

Melinda Lopez stars in Mala.. (Photo:  Paul Marotta/ArtsEmerson)

Melinda Lopez’s solo performance Mala (produced by the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion) is a reflection on the aging and deaths of her Cuban émigré parents and especially of her mother, who, her body weakened, her mind softening, overcome by terror and anger, calls her daughter mala (a bad person). The idea of the piece is that Lopez’s exhaustion with her mother’s demands and her uncertainty about how to handle her make her question whether or not she is that thing her mother accuses her of being. But the self-interrogation at the core of the play is disingenuous. There was  never a moment during Mala’s eighty-minute running time when I believed that Lopez seriously questioned her own virtuousness as she related her tireless at-home care for her mother, her anticipation of what it would be like for the older woman to slip away from life (as her father already had), her response to her mother’s apparent obliviousness – understandable, of course,  under the physical and psychological circumstances – to Lopez’s uninterrupted devotion. The piece is a celebration of Lopez’s sensitivity; her sensitivity is, in fact, the tissue of which the play is constructed. And I grew very weary of it, and finally resentful that I was set up in scene after scene to admire it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that cover the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Raisin: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Any attempt to assess the entirety of Lorraine Hansberry’s career quickly runs into the inescapable fact of her untimely death. Since she was only 34 when she died, Hansberry’s entire legacy has become identified with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Although the play will always retain a firm place in the American theatrical canon, not least because it was the first on Broadway to be written by an African-American woman as well as the first to be staged by an African-American director, that status has also made it a target for a range of criticism, from Pauline Kael’s dismissal of its filmed version as proof “that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family” to attacks on its perceived political and social complacency by George C. Wolfe, who mercilessly mocked it in a section of his play The Colored Museum.

A new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, attempts to reorient our understanding of Hansberry by placing the success of Raisin in the context of Hansberry’s overall life and career. Written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the film airs on PBS on January 19. (I should disclose that I viewed the film as preparation for an interview that I conducted with Strain for my podcast on theatre history.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

War Stories: 1945 and Last Flag Flying

A scene from Ferenc Török's 1945.

1945, by the Hungarian director Ferenc Török, written by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, is a startling piece of work – acerbic and mournful, satirical and humane. It’s set in a tiny Hungarian town just after the end of World War II, when the residents are beginning to get used to the presence of the Russians, some of whom are full of their own new-found power. (One young soldier demands that a civilian alighting from the midday train trade his more elegant hat for the soldier’s rumpled one.) The movie isn’t about the new Soviet presence, however; that’s merely one of the elements Török mixes to create a complex historical portrait. It’s a symbolic ghost story in which the dark secrets of the townspeople – their collusion, for base personal reasons, in the removal of the local Jews to the death camps – come to light when two strangers, Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, enter the town on that same train on mysterious business (burying the dead, as it turns out), unsettling the guilty residents.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

End of Binge: Netflix’s Bright

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in Netflix's Bright. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Netflix wants to dominate the movie market. They want you to stay home and watch their original programming – like Bright, a Los Angeles cop movie starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton – instead of leaving your couch and spending money at a multiplex. Bright is a big play for them, meant to be proof that their previous forays into original programming were just precursors to the main event: fresh big-budget blockbusters that you can watch from home. Netflix was convinced that this sure-fire hit, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, would end this argument before it even began. Anyone who’s seen Bright will tell you that it . . . doesn’t do that.